Friday, July 18, 2008

Balancing Focus with Diversity with Humility

There's a great heuristic in nutrition that says to know if we're eating right, get lots of colour on the plate. If it's all monotone shades of white to yellow, then we know there's something - possibly a lot - missing. If it's vibrant in colour and texture, happy days, we're likely hitting all the bases.

In nature, we observe the same thing: we talk about rich ecosystems vs monocultures. Where diversity exists in the system, the ecosystem thrives. Monocultures on the other hand, are far more vulnerable, less able to adapt and thrive in the face of adversity.

In fitness we also apply a kind of diversity towards progress, whether this is swapping around a variety of compound exercises throughout the week, or periodizing the intensity of the day's efforts, variety is important to stave off plateaus or injuries from overuse, etc.

To go back to the nutrition analogy, it seems this same principle of diversity would apply to food for thought: lots of colour on plate means a healthy, nutritious, well balanced diet. That if our intellectual diet is monotonous, singular, lacking diversity, then we are ill nourished. As with monocultures, we are less adaptable; more vulnerable.

And yet while many folks know about nutritional diversity or diversity in their fitness programs, intellecutal diversity seems a foreign concept. I've been struck of late by the number of people who have read either just one book on a topic, or just one author on a subject and speak ex cathedra, as if because of this one book, one author, they now know the field and can proffer opinion. They will defend their corner vigorously, adamantly on the basis of this monoculture of information.

This phenomenon, it seems, is the opposite side of the coin of what sifu mark cheng recently described about RKC's who after the certification, instead of focusing on the basics themselves, and teaching them in strict form, become diversified too quickly, try to bring in too many moves. The consequence that recently manifested itself at an RKCII cert, apparently being that many instructors were not competent to perform the core curriculum.

In this case, we are seeking to master a skill in order to teach it, and so focus and practice practice practice are critical. Rannoch and i have disccused this too: the movement from the repetition of the skill so many times that it's into the bone where its expression becomes art. Will Williams performance of the kettlebell front squat, i've written about, is just so.

In the Tao is the Ten Thousand Things
How resolve on the one hand diversity is critical for health and well being and on the other a singular focus is critical for mastery?

It seems, again to go back to Mark's post, that humility is critical in each case. If we are humble before a topic, we will know that we are pretty ignorant, and need more than one book, one lecture, one web page, to come to grips with area of interest. IF we have read just one thing on a topic, we acknolwedge the source: according to x, this is what's happening, rather than stating "this is what's happening" Why? i teach my students this as basic scholarship: unless you are a recognized expert in a domain, your opinion is just that; an opinion. Why should your readers trust your opinion?

At least if all you have is one source, and you provide your readers that source, they can go check it out for themselves, where they might get more information. what will they get if they come back to you, assuming this is your knowledge, rather than the re-presentation of someone else's? But if all you have is one source, and you engage with someone else who may well have more expertise than you, know more (having read broader and deeper; practiced further and longer), then at least listen, and maybe learn something.

As Mark states in his post:
To use a martial arts analogy, it's as if a relatively new blue belt suddenly decides that his bollocks are too big for his belt and he decides to go & pick a fight with a bunch of brown and black belts. The smackdown is comin'.

It's not just that the brown/black belts know more than the blue belt; they have greater mastery of the same things the blue belt knows. The best have worked with many teachers; have studied broadly. Not all at once, but over time.

This still feels like i'm talking about a contradiction:
on the one hand, focus on mastery which means practice on a limited set of things rather than a vast array; on the other hand i'm talking about diversity of knowledge. What keeps coming to my mind is to know when to shut up.

Progress is most often linear.

In school, we learn the basics of math, then of geometry before getting to calculus. The basics are needed before getting to more advanced forms of expression. Once those basics are mastered, conversations can begin with other mathematicians about how problems may be solved. Techniques are shared, new techniques are built upon these; innovations happen. A mathematician interested in one particular problem will read a wide range of papers related to just that one topic. There is the diversity around the singularity, and there is growing expertise.

As another example, in computation, artificial intelligence work is informed by biological systems research, complexity theory and more recently gaming theory from economics. One problem to solve, influenced by multiple perspectives/disciplines.

Likewise, a martial artist who has a devastating punch will likely have studied many techniques from many masters on the punch to distill it into one perfect practice.

In these domains, if we do not have that rich expertise, whether practical or intellectual or both, we would not presume to tell someone else who knew as little or less than ourselves either how to do something or, with confidence, how something works. Our experience is thin; our practice shallow.

What's my point?
I guess that we might do well to own our own limitations better and speak/walk with more humility about our own knowledge/accomplishments. This is perahps why many of us put our credentials on our blogs/sig files, so that people can judge our statements and practice on their merits. Not that these credentials are a guarantee of excellence - hence why most have ongoing renewal/rectification processes. And where certifications do not exist, all the more reason to acknowledge sources and walk with humility, till our work speaks for us.

Clarence Bass is an excellent example of someone who is not a certified expert in health or nutrition: he is an intelligent person who has made his reputation by carefully presenting research in plain language, and checking out findings in one source against those of another; of talking with multiple experts, and from this putting together exceptionally valuable syntheses of this material. It's based on the demonstration of his analyses and syntheses of others' work, and the demonstration of his own practice and insights that has made him a respected expert in the community. He's my hero & inspiration in this regard.

This post all started as a rant about people who seem to have read one book or article and then speak on a topic as if they were experts.

My main point was that knowledge is not so thinnly founded.

Science and Wisdom both demand repetition across diversity before asserting a General Case or Accepted Practice. Do multiple respected sources agree with this position? Where is the disagreement? What are the conditions in which this is true vs where it is not?

My secondary point is that we need to feel unsatisfied with our intellectual fodder if we're interested in a topic and stop at one source - whether that's one book, one author, one site, one monoculture. We need to challenge ourselves to be open to multiple sources on our one topic.

The gift of a good teacher of course is to help chart the progress from the one to the other. The gift of a good student is rich curiosity, with respectful, humble, delightful engagement.


Rannoch Donald said...

Ooooo! I like where this is all going. We must embrace ten thousand things!

So many points to address I wont bore you here!

The MA analogy is a good one. Even more apropos when you consider masters at the height of there powers resort to the simplest most effective repertoire. That level of confidence in (and of) ability is not taught it is earned & ingrained.

I certainly have no issue with anyone "cross training" different skills and disciplines. As a work in progress we all have the opportunity to diversify. That said, the fundamental principles of our respective arts must inform those choices or we becomes average at lots of things. Experts at none.

I understand Mark's frustration. It's like someone turning up at one of my workshops and contradicting me. If we choose to train together fine, lets have that dialogue. If you are here to learn however...STFU.

The capability we cultivate should allow us to experiment with out abilities.

The simple process of confronting and completing one challenge is a tremendous catalyst to go slay a monster!

Unknown said...

Another fine, well considered and intelligent post.

Balance in all things:

A balance in (true) humility vs. pride.

A balance in openness vs. the willingness to take a firm stance.

The willingness to change vs. the willingness to hold fast.

Train too much vs. not enough.


I feel that we place too little emphasis on humility and respect and too much on pride. Balance.

The beauty of the paradox is that we need those who do too much of both. Were all in balance we would be back to said monoculture.

Aye and simply knowing when to STFU is a fine start.

Having said that I shall do so.

dr. m.c. said...

Rannoch, yes, it seems a nice conversation is opening up here. A clearer sense for me of Tao than i've had i think.

totally relate to your workshop scenario.

Satyre, thank you for your observations on balance - nice set of pairs for consideration.

i'm not sure if everyone were in balance - which is active and chaotic, we'd be in a monoculture, though. real and exciting balance, the awareness of incompletion is the fight away from entropy.

or perhaps you're right, and perfect balance is ultimate entropy.


and both, wrt STFU?
what's that fish movie where rene zelweger is the voice of one of the fishes and she's so frustrated with her boyfriend fishee that she goes "oooo, sometimes i just wanna" and starts pounding one fin with the other fin?

ever feel like that? ya.

thank you again both for dropping by.
the pleasure of your company is a gift.

have a good weekend.

Ron Ipock said...

instead of counterpoising diversity and focus, would it perhaps be more productive (and less polemic) to consider them two different steps in a progression. I.e., once you've attained a level of mastery through focus, then you've earned the right to diversify and interweave your knowledge into a larger context. The problem is people today jump to step two before fulfilling step one resulting in dilettantism rather than profundity.

Anyway, so when are you going to diversify and learn some girevoy sportivny so that you can lift for God and country at the Kettlebell Worlds meet in Toronto next spring? {appropriately ironic and self-aware smiley}

dr. m.c. said...

rip, sir,

i'm not sure the post is polemical, is it? i do not dispute or refute a position, but rather propose a dichotomy

that said, i agree with the notion of progression, hence the header "progress is linear;" basics before diversity, and before basics, shut up or ask humbly if with energy, keenness and respectful demonstration of one's understanding to date, the question.

i guess the thing that bugged me is when people simply stop or, no, not stop, but don't engage the process: assuming the expertise (or sufficient knowledge to hold forth) has been achieved by the one source; not seeing themselves in a position of gap but of fullness, you see?

you say they jump to step two before doing step one. i agree. i think that was mark's point. i think the problem i'm wrestling with is when there's not trying to get fancy, there's complacency in a paucity of knowledge and a lack of awareness that there could be more to know before asserting knowledge.

I guess you're right that this in itself could be a "jumping to step two" before doing step one - especially if you don't see there is a step one. hmm.

and as to your last point, well, this fall perhaps, even. how about you?

knowledge is power.

thank you for dropping by - nice to read these replies that make me go "hmm" even more. thank you.


Mike T Nelson said...


I actually argue that progress is normally non linear, as are most things in physiology. The BEHAIVORS though are most likely linear and consistent!

Master the basics first and understand the principals. You are only allowed to break the rules once you understand ALL of the implications of doing so!

Rock on!
Mike N

Rannoch Donald said...

Mr Nelson,

Couldn't agree more. I wrote about precisely this back in February...

Learn the rules then break them. That's the ART.

dr. m.c. said...

progress is the movement forward, hence linear. sorry for my less flexible observation that within the line may be tangents, two steps forward, one back, and so on. you're right, mike to be more precise.

Rannoch, let me put the link in for your post to make it easier to get to
no limit as the limit

great points, both of you.

but may i highlight something lest it is possibly being missed?

the building up of knowledge is not just about mastering the basics in order to break the rules, right? break with convention. yes. sometimes.

Mike, is your phd research going to create new knowledge in a known area or create a new paradigm? are you breaking rules in your phd?

Some knowledge progresses by learning more; not breaking rules but learning to dance within the circle excellently well.

Some knowledge does move by thinking brave new thoughts; new paradigms that take us to new places. relativity vs newtonian physics is always an example. an end of slavery and women having the vote are possibly two others.

i'm loath to say these paradigm shifts break with the past; it's more an evolutionary leap. evolutionary. there are roots. there is also risk. there is evidence of "what if"

i guess i wish to celebrate the insights that come from depth and breadth work that takes us at least somewhat higher up and further in; not only those that take us to a new plateau entirely.

what am i missing? i think i'm missing something that could be more clear... i hope this doesn't sound like an argument or disagreement - just riffing and working out (the ideas)

but gentlemen, the hour grows late, and i'm taxing the lines here.

i'm very grateful again to you each engaging this discussion. i'm learning much from your perspectives.

hope you (and any lurking readers) come back to this salon soon.


The Endos & Morenos said...

Hi mc,

Perhaps confusion comes in thinking and talking about different things.

Science vs Practice
Personal vs Instruction*

*Instruction is especially relevant to you as a Professor of Science, and as an RKC

Unknown said...

To put it most simply, do not confuse random acts of variety with tolerance for diversity.

What most people don't know is that when I met Pavel, I was reflexively suspicious of EVERYTHING he said & taught, until I tested it myself, researched some of his assertions, and felt the benefits of what he's been saying.

Now, instead of wasting energy trying to disprove Hard Style or be a contrary little prick, I use that energy to investigate what's being taught at the RKCs. As I've said, the teaching method and the level of understanding is evolving all the time, so instead of feeling sorry for people who want to go express their uniqueness with exotic pet lifts and come back to serve as grossly unqualified assistant RKCs, I choose to call them out and in the words of Mel Gibson (as William Wallace)... "I've come to pick a fight!"

People have a serious job to do as RKCs in the sense that they are responsible for another human being's well-being. If they can't handle the job, they have no business showing up at the office.

And if they want to be "diverse" they still need to be functional.

The Endos & Morenos said...

Hi Doc,

I may be wrong, but I thought mc was talking about knowledge in general.
It sounds like you are talking about what it means to be an RKC,
and specifically what the responsibilities are of an Assistant RKC at an RKC Certification event.
For an RKC to show up to assist at an RKC Certification to be incapable of solid RKC basics
and _not_be totally humbled by it, is hubris indeed.

If a certification is to be meaningful to the certified it cannot be too easy to get.
If the RKC Certification is to be meaningful to someone seeking a kettlebell instructor,
then there needs to be a consistant quality in the instructors and instruction.

Trainers marketing themselves as RKC have an obligation to teach the RKC material or inform the trainees where the instructions differs.
If the differences are many or substatial Pavel and the "RKC Board" have every right, and even the obligation to remove the RKC certifications.
If an RKC cannot abide by the RKC Code of Conduct, Pavel and the "RKC Board" may have similar obligations remove RKC Certifications.
This protects the RKC name and the individuals looking for an RKC Instructor.

Now, what an individual does in their personal practice is different.
A scientist should use the scientific method to prove or disprove theories.
A professor at a university should increase the body of knowledge in their field, as well instruct their students in the field of knowlegde.
A craftsman should hone his craft. If that craft is a sport and kettlebells are a tool to hone that craft then more power to them.
If their craft is RKC then the RKC should "Abide by the RKC Code of Conduct" :

1. Represent my school with honor in my professional and personal life.
2. Treat my ‘victims’ with respect and tough love.
3. Carry my strength with modesty. Remember that my job is to teach, not to impress.
4. Never overstep the boundaries of my expertise and be humble enough to say, “I don’t know.”
5. Never stop improving my instructor skills and enhancing my own strength.
6. Conduct myself as a gentleman or a lady in public places, including the Internet. Exhibit restraint, the hallmark of a professional.

- from

(My apologies to mc if this strays too far from your idea of "Diversity and Humility")

dr. m.c. said...

gentles all, thank you for your thoughtful comments. just wanted you to know that i'm going to pause to reflect on what you've said and try to synthesize some thoughts around it. i'd like to keep the salon going here! vgood discussion. thank you for engaging. come back whenever you wish, make yourself to home, and have a good weekend.


Mike T Nelson said...

Mike, is your phd research going to create new knowledge in a known area or create a new paradigm? are you breaking rules in your phd?
----most newly knowledge in the are of Metabolic Flexibility via non invasive methods. I try to break as many rules as I can, but I need to temper that with actually graduating! ha.


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