The Stages of Ignorance in Mastery
Mastery — the pursuit of something to a high level of proficiency — is a challenging and hard to plot journey. Our capacity to stay on the road and move through its various stages is highly connected to our relationship with ignorance. How comfortable are you with not knowing? How at ease are you with setbacks and long roads? Can you build a friendship with the dark? Because there is a lot more “not knowing” than there is “knowing” on this path.
One of the places that I see this play out in my world is watching my students progress in sparring. Sparring is one of the places where a student might seek to apply and measure their martial abilities. This is the journey of ignorance and mastery as I see it there.
In the beginning, it is hard to know what’s going on. You get hit in the face a lot but don’t know how or why it’s happening. Sparring is more blur than bout.
Joy: It’s exciting, new, and exhilarating.
Frustration: Drills seem incredibly far from combat. You know too little to understand or implement advice.
How to Move to the Next Stage: Repeated exposure. Slow down. Simplify. It takes time for your mind to find the patterns and understand a new environment.
2. Lucid Ignorance
When you say to someone “I saw the opening but I could never get there” or “I knew right when you were going to hit me.”
Joy: Things are beginning to be recognizable—to make a certain sense.
Frustration: You can’t seem to do anything with that knowledge.
How to Move to the Next Stage: Do drilling based on the things you see. Spar with set rules and limitations to allow you to focus on key areas. Experiment. Keep getting hit in the head a lot but keep your eyes open—observe, don’t judge.
3. Forceful Ignorance
You drill hard and seek to implement advice in sparring. You go for the openings and seek to do better at your defense. You’re throwing spaghetti at the ceiling to see what sticks. Not much does.
Joy: Some things do stick. Some things do work. That feels amazing.
Frustration: It becomes clearer and clearer how far there is to go.
How to Move to the Next Stage: Keep on keepin’ on. Work with supportive and knowledgeable partners. Seek out insightful coaches and teachers.
4. Ignorant Success
You begin to hit the mark more than you miss, but often you don’t even know. You’ve gone from seeing it and not being able to do it, to doing it and not being able to see. I often ask my students “What happened in that bout?” and at this stage, win or lose, they typically don’t know.
Joy: An intuition is forming. More feels right and intuitive. The joy of doing (over simply the joy of learning) is easier to find.
Frustration: Getting stuck. Plateauing. Not knowing how to push to the next level.
How to Move to the Next Stage: As things become internalized, you can free up your mind to begin to observe more from the outside. Use cameras, mirrors, good coaches, and intentional mental presence, to up your awareness.
5. Deconstructed Ignorance
Through patient, non-judgmental, observation you can begin to learn the real differences between what works and what doesn’t. Good news: the more you struggled in the earlier stages, the more you failed, and the more things you had to fix, then the more diagnostic tools and their building blocks you will have. You don’t truly understand right unless you’ve explored all the wrong around it. All of this will make it easier for you to deconstruct and hone the next stage of your practice. Sorry “naturals”!
Joy: Big epiphanies. An understanding of the deeper parts of the art is thrilling — especially after a long plateau.
Frustration: You learn even more about what you don’t know. You learn that some things might require you go back to the beginning.
How to Move to the Next Stage: Accept that the journey is not a straight path. Find the pleasure of being a student over and over again.
6. Masterful Ignorance
The capacity to find the joy in renewal and restarting. The place where you both know a lot and recognize that you truly know very little, and that excites you.
Wherever you are on the road, I wish you the frustrations that will help you learn, and the strength to find the joy in that.