How are you working on developing the skills you want? John Kackley provides insight to keep you moving.

“Why do we study kumdo?”

This is a common question asked during a belt test for kumdo, the Korean name, and interpretation of the Japanese martial art of swordsmanship called kendo. A belt test in kumdo, as in most martial arts, requires a practitioner to demonstrate the skills and knowledge of a particular rank, and part of that is being able to explain what benefits we expect to derive from the activity.

Hearing that question asked again this weekend when my teenager was testing, made me think about how we develop and demonstrate skills.

A martial arts belt test is a more structured identification of one’s development of skills than we normally see in our lives. With our professional capabilities, we may only be able to identify general growth as a result of our experience and study. We may only feel like we’re better prepared and more capable than we were at some time in the past: we may not have a way of analyzing and expressing it.

We’ve seen a lot of improvement in this area, however. Many companies define performance expectations based on a role or title, and the Six Sigma approach explicitly adopts the ranks of black belt and green belt from martial arts.

Even so, it may difficult to connect these structures to an actual feeling of personal accomplishment. As I watched the kumdo belt tests, here were some of the insights I gained into how we get better at a skill:

1. Development is incremental.

Senior practitioners are tested on many of the same things as the junior ones, just as a senior project manager has to do all the same things as someone managing their first project.

  • Senior practitioners are expected to demonstrate more control, more confidence, and less looking over at the person next to them.
  • Senior practitioners are expected to require less guidance.
  • Someone senior may not be asked to demonstrate a basic skill, but to show that skill in the context of the larger sequence of activities. For example, we might ask a project coordinator to put together a resource plan, but a senior project manager will have to understand how to assemble a project budget, resource plan, and work plan together.
  • Every step adds something new, building expectations of greater proficiency but without overwhelming the practitioner with too many new things at once.

2. A senior practitioner will be alone in the spotlight more often.

In a belt test, the newer participants will go through the test together, as a group, but the more senior practitioners are more likely to be alone. There won’t be anyone else tested on the same set of skills, so it will be them alone in front of a grim-faced panel watching their every action – just like a steering committee, you may have found yourself presenting to.

Similarly, we make room for the experts who are undertaking more challenging tasks: when the black belt brings out his sharpened steel sword to cut the target (a tightly rolled-up tatami mat), everyone stands well back!

3. Teaching is learning.

My teenager has noted that sometimes in martial arts, they’ll be expected to instruct newer students rather than working to develop their own skills. To someone new to a skill, eager to soak up knowledge and improve themselves, this may seem a bother or a nuisance, or even unfair. However, it is actually core to the development of any new skill.

By teaching others, and answering their questions, we are made to clarify our own understanding. Why do we things a certain way? Why not another way? Why do we study kumdo? Thus, teaching is learning.

4. Proficiency is more than the skill itself.

A kumdo test may include questions about the tools being used (the names of the parts of the sword or armor in Korean, for example, or the weight and length of a sword). The test may also include questions about the mindset and mental preparation for practicing the skill. The practitioner is expected to provide the standard by-the-book answer for these things but is ultimately expected to be able to express their own interpretation of it.

So, in summary, as you develop your skills:

  1. Build your skills step by step, and note the accomplishments.
  2. Be prepared to perform independently.
  3. Share your experiences and knowledge with others.
  4. Understanding why something is done is part of doing it.

Originally published on LinkedIn.