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It's Not About the Belt...

Bruce Lee is looked upon as one of the greatest martial artists who ever lived, and for good reason. However, it’s interesting to note that Lee never had a belt or possessed a ranking in any martial art style or system. He never had a certificate proclaiming him to be a master or grandmaster in any martial art. Yet people from all walks of life including world champion martial artists, top Hollywood celebrities and executives, and elite professional athletes all sought him out in order to study with him. The reason for this is because they knew that not only did Bruce Lee have the knowledge, but that he could successfully apply the knowledge he had. At the time there were some high-ranked martial artists from other systems who wanted to train under Lee but were embarrassed to train under someone who didn’t hold rank in any system. This didn’t bother Lee in the least, because when it came to martial arts, he was “merit-based” as opposed to “credential-based.” In other words, Bruce Lee was interested in what people could do, not what belt they wore or what their title might be.

This is the prime reason that, unlike many martial arts, colored belts or sashes don’t exist in Lee’s martial art of Jeet Kune Do. It’s not that Lee despised belts (he had many friends who held high-level belt-rankings in various arts), but that he believed that the motivation for meaningful improvement lies within the will of each individual as opposed to pursuing colored belts, which he considered merely “external accessories which were non-essential in martial art training. Lee recognized that in many cases, the “chasing after” the next belt or next sash (and in the same way the next certificate as is the case with regard to many JKD schools nowadays) often becomes more important to a martial art student than the self-knowledge and personal growth they acquire through training.

We're living in a society that in many ways has become very “credential-conscious.” We now have certificates and credentials in everything under the sun from personal development to dog-walking, to combat ropes. Nowadays a person can often become a “certified” Yoga instructor, life coach, personal trainer, or whatever else you care to name by simply attending a weekend workshop or completing an online course.

Some people are very credential-oriented. They collect them. For example, there are some martial artists (including people I have known over the years) who, as soon as they earn a black belt in one style or system, leave it and go to study another art. And when they earn a black belt or whatever in that, they move on again. The same goes for people in other fields. For them, as the saying goes, “the more the merrier.”

In his book “Finding the Next Steve Jobs,” author Nolan Bushnell, technology pioneer, entrepreneur, and engineer, and the man who co-founded Atari Corporation, recommends that employers should not place too much emphasis on credentials, titles, etc., and stop using a college degree as the be-all-and-end-all qualification for employment. Bushnell believes that by requiring applicants to have a degree companies are missing out on a lot of talented, innovative individuals. He points out that many of the best creative people in the world did not graduate from college. Steve Jobs dropped out, as did Steve Wozniak, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Dream Works Studios David Geffen, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, haute couture designer Coco Chanel, cartoon producers William Hanna, and countless others. He goes on to say that many businesses today are discovering that while college degrees may be useful in some things, by themselves they do not guarantee the individual can successfully use and apply their classroom knowledge and actually do the work required in the actual job.

In martial arts, some people want the knowledge and skill but don’t give a damn about belts or any form of ranking system. And some people may possess the knowledge and skills of a so-called black belt but don’t want to waste their time on the busywork or jump through all the hoops created by a martial art school in order to get a belt. In the same way, many creative people have a difficult time putting up with the often silly busy work that can be involved in obtaining a degree.

Understand that I am not putting down martial art belts. Early in my martial art career I trained in arts in which I earned belts myself. I would never denigrate anyone who has put the time and effort into truly earning a black belt (I say ‘truly’ because there are many ‘McDojos’ and ‘McKwoons’ out there; fast-food martial arts schools where a person can get a belt simply for being there).

Nor am I recommending that people avoid going to college or that we should ignore degrees. I’m simply saying that I agree with both Nolan Bushnell and Bruce Lee in that we should not allow ourselves to get too hung up on credentials. While they may be important for some things and in some aspects, they are not of paramount importance or the be-all-and-end-all. We should make it a point to not use the color of a person’s martial art belt or their educational credentials as the only criteria of their knowledge and abilities.

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how many degrees a person has, it’s what they can do with the knowledge they possess. In other words, it’s not about the belt -- it’s not about a certificate or a degree. It’s about you, what you can actually do with your knowledge and skills. That’s what matters most. In the words of Bruce Lee --“It’s not about how much you know but rather how much you can apply alively that truly counts.”

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