Dominating the Dojo: An Official Ramble

I can’t remember if I’ve used this analogy here on Bryce’s Ramblings before, but it’s been on my mind for some reason, and I wanted to share some thoughts about it. Like most good Bryce analogies, it starts with a pop culture reference: Dominating the Dojo. Fans of Seinfeld will remember this refers back to Kramer, who in one episode brags all about how he’s come to a new level of self understanding by conquering his fears of fighting other people in his karate class. (Ka-ra-tay class, that is.)

Here’s the relevant clip:

(They’ve disabled embedding for the best version I found, so you’re going to have to go ahead and click over to YouTube to check it out if you want to see the full context. Sorry.

I love this little sequence for a number of reasons. First of all, what Kramer’s saying isn’t wrong. (In the full clip, he gives an inspirational speech to Elaine about how he came to dominate the dojo.) He has some really good points. It’s just that the specific example he uses–his ability to overcome all odds and now dominate the dojo–is wildly off base. But really, learning how to release your fears and have some self confidence is something that can do wonders for anyone. You’ll be able to perform at a much higher level than you ever could have if all you were doing was worrying the whole time about making mistakes.

Allow me to tell a brief aside. It’s actually something I’ve blogged about before. Here’s the relevant quote:

The closest thing I can compare it to was when I was in district orchestra in high school. I’d had to try out to get in (note to kids–if you play the bassoon, it doesn’t really matter how bad you play in your audition. They need the instrument in the orchestra, and if there are only two who audition and they need two bassoons . . . you do the math). Anyway, my audition had been terrible. I was so worried about doing poorly, that I messed up. A lot. But once I was in the orchestra, practicing was fine. No nerves at all. It was fun.

Then I had to perform for the concert.

The nerves came back with a vengeance. The first chair bassoon (Brittnay Lineberry, my music teacher’s daughter) told me something that’s stuck with me since: it’s okay to be nervous during the audition. What you do can affect you then. The nerves are bad, but they’re understandable. Once you’re performing, though, it’s your time to set nerves behind you and show what you can do. You proved you could get where you were–now do what you can do best. (Note to Brittnay: when the only reason someone got into the orchestra in the first place was because there was no other competition, this advice doesn’t quite work as well, which might be why I played a wrong random note–loudly–in the middle of that flute solo.)

 In this case, learning how to let go and just do my best was a big step forward. As it was–no doubt–for Kramer.

And yet, we then find out the dojo Kramer is dominating is full of children. He so outclasses the other people, that there’s no way for him to not dominate.

The problem, of course, is that so long as you’re in a contained system–a single dojo–there’s no way to tell if you’re dominating due to skill, innate advantages, or some other reason. You need to go bigger. Challenge yourself. Start seeing what life is like outside that one place. Once you do that, you’re likely going to find out that you’re not nearly as dominating as you think. But you’re also going to start growing and improving yourself in ways you never could have if you’d just stayed in that dojo.

I see a lot of parallels to life in this single Seinfeld clip. (Which, yes, likely means that I’m a bit too big of a fan of Seinfeld.) We start out in an elementary school. Maybe we’re the best speller in the class. Or the best kickball player. You get the picture. We’re good enough at something that we think we’re the best. (Case in point: watching Usain Bolt win gold in the Olympics with my son a while ago. When I asked TRC what he thought, he was impressed. “Wow, Dad. That guy’s almost as fast as I am.”

Then we come to middle school. Maybe 3 or 4 elementary schools join together. Each one of those schools had their own “bests”. This means there are now 3 or 4 kids who think they’re the best at kickball or spelling. And like Highlander, there can be only one. Which means there are now 2 or 3 kids who have begun to learn the lesson of the dojo.

This is followed by junior high, and then high school, and then college. Each step of the way, the dojo gets bigger. It becomes more and more difficult to dominate. But because of the nature of the way this progresses, you also become more and more likely to think you’re pretty hot stuff if you’re still able to dominate that dojo.

Then you graduate college, and that’s where the dojo analogy smacks you in the face.

See, from elementary to middle school, the dojo maybe tripled in size. Lets say (to make the math easy) it went from 100 people to 300. Middle school to junior high, it maybe tripled again. Now it’s at 900. Middle to junior high, it doubled. 1,800. Junior high to high school, let’s double it again and round. 4,000 people–and that’s in a really big high school. College takes you maybe to 30,000. A huge jump. Over seven times as big.

Once you leave that contained system, you go from 30,000 to . . . how high do you want to go? Your entire state? Millions? Your nation? Hundreds of millions? The world? Billions. The transition is enormous. It’s what makes playing at the professional level so much more difficult than playing at the collegiate level, and it applies to pretty much everything. Or let’s make this more about writing, since that’s something I’m more familiar with. Getting published in your school newspaper is one thing. Getting into your college’s magazine is another. Getting a bona fide book published is yet another. Becoming a New York Times Bestseller? Good luck with that, son.

The good news is that, after some flailing around, we all end back up in a dojo of our choosing, sooner or later. Surrounded by a social circle and coworkers that are once again blessedly limited. There are hints now and then of the outside world, but for the most part of our day to day lives, we can sit back and just keep our head down and be happy.

So here’s a question: would it be better to never leave the dojo to begin with? To never have to face the sheer size of what else is out there?

I would say no. You need that experience for a number of reasons. First of all, to teach you some humility. It’s great that we all have our strengths, but no one wants to be Kramer in the dojo. (At least, I hope no one does.) Sooner or later, the dojo fights back, and you’re surrounded by a mob of angry tweens in a dark alley. (Or is that just me?)

Second, we need to see the bigger picture in order to get better. You gain strength by encountering resistance. You open yourself up to new ideas and new approaches. The bigger the dojo, the better the chance is for the student to reach his or her full potential.

And in the end, isn’t that what we should be worried about? Being the best we can be? I know I for one am happier when I can let go of my knee-jerk desire to always compare myself to other people–to always prove that I’m better in some fashion. That way lies madness and disappointment. To be constantly improving, however–to always be becoming a better me . . . that’s a path I can endorse, and one which hopefully can lead to lifelong joy.

And those are all the deep thoughts I have for you this Monday. Thanks for reading.

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