A Story of Mastery

Martial arts folklore is filled with stories on the origins of the Black Belt  and because many martial traditions were passed down orally, written evidence  is sketchy at best. There is little doubt, however,  that colored belt ranking systems became popular with the rise of martial arts in the United States and continues to this day. Further, belts and clothing have evolved differently  over time, within the geographies of Asia. A sash differs from a belt in both form and function and is worn predominantly in Chinese martial arts. So it’s safe to say that the iconic “Black Belt” probably has its origins in Japan, with the formalization of sport and academic martial arts programs, during or after the Meiji Restoration. Regardless of its origin, the Black Belt has become a worldwide symbol for excellence and a metaphor for achieving a state of spontaneous right action, aka Mastery. The wearer literally sees the belt transform over time with their experience. As one moves  from  mental and physical states of unconscious incompetence to that of; the conscious incompetent , then the conscious competent, the belt  physically changes in a congruent fashion. Both belt and wearer come full circle as the student achieves unconscious competence and a “beginners mind”, while the belt physically returns to the purity of a white belt. The interesting thing is that this metaphor can be applied to any process of skills development and is not historically restricted  to Eastern culture. The Western process of going from “apprentice” to “journeyman” to the master craftsman is very similar,  just no tattered black belt to carry around.

colored belts








The popular Black Belt Story goes like this…..On the first day of training, the eager young student is given a uniform and the white belt from the Master Instructor. The uniform must always be kept clean, folded a certain way and there is even a specific method to pack it up for transportation. The white belt, however, must never be washed. First, in the modern era of dryers it will shrink up like a bow tie and will never fit again. More importantly, that belt becomes the visible symbol of the young student’s hard work and accomplishments which cannot, which must not be washed away. With training, sacrifice and the development of personal discipline the eager student develops a solid understanding of the fundamentals and the belt shows visible signs of this experience. It begins to yellow, then turn shades of green or brown depending on the geography of the training. It will even pick up occasional blood stains from intense moments and take on the shades of red. After years of study and thousands of repetitions of basics, the belt begins to gray….and eventually turn black. After decades the belt begins to wear and fray along the edges. The stitching comes loose and the white interior becomes exposed. The combination of the white and the black material, the old frayed edges and the fresh, newly exposed interior of the belt become the symbol of the now experienced and mature student. A student of both mastery of the fundamentals and newly discovered wisdom and maturity that always existed within and are now surfacing. It also represents the cyclical and circular path of mastery.

Contrary to how it is viewed in the Western World, earning a black belt represents only a first step towards mastery.

After a lifetime of the pursuit of excellence, the outer surface of the belt has all but worn away. Sometimes it’s almost completely shredded with very little sign of the original texture….and now it’s white again. The belt is no longer the same piece of fabric it once was, it has at the same time transformed to something new yet returned to its humble beginnings as a white belt. It has become the symbol of the lifelong experiences of the now Master. It is interesting to note how today’s culture has begun to identify the Black Belt as having already mastered a set of skills. Even the martial arts world has become confused on what it signifies; some schools insisting that earning a black means the absolute success in the ability to defend one’s self. Still others have rejected the Black Belt all together as some archaic, artsy tradition with no practical value. The commercialization of martial arts schools hasn’t helped the cause either. Some cultivate the atmosphere that every student is a champion, all the time and brings home a trophy, which is of course unrealistic. The wisdom gained from the experience of adversity and failure is almost a taboo subject. It has almost rendered the black belt story inert and the belt itself simply a piece of ceremonial jewelry. This loss of meaning has  moved people away from the tradition of self-mastery and the life learning cycle. Further,  the business world has adopted the Black Belt as a title to put on a business card after nine months of training on post WWII process improvement. It’s frustrating to hear  the terms Black Belt and Master Black Belt associated with Six Sigma and Lean Logic training. Granted there is great value in the principles that evolved from the teachings of Dr. Edwards Deming. It would not be appropriate however , at least to the academic community, to award a Master’s Degree, a Doctorate or a PhD in such short-lived training. Neither would  it make sense in the military to promote a soldier to Captain right after they have completed basic training. It just isn’t done. In Japan and Okinawa, it was generally accepted that there was an average time frame of 3-5 years to “apprenticeship” or to the promotion to 1st Degree of Black Belt. This new Black Belt would be considered equivalent to the “rookie” in a police department after completing academy training. What would follow are the nine levels of development to 10th Degree Black Belt, with each level requiring a minimum of years of study, associated with that rank(i.e. two years for 2nd, three years for 3rd, etc.








As mentioned, the experience timeline is similar to the medieval tradition of the apprentice, to journeyman, to craftsman, to master craftsman or in modern academics of Bachelors, to Masters, to PhD. The uniqueness being that the development of the Black Belt combines both the physical development of the craftsman, the mental development of the academic with the character development found in both disciplines.  It’s the development of the practical with the theoretical. Ultimately, one can ask how or why modern culture has departed from these traditions but it  may be more significant to ask, where to now? Where will the focus be throughout this decade? The fact remains, students graduate from college with a Bachelor’s degree and a sense of entitlement. Often they have the perspective that their education has completed instead of just begun. Master craftsmanship has been more about technology  and gadgets; less about skills, artistry and experience. Dedicated, long-term study has been replaced by instant information, instant gratification and technology addiction. Is it then possible to weave the Black Belt Story into this global economic, information age?

The concept of the “perfect circle” or Enso in Japanese

There is no going back to yesterday, but some principles remain time-tested and timeless. They can be adopted to any culture, any social, educational or business model at any time period. The true tradition of Black Belt Mastery is more relevant and necessary today than ever.

4 must-have job skills in 2013 – Ruth Mantell’s On the Job – MarketWatch

This article from Ruth Mantell at MarketWatch is very useful because it illustrates several points about the circular model of sustained excellence;

  • “Job skills in 2013” – Your development, both professional and personal should be a cyclical process that is constantly revisited. Mind sets and tool sets that were relevant last year, may not be so next year.
  • Communication – Falls into the cycle of mental development. Like the sun, at the center of the solar system, creating the energy and gravity that keeps the planets going; Your mind has the same impact on your body and your skills which in turn feed or starve your team and your organization. It all begins in the mirror…
  • Productivity Improvement – Falls in the cycle of skills development. It’s not just mastering current skills or new skills in your comfort zone either. Exploring new skills outside of your comfort zone can have a transformational effect on your productivity. Do you try new things?
  • Personal Branding – Can be a new skill set but also falls in the cycle of “team excellence”. How well can you get people to rally around you? Your story? It can open new doors as indicated in the article or raise you to a new level of leadership.
  • Flexibility – Begins in the cycle of mental development but it’s one of those intangibles that’s interwoven throughout. Like gravity, you know that something exists and it holds the solar system together, but it’s difficult to put your finger on it.

Check out Ruth’s article for more:

4 must-have job skills in 2013 – Ruth Mantell’s On the Job – MarketWatch.

“Most people are only one new skill away from doubling their income.”

-Brian Tracy

Theodore Roosevelt on mastery

“Unless a man is master of his soul, all other kinds of mastery amount to little.”

Theodore Roosevelt CEO, by Alan Axelrod

In other words, the first circle of mastery involves what is inside the person in the mirror. There are many others who have sustained excellence throughout their lives and they all suggest the same thing. There is a specific formula, it begins in a specific place and follows a specific path.

5 Leadership Tips for 2012 – Forbes

Mike Myatt, in his article post for Forbes below shares some excellent thoughts on leadership for the new year. They speak well to the first three of the four cycles of Black Belt Business;

  1. Self-Mastery
  2. Skills Mastery
  3. Team Mastery

It cannot be stressed enough how powerful following these cycles, in the exact order, are for creating sustained excellence in your professional and personal pursuits. From people like Steve Jobs to John Wooden to Theodore Roosevelt, the formula appears over and over. The best part is that it does not matter who you are or where you are in your profession or life. You don’t have to aspire to become a “Teddy Roosevelt” to benefit from doing good things for yourself and your career. Just move FORWARD

Mike’s bonus tip is my favorite, probably because I’m right there with him having read close to 75 books in 2011 and have the same goal to read 100 books in 2012. It has been said that Theodore Roosevelt read one entire book per day throughout most of his life before his presidency. That’s serious reading!!

5 Leadership Tips for 2012 – Forbes.