Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mastering Internal Strength

One of my recurring questions used to be, "How long it take to 'get' internal strength?" which of course is a different question from, "How long does it take to 'master' internal strength?"

When I returned to the School of Cultivation and Practice after my three year hiatus, I noticed that one of my new and younger school brothers developed a basic level of internal strength with about three years of practicing stance and other specific mind-body exercises. (He started after I left.) I understand that he practiced more than three hours a day with attending class and private practice time!

How is it that he 'got something' with three years of practice and I didn't 'get anything' with my previous twenty years of practice?

In the 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, Part 1, Chapter 2 is titled "The 10,000 Hour Rule" in which he reframes the old "nature vs. nurture" argument into "talent vs. practice" or "talent vs. preparation". He says,
"Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities." (pg. 155)
So the question I have is: What are the "predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities" that I can access to develop and master internal strength?

Well, one aspect is time. Time spent practicing. Here are a few ways I can analyze my practice schedule regarding how long it may take me to develop or master internal strength:

1 hour/day x 7 days/week x 365 days/year = 365 hours a year.
So, 10,000/365 = 27 years.

2 hours/day x 7 days/week x 365 days/year = 730 hours a year.
So, 10,000/730 = 14 years.

3 hours/day x 7 days/week x 365 days/year = 1095 hours a year.
So, 10,000/1095 = 9 years.

Well, I've logged my 10,000 hours but apparently time alone is not a predictor of mastery. So again, what are the "circumstances and opportunities" that I missed and that maybe I can still look for?

Also in the "The 10,000 Hour Rule" chapter, Gladwell references Dr. K. Anders Ericsson's early 1990's study. So, I looked into Dr. Ericsson and found...

Dr. K. Anders Ericsson... is widely recognized as one of the world's leading theoretical and experimental researchers on expertise. Dr Ericsson's research interests and publications can be found (as of this posting) at the Florida State University, Department of Psychology.

I've never heard of expertise studies. (Maybe developing and mastering internal strength can be approached from the view of expertise studies?) So I looked around some more and found various books have referenced Dr. Ericsson's and others' expertise studies, for example:

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
by Daniel J. Levitin 2006. Chapter 7 is titled "What Makes a Musician? Expertise Dissected.
"The ten thousand-hours theory is consistent with what we know about how the brain learns. Learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of information in the neural tissue. The more experiences we have with something, the stronger the memory/learning trace for that that experience becomes. Although people differ in how long it takes them to consolidate information neurally, it remains true that increased practice leads to greater number of neural traces, which can combine to create a stronger memory representation. ... The strength of a memory is related to how many times the original stimulus has been experienced. " (pg 193)
(Maybe mastering internal strength has to do with repeating specific experiences 10,000 hours ?) So I did a little more digging and I found what I'm guessing is "the early 1990's" Ericsson article referenced in the above books:
The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance (available as pdf)
K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer
Psychological Review
1993, Vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406
Here are a few excerpts:
We have shown that expert performance is acquired slowly over a very long time as a result of practice and that the highest levels of performance and achievement appear to require at least around 10 years of intense prior preparation.

Characteristics of Deliberate Practice
The most cited condition concerns the subjects' motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance. In addition, the design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

Comparison of Deliberate Practice to Other Types of Domain-Related Activities
Deliberate practice includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance.

The commitment to deliberate practice distinguishes the expert performer from the vast majority of children and adults who seem to have remarkable difficulty meeting the much lower demands on practice in schools, adult education, and in physical exercise programs.

After I read this, I had a little "a-ha" moment. The "Characteristics of Deliberate Practice" seems to be a very functional approach to developing mastery which in my view can be equally applied to mastering internal strength:
  • The subject's motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance.
  • the design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners
  • the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.
  • The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance.
  • The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

If I reword or reframe the above into what I might look for in terms of the teaching methods of someone teaching skills that can lead to internal strength, I might say the teacher would...
  • Design, teach and use simple, elemental tasks that "fit" the preexisting knowledge of the learners. (For me this means talking to me in my vernacular, in my "western" paradigm and not forcing me for example, into the Chi paradigm.)
  • Design, teach and use simple, elemental tasks that provide immediate feedback. (For example: feeling the burning in the quadriceps or focus on feeling connectedness and noticing gaps in feeling.)
  • Design, teach and use simple, elemental tasks that can be performed repeatedly. (To me, this does not include forms. Forms are very complex. A simple task that can be performed repeatedly might be something like zhan zhuang, or side-to-side or one of the Wujifa warm-up exercises. )
Finding a teacher like this could provide the "circumstances and opportunities" that I missed. Also, developing a personal mind-set like the above could help me find the "circumstances and opportunities" to guide my learning and the kinds of questions I might ask. For example,
How can I break down, for example, "Fair Maiden Weaves Shuttle" into a simple, elemental "task" that I can perform repeatedly, that will deliver immediate feedback, that can be quickly and easily understood by another person, and that fits pre-existing knowledge? And I would add, that would lead to deeper levels of feeling of connectedness? Of course, all of this must be validate-able.)
According to my understanding of the little I read to write this post, I violated every characteristic of deliberate practice that would lead to expertise in my chosen field - mastering internal strength. So, from this limited perspective, it's no surprise that I wound up where I am. (I'm no expert in expertise studies. I just started connecting some dots and this is my understanding at this time.)

In conclusion, in my opinion, one of the contributions of Wujifa to the internal martial arts community is that it uses "Characteristics of Deliberate Practice". I've seen how practicing Wujifa can lead to developing internal strength in as little as three years. For myself, I've made a lot of progress in this system since returning to class seven years ago!


  1. Maybe 10,000 hours isn't the answer?

  2. Mike this is an awesome post - I have often thought about the nature of my own training, but I have never heard such a clear description before. Awesome.

  3. I agree Mike... Wujifa has been a wonderful practice for me as well. You bring up some really good points too in this blog post. Sometimes a practice can seem very overwhelming in terms of depth. Also I've seen people and have been guilty of look at deeper aspects when staying with the simple functional basics would have served for the most functional good. As I say that it comes to mind that maybe why some like to jump into the depths of the subjective ambiguities... Have you ever watched a dog chase his tail? He may never "get it" or get any closer... Yet it would seem that he was... Very involved with doing the work... That was one of the big points I think you make with getting good feed back. It means more than a teacher saying good and very good while watching a clock and planning what he or she will have for dinner. Getting very specific pointers and direct points that need work AKA "eating bitter" instead of thinking about where or what to make for dinner is key. I really enjoy your blog... Thanks for putting up such good posts!