Reflexes can be a tricky term when discussing martial arts and fighting as a large number of martial artists do not distinguish between actions that are under their conscious control and actions that are not, or responses that are learned and responses that are not. A reflex action, also known as a reflex, is an involuntary and nearly instantaneous movement in response to a stimulus. If we automatically use a trained response without thinking (such as a parry) in response to a stimuli we might describe it as reflexive, but a true reflex is a behaviour that is mediated via a reflex arc, a neural pathway that controls an action reflex.
When you go to the doctor and have a medical and he/she taps your knee with a hammer and your leg twitches, that is an example of a somatic reflex arc (affecting muscles). When your tongue is depressed and you gag – that too is a reflex. You are not consciously controlling it and you cannot stop it. Do we have similar reflexes applicable to combat? The answer is yes. A working knowledge of withdrawal reflexes and tendon reflexes can improve our combative ability. I’d like to briefly look at something that is the combined result of a number of different withdrawal reflexes, the ‘flinch reflex’.
The body has autonomic mechanisms to protect itself from injury and given the right stimuli, your flinch reflex will kick in. You eyes will shut briefly and your hands and forearms will attempt first to move to cover the head (or perceived area of vulnerability) and second to push away danger
I use the term ‘right stimuli’ here because the body only flinches when the brain consciously or unconsciously perceives danger. You might note that after you have been training for a while you rarely flinch in sparring or hardly ever see flinching in the ring. This is because your brain recognises the telegraphs of the techniques and moves into a trained response – it is when you don’t spot the telegraph in time for the brain to consciously or unconsciously activate a trained appropriate response that you are startled and as a result you flinch. A simple analogy is that most of us can catch a tennis ball with one or two hands: the more time we have to prepare for catching a ball coming towards us and can see its arc the more likely we are to catch it. If however someone were to shout “look out” and on turning our head we were to see a ball flying straight for our face, depending upon our skill level, the speed of the incoming object, and our reaction time, we would do one of the following:
- Scrunch our face up to brace for impact and shut our eyes
- The above while turning the head away as much as we can
- The above while covering the head with the hands and ducking away from the object
- Turning slightly but also pushing out with nearest hand while the other covers the face
- Intercepting the object with a previously trained skill
A person just off the line of flight of this bat with sufficient observation and reaction time to apparently access the complex motor skill of catching, but even he’s flinching.Dealing with attacks, whether in a competitive consensual fight, or a surprise attack or an escalated argument is no different. If you do not spot the telegraphs then your reaction is likely to be at the top of the list above, the earlier you see and recognise the telegraphs (not necessarily on a conscious level) the further down that list your response will be, particularly if you already have your hands in front of your face or body.
The less familiar you are with the telegraphs and the environment, the less likely you are to access a trained response. If you are unused to dealing with verbal aggression or the stimulus of multiple people moving and not knowing which one is likely to attack, then your brain will be more occupied with this along with ‘fight/don’t fight’ questions. As a result of this extra neural engagement you may be less likely to spot telegraphs that you would have identified with ease in a ‘cleaner’ competitive environment. The net result is that you are more likely to flinch.
Hands coming up so fast he drops his drink… but can you spot which common ‘uke’ technique is instinctive?
The good news is that you do not need to train the flinch – it is built in. The bad news is that if you are spending time working other more complicated methods of intercepting attacks then in the one instance when you will truly need them, when you are caught off guard by the ease of the attack (entry angle of attack, attitude of the attacker, speed of the attack and the environment in which the attack takes place), you’ve spent a large amount of your time honing a fairly redundant skill because you will flinch rather than perform that complex motor skill.
Now if there are movements in Kata that mimic the flinch – will practicing them improve your ability to flinch? No. Practicing them will improve your ability to fight because following the ‘fake’ flinch in the Kata you move from that position into a combative application. Thus what Kata can do is help you make a transition from a natural protective movement into a trained combative movement so fast that it seems reflexive.
This could be one of the most important things that Kata gives us. There are clear differences between the movements in sparring and those in Kata, and the key to those differences is that both are reflections of differing scenario and attack specific skill sets. The environment of the sparring and sport arena make redundant the employment of natural movements that the body will use in a ‘real’ arena (and if you’ve pulled off your sport techniques in that arena then either you hit first or the other guy telegraphed his intentions so clearly or attacked so weakly the ease of the attack was incredibly familiar and did not stretch you out of your comfort zone). Kata by contrast often mimics (though now in stylised form) the flinch and then practices moving from that to a combative strike. If you look at the extended arm set up common in various versions of kata for all of Karate’s receiving techniques – Age Uke, Shuto Uke, Uchi Uke, Gedan Barai and so forth you can see a protective motion to ward away danger and in many cases a hand attempting to shield the head.
In Karate Do Kyohan Funakoshi said that Kakewake Uke could be done palms open or closed, hands facing towards you or away. Does this look familiar?
If we are to make Kata a reflexive exercise then we need to be able to use its initiation point in reflex based techniques. As a result we need to mimic the flinch. To train the almost-reflexive movement from a flinch to a combative counter the Kata training needs to be paired. All the Kata drills I use initiate from either a flinch based movement against a habitual act of violence, a ‘failed’ Kata attacking/controlling movement following a flinch based movement, or a common mid fight redundancy position such as a clinch. As a result back in 2004 with the Heian Flow System I created an extensive Kata based sparring repertoire where techniques fitted together like lego and students began to unconsciously shift between techniques and strategies according to stimuli.
My current work on the Pinan and Heian Kata takes this a step further with the benefit of the experience of heavy contact scenario simulation training and hours of footage of watching how martial artists respond in such pressurised environments. When you consider how much time you’ve spent drilling your Kata solo, you may find it’s time you did them justice by taking them to the next level by experiencing their use as two man training systems. Paired Kata training might not look as beautiful as kumite or solo Kata, but it’s fun, it develops new skill sets, and it could prove to be the most useful element of your karate repertoire.
"Hello, everyone, and welcome to today's Master Malleus seminar. In the next few hours you are going to witness some remarkable things...things you might be tempted to put down to magic or miracles, but I assure you, it's nothing like that.
"What you will see however will be hard for me to explain to everyone's satisfaction. I will ask you to bear with me and forget what you know about science or what they taught you in high school or college biology. Forget what you may have learned in a first aid or health class.
"You will see people lose consciousness, which will look a lot like feinting. People will drop like bags of flour, knees buckling, bodies going limp. We will have spotters standing by to catch them before they hit the floor so they don't hurt themselves. We will then work quickly to revive them and bring them back from temporary unconsciousness.
"Each person who steps up to experience these techniques will be a volunteer. No one is obligated to participate, and each participant who volunteers must sign a release form. While no past participant has experienced any health problems as a result of these techniques, our solicitors have advised that the release form is not optional. Most of you have already filled out and signed the release form, and I will ask for those who will not be participating to move to the chairs around the perimeter of the matted area.
"Okay, if we could get our first volunteer up here. And, what is your name? Hi, Anthony, how are you? Great. Thanks for being our first volunteer. Now just to make sure, you have signed your release form, right? Good, good. Just checking. And you're in reasonably good health? Right? No immediate health problems? No head aches, or severe neck or back aches? Good, glad to hear it.
"Now here's what's going to happen. I'm going to take this rubber mallet, and I'm going to tap certain parts of your body. Here, you can hold it, inspect it. I won't hit you very hard with my mallet, just a light tap. Generally, for each volunteer, I will tap 2, 3, or, at most, 4 parts of your body with my rubber mallet. These are special parts of your body that are kinky areas. No, no, (laughing), not 'kinky' like you might think. What I'm talking about is like taking a garden hose, the kind you use to water your plants, flowing with cool, clear water, and bending it...and causing a kink and thus shutting the flow of water. You see, we all have 'energy' moving about our bodies like a whole system of garden hoses or plumbing pipes. Those pipes carry vital energy to each organ, each joint, each nerve in our bodies. This energy keeps us healthy, vibrant, alert and alive. When a part of that hose is bent, or kinked, the energy backs up, unable to flow.
"I don't have to tell you what happens then, do I? Okay, I'll tell you. You'll start out by feeling not quite yourself. You may grow tired, or irritable or even sick. Long term problems can lead to problems, serious problems, even disease. If you don't water your plants, they'll turn colors, dry up and die, won't they? Same exact thing.
"My rubber mallet will actually cause a minor, temporary kink in your garden hose. The system is designed with certain redundancies, like an emergency back-up system, so I will cause kinks in several strategic parts of your garden hose. This will cause the energy to suddenly stop flowing.
"There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of these points on the body where you quite easily kink the garden hose. You may have bumped your elbow, what many people might call the 'funny bone.' When this happens, do you remember the tingling and numbness you felt? Or when the doctor taps that little area right below your knee...remember how your lower leg and foot jump up? Those are kinky areas.
"You may feel a slight pressure, maybe some tingling or numbness. This numbness may last for a little while, even after you regain consciousness. You may be groggy, but rest assured we will revive you quickly. You'll be in no danger whatsoever when you are out. You won't remember a thing. It'll be like a short nap.
"Okay, Andrew, wasn't it? I'm sorry, Anthony, okay now I'm going to tap 3 areas on your body. This first kinky point is just below your right wrist. I call it Kinky 33. Then quickly I will tap Kinky 47, the area near the base of your right bicep. Immediately, without pausing, I will then tap Kinky 2, the area at the base of your neck, just a few inches up from your clavicle or collar bone. I'll go tap, tap, tap, here, here, and here. You will then be out, like a light. The energy flow through your arm, like water through a garden hose, will kink, and the water, the energy, will shut down.
"Are you ready? Don't be scared. You are safe. You are in no danger. You're going to take a tiny little nap...just a short nap. That'll feel good, won't it? Okay, spotters? Are you ready to catch Albert? Sorry, Anthony. Great. Okay, here we go. It's malleus time!
"Tap, tap, tap! Catch Him! Good, let Alfred down slowly. Don't bump his head. Now, these special massage techniques will unkink the garden hose. The water, the energy, can now flow through the garden hose. The kinks have been removed.
"Now, Aaron, if you're feeling steady enough, you may stand up. Sure, that's normal...a little queasiness. Your Kinky 2 was already a little kinky...I could sense that while I was talking to you.
"There you go, on your feet. Give Abraham a big hand! See, it doesn't hurt, doesn't hurt at all. In fact, it feels pretty good...it's just a short nap. You'll actually feel refreshed when you wake up. Remember too that we'll be selling our official Malleus-Brand rubber mallets and Kinky DVDs after the seminar. You'll have a chance to purchase the entire It's Malleus Time DVD series, and you can purchase a poster showing the body's kinky points, all 213 of them! Also don't forget to sign up for the instructor program, where you'll learn to conduct your own kinky seminars.
"Okay, next up. And what's your name? Hi Linda, er, what's that? I mean Libby. Okay, did you sign your release form?..."
I suppose it is possible to practice a kata and not think at all about its application, but that’s never been an approach that’s appealed to me. As a result through analysis and experience I’ve gathered quite a lot of applications for individual karate techniques and combinations over time.
Almost a decade ago I drew a number of my then favourite applications together into the Heian Flow System, and three years later I published the majority of those Heian drills to share with others. Nine years is not that long a period of time in training terms, and yet to me the environment in which I now write and train seems very different.
When I first wrote the Heian Flow System the concept that kata might be focused on HAOV, or involve close range grappling and throwing did not seem to be mainstream. While perhaps still not the most common approach, these views, espoused in recorded sources by significant figures in Karate history such as Itosu, Mabuni and Funakoshi, are now reflected in research and good quality bunkai material emerging from Europe, the UK, North America and Australia.
At the same time it would be an understatement to say that the adoption of high quality body armour and the ability to safely run force on force simulations of real violence has not had an effect on the continued development of my own perception and interpretation of Kata. As a result, while adhering to the same principles, if you compare my favoured bunkai for a movement in 2013 to that in 2004, the two are likely to be quite different.
With this in mind I made the decision a while back to put together some more material on the Pinan/Heian kata to share with people who haven’t had the opportunity to train with me at a seminar. Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to make decisions on which bunkai drills to include, and that’s been an excellent excuse to do more training while I make up my mind.
The training has formed an interesting pattern: perform the solo kata as an aide memoire, work through all the kata bunkai drills in sequential order as best as we can in paired training, revise with the solo kata, then repeat with the next form. It’s been… beautiful. For me it’s almost the perfect way to train the kata, and almost the perfect session.
The problem is, as a regular format for training, it’s missing a few things.
I want impact. I’m not really hitting my partner because then he wouldn’t train with me, so I’m doing the moves in the paired drills with just enough force to move and unbalance him, but not enough to seriously hurt or injure him. Neither of us therefore are working our ability to make solid contact.
Because I’m not trying to hurt my partner with my applications, I’m not really working on developing speed. We could do the solo Kata really fast, but that works our ability to move fast against no resistance, which isn’t the same thing. It also makes it hard to properly visualise intent without breaking out of ‘proper’ form. Obviously my partner punches, pushes, headbutts or grabs me fast, and I have to move fast to cover. But my response technique is pulled.
We could pop the Spartan Training Gear body armour on and increase our contact, but then realistically we’d need to lose the Gi for the amount of contact and body armour we are wearing (to avoid heat exhaustion and to have optimum mobility). That’s not an issue for me, but it might make someone watching us through a window not realize we’re doing karate – because if you were to see close range striking, trapping, locking and throwing in response to HAOV would karate be your first thought?
A cheaper solution is to do the techniques against appropriate pads. Now we can work our speed, distancing and contact without fear of hurting our partner. It may not have the mobility or contextual realism of the armoured training, but we can hit harder and faster and improve our technique.
So the use of pads and armour was what was missing?
In two and a half hours I performed each of the five Pinan kata twice and my training partner and I each did one repetition of each application drill that I have decided to share. If I’d been less ambitious and picked a single kata with its drills, run through it as a solo aide memoire, donned armour and drilled the bunkai with moderate impact, then isolated the striking techniques and worked them against pads, then revised with a solo performance of the same kata, I reckon I could have ninety minutes of well balanced training. The perfect kata lesson.
Wait a second, was that kata, kumite and kihon?
Oh well. If it works…
"You've faced the truth about yourself. You've done what you had to do to kill your nagging pipe dreams. Oh, I know it knocks you cold. But only for a minute. Then you see it was the only possible way to peace."
Hickey, The Iceman Cometh
There are those who will tell you that martial arts consists primarily of two schools, based on two types of strength, and they may try and convince you that the Yin Yang design symbolizes those two types of strength--external and internal.
They'll tell you that the external guys are all about muscle--physical movement, striking, power, brute force. Boxers, kick-boxers, and most grapplers, they'll say, fall into the external school of martial arts.
They will often say these things in such a way to try and convince you that this external side of the martial arts is base or inferior.
Then they will try and convince you that there is another, perhaps superior, type of strength...one that comes from deep inside. A source of strength that is generated by universal forces and that flows within us all, although only a few have learned to harness this force.
They may lead you to believe that this source of strength, although limitless and capable of providing 'energy' that can either hurt or heal depending on the circumstances one faces, is known to only a few. Some will tell you that it is only available to those who carefully follow unique, lengthy, and often bizarre training methods or to those who use special proprietary salves or ointments or oils which contain secret ingredients.
To demonstrate this power they might ask a volunteer to try to bend their arm at the elbow, or to try and push them while they are standing or seated which would result in a lot of work on your part but without much success. The arm won't bend. They will remain rooted in place no matter how hard the volunteer shoves.
Though they won't show you any practical application for it, they may demonstrate their 'lightness' by balancing on the rim of a basket or perform some other exotic feat.
In some cases they will take someone from the audience, usually their own student, and they will knock them out or propel them across the room with just a light touch or a series of light blows. Sometimes, as if by magic, they will get the same effect without even making physical contact. In fact they might be inches or even feet away when they knock someone out or cause them to fall on the floor.
They may seem to imply that the laws of physics don't apply to them; that somehow they have transcended normal physical laws by tapping into 'chi', 'ki' or 'energy'.
What they will not tell you is that it is all part of what famous skeptic and the bane of hucksters and con-men, James "The Amazing" Randi, referred to as 'flim flam.' It is mostly just stunts, misdirection, stage magic, or parlor tricks. In some cases the proponents of this inner strength are simply using the type of suggestion that a stage hypnotist uses. Worse, some may use confederates who pretend that a punch is forceful or pretend that they are straining against an immovable object.
I have met many such practitioners. A gung fu master in Germany, a Tai Chi master from Tennessee, a Hsing-I practitioner from Florida, a BaGua artist from California, a master who 'heals' private celebrity clients, another who can diagnose and heal others all with no input at all from the person who has an ailment such as stress or headaches or body aches. I have watched them hit phone books held in front of the chests of willing volunteers which cause the volunteer much acute pain and breathlessness. I saw several people who lined up so their chests made contact with the person's back in front of them, and then I watched as the master struck the first person and caused, say, the 3rd or 4th person to go into a convulsive fit due to the transfer of chi.
I have watched them break a brick with a vibrating palm. I have seen them cause others to move, or feint or gyrate as a result of their control of the invisible force which they claim, (sounding like a Jedi master from Star Wars), permeates all things.
I have listened to their 'explanations,' which often contain gibberish, nonsense or pseudo-scientific verbiage. Quantum this or quantum that, they will say, as if terminology from cutting edge physics can be used out of context and in ways brilliant scientists never intended. I have heard them talk about 'vibrations at the cellular level' although none of them have peered through a microscope or studied biology.
Some offer no explanations at all, hinting that only through years and years of study will the 'truth' be revealed. A few will mock the concept of science, and have you believe that scientific researchers avoid facing the truth which they alone possess. Diseases could be healed, they'll claim, and people could live rich, vital, healthy lives, but doctors are in the pockets of 'big pharma' and work hard to keep a lid on the truth which they all know to be real.
Want evidence? They'll do another demonstration. Need proof? They'll say you need to 'experience' 'it' and stop questioning 'it'. Some of these guys will show you elaborate certificates which they claimed to have received from a master. I've even met a few who have claimed that they trained with a mysterious stranger.
Some have laughed at my skepticism. Mocked my almost 50 years of training in a variety of effective combative arts. My bad gung fu or my stupid style or my incompetent instructor. But they side step my questions. When I ask for a simple explanation of what goes on at the molecular level, when I ask for scientific, peer-reviewed studies, they change the subject, insult me, and double down.
The worst of the lot charge money for their services. For their healing or for their 'energy treatments.' They may charge money for classes or for instructor certification. These people often have the public fooled. The uninformed public, unaccustomed to false claims and pseudo-scientific explanations, often buy in to the master and his program.
In the era of MMA where people enter the cage and fight full contact, where the proof is in the pudding, where B.S. gets called to the carpet quickly and demonstrably, these guys will laugh at that training and act as if they have something far superior.
There are bona fide strongmen who can do amazing stunts. They can drive a nail with their palms, bend steel or perform other feats of strength, but let me tell you that those people are strong! They work hard developing their strength and most of them hit the gym and work their bodies beyond pain.
These internal guys don't train like that. They will pretend that they get strength via breathing or special diet or meditation. They will often claim to have a secret weapon that is far too dangerous to reveal to someone who has not earned to right to learn their special skills.
My advice? Avoid them. Stick with the guys who put up or shut up. The guys who can fight if they need to, the guys who are strong and tough because of honest sweat in the gym and the dojo.
Where there's smoke, the old adage goes, there's fire. But sometimes there's just smoke.
If I had one piece of advice for the physical aspects of self-defense, it would be two words. Move less.
Fighting is like marble sculpture. It isn't like painting or architecture. It is like sculpture. Because moving well has nothing to do with adding things. It is all about cutting things out. You make a sculpture out of a slab of marble by taking out all the rock that isn't the form. Sculpture is removal.
So is the art of good movement. Absolute efficiency is not having a millimeter of unnecessary motion. You don't defend if the strike is going to miss by a fraction of an inch. Your own strikes do not go through any unnecessary distance. Avoid decelerating to zero except with linear impact.
In sparring, there is a lot you can do with extraneous motion. You can fake, disguise your telegraphs, change your rhythm. But when you need to take someone out, for that matter, when you need to do anything quick, no extra motion.
And that's not how we teach it, usually. The good martial artist can do more stuff than the beginner. He can do the flashy moves. The TV martial artists-- Bruce Lee hitting bad guys who just stand there in rapid fire strikes, clearly five times as fast as the bad guys can move. Congratulations. Those are the skills you need to beat someone 1/5th your speed-- and, in case you missed it, if you have superspeed you don't need any skill. The best martial artists move more than the beginners.
And one of the side effects-- if the stakes go up, it becomes even more critical to move less. A knife coming at your belly has no margin of error. Bad things require maximum efficiency, not more cool moves.
The best fighters move less. The best fighter, the best athlete in any speed game, moves less than the second best. Not more.
“There are no winners in real games.”
The players were apprehensive. A new head coach is always a weird time on any football team. But everyone on the team knew, after the last several dismal seasons, that getting a new coach was inevitable.
Every new coach has his own ways of doing things. Different drills, different plays, different emphasis. A player who was a star on last year's team may not get the new coach's approval, so everything was uncertain.
The team had filled up the bleachers on the practice field awaiting the new guy. They sat around joking and discussing the latest rumors they'd heard.
Then they heard the sound of a gong. They all looked up, and the new coach came out of the field house and onto the field. He didn't look like the other coaches they'd had. He had no whistle and no cap. His loose fitting, flowing uniform looked like it was made out of satin. He had a large, old fashioned boom box, playing some kind of soothing, new age music that sounded like flutes and drums and voices chanting.
"Everyone, line up!" commanded the new guy. "Line up in rank and file, straight lines! No talking!"
"I am Mr. Beckworth, your new football instructor. Don't call me coach. Call me Mr. Beckworth."
"Everyone be seated." He nodded to his assistant on the sidelines who turned the music down slightly.
"I have been brought in because this team has been struggling for some time. It has lost its vision, its passion. I am here to give this team, each member of this team, a new vision, a new way of doing things.
"You have all focused on the physical for far too long--lifting weights, running, playing a very physical game. And, let me state the obvious here, you have also been losing. I'm here to help you develop a new type of strength--your inner strength.
"Forget what you know. As the old masters say, empty your cup. You will all start from scratch. You will learn a new way to breathe, a new way to stretch and move, a new way to connect with other players. You will discover that we are all conduits of the energy of the universe, and that with proper breathing, correct posture, and the right amount of focus, concentration and relaxation, we can tap into that unlimited power.
"First, this game is not about victory over others. QUIET! As I was saying, it is not about victory over others, it is about victory over one's self, one's ego. It is about letting go, releasing all desire for winning...I SAID QUIET! This team has been so focused on 'winning' that it has forgotten what this game is all about. This game is about honor. It is about integrity and courage. The game is about conquering one's weaknesses from within.
"This team will learn a new game, a MENTAL game, a game that is no longer focused on contact and pain. A game of learning to blend with the energy of the other team. A game of cooperation and harmony.
"We will practice long sequences of pre-selected movements. These movements have been designed to encompass all of the moves you will ever need on this field. The sequences have been passed down from master to student, generation after generation. These sequences are complete. You will neither add to nor subtract from these sequences. Every possible play has been gathered into these sequences, and each movement is very exact with strict standards.
"Once you learn these sequences, practicing them not dozens of times, not hundreds of times, but literally thousands of times, we may even work the sequences in cooperation with a partner. We will move step by step through each sequence. Slowly at first, and then faster. You will follow these sequences step by step, and move by move with no deviation. From time to time I will reveal to you the specialized techniques contained within these sequences.
"You will not need to think. I do not want thinking on my football field, is that clear?
"We're all going to learn a new phrase: Honor, Integrity, Courage, Conquering Self! The self will want to win. The ego will want to hurt others. But we will conquer the self. We will defeat the enemy that is the ego.
"Everyone stand up...stand up nice and tall and straight. Say it after me...HONOR, INTEGRITY, COURAGE, CONQUERING SELF."
The team mumbled their way through the new mantra.
"NO! Say it loud and strong...HONOR, INTEGRITY, COURAGE, CONQUERING SELF!
"There, that's better. Okay, now let's work on breathing. Everyone lie down, legs straight. Put your palm on your abdomen. Feel the air move in and out...the old masters call this 'belly breathing' because your chest doesn't rise and fall with each breath, the abdomen does. Breathe in, breathe out. The abdomen rises and falls. Keep your palm on your belly. Feel it rise and fall with each breath you take. Listen to the tranquil music. Rise and fall, in and out. Breathe to the rhythm of the music. Let the universe share with you its benevolent power, its unlimited energy."
The session lasted for an hour. Each player had slowly figured out how to breathe correctly or at least how to fake it good enough to satisfy Mr. Beckworth. Some light stretching followed the breathing, all set to the same, gentle music.
Later, as the session ended, Zack, last year's quarterback, was walking off the field with big old Denny, one of the players on the defensive line.
"Well Denny, what d'ya think about Coach, er I mean, Mr. Beckworth?" asked Zack.
"I'm afraid it's gonna be a long season, my friend," said Denny, shaking his head, looking off in the distance at nothing particular, "a very very long season."
THE ILLUSION OF CONTROL, THE FALLACY OF SELF-HELP
AND THE IMPORTANCE OF LUCK
“Martha: Truth or illusion; you don't know the difference.
George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.
― Edward Albee, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
“The whole thing's illusion,
and there's nothing wrong with that. It's what people want from us. It's what they expect.”
― Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
I Sorta Blame Disney
Most of us, without realizing it, use wishful thinking in our daily lives. We don't usually call it that of course. Instead we give it fancier names: Visualization, positive mental attitude, following our dreams, optimism, manifesting our desires, owning our destiny, faith, positive thinking, or even the law of attraction.
Mark Pinsky, author of The Gospel According to Disney, sorta blames Disney. "The Disney canon is fairly simple," Pinsky said in an interview. "Good is always rewarded. Evil is always punished. Faith is paramount -- faith in yourself and, equally, faith in something greater than yourself. It doesn't matter what it is that's greater than yourself."
Remember Jiminy Cricket's song? When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. Anything your heart desires will come to you. If your heart is in your dreams, no request is too extreme. When you wish upon a star as dreamers do.
We look ourselves in the mirror, and we give ourselves a pep talk, repeating positive self-affirmations. "You've got to want it," we say, "it's simply mind over matter."
We've been told that our attitude controls our altitude. We believe that we need to be motivated, and we understand that we need to visualize and conceptualize in order to actualize.
We acknowledge that if we want to achieve we must first believe. Commitment we are told is key, as is discipline, determination, patience, persistence, and the pursuit of elusive perfection.
Believe in yourself! Why? Because you have potential! When obstacles appear in our path, and when disappointments occur, we should, as Winston Churchill said, move from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.
And as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us, "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
Why did Rocky win his fights? Because he had heart, because he had guts, because he had the eye of the tiger, because he was hungry.
Some people believe that there is a magical formula to success. Millions of people long for this formula, and as a result self-help has grown into an $11 billion industry. Most of the self-help books in large part are made up of what Kathryn Schulz refers to as "charlatanism, cheerleading, bad science, silver bullets, and New Age hoo-ha."
The steps to success are easy, so many authors tell us. "I did it, so you can too." I recently saw one article about the steps to success that broke it down like this: Attitude, Action and Atmosphere.
Famed salesman and success guru Zig Ziglar had his own formula: KNOWLEDGE + ACTION + POSITIVE ATTITUDE = SUCCESS.
"Planning, preparing and expecting to win," was another one of his mantras.
Success superstar Tony Robbins says that if you want to succeed you must "have a strategy, change your story and develop a quality state."
I have read many self-help books, and the advice seems to boil down to the following common sense steps which few could argue with:
1. Get started: Zig Ziglar, said, "You don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great."
2. If you fail to plan, you're planning to fail. So set goals and make plans.
3. Believe in yourself. "Beliefs" says motivational guru Tony Robbins, "have the power to create and the power to destroy."
4. Visualize success. Think Big. See yourself crossing the finish line, getting that raise, losing that weight, becoming stronger, achieving wealth.
5. Take action. Baby steps and bold strides towards your goals.
6. Positive messaging. No room for doubt.
Who could argue with those steps? They ring true, and they have probably been deeply held convictions of most successful people.
But Are We Deluding Ourselves?
Ellen Langer, whose study on the concept of IOC (Illusion of Control) observed that there is some "element of chance in every skill situation and an element of skill in almost every chance situation." Langer found that most of us go around imagining that we actually have control over the routine as well as the random events which occur around us. This belief and the desire to exert control over our surroundings makes us susceptible to the illusion of control.
Psychologist Sandra Sanger asks, "Why do we, as seemingly rational, well-intentioned people go around deluding ourselves on a regular basis?" Sanger has observed that "Time and again research has demonstrated that intelligence, knowledge, and reason notwithstanding, people often believe that they have control over events in their lives, even when such control is impossible."
Sanger's research has discovered that people wish they could control events and people around them. They detest the feeling of not being in control, and they have a profound fear of being controlled by others.
Langer wanted to better understand what goes on in a gambler's mind. She discussed the concept of "skill cues," defined by Lisa Coleman as a "behavior they can physically alter to attempt to win at a game that is totally up to chance. If this works, the gambler may form an unrealistic belief that they are 'skilled' at the game, and will continue to gamble into the night."
Here's an interesting example Langer noticed. Believing that skill influences luck, "When rolling dice in craps, it has been shown that people tend to throw harder for high numbers and softer for low numbers."
Few people are willing to acknowledge the role that luck plays in their lives, having you believe instead that they themselves are the cause of their success.
Famed self-help pioneer Andrew Carnegie said: "If you analyze my definition of success you will see that there is no element of luck about it. A man may, and sometimes men do, fall into opportunities through mere chance, or luck; but they have a queer way of falling out of these opportunities the first time opposition overtakes them."
And rugged individualist Ayn Rand said: "I submit that any man who ascribes success to 'luck' has never achieved anything and has no inkling of the relentless effort which achievement requires. I submit that a successful man who ascribes his own (legitimate) success in part to luck is either a modest, concrete-bound represser who does not understand the issue—or an appeaser who tries to mollify the resentment of envious mediocrities."
But it May Simply be 'doublethink.'
"Doublethink," according to George Orwell, is "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. ... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth."
According to Kathryn Schulz in an incredible article in New York Magazine titled "The Self in Self Help," it turns out that all of that surface noise in the self-help movement is deceptive: "Underneath what appears to be umptebajillion ideas about who we are and how we work, the self-help movement has a startling paucity of theories about the self. To be precise: It has one. Let us call it the master theory of self-help. It goes like this: Somewhere below or above or beyond the part of you that is struggling with weight loss or procrastination or whatever your particular problem might be, there is another part of you that is immune to that problem and capable of solving it for the rest of you. In other words, this master theory is fundamentally dualist. It posits, at a minimum, two selves: one that needs a kick in the ass and one that is capable of kicking."
Ellen Langer sees three principles at work: (a) When control is desirable, that is, when success seems likely, people will seek out factors such as competition, choice, etc. (b) When control is undesirable, that is, when failure is both likely and costly, people will avoid these factors.
(c) When there is an intrusion of reality such that the focus of attention is shifted back to the chance elements in the situation and away from the skill characteristics that were predominating, the illusion will dissipate.
Daniel Kahneman (*) formulates success differently than the normal self-help guru. Instead he suggests the following equation: Success = Talent + Luck
Warren Buffett understands this principle. He said, "I’m not sure whether it’s intellectual or emotional, but when I was born in 1930 the odds were 40-to-1 against me being born in the United States as opposed to someplace else. I was a male. The odds were even money on that. So now I’m down to 80-to-1. You don’t want to bet on 80-to-1 shots normally, but I got lucky. As Bill says, if I’d been born a few thousand years ago I’d have been some animal’s lunch, because I’d have gone around saying, ‘Well, I allocate capital,’ you know, and the animal would say, ‘They’re the kind that tastes the best.’ I can’t run fast. And I can’t climb trees. And so here I am, by pure, pure luck, born at the right time, the right gender as it turned out, compared to my sisters who were just as smart or smarter than I am, in the right place and in a system where allocating capital pays off like crazy."
Robert H. Frank, Economics Professor at Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University tends to agree with Buffett: "Of course, we should keep celebrating the talented, hard-working people who have succeeded in their businesses or careers. But the research provides an important moral lesson: that these people might also do well to remain more humbly mindful of their own good fortune."
"Research suggests that athletes who win bronze medals are actually happier than those who win silver medals," says Richard Wiseman in The Luck Factor. "And the reason for this has to do with the way in which the athletes think about their performance. The silver medal lists focus on the notion that if they had performed slightly better, then they would have perhaps won a gold medal. In contrast, the bronze medalists focus on the thought that if they had performed slightly worse, then they wouldn’t have won anything at all. Psychologists refer to our ability to imagine what might have happened, rather than what actually did happen, as 'counter-factual.'"
So, it boils down to this. Work hard, keep growing and learning and stretching, prepare as best you can, keep a positive attitude, reframe negative situations, and take advantage of luck.
"Sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality."