All Previous Truths Apply

“All Previous Truths Apply” – James Laville

Mestre Curisco often reminds us “there are different levels within each level.” That is, within each rank there is a spectrum of abilities, and we should always be pushing ourselves to improve our position regardless of where we stand. One implication of this is that getting a new rank does not automatically mean you are on par with the rest of your peers who hold said rank, and you will have to work to keep improving your position on the spectrum in your new rank. I think this is fairly self-evident, so the focus of this post is precluding your rank from being a ceiling that limits your growth and the applications this concept can have in real life.

Mestre Curisco has told me that when you meet a capoeirista, look him in the eye, not at his belt. The way he carries himself will give you a better indication of his level than the color around his waist, even more so because various groups have differing systems for their belts. When I was at a batizado in Portland we were split into beginners and advanced students for two concurrent workshops. I went into a separate room with the beginners and we waited for the workshop to start. We found ourselves migrating to a circle and everyone became quiet. After a few moments, a man standing across the roda from me gestured towards me “whenever you’re ready.” I had to turn and look over my shoulder to see if there was someone behind me. “Me?” I questioned. “You’re a mestre, right?”

He was from a system where a mestre takes on a white cord, indicating both that he has come full circle and that there is always more to learn. Even as a master, he is only beginning his journey. Not knowing me, the student assumed I was the mestre who would be teaching the workshop. Clearly, he was looking at the belt, not the artist. Aside from the occasional humorous misunderstanding, when I travel for capoeira people who have never seen me play have an idea of what to expect from me. No one is going to immediately start playing me as if I was instructor because they can see that I have a white cord. My cord gives fellow students a basic grasp of what to expect until they have seen me enough to develop their own opinion.

An effective instructor will be aware of the abilities of his students based on their demonstrated abilities and adjust his teaching based on their needs. For example, I have a student who is moving to my area, and though I am unfamiliar with his skills I have a general idea of what I expect to teach him based on his rank and our mudansha syllabus. Once he arrives, his skill within his level will dictate the pace at which he progresses, not the color of his belt.

Just as an adept instructor would not limit a student’s growth based on his rank, I choose not to limit myself by my own rank. Even though students with a white cord are only expected to learn the atabaque and pandeiro, I am learning to play the berimbau. I still try to travel to Batizados even though that is not expected out of students at my level. I do my best to push myself and expand my horizons in an attempt to improve my position within my level. As proud as I am of where I’m at within my level, while traveling to Washington D.C. for a batizado this weekend I met others at my rank who are far beyond me, reminding me that there is always going to be someone out there who is further along, even within your own level of experience.

This experience and the lessons learned from Mestre Curisco were remarkably relevant during an encounter I had over the summer with a Microsoft intern. We were exchanging words over a couple of drinks at an outdoor concert Microsoft had set up, and he informed me that he had been thinking of asking his manager if he could start as a level 60 instead of a level 59 (the typical entry point for an engineer). He felt he deserved as much after interning twice with the same team and operating at a higher level than your typical new hire. The first thing I asked him was if he felt he had a good manager. I assumed as much since he was accepting the job offer, so once he confirmed my insight, I informed him of my martial arts experience and the concept of having different levels within each level.

I advised him to have a conversation with his manager to determine what would be in his best interest, but I reassured him that in the end he should worry about his level. As long as he has a manager who recognizes his abilities, he will be enabled to go out and take on as much responsibility as his skill level warrants. His position was analogous to martial arts. Even if he came into Microsoft at a lower level that what he felt he deserved, it would not impact his career. He can still learn just a fast, innovate just as much, work just as hard, and grow at the same pace as he would if he started at a higher level. At the end of the day, his level at work is just a label and does not define his ability to work and grow. In this way, his level at work is no different than a rank in martial arts. It was gratifying to see the change in his perception. I could see in his eyes that he was no longer worried about his level and was now even more excited to start his path at Microsoft.

Little did I know, I was about to endure a frustrating experience that would require me to heed my own advice. I was recently passed over for a promotion, not for my lack of merit, but rather because of budget constraints. Even though I am already taking on responsibilities in the next tier, I am not moving up. I’m not sure that I would have had the clarity of vision to react properly had I not just given someone else the same advice.

At the end of the day, not getting this promotion isn’t going to affect the work I produce. It’s not going to change how fast I learn. It has no impact on my intelligence or work ethic, and it will not change the fact that I am ready to take on more responsibilities and grow in my role because titles don’t define who we are. I don’t let my white cord stunt my growth in capoeira, and I refuse to allow my current level to slow me down at work. This is another grand example of how martial arts can permeate our lives. I continually find occasions where a truth I learn through martial arts applies to my life. “All previous truths apply.” Martial arts are both life changing and life defining. The life I have today would not be the same without this masterful calling, and I will forever be grateful for those who have led me down my path.

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