Our Thinking

To Teach is to Learn

Posted by Brent Whitfield on Jan 27, 2014 12:28:33 PM

I come from a long line of un-athletic and immensely uncoordinated people. I'm not sure if it is despite this or because of this that Karate-do fits so well with me. I began practicing Karate-do when I was a long-haired incredibly awkward 13-year-old. I was built more for math and logic than sports. What I had going for me were fierce determination and role models from TV: Ninja Turtles, Jean Claude Van Damme, and countless cheeky 80's ninja movies.

My first karate instructors, Sempei Grant and Sensei Woytiuk, were also (in my 13-year-old eyes) not what I imagined Karate experts to be – with stalky builds and lacking the flexibility and spritely movements I witnessed on TV. Very early on though, I saw something in them that I had never experienced before – real teachers.

Lesson 1: Teach me how to feel. That first year really got my body (my subject matter) in tune with my mind. We needed to understand the difference between success (it works and I’m happy with it), tired (I do this all the time and every time I think there must be a better way) and pain (this isn’t working – I need a better way). Typically you start with pain such as sprained fingers (I always miss my deadline); if there is pain, you are doing something wrong – so change. Next we often try to power through pain or control pain with force – I’d clench my fist until it went numb (I’ll work through the night!) – becoming tired throws us into danger and is unsustainable. Eventually we get our body to work in harmony – if only for a moment – and you have that connection – powerful and painless (I did it; I got it done on time!). This may happen once, then elude you for numerous re-attempts.

In this lesson, we often see memory improve, but there is rarely recognition of error or areas which need improvement. We see this all the time in consulting. Companies have processes and routines and can sometimes even come up with workarounds for certain situations, but it is very difficult to admit error. We experience this with comments of pain with equal unwillingness to change – often because “it’s not my problem.”

Lesson 2: Understanding why. By the end of the first year (discovery), you know the basic movements and will spend the rest of your life (elaboration) trying to figure out why some techniques work while others don’t. We can practice in isolation, but inevitably our internal inability to see and admit our own mistakes will prevent us from true understanding.

By the end of my second year of practice, I was asked to lead warm-ups and some lessons. In my opinion, this was not because I was good or knowledgeable, but it was actually a huge part of the lesson. Suddenly my 14-year-old awkward self was asked to lead a lesson to children, teens, adults, teachers, police officers – you name it, they are there.

At first I attempted to teach what I knew (step 1, step 2, step 3), but that quickly becomes stale and empty. The emptiness of a lesson shows with the emptiness of a student’s expression. A few things happen when teaching. First – you get to take the focus off yourself for a bit and observe others. You start to see their awkwardness, their “tells,” their folly. You realize that every mistake they are making is one that you have made or are still making. Second – you attempt to help them make corrections, but continually are frustrated with trying to get them to understand what you mean (step 2, THEN step 3!). Third – you begin to look at yourself – recreating their mistakes, then breaking it down to understand why the mistake is happening, and eventually understanding the minute adjustments required to make it right. Fourth – you realize this lesson was all for you. Although your technique may still not be perfect, you now know why; loose hands are susceptible to injury, but too much tension makes you slow and provides numerous giveaways to an opponent when moving in to strike. The key is control – stay relaxed, move quickly, and only at the moment of impact, focus all your energy through the target, release tension and prepare for the next movement immediately.

As a professional consultant, I use these techniques every day. Every situation requires time for discovery; this is a time for observation and understanding – what is working, what is tiring, where is the pain? Elaboration is a process of meticulously tearing down the situation to understand what works, what doesn’t, why it doesn’t, and how to make improvements. Just as Karate-do is an art – so is asking the right questions. Just as striving for an understanding of your body is important for self-preservation – so is striving for an understanding of every situation we are in.


Topics: Business Analysis, Leadership, Management Consulting

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