Thursday, April 7, 2016

Humility: Training to Make Yourself Better.

No matter how good you are, there's always someone out there who is better than you.  Chances are, quite a few. You train and work for your entire life, and no matter what, the only certainty is that someone, somewhere, will still be better than you. It's a cold hard fact of life.  Deal with it.

Stay with me here.

I'm a 5th dan black belt in Kajukenbo.  My legit rank is "Master" (though no one calls me that... I prefer "Sifu" or just "Scott").  Those five stripes on my belt represent 30+ years of dedication and practice to become a martial artist of what many consider to be a high caliber. And, over those years, you could say I've learned a thing or two about fighting. At 45, I coach people half my age and train them to fight in both tournaments and real life. In the ring, without sounding too arrogant, I'm pretty good and can hold my own.

This is my belt.

Then I met Paul.

This guy...
Paul is only 30, and he can kick in ways I couldn't even when I was sixteen. Paul is lightning fast and wicked accurate. He's easily the best fighter I've ever seen in my life, and there's no two ways about it:  He's better than me. His kata is crisper, his kicks are higher, and his speed is off the charts. He's also one helluva nice guy, and extremely humble. So when he asked me if I wanted to go a round or two with him, I said sure.

Keep in mind, I know the guy can outclass me in the ring and if it came to an all-out slugfest, he'd likely hand me my body parts in a doggie bag.

So the question came up, if I knew he was better and I knew he was going to work me over, why did I agree to fight him? Simple. Paul's the kind of person who will make you better.  By working with a martial artist of his caliber, I become better, whether I mean to or not. A fighter like Paul will force you to step your game up, make you think on your feet, and cause you to work harder.  Not because you want to beat him, but because you want to be worthy to train with him. You can't help but become better when you work with him, and it's an honor to absorb some of his knowledge. I like to think I contribute to the relationship as well (I still know a few katas he needs...), but that's just it. He's that damned good, and he makes me good by proxy.

Same thing holds true for writers.

Don't pretend... You knew...
At Seton Hill, and with other writing programs, we look to the mentors to make us better. Not just the students, mind you, but the pros as well. Some of my very best friends in the writing world have made me better just for having listened to them talk, eavesdropping on their lectures, and having a beer with them and shooting the breeze.

I know, it's difficult. For many of us in this field, there's a certain level of insecurity that comes with the job. It becomes a point to casually mention how many of what you've gotten published, how many awards you've won, what your agent thinks and who else he or she represents, blah blah blah.  It becomes a big distasteful dick-waving contest to see who has the biggest by-line, and when that happens you stop growing. See, it's not about how good you are, or how good you think you are. It's about listening to the folks around you, its about gaining all you can from others, and from learning that it's okay to not be the biggest literary giant in the room. Everyone looks up to someone. Everyone looks up to someone.

Don't be this guy... Please. 
So the question becomes: Who do you want to be?  The guy who brags about how much he's accomplished? Or the guy who listens and becomes great?

You're never as good as you think you are. You're also never as bad as you think you are either. But you can always learn. And the best way to do that is to read the people who are better than you. Talk to the people who are more accomplished than you. Show them respect and learn to admit that there is someone better than you out there. Sure, you get beat a lot. But you learn so much in the process. And in the end, some of that greatness may just accidentally seep into you.


  1. Insightful and true. I think there is certainly a danger in fanboyism-turned-self-examination on the part of unpublished writers. While we all wish writing could be learned through contact osmosis with "the greats," the only way to learn is to "take the beatings" as you say-- to experience the critical analysis of others, to grow through study, to read as widely as possible, and perhaps most importantly realize that everyone's path to the end will be different. I find I learn the most when surrounded by people I know the least about talking about things I know very little about. And in the same vein, I think far too many people discount their own experiences and knowledge and defer to those "greats" as if they were infallible. Humility is great. Sycophancy is toxic.
    I've yet to take a beating I haven't learned from. Great post.

  2. Is this about semicolons? I feel it's about semicolons.

    Kidding, of course. Fantastic post, and something I'm going to relay to my people here at work when they start to feel like their byline is more important than the work. Last time my folks got to big for their britches, I took all their bylines away, and their stories were all written by Public Affairs.

    But, we've all been guilty at one point or another of thinking we're at the top of that "somebody's always better than you" pyramid, and this is a good write-up to keep some of us in check.

  3. Good post Scott...thanks for sharing. I like the perspective.