Karate Life Lesson Series: Post #3

This post is the third entry in my Karate Life Lessons Series, a collection of posts that examines how lessons learned training in the martial arts translate into other areas of life as well. You can read the first entry here.

The other day, I was sitting and chatting with someone, and the conversation shifted in the direction of our work. The person, an acquaintance I had known for a while, brought up the topic of new employees. Their stance was something to the effect of “Ah yeah, they come in with all of these ideas, none of which would ever fly.”

And I thought about that for a second before responding, “How do you know? Have you entertained any of the ideas?”

“Well no, but I just know they won’t work because that’s not how we do things.”

“Ah, I see.”   …but I didn’t see.

All I saw was a case of Shodanitis that mutated its way into the world of work. I left the conversation at that and took it in a different direction.

In karate, Shodanitis is a term often used to describe black belts who think they know everything, and walk around holding themselves accordingly. It’s an arrogance that prevents the person from learning all they could and should, because of the fact that they think they know it all already.

Turns out that Shodanitis exists everywhere, not just in karate.

A Child’s Perspective

Have you ever watched a child as they take in the world around them? They’re so curious, so willing to explore, so open to the infinite possibilities of the world around them. When do we lose that innate sense of curiosity? And why?

I was at a business conference not long ago, when the keynote speaker asked the audience (a group of over 2,000 educated businesspeople) to come up with as many uses for a paperclip as they could. We got to about 17, and when the speaker told us that the average audience gets to about 15, we were all feeling pretty good about ourselves.

Then he showed us a video of his daughter, age 5, who doubled that number in about 30 seconds flat. In the end, she got to over 200 different uses for a paperclip. 200 uses for a friggin paperclip. The smirk was wiped cleanly from every face in the room.

Not all of the uses were great, but that’s not the point. The point is that some were. And by opening up her mind to the possibilities, this 5-year-old girl was able to throw out over 10 times the ideas of a room of 2,000 BBAs and MBAs. She set the perfect example of Shoshin for everyone in the room.

Shoshin: Beginner’s Mind

Coming back to the quote at the beginning of this post, I want to offer a call to action by explaining the concept of Shoshin. Shoshin is a Japanese word, and it translates roughly to “Beginner’s Mind” in English. Like Shunryu Suzuki said, and like my example showed, there are many more ideas in the mind of the beginner than in the mind of the “expert.”

The irony is that the true experts, the best of the best in their fields, already know this. It is their curiosity and the desire to know what they don’t know that allows them to constantly expand their knowledge. You don’t have to actually be a beginner to take a beginner’s mindset with something. Just try to put yourself in a beginner’s shoes, and ask yourself what things you’d want to know in that position. Or better yet, find someone who knows nothing about the subject and talk to them! You’d be amazed at what you’ll learn.

Shoshin in Karate

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been taught valuable lessons by lower-ranked students than myself. It’s amazing – every time I find myself getting comfortable in my position, right in that moment where I’m most confident, it’s there and then that I get kicked in the solar plexus by a textbook yoko geri (side kick) from a yellow belt.

And I love it. It’s times like those that keep you in check. Times like those that remind you “Oh right, I’m not as good a fighter as I sometimes think I am. He broke through and landed a great shot, maybe I should think some more about my technique.”

Beginner’s Mind.

I also see it all the time when I’m asked a question by a lower belt, and find myself unable to answer it satisfactorily. “Why do we do this that way?”

“Oh easy, it’s because… well see how the foot turns like that… at least I think it’s so that… ah frig, you know what, I have no idea. Let’s ask Sensei.”

Beginner’s Mind.

It’s not just lower-ranked students I learn from, obviously. I learn from everyone around me. Without taking a beginner’s stance to learning, I’d never even be writing these posts. How could I, if I thought I knew everything there was to know about the martial arts? “They’re for fighting, and that’s it.”


I’d be missing out on what, for me, has been the most rewarding aspect of my training so far. I’d miss every single lesson on how martial arts relates to the world around me, all because my mind was closed to those possibilities. The irony is that fighting and self-defense makes up about 5% of the value of training martial arts. By assuming I know it all, I’d be closing my mind off to 95% of all ideas and knowledge out there.

Can you afford to do that in your work? Can you afford to do that anywhere?

Beginner’s Mind.

Wrapping it Up

When you’re used to closing your mind off to new ideas and possibilities, it can take some time to reopen it. But it’s possible, and it’s worth it. It’s like working out a muscle that you haven’t used in a while. At first, you’ll be able to do a little bit with it. Over time though, the muscle will get stronger, and it will be able to handle more and more.

Sooner or later, you might even find that opening your mind allows you to take other perspectives beyond just that of a beginner. You might find yourself approaching your art from a different point of view, experimenting with other techniques/ingredients/whatever. You might notice that you’re able to appreciate other perspectives and points of view more – not just in art, but in the art of conversation too. The ripple effects of Shoshin are pretty awesome. Get out there and give it a try!

Got a story about a time when you were taught a lesson from someone you thought knew less than you did about the subject? I’d love to hear about it down below – it’ll make the lesson even more powerful for others! Thanks for sharing your wisdom with everyone 🙂

CATEGORY: Karate, The Arts

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