Sorry white belts. Not quitting is not enough

​There’s this saying in jiu-jitsu. It’s often bandied about as inspiration. “A black belt is a white belt who didn’t give up.” It’s true, from a logical standpoint. But it’s also misleading. And insulting. Think about it. It’s saying that not quitting is enough to become a black belt, to become a master. Which isn’t true. 

Not quitting is not enough.

The virtues of black belts and masters transcend this simplistic observation. Yes, they didn’t quit. But that’s not the critical quality they possess. Many people play a sport or practice a craft for their entire lives and don’t rise far above mediocrity. It’s more complex than that.

So what do they do differently, aside from showing up every day, for decades? Aside from putting in a monumental amount of work?

The first thing is that they pay attention. 

In Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihlyi identifies three things that every high level performer has to keep tabs on. 

  • Themselves: their own abilities, weaknesses and strengths.
  • Their colleagues and competition: other individuals, organisations and the hierarchies within their field that set the standards and direction of their discipline.
  • Wider society: cultural, societal and technological shifts and trends.

They have their metaphorical fingers on the pulse of these three areas. They are alert to the fluctuations and patterns emerging in each of these areas.

Second. Black belts and masters are abnormally dedicated. You could say obsessed. Their commitment to their craft and it’s development is beyond normal. Which comes from a greater love of what they do, not the rewards for what they do. Their dedication arises from within. It is not kindled and stoked by external forces. It’s origin is buried deep. 

Because of this love and obsession, masters are willing to sacrifice more than anyone else. They’ll fore-go the usual comforts. They don’t mind alienating some people because of their lifestyle. They don’t mind missing out. They don’t mind being uncomfortable and making others uncomfortable if it means they can get better.

The people that ascend to the highest heights are also notable for their humility. Typically, the best recognise that they can still be better. There’s this great line from Marcelo Gleiser, who says that as our island of knowledge grows so do the shores of our ignorance. The more they learn, the more they realise they don’t know.

This in turn ignites a sense of curiosity. A need to peak behind the curtains. To dive deeper, to look wider and harder. This curiosity is highlighted by two separate behaviours. First is the willingness to seek out the fringe. To go to the outcasts, the mavericks and the renegades in search of gems. They learn from those who the mainstream has shunned or avoided. They seek out the practitioners at the edges of their craft to get an edge in their own game. The second behaviour is the willingness to ask questions and listen to the answers.

They don’t ask any old question though. I got a message a few months ago. Someone had messaged me. They said they liked my work and so on. And then they asked me this question: “What font do you use?” Masters don’t ask those sort of questions. They ask questions whose answers will make them better. Whose answers will deepen their understanding, enhance their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.  Often a master’s question when considering an idea is “does it work? Can I use this?”

See the difference?

Another thing that separates the white belt from the black belt is the timeline. A master thinks on a timeline that is measured in decades. They play the long game. A white belt thinks in terms of days and weeks. They are concerned with the immediate future. 

Think of a sports team. A high level organisation want to win their next game. They’d like to win the championship. But the highest level organisations don’t just want to win the next game and the championship. They want to win every championship for the next ten years. And with that frame in mind, decisions are made differently. Perhaps to win three championships in the next ten years, they have to do things that will make it impossible to win for the next two years. But that’s fine. They’re thinking and manoeuvring on a timeline much longer than the players, the fans and the media.

Two more things.

A black belt has, and continues to, take risks. They put their reputation on the line. They compete. They test their skills against the best. They risk loss so that in the end, they may win.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, black belts have different standards. Their standards are not determined by anyone else. By what so-and-so says you should be able to do. A black belt’s standards are defined by himself. And they’re higher than anyone else’s. They set the bar at near perfection, despite knowing that in their lifetime, they will never reach out. It is this conflict, this eternal struggle, that gives them the energy to persist in the face of barriers. It is this conflict, between where they are and where they could be, that drives them to a level unattainable by most.

Black belts and masters don’t quit. How could they? They love what they do and they still have so much to learn. But by focusing on their non-quitting, we’re missing the point. 

Persisting is necessary, but it’s not enough to reach the upper echelons. It might be enough to get kinda good. To become better than average. But it’s not sufficient to climb to the top of the mountain. To ascend you have to do much more than show up.

You have to pay attention. You have to be dedicated, obsessed even. You have to love what you do and be willing to sacrifice for it. You have to remain both humble and curious. You have to explore the fringes, ask good questions, and use the answers to nourish yourself. You have to think on a timeline measured in decades, not days. You have to take risks.

But most importantly, you have to hold yourself to a higher standard than everyone else. To have unreasonable expectations for yourself.

Unreasonable, but not unattainable.