Thursday, December 3, 2009

Understanding vs. Skill

Everyone wants to learn and knowledge about just about anything is pretty easy to come by. You just hear or read something and you know it. Spend some time on wikipedia and you know more.

But learning to do things is a little more complicated. Usually this is because it involves the actual doing of something which requires the senses and the body.

Knowledge about skills trails behind the actual development of skills. It is like a culture for the skill to reside in. First there was Jazz music in the form of players pushing the boundaries of what sounded good and "what worked". Later Jazz chord and scale theory emerged to explain what was happening. You can learn everything about how Jazz is played but it doesn't mean you can play it.

To play it would require integrating your instrument with your body learning how to listen and feel and developing a sense for harmonies and rhythm and a whole host of other things.

I have taught my share of English in Taiwan and I was often faced with the dilemma of teaching the skill of speaking English vs. teaching the students to be able to test well. The tests are often testing their knowledge of English rather than their ability to use it. You can memorize the dictionary and every rule of grammar but that doesn't mean you can communicate your emotions and ideas, tell a joke, convey how to do something or feel a poem.

One thing that is problematic is that when these "knowledge cultures" arise sometimes the skill gets forgotten. When I was involved with salsa, there were thousands of "moves" that people would teach each other. If you memorize enough moves, you were good. After a while, you might start teaching those moves. Meanwhile, almost no one developed the skill to actually feel music, interpret it and interact with a partner on a deep level that was fun to do and inspiring to watch. Sure, a couple of people eventually get some kind of skill, but they are the exceptions.

Martial arts as an activity is one of the worst about this. Go in and learn 50 forms and then the names of a bunch of techniques and your lineage and PRESTO, you're a martial artist. That's bullshit. You can't fight unless you develop the skill of fighting. End of story. This is why martial arts such as Muay Thai, wrestling, bjj, boxing, and judo tend to have better fighting skills. They emphasize skills over knowledge of techniques. It doesn't mean the other arts are inferior, just that they may be lost in the learning of knowledge penumbra.
If you are doing a martial art, what skills are you getting better at daily?

The worst thing about gaining knowledge without skill is that even that knowledge is often wrong or not completely right. Tell a musician that you can't play a certain note and he will probably show you a way to do it. If you tell me that you can't lean and do wing chun, I will show you how you can.

Get the skills. They are the only reason the knowledge culture exists. Skills open up your world, but knowing things doesn't change anything.


  1. I hate to admit it but I used to be one of those people who measured his ability solely by the number of forms I knew. It took me a long time and the humiliation of sucking at sparring to realize that I had neglected developing the ability to apply the moves in unpredictable situations. Simply memorizing a fancy set of strikes and blocks does not work so well when you opponent does not cooperate. To be fair, my sifu had told me this, but you have to want to listen, and I wasn't listening at the time.
    I can't speak for salsa, but I think a big part of the problem is that too many people take up martial arts but do not want to fight, or rather do not want to experience the pain that comes with learning how to fight. Kung Fu in particular is represented in North America as a way to stay fit and find inner peace, but the martial part of martial arts is being erased.
    I still enjoy learning a new form every now and then, partially because it often makes me re-examine my basic moves but also because practicing the exact same strikes and blocks for years can be a bit boring. I still think that kung fu, despite its long learning curve, is extremely effective, it's just necessary to remember what it is for.

  2. Now THAT'S a comment. I think you are alluding to something that I was thinking of writing as a follow-up to this entry. Most people want the status of being recognized for having a skill rather than the sweat and tears it takes to acquire anything worthwhile.
    I always wanted to have written a book, but shit, but hell going through the process to write something good is for the birds.
    I do think a lot of people who teach skills play into this sickness. When someone starts a skill, of course they tend to have silly reasons to want to do it. It is kind of the teacher's responsibility to show how desirable and fun it is to do the skill just for the sake of doing it.

  3. I look forward to your follow-up entry but I definitely mean that people want the status without the sweat. To be blunt, most people do not appreciate how much effort really skilled people have put into whatever they are skilled at. I know, I used to be one of them and I am genuinely embarrassed by my former ignorance.
    I would describe my view of most people's attitude towards attaining skills as comparable to buying that sweet giant screen tv on credit instead of saving up to buy it.

  4. This is a response that Dan emailed to me:
    I feel kinda cheesy doing this because I'm basically the one foreign dork who's still into salsa (more than I am into martial arts, at least), but I'm an opinionated dork so oh well, I'm gonna speak up.

    On the one hand, I totally agree that everything is back ass-wards in the salsa scene here. People start learning to "dance" having never even heard the music they're gonna dance to. They therefor react to numbers rather than actual beats. Also, the social scene is totally defunct. Most "salseros" hardly know anything about each other, because they're all social rejects who never learned basic relevant skills like getting to know one's peers (or being polite about asking a woman who is in the middle of a conversation to dance!)

    However, while freely admitting my bias, I still think you are a bit over-critical. For one thing, it's a bit much to expect people here in Taiwan to know anything about Latin music, let alone appreciate it without an incentive. Their musical background is after all The Carpenters and a bunch of indistinguishable mass market pop crap.

    Now, A lot of salsa people NEVER really get into salsa music or anything related to it, and in my opinion those people shouldn't still be doing salsa. However, some of them do get into it, and after all, does it really matter what they do or don't do? If I do something outside their 'orthodoxy' and they don't react to it well, fine, we won't dance next time. Life goes on.

  5. More from Dan:
    As far as the scene itself, yeah, it has a major 'over-focus on patterns and technical prowess without feeling' problem. Sorry to reinforce a stereotype, but I think that's partly an Asian thing. And hell - look at my own ethnic background! We Scandinavian types are not exactly known for our passionate self-expressiveness!

    Not to mention, Taiwan is tiny and culturally homogenous. It's really no surprise that the scene hasn't produced anything inspiring yet. Look at the stunted 'gene pool' we've got. But it is slowly evolving as more and more people get out and occasionally people from outside come in. For that reason, I think it's better to try and make a difference and change people's lives than just turn up one's nose at it all.

    And honestly, I think your condescendence towards "moves" is a bit cynical. Yes, the music, "wa" (vibe/atmosphere) and alcohol (not to mention sexual tension) should be prime motivators when one is out. But as for learning, most people are not Bruce Lee. They need some sort of simple structure to imitate. Asking them to just freely interpret the music or something - it's a lot of pressure.

  6. Last part from Dan:
    Personally, I tend to think "self-expression" is over-rated. I don't really have that much in me that I want to express, and even if I did, I wouldn't use music to express it. I look at my reaction to the music more as simply surfing to it than interpreting or expressing something about it. I like the way each woman has a different means of connection and movement (even if she has gone through the same cookie-cutter training), and adapting to that. I also like playing with the momentum we create as we move.

    And sometimes new moves help me learn new ways to do that. I don't rote memorize combinations for sure, but I do take pieces of them I like and remix them. Sometimes I even create my own moves. It would be great if I could create all of them, but then I only dance a couple times a week, if that. And it would sure be a hell of a lot of pressure if, simply based on a basic step or a beat I had to try to go and re-invent all of that myself. As for keeping it interesting for my partner... well, I think I'd never have even gone on the floor to begin with if all I had were basics and some body movement!

    I teach a few people beginning salsa now, and I still teach them moves. I also teach them to try to listen to the music better, to move around with a partner to the music, work on their connection, body isolations, dancing without physical connection, bit of spinning and whatnot. I don't really teach combinations because I think that combinations are simply an arbitrary linking up of basics. After teaching a new move, I'll often put on a couple of songs and tell them to just dance to the song and try to put together a few moves they know creatively enough to keep their partner interested.

    I'm not thinking of a good way to wrap this up at the moment so I'll leave it here, without a dip or anything. Hope this hasn't gotten me off your Christmas list. Just some food for thought~

  7. Ok, this is me talking. Dan, I think you make some good points. I wasn't trying to rip on the Taiwan salsa scene as much as the worldwide salsa scene. Essentially the way I see it is mostly people doing an activity where the emphasis is on status which is how many moves you can do and how fast. I love salsa and social dancing in its pure form. It all started with a few people banging out some beats on some homemade drums while people jumped around and had fun. What happened to that? When I go to salsa here or anywhere it seems to be made up of people showing off their status, people doing robotic moves and people worried that they suck. Where is the fun in that? I am not blaming anyone about the situation nor do I look down on the people involved. I think I am just pointing out that there is a better way. All the things we talk about with salsa exist in the martial arts. I am doing everything I can to counter this robotic tendency in the Martial Arts. I wish someone would do it in salsa.
    Of course you need some type of technique, move or structure to get started in a skill. But where is the explanation of why things are done that way. When do you stop just doing a technique and actually doing things based on the way you feel. When does the activity become about you? Isn't passion and being fully involved in something worth pursuing?

  8. Please don't ever hesitate to post anything, ask a question or rip me a new one.
    Ultimately, despite the tone of my posts, I am not 100% sure of anything and love to hear other peoples opinions, ideas and criticisms.
    Also, I really do appreciate the comments and feedback.

  9. Will - thanks for helping me post my long-winded response. I totally agree about the salsa world. For a long time I hesitated about learning to dance on-2 for this very reason: is this just another social status gimmik, a way to be feel exclusive and look down on another group (or keep people coming to classes)?

    Sadly, the salsa world, like just about any such world from oyster shucking to scuba diving, has a large dose of this. People get into something to the point where their ego gets invested in it, and then their status amongst the enthusiasts of that activity begins to take precedence over their actual enjoyment of the activity.

    I struggled with this a bit when I was doing BJJ, but much more so since doing salsa. I practice so infrequently that for me to get a really strong ego hit is a pretty rare thing - but on occasion, it happens, and when it does it's always palpably obvious to me why it's so addictive.

    I think this in itself though is part of the process of growth and maturity, IE, learning to recognize that which is genuinely valuable to one's life vs. that which empty ego calories.