The Novice, the Amateur, and the Expert

(h/t 52Hertz)

(h/t 52Hertz)

Learning is jiu-jitsu.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

If I were a jazz pianist, I would speak on the stages of excellence using music as my metaphor. However, my bailiwick is martial arts, in particular, Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Yet no matter your area of interest, you may find, learning is jiu-jitsu.

The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, insofar as it stands ready against the accidental and the unforeseen, and is not apt to fall.
— Marcus Aurelius

The Novice, the Amateur, and the Expert

The novice jiu-jitsu player is a faithful believer in magic. Like a child banging away at a typewriter, believing the right spark will turn randomness into a masterpiece. For the novice, quality is not a process but a spiritual event. Something fate bestows.

The amateur is an encyclopedia of jiu-jitsu. The rambling writer. For the amateur, quality is to know as much as possible and to say as much as possible — rather than earnest listening.

[Can’t] do 2 pages in 2 days. Can do 30 pages in two 2 days. Need 30 days to do 2 pages.
— Mark Twain

The expert (in any field) cuts away until there is nothing left but the essential. The editor. They understand what matters isn't the number of paragraphs, but the ideas worth highlighting.

The novice sees struggle as unnatural. When genius happens, it strikes, effortlessly, to anyone, no matter the length of practice. The novice sees the expert's mind as a vessel connected to a mysterious unconsciousness. The novice sees an overnight success because he only sees the effects of thousands of hours of practice, and not the practice.

Skill takes time; however, an awakening can happen overnight. This is why the novice is attracted to the awakening rather than the skill. Like Neo from The Matrix, "I kung fu." We want it to be that easy. A flick of a switch. Only ego would be so foolish. An awakening requires no learning, no jiu-jitsu, only sudden knowing. Learning is jiu-jitsu.

Jiu-jitsu? I’m going to learn jiu-jitsu? No way. Holy shit!
— Neo, The Matrix

The amateur has moments, there's something there, hidden under things with no value. Expertise requires compilation of information. The amateur focuses on the hours, yet is unable to parse the wheat from the chaff. For the amateur, all knowledge is equivalent.

The expert doesn't believe in genius, only work. Where the novice sees a mysterious force, the expert sees precision, technique, and educated improvisation.

The expert values information, but unlike the amateur, knows not all information is useful.

The Novice

The novice lacks jiu-jitsu knowledge, yet he is still baffled and hurt when he loses. Though unsure of the rules or methods of jiu-jitsu; nevertheless the novice expects to win. He comes having been misled that only winning matters.

Lacking in skill, the novice believes in destiny, that somehow he may overcome the odds. He believes if he is unconscious, mindless, and out of the moment, this will ignite his inner genius. (The novice misguidedly thinks he is innately special.)

The novice's strategy (or lack thereof) is merely noise without a clear signal. He reaches for a wrist then pulls away. He pulls his opponent, then pushes him away. Then he reaches for a leg. Hoping to lose himself, as if possessed — and out of the chaos will come talent. This is melee not jiu-jitsu. A jiu-jitsu mind is more craftsman than berserker.

He expects to hear, "I've never seen that before?" or "How did you do that?"

He believes his opponent is doing the same. Channeling, rather than efficiently flowing through movements he knows well. The novice is biding his time until fate intervenes. No strategy, there exists only mystery. How could his opponent possibly be thinking at a time like this? Yet the novice believes he will prevail because he is special.

When the match is over, the novice understands that he has lost. But the process in which it has happened, or that there was a process at all, is more magic than skill (a skill built with practice).

Advice on mechanics and techniques are ignored.

Guidance on how to think jiu-jitsu: principles, openers, objectives, strategies, tactics, and control — are ignored.

The Novice Chooses Emotions Over Intellect

Attaining the right mood, the right motivation, increasing want to win are the novice's focus. The art is overcomplicated, the novice believes every activity boils down to who wants it more. Therefore, he must increase the want — and ignore the lifetime of practice the experts have put in. The novice chooses emotions over intellect because he lacks in discipline and is overwhelmed by commitment.

The Question of Practice

The novice practices, but does not appreciate practice. He is always looking for a way to avoid practice while getting better. It is typical for the amateur and the expert to practice more often and harder than the novice, even though it is the novice who needs it the most. The novice's practice is plagued by inconsistency, bad habits, ego, and pride.

The novice knows practice, yet still, doesn't know that this singular activity is the answer to the majority (if not all) of his questions. He keeps hearing "practice" as the answer, but he keeps searching for another way.

The novice understands practice exists but does not reflect upon it long enough to know what practice means and how it should reflect on his expectations. The novice practices but doesn't think about practice. He is unaware. Just as a baby can think, but is not self-aware until it can think about thinking.

There is no single practice that will create excellence just as there is no single day of Spanish that will make you fluent. It's a habit that needs to be reinforced daily.

Overemphasis on Winning

Winning is subjective, based on the rules at hand. The art does not speak to the novice, he looks to bypass the art. There are many forms of victory, but the jiu-jitsu expert knows he must win using jiu-jitsu — using his art. The novice only thinks: win.

Yet why do jiu-jitsu if you don't want to do jiu-jitsu? The emphasis on results has diminished learning. Some students want to get an A in chemistry, rather than learning chemistry. Get a trophy for a piano recital, rather than getting good at the piano. Win a martial art tournament by exploiting a rule. Graduate high school or college with as little literacy as possible.

One can get some good results without getting good. Simply cheat, hack, or game the system. Yet why exist if you aren't going to participate in any of the living? Why go through the trouble of being born when we can place a giant trophy where you would have stood? The trophy is supposed to be a sign of excellence, but without ever learning, you will never be excellent. This emphasis on the ends makes novices of us all. Then it should be no surprise that it is always an elite small percentage that attains any level of expertise. They put the emphasis where others did not.

Self-Centered Learning

The novice doesn't care what his opponent is doing, he doesn't care about the art of jiu-jitsu. The novice centers himself on what he is going to do, independent of everything (and everyone) else.

The novice exists in a vacuum, only his own agency matters, which is why it's unexpected — if only what he does matters — why he keeps losing. Yet jiu-jitsu, like most things, is communal. A dancer must concern herself with her partner, a musician must think of the listener, a writer his reader, a politician her constituency, and a scientist with the future users of his research.

The novice does not think about the rules of jiu-jitsu, how his opponent will respond, or his opponent's ability to think for himself. To the novice, only he and his motivations matter.

The novice's movements are incongruent to jiu-jitsu thinking, lacking jiu-jitsu clarity. It's a mess; his movements only concern itself with itself. Like a beginner chess player, playing independently of his opponent, based on feels and moods.

The novice moves as if he was sparring alone, trying to move forward, ignoring that his opponent's body is in the way. Surprised by the laws of physics, that he cannot phase through objects.

The novice is repeatedly interrupted by the physical world and the interjection of objective reality by his opponent — that the novice is not alone, another influences his dance.

Like a bad writer, rather than writing for an audience, the novice writes for himself. It only makes sense to himself (though, like bad handwriting, it may not later) and not the reader. Where the novice sees brilliance, the reader sees typically bad writing.

Poor Quality Is Lack of Awareness

Typically bad jiu-jitsu is a random arrogant mess. The novice is aware he is unlikely to win, yet unaware of his own self-importance.

During sparring, his arrogance appears in his level of intensity and in his reaction to loss. He is hurt because his expectations weren't met. Yet as a neophyte, what were his expectations? He may not acknowledge his self-importance, yet all indications are there.

When shown a better way, rather than learning, he defends why his way does not need changing. Rather than strategy, he looks for shortcuts. Rather than learning the subject, he creates his own system — which is easier and more natural to the novice, simply because it's what he would do anyway. (If his way gets an F in jiu-jitsu, then he will turn his way into its own subject, so he can give himself an A.) He does this to avoid the toil of learning jiu-jitsu. People engage in a variety of odd behaviors to avoid toil.

If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.
— Jessie Potter

The novice insists, rather than adapting. He falls into predictable patterns rather than transitioning to other jiu-jitsu tactics. And when the next logical move is obvious, he is unpredictable.

He misses the small stuff, like learning to bow, shake hands, or to properly tie his belt. And with the big things, he is even worse.

Rather than completing matches, he stops when he's had enough. He neither self-critiques nor thinks over his process. "It's fine, it's good enough." He orients toward himself, protecting his self-perception.

He is not trying to get better at jiu-jitsu; jiu-jitsu is merely a conduit to express and validate his own uniqueness and talent. Rather than mindful, he is mindless. Rather than conscientious, he is unconscious. Believing intellect gets in the way of the magic of talent.

He asks others how he did or what they think. He is only looking for confirmation, not how to get better. Not to improve, but to reinforce his stasis.


We have our identity, our selfhood, our self-importance, and we stubbornly hold onto it, while at the same time trying to be spontaneous and creative. But we can't. What comes out of us is entirely expected because it's what comes out of us, not out of our art. And how we act based on our self, our identity, will not be anything new. It's the things your opponent has seen before. From every beginner, because beginners believe they are special and unique.

To flow, we must give ourselves up, immerse ourselves in the art. Like a painter lost in a portrait or a musician lost in the melody. This is where true creativity, spontaneity, and improvisation comes from.

Practice is not the enemy of spontaneity; it is the platform for creativity to thrive. It's what gives flow staying power and keeps it from wandering away. It is the conduit that integrates improvisation into your art.

If you hold onto yourself and do what you feel comes natural, you will do what is expected — mindless beginner clichés.

If you lose yourself and stay present, and allow art to use you as a conduit, and respond to the context of the moment, you will do what is unanticipated — mindful expert responsiveness.

You must lower the volume on yourself to hear the rest of the world. Listen, connect, and respond — this is unique. Insisting yourself upon the world without listening, disconnecting — this is the usual.

Speaking Jiu-Jitsu

Jiu-jitsu is a language. Expertise is fluency. A match is a conversation. Not only with your opponent but with the jiu-jitsu community — the past, present, and future. Yours is not the only sweat on your belt, not only figuratively, but literally. And if yours is the only sweat on your belt, you're not doing jiu-jitsu.

Mindlessness and you speak in tongues, perhaps, when you awake hope you did something great (but just as likely you did something awful). Mindfulness and you speak jiu-jitsu, awake to see you are doing something great.

It should be self-evident to any jiu-jitsu artist watching what you and your opponent are engaging in. Just as it is apparent if the match is an ugly display of jiu-jitsu. (This only happens through ego and fear.)

When the expert says, "That is not jiu-jitsu," it is similar to a Korean saying, "That is not Korean." You may have said a word, it may be a real word, however, that does not mean it is a Korean word. Using brute strength may be a legitimate tactic, but it is not jiu-jitsu.

You are a storyteller. Beautiful jiu-jitsu is successful communication with the listener. Victory is taking the listener on a journey, with clear and effective jiu-jitsu, from beginning, middle, until it is crystal clear that the end has come. When the listener understands and accepts that the story is over, he shows his respect by tapping the mats.

A novice is jiu-jitsu illiterate. Unaware of the process of jiu-jitsu storytelling, missing the openings, not paying attention to the middle, only concentrating on the ending (the submission). The novice is distracted, the expert is engaged.

Respect and Honor

There are virtues and etiquette that may seem unnecessary to the novice, but is the difference between art and assault. Virtues and etiquette are what elicit consent. One cannot do jiu-jitsu alone in a vacuum. It requires a dojo and a partner. Jiu-jitsu is a conversation with a willing companion. When an assailant pulls you into a confrontation without your consent, is when jiu-jitsu training turns into self-defense, where all tactics become fair use.

Jiu-jitsu is a social contract with physical consequences. You are not the only thing that exists, your actions affect others, your actions go beyond yourself. Not only your own interests and feelings, but the social contract of jiu-jitsu binds you to the feelings and rights of others.

The bow and handshake is your agreement. Train with respect, and respect the Other.

Your opponent is not your tool, he is your teammate, another sentient being on the same journey of improvement as you. You are both of equal value, this must be appreciated.

If this does not interest you, then play solitaire.

Individual Achievement Is Still a Communal Effort

When it dawns on the novice, that jiu-jitsu is communal, he develops jiu-jitsu thinking. Jiu-jitsu is actions in relationship to the actions of others. What formerly mattered to the mind of the novice was himself and his perception of himself, but jiu-jitsu is about leaving your own mind and understanding the minds of others — a type of jiu-jitsu empathy. How others perceive you and your actions. We have been told it only matters what we think, bulldoze everything in your path with self-belief, but jiu-jitsu is different. Jiu-jitsu is the art of turning weakness into strength — and your opponent's strength into his weakness. This requires sensitivity.

Jiu-jitsu is not about force, it is about persuasion, gentling guiding your opponent into your final endgame. Rather than brute strength or motivation, jiu-jitsu is about understanding.

Jiu-jitsu is a martial language written on the mats. Your use of this language drives the reader to react — and expertise creates precise reactions in desired ways.

Even when the opponent does not speak jiu-jitsu, jiu-jitsu can still drive desired results. In fact, it is much easier to do so when they are unaware of jiu-jitsu.

Persuasion is not based on reasoning with your opponent, it relies on your opponent's instinctive reactions to your presentation. This is why "jiu-jitsu" has become the familiar jargon for any skilled maneuvering, from "verbal jiu-jitsu", "political jiu-jitsu," or in business, the side that gets the better deal is said to have used better "jiu-jitsu." It means persuasion at a very high (and sneaky) level.

Eliciting desired responses from an opponent who is aware of jiu-jitsu is the highest representation of jiu-jitsu artistry. This is why it seems like magic to the novice — and "jiu-jitsu" to experts of different fields. (Magic is a word people use for what they do not understand.)

The Match

An expert pins a novice to the ground. The novice believes he wants to roll over, but in reality, the expert left no other options available for the novice.

The novice does not consciously deliberate, he reacts. So he takes his action to be a conscious choice, even though he was led to that action, at which point the expert applies the choke.

Per the social contract, once there is a tap, the expert releases the choke. If the novice is unable to tap, the expert will still let go, as the novice is his training partner, someone he cares about, and not his mortal enemy. He treats him with the same respect he shows other experts.

The expert understands jiu-jitsu may be competitive and physical, but the artist must be kind and virtuous. Like influence and duress, the difference is kindness and compassion.

No longer seeing the expert as a vessel for a mysterious force, the novice gains a realistic understanding of jiu-jitsu. That the expert is more skilled than the novice, rather than merely more motivated.

In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’ All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. ... Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.
— Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

The Amateur

However, the amateur stage is the stepping off point. This is where all the work is done, the expert needs only to stick with it and reap the rewards.

Respect to the amateur, he is halfway there. He has stuck with it longer than all the other novices. The first ego-bursting half of learning is always harder than the last. The amateur understands that he is not special; the art is special. He has made it to the other side.

Jiu-Jitsu Sensitivity

The expert cannot be an expert nor an artist of jiu-jitsu without training partners. He understands this Other is necessary, not an enemy to eliminate. As removing this "enemy" would remove himself. Without partners to train with, the expert cannot practice his art.

The jiu-jitsu artist is not only in need of others but is indebted to them. You must repay kindness with kindness if you are to continue to train.

The novice believes: Here is my intent, let me lay it out on the mats and I should win. Yet it is not about us, it is about our partners. Yes, we want to win. Our intent is obvious. But how do we get our opponents to comply? How does the musician get his listeners to feel?

We are artists, no different from writers, painters, and musicians. We present our art and our audience reacts. The creating of art we like is not nearly as important as creating art that affects the receiver. It is a living collaboration, and if we do not respect our collaborators, we will be left with none.

Winning is too nearsighted. Jiu-jitsu is about being able to train consistently and indefinitely. You cannot serve yourself, you must also serve others. It is not about winning for yourself, you must also win over your training partners. You must be aware of their processes and their feelings. Not only to continue your training but to sharpen your read of others. A good jiu-jitsu speaker is a better jiu-jitsu listener.

The Beginning, Middle, and the End

An expert has a principle style. He understands he cannot be infinite. You can be responsive, but you must also have a principle theme to lean on.

The novice tries everything, this is the building block of style. Early failings are necessary. Risk and learn. Trial, error, and grow — not trial, validate, and stagnate.

The encyclopedia process of the amateur is necessary. Even if you don't know what you will do it with — like an ant preparing for winter — gather for later use. Things have a way of coming together.

The expert carefully curates a style that is essential, editing the book the amateur has created, with the style founded as a novice.

The novice is singularly focused on the ends. He is self-centered.

The amateur understands there are means. He is process-centered.

The expert sees that the means are inseparable from the ends. He is other-centered. The more he can understand others, the better his jiu-jitsu becomes.

The novice sees jiu-jitsu as win or lose.

The amateur sees jiu-jitsu as win or learn.

The expert sees no false dichotomy. The expert sees jiu-jitsu as learn or learn.

Most importantly, though we use terms like "expert," these are just terms. The expert believes she is a beginner. It is the novice who fancies himself the expert. It is always the dead giveaway.

Think jiu-jitsu. Not magic. Think excellence. Not glory. All that you need is within you and those around you.

Share, play, enjoy, and repeat.

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