02 March 2014

I’ve also been taking a Karate class for the last two years, and recently it helped me reflect not just on my phisical strength and flexibility but also on my mental strengths and weaknesses.

Practice usually consists of three parts. First part “kihon” covers basic movemets such as stances, blocks, punches and kicks. They might look simple to do from the side but require mastering of a lot of details. The second part “kata” - forms, consists of learning combinations of these basic elements. For example turnining into front stance with low block, followed by reverse punch followed by twenty other stances amd movements. Kata usually needs to performed really precisely - everybody performs exactly the same motions. The last part “kumite” - free sparring, has no rules about which specific techniques to use, in what stance, and at what speed. Sparring is real-time. While doing the forms follows a certain, rather slow pace, in sparring there could be several blocks, punches and kicks in a single second. In sparring one wins over their opponent by being smarter and faster and having a better control over technique. Sparring requires really quick decision of what techniques to execute. If you don’t move away or block the opponent’s attack you get hit, lose a point and it hurts. If you don’t adjust the distance to the opponent the technique you through would be ineffective.

My karate sensei (instructor) was giving me criticism about my sparring “Dimitar, use your head when sparring. Outsmart your opponents. You went to MIT, you should be able to figure out how to react to the opponent.” To which I replied “Well, I’m good at slow deep thinking but not that good about thinking in the moment. If I try to think too much I am really slow and get hit.” “Well, this is something I can do pretty well - make decisions in the moment,” replied Sensei. So I learned that Sensei is smarter than me on making decisions in the moment. Not just with respect to sparring, but in general - any decision that has tobe made in a very short time frame.

Assuming that I am better than sensei on thinking mathematically, and he is better at thinking quickly, then who is smarter? Well this is not a clear comparison. We each are better at some type of thinking than the other. And it doesn’t help to ask the question “Who is smarter?” because it isn’t well defined question. Being smart isn’t an objectively measurable thing like being tall. The only way we perceive smartness is by the actions that result from it. Whether those actions are solving a math problem, defeating an opponent in hand combat, or deciding to support a certain cause vs other.

I grew up being praised for my smarts - I had pretty good performance on math questions, so people labeled me “smart” about everything else in life. And that’s been a bit weird for me because I actually quite suck at many mental things. The fact that I am supposedly good at math and coding doesn’t mean I’m good in everything. There are many different types of smarts, and I’m lucky to appear as if I have one of them - analytical thinking. But don’t have the ability to make quick strategic decisions. My brain often can’t keep up with demands for reacting in real-time. I don’t understand music. I’m not that great at communicating. I’m not good at creating art. I like games like chess or card games, which are turn-based and don’t involve real-time decison making or being faster than the opponent. I’m pretty bad at real-time strategy games.

It felt relief when I realized about how many mental things I suck. I don’t have to feel self-confident about things I’m not actually good at, and instead be realistic. There is way less pressure. I can be more honest to myself - “Hey, you aren’t good at this thing, it would take more effort than expected.” I can actually start working on my weaknesses and suck less.

For example I’m taking an Improv class right now. Improv means script-free theater based on improvisation. While there are no specific lines to say, or predefined direction in which the story will go, there are a few guidelines that help drive the story forward. In the improv class we learn how to apply those rules. The rules are very general and not specific to theater arts, one can even say they could be applied in any area of life. Some of the guidelines are to accept every offer, to make your partner look good, to be present in the moment, to deliver with confidence and to be obvious. These all help develop my real-time skills.

I feel that both improv and karate are helping me be more present in the moment, more focused and more engaged with other people. Progress is slow and gradual, but that’s OK for me.

One short post per week, discussing actionable mental models. Join a community of readers, who receive these posts over email.