A Tale of Two Experts from “Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment” by George Leonard

Robert Terson

81940I have a library of books that deal with the subject of Success. One of my favorites is Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard. It was published in 1991 and I highly recommend it. In it Leonard tells a great story of two karate experts who attend an eight-week certification program in aikido, which is a brand new discipline for both men. Leonard taught the class.

Here is the story, which Leonard subtitled A Tale of Two Experts; I hope it motivates you to order and read this magnificent book, as well as opening your mind:

How do you respond when offered the chance of renouncing a present competency for a higher or different one? The story of two karate experts—call them Russell and Tony—trying to learn aikido might serve as a guide. Both of them were participants in an eight-week certification program that required aikido training five days a week. It was my job to teach the class.

Russell was small, wiry, intense, and scholarly—an exceptionally gracious person who went out of his way to be helpful to his fellow students. He held a doctorate, and was director of professional training in a large organization. In addition, he had a first-degree black belt in karate. Tony’s schooling had been accomplished mostly on the streets of Jersey City. He had come to the martial arts early in life and now, at 31, he held a fourth-degree karate black belt and was owner of two karate schools.

From the moment Russell stepped on the training mat, he revealed that he was a trained martial artist. His individual warm-up routine included several karate moves. When called upon to deliver a punch during class, he resorted to the specialized style of his previous discipline. Once, on a two-hand grab attack, I noticed him moving purposely to keep a maximum distance between his body and that of the person he was attacking. I suggested he stay closer and let himself flow with the attack. “Surely you jest,” he said with a laugh. I told him that in order to learn the basic moves, it would be better just for now to forget defensive possibilities; we would learn to cover any openings later. I could see that Russell was finding it hard to let go of his expertise, and because of this failing to get the most out of his aikido training. After the first four weeks, he was falling behind some of those who had never done any martial art, and it was only at this point that he finally surrendered his prior competence and got on the path of mastery.

Tony’s approach was different. From the beginning, he never made a move, not even a gesture, that might reveal he was an expert in another art. Without a hint of ostentation, he showed more respect than did any of the other students for his teachers—this in spite of his high rank. He carried himself with an air of calm sincerity and was unfailingly aware of everything going on around him. Along with this was a powerful presence that could be quickly recognized by any trained martial artist. Just by the way he sat, stood, and walked, Tony revealed himself as a fellow traveler on the path of mastery.

During a class at the end of the first four weeks, I had all the students sit at the edge of the mat, then asked Tony if he would show us one of his karate kata (predetermined sequence of movements). He bowed, walked to the center of the mat, and breathed deeply for a few moments. What followed brought a sharp intake of breath from almost all of us. Moving gracefully and faster than the eye could fully comprehend, Tony launched one swift and deadly strike and kick after another, leaping, spinning, emitting resounding kiai shouts as he dispatched imaginary foes at every point of the compass. When it was over, he once again bowed humbly and returned to the edge of the mat to take his place with the others—the most thoroughgoing beginner of them all 

Perhaps the best you can hope for on the master’s journey—whether your art be management or marriage, badminton or ballet—is to cultivate the mind and heart of the beginning at every stage along the way. For the master, surrender means there are no experts. There are only learners.

I love this story. It always reminds me of the sales seminars I’ve given where there has always been one or two individuals who were far more interested in displaying to me and the rest of the participants their “expertise” than learning something new—arrogance at it highest level. I’ve met a number of sales “experts” who displayed the same arrogance. I hope you’ll think of Russell and Tony the next time you’re about to show off your “brilliance.”


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