Every master is a magician

In Brazilian jiu-jitsu there are five belts or grades: white, blue, purple, brown and black. And each grade is further delineated by tabs, of which there can be a maximum of four per grade. But because of the subjectiveness of the grading system—different instructors have different standards and criteria for each level—belts aren’t a good way to distinguish ability. A purple belt with two tabs from one academy can be noticeably better, or worse, than a purple belt with two tabs from another academy. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the black belt level.

One of the great things about BJJ is the increasing openness of the art. You can go on YouTube and watch some of the world’s best train, compete, spar, give seminars and analyse their own and other’s performances. Often, you come across footage of a world champ rolling with a variety of people at a random gym. What you see is the world champion effortlessly tapping or controlling everyone—even the black belts.

I was talking about this with someone at training last night. They were telling me of a time they trained in Brazil. The academy he trained at was visited by a national champion. He described how the champ, at one point, had someone on his back with a rear naked choke locked in. But the guy was relaxed. The champ put his thumbs up to those watching—whilst the other guy was trying to choke him—and then proceeded to slip out of the hold and submit his opponent. He said that he had no idea how the champ managed to escape and finish the game so easily and quickly.

 Arthur C. Clarke’s third law is that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I’ve seen this remixed and adapted to a variety of domains. But last night, as we were talking about the gap in ability between a black belt and a Black Belt, I thought of a new variation of the law:

Any sufficiently advanced level of expertise is indistinguishable from magic.

A master of a craft is a magician to all non-masters. He has such an intuitive and automatic (not natural) understanding of his art that his performance is practically incomprehensible. You see the end but cannot understand the means. Sure, record their performance, slow it down, pick it apart; it doesn’t help that much. But watched at full speed, performed against you at maximum velocity, their performance is like a force of nature. It’s something that defies understanding and inspires a sense of awe and helplessness.