It’s also doesn’t give you the right to have people’s unquestioning obedience.
To get a legitimate black belt in BJJ requires more time, effort, and investment than a black belt in almost any other martial art. If someone has spent the blood, sweat and tears required to reach this rank, then likely their skill level in jiu-jitsu is quite high.
But that’s it. That’s where the expertise stops.
A black belt doesn’t really tell you anything about that person’s intelligence, wisdom, or moral character.
Too often we conflate martial skill (e.g. a black belt) with competence in other areas. And it seems that there’s something about the martial arts in particular that attracts this kind of magical thinking. It doesn’t happen in other fields.
Most people don’t say, “Hey, Billy-Bob is a really good car mechanic so obviously I should ask him about investing in the stock market.” Billy-Bob’s area of expertise is automotive, and that doesn’t give him automatic authority in other areas.
Nor do people assume that their family doctor – a person with a black belt in medicine – knows anything about why their car’s engine is knocking or the transmission is dying.
And just because someone is a successful businessman doesn’t mean that you go to him for relationship advice.
Automotive mechanical skills do not equal investment knowledge. Medical knowledge doesn’t mean you know anything about cars. Running a business successfully doesn’t imply having any particular wisdom about successful relationships. These are all separate areas of knowledge.
So why do we automatically respect the black belt’s opinion when it comes to things outside of jiu-jitsu?
Maybe it’s because the martial arts are inherently prone to ‘cultification.’ This is aided and abetted by the strong hierarchical structure, and a certain expectation of obedience to an instructor or a routine in most schools.
Or maybe it’s because BJJ can be such a passionate, all-consuming activity that it’s sometimes hard to keep a sense of perspective.
Or maybe the martial arts tend to attract a disproportionate number of lost souls, people looking for guidance – any guidance – in their lives.
For whatever reason, you often end up with a situation of hero worship in the martial arts (something that world champion Ryan Hall has written about on Tim Ferris’s blog).
Admiration of your teacher isn’t always misplaced. Of course there are BJJ black belts who are profoundly ethical human beings.
But there are other BJJ black belts who are rapists, cult leaders, child molesters, scammers, cheats and manipulators. People I wouldn’t trust to watch my kids for 5 minutes. I’ve met instructors who were financial criminals, compulsive liars, and/or unstable sociopaths (one of whom I wrote about in this post here).
In the final analysis, BJJ black belts are humans, just like the rest of us. And you have to make up your own mind about them on a case by case basis.
Like the children’s book says, everybody poos.
It is OK to have people to look up to, but reflexive hero worship and blind obedience should ALWAYS be discouraged.
One of Bruce Lee’s most famous pieces of advice was, “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless.”
He was encouraging his readers to think for themselves, and not be blinded by traditions, styles, or teachers.
Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, and carefully consider the source of incoming knowledge!
If you know someone who hates his wife and fights with his kids then – for the love of God – don’t listen to his relationship advice!
If they’re not happy with their own life then why would you take their advice in this area?
If your BJJ instructor has gone bankrupt and is under investigation for tax fraud by the IRS then maybe you shouldn’t look to him for business advice.
If you’re training with a sociopath, then trust your spider sense: leave and go to another school. It doesn’t matter how good at jiu-jitsu he is, you will find another teacher and a better training environment.
If the emperor really has no clothes then the sooner you realise it and act on it the better.
A black belt around someone’s waist isn’t some magical mantle of authority. It isn’t a priest’s collar, a mechanic’s license, a medical degree, or a stockbroker’s certificate.
Beware of the expert exceeding the bounds of knowledge.
And if someone demands your perpetual unquestioning loyalty and obedience then run – do not walk- in the other direction as fast as possible.