I’ve been studying karate for nearly four years as of the date of this post. Throughout that time, I’ve learned a ton of lessons; lessons that apply both to karate and the world beyond. Sometimes the lesson is painfully clear (like keeping your guard up while sparring so you don’t get punched in the face). Other times it’s not so clear, and I’m still exploring most of them. But this series of posts represents a chance for me to reflect on those lessons for both your benefit and my own. I’ll specifically focus on lessons that I’ve been able to apply outside the world of karate. Today’s focus is the principle of Shu-Ha-Ri.
The Principle of Shu-Ha-Ri: First follow the rules, then break the rules, then make the rules.
If you’re serious about your karate training, and are training with a legit dojo, then at some point you will likely learn about the concept of Shu-Ha-Ri. It’s a three-step formula for learning, and in karate it breaks down more-or-less like this:
- Shu – First, you need to learn and follow the rules. Rules in this case refer to the fundamentals and principles of the art – you do your basic stances, blocks and strikes exactly as you are taught, focusing on copying your seniors as closely as possible.
- Ha – Once you have a firm grasp on the way things are done (both the “how” and the “why”), you can move on to the step: breaking those rules. This stage of your learning is all about experimentation; trying new things that push the boundaries of the existing framework you were given. It takes years of study to reach this point, and many people never actually get there. I’m not even there yet, though I know I’m working toward it!
(Side note: You can still be an excellent martial artist even if you never make it out of step one.)
- Ri – The last stage of the learning process. In this stage, the you’ve internalized the rules of your craft, and you’ve experimented to such an extent that you’re able to craft new rules that build or improve upon the ones you learned originally. This stage represents mastery at its finest, and very few people ever make it here. If you find someone who has made it this far in their art, do whatever you can to learn from them!!
Applying Shu-Ha-Ri Beyond Karate
I wanted to start this series with a lesson whose applications outside of karate are somewhat obvious. The principle of Shu-Ha-Ri applies to just about any discipline, be it other art forms, business, trades, etc.
Let’s use cooking as an example.
Shu in Cooking
When you first begin cooking, you likely learn from others who have been cooking longer than you have. You follow their recipes, learn about which ingredients work well together, and generally get really good at copying other people’s creations. As you go, you also start to learn a thing or two about why certain ingredients work well together. This is Shu.
Ha in Cooking
At some point, you’ll find yourself comfortable enough with the principles of cooking that you have a deep internal understanding of what works together, what doesn’t, and why. At this point, you may find yourself beginning to experiment; you might start by deciding to modify an existing recipe just by looking at the ingredient list (“Nah, I don’t want to use butter in this receipt – I’ll switch it up with avocado instead”). You may even be able to look at a bunch of ingredients and have a brilliant new idea for how to combine them. This is Ha.
Ri in Cooking
After enough practice and experience, you might find that you no longer need to follow recipes at all. You know which ingredients work well, and can combine things together in a new way completely unique to you. You even know how to introduce new processes that might seem crazy to outsiders (blow-torched sushi, anyone?). At this point, you break the rules so consistently that you have a deep knowledge of which rules can be broken and which are better left intact.
It’s this knowledge that lets you craft a new set of rules; as others see you work and begin to get on board with your once-outlandish ideas, they become generally accepted and absorbed into your art. This is Ri in the world of cooking. Many of the most successful and famous chefs in the world have reached this stage in their art, and experiencing it is pretty much an out-of-body experience.
The same can be said of any art – Photography, music, woodworking, painting, the list goes on. In my case, I’m working on applying this concept to my career. For me, it’s about applying it to marketing and strategy. It’s not an overnight process, but it’s rewarding and interesting to explore.
Wrapping it up
Shu-Ha-Ri is a simple concept that takes a lifetime to master. The value of the journey isn’t in the destination though; it’s in the journey itself, and no matter where you end up, you’ll probably find yourself learning new things and developing in ways you wouldn’t have expected before. It starts with understanding what you’re working toward though. Once you understand Shu-Ha-Ri, it opens your mind to begin thinking more deeply about both what you’re learning and why. Food for thought, don’t you think?
Do you have another example of where you’ve been able to apply the principles of Shu-Ha-Ri in your life? Tell me about it in the comments!