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Carhartts and Blackbelts: On the Symbols of Mastery

Carhartts and Blackbelts: On the Symbols of Mastery

When I was in martial arts, we were taught that the old Okinawan belt system was not what it is today, where dyed belts in white, yellow, blue, orange, purple, green, brown, red, and black dictate one’s ostensible place in the hierarchy of skill and achievement. Back then, our instructor said, everyone simply wore white belts. The catch was, they never washed or changed out those belts. They would wash and eventually replace their uniform (gi), but never the belt.

Over the years, through their training and rolling, the little cuts scrapes and the decades of sweat, all of that would gradually leave a mark on the once-pristine white belt. It would gradually turn yellowish first. With enough time and exertion, the yellow would darken into a brown. Finally, after a lifetime of training, of literal blood, sweat and tears, the belt would become so dark it would appear black. Thus, the “rank” system was less a formalized hierarchy, and more of a rough heuristic for gauging how long someone had been training and, therefore, their likely level of skill.

I have no idea if this story is true or not. I like to think that it is. Regardless of its historicity, however, the story illustrates the way in which skill is often evaluated by others, well beyond the confines of martial arts. I was reminded of this last week, on a construction site.

I’ve worked in construction a little bit over the years, and was recently doing some siding work. Once all the siding itself is nailed in, you have to caulk along all the seams between the siding and the trim to keep the whole thing watertight. By the time I finished with the house, my pants were half waterproof, they were so heavily covered in DAP. Ordinarily, you would wipe off the excess caulk on a rag, but I didn’t have one handy. My Carhartt carpenter pants already had a few holes and some wood glue stains on them from a while back, so I just wiped it off on my pants as I went.

Now this is a little bit artificial. Drastic changes in the appearance of your equipment — belt, pants, tools, or anything else — over the course of a single day or week are usually not indicators of mastery, in the way that a sweat-stained black belt is. By analogy, if you were to dunk your belt in goat’s blood, it would not turn you into a master. At some level, the dirtied pants do show that I’ve been busy, that the work equipment is being used, and that ostensibly, I know more about construction than the guy whose slacks are clean-pressed and lint-free. But it’s not the equivalent of a brown belt, or even a yellow belt — let alone a black belt.

What really sets experienced carpenters apart is usually not their pants, incidentally, but their tools. Despite my pants looking like some new kind of RealTree snow-camouflage, I was walking around with a shiny new hammer and a brand new speed square. My boss, on the other hand, had some relatively ordinary and clean jeans, but his tools showed the signs of decades of use. His hammer, for instance, was identical to mine — one of the blue, solid-metal Eastwing 22oz framing hammers — except that it had the accumulated tarnish and grime of 30 years of independent contract work.

It’s not that he abused the thing. To the contrary, he keeps fairly good care of his tools. But after a while, the use and age show. The greater the age, the higher the likelihood of competence and even mastery, for the possessor of the belt or the tool.

As a novice, thinking about this can bring on the temptation to try to accelerate the aging process. After all, half of the fashion industry is a formalized attempt to affect a certain look without the ordinarily required work. Look like a lumberjack without actually being a lumberjack. Or a cowboy, or a businessman, or a rapper. If you’re Ralph Lauren, the look is “old money.” Why not cheat a little bit in order to get the social acknowledgment and accolades a little early?

Why not throw a little extra dirt on your belt? Why not smear some extra paint or DAP on your pants?

There are three reasons not to do this. A moral one, a spiritual one, and a practical one.

The moral reason is that cheating dilutes the heuristic. A black belt is an accomplishment, but if a million novices ran around wearing black belts, yours would mean nothing. The cheater thinks “it’s only me,” and thinks that he can get the accolades of mastery by signaling mastery without possessing it. But people gradually pick up that some people — even if they don’t know who — are pretending to be masters in a certain field. Gradually, the symbols of mastery in that field lose prestige and trust. Not only does the cheater now have to find a new set of symbolic signals to imitate, but the authentic masters of the field lose prestige too. In pursuit of social validation, the cheap signaler slowly kills off the sure-footed paths to real achievement and accomplishment, the most certain paths to real and lasting validation, for himself and for others. Or at least, he kills off the validation. The achievements will still be possible, people will just care a little less.

The spiritual reason is that the signals of achievement often enervate our drive to actually achieve things. If I show all the signs of a top performer — in martial arts, in construction, in anything — then what’s the purpose in actually becoming what I am dressing up as? By dressing up before I become it, I am already showing that I care more about the social acknowledgment than I do the achievement itself, so if I get the acknowledgment, what’s left? For many, the desire for recognition is a motivation for mastery. It spurs them forward towards accomplishment and greatness, because they know that their accomplishments will bring them honor and respect after they have made something of themselves. Allowing yourself the social rewards first whittles away that motivation. Cheating, in other words, hurts yourself — and at the end of the day, who are you trying to impress? Many people report feeling “inauthentic” in their position, despite appearing qualified in their role to others. Real masters are never concerned by such thoughts.

That leads us to the practical reason, which is that you’ll only fool amateurs who don’t know the difference. A few minutes of trying to roll with a black belt, or install complex ceiling beamwork with a master carpenter, and no amount of fake wear is going to show him that you’re worth taking seriously. In fact, he probably never cared about the signals anyway. More than likely, he possessed the signs of mastery without realizing it, because the signs of mastery were never of interest to him.

There is a vast difference between gaining the admiration of the masses and the admiration of experts. To be recognized by the uninformed majority may hold more power, but it is never as satisfying as being acknowledged by the masters of the craft.

Still, despite these temptations, it can be of use to know the symbols of mastery. For one, it can give you a rough appraisal of your own talents. Usually, your own knowledge is of greater value here than the objects utilized in a skill — and therefore, represent mastery within the skill — in terms of understanding your own material value. However, we can sometimes become blind to our own habits through repetition, and the material objects around us can sometimes give us a more realistic appraisal of how we are allocating our time, and therefore, how we are doing on our own, personal road to mastery. This is particularly valuable when applied in the negative, where the dangers of the previously-mentioned temptations are somewhat mitigated. If you think of yourself as a businessman, for example, but you have a larger collection of video games and movies than you do business cards, pens, and filing cabinets, then you may be off-course for becoming a successful businessman, and instead on course to becoming a master couch-potato.

And of course, if you don’t know how to dress, but you happen to be highly competent in a skill, don’t be afraid to dress as you work. Most of the fashion industry is all about faking the look of you in your natural state. Why not do the same thing, but with the actual mastery to back it up? It’s usually more attractive than what you might think, and for yourself, it can further cement your own identity with your subject of mastery.

So what about the idea that we should “fake it till you make it?” Or, as it has been argued, “fake it till you become it?” If you want to achieve mastery, the argument goes, then dress as the masters dress, do as they do, and one day, you’ll wake up and be one.

People who try this are likely to feel inauthentic, or like they don’t belong, feelings which the argument itself is an attempt to overcome by the power of mantra alone. The problem is that everyone is in a hurry. They want the short-cut to mastery. The quick path to competence. The idea that you can “fake it till you make it” seems to insinuate the possibility that you can bypass the decades of work that go into attaining true mastery, because the image of waking up and suddenly realizing that you are the thing you were pretending to be sounds random. Like it could happen in a year. Or tomorrow.

When we can’t see the distant horizon, mastery becomes a binary with no path from here to there. Either you are competent, or you aren’t. If you aren’t, you’re probably better off finding something you are somewhat competent in. Or at least something you can pass yourself off as competent in.

But in reality, there is a gradient. There is a whole range of belt-shades between white and black, and there is no shame in being a yellow belt, or a purple belt, or a brown belt. You can have relatively new tools, because in the end, it isn’t about the symbols of mastery, but about the mastery itself. That is the mistake of the “fake it till you make it” mindset. They confuse the symbols of mastery with the cause of mastery. The only way to really gain competence is experience. Of course, putting on the accoutrements of competence without having earned them will make you feel inauthentic and fake; only someone with no self-awareness wouldn’t feel that way.

Fortunately, the way to gain mastery and to feel authentic in your field is the same: experience.

Over time, more experience will inevitably leave you with the symbols of mastery, mastery that will be easier to achieve if you don’t allow yourself to cheat by pursuing its appearance. If the story of the legendary origins of the black belt teaches us nothing else, it is that over time, the symbols of mastery will appear all on their own, or create themselves.

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