The Mountain and the Bliss of Ignorance


A new student at Academie Duello recently said to me “There’s so much to learn, it’s like being under a mountain!” It can feel that way. It truly is a mountain of knowledge, practice and craft one must climb to become a master of these arts!

The Dunning-Kruger effect, which has gained such popularity of late, describes the common situation where a relative beginner in a subject believes they have a much higher level of competence than they actually do. One of the reasons this comes about is that when someone is relatively new to a field they have no idea how expansive the knowledge of that field is (so don’t have a relative sense of their small progress) and lack the experience and information to accurately self-assess.

Likewise, impostor syndrome, where someone fears that they lack the appropriate knowledge or ability to do a particular job or hold a particular station, tends to disproportionately affect those with a much higher degree of competence. As your knowledge of a field grows so too does your knowledge of what there is to know and what is possible, so thus your relative space in that field can seem to shrink and your confidence along with it.

Some, like my friend at the top of this post, are blessed and cursed with the insight to see the full mountain while realizing they are legitimately at the bottom of it.

Maybe the Dunning-Kruger Effect Works to One’s Advantage

Thinking that you’re hot stuff can actually be very motivating. Competence is a nice feeling and once you start to get your feet under you in an activity it can often become more fun to play—and some experience this feeling even before having any real competence. Those who can take some pride in what they know, though sometimes completely insufferable to others, can enjoy a refuge from the constant realization that there is tons more to learn (and always will be).

So how to deal with the weight of that mountain when you realize it?

One Marker at a Time

There is some wisdom in using some willful blindness or at least selective attention. Mountains are climbed one mile marker at a time. Don’t look to the top right now. Figure out what your next (achievable) mile marker is and put your attention there. Whether that’s following a ranking structure that your school provides, working with someone more expert than you to set useful goals, or doing some research to set your own.

Then, each time you achieve a milestone allow yourself some pride and celebration. Allow some room to look back at those who are lower on the mountain, not to gloat but to recognize that there’s a distance you’ve come. Even when you’re a relatively new beginner in a martial art, there’s always someone who is just starting out and doesn’t really know which end of the sword to hold.

Forward momentum is maintained through having intention in where you put your attention. Look up the mountain for inspiration, but it’s usually best to look only far enough ahead that you can still see the path (when I was a beginner I looked to be inspired by intermediates). Then keep your eyes on the path ahead of you, and remember that it is your path and no one else’s. That is good enough. Your path is the only path that you can follow.

Good training everyone,
Devon

devonboorman Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
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