In numerous spheres of my life, I appear to be a novice. It is apparent that I am not someone who knows nothing, but maybe I am someone who knows very little. Some may mistake it for modesty, of course. I sincerely hope it doesn't come across as bumbling incompetence. What it is, and has always been, is something that I learned at an early age: tell someone that they exhibit more skill than you in the performance of a task, and they will usually help you to do better.
What we are fighting against here is our own ego. We like to believe that we excel at certain things and, being the social animals that we are, the approval of our peers is important to us. This tendency does not serve our interests. The belief that we are highly skilled, even gifted, goes hand in hand with the arrogant notion that we can learn nothing from others. To seek advice or guidance is seen as a sign of weakness or inadequacy. So, we take a position where the appearance of mastery, the illusion of mastery, halts our progress.
People with whom I train in martial arts would probably be shocked to learn that I first trained in a combat art at seven years of age. Similarly, my classmates who are studying towards a Microsoft qualification alongside me might raise an eyebrow, if they knew that I owned my first computer in the early 1980s. In both cases, they might expect me to be more competent than I appear. The point is that I seem to be a novice, and I retain the mindset of a novice, so that I may learn from others.
I believe that, at a certain point in our lives, any new knowledge that is acquired will be framed within that which we gained previously. If I take my knowledge of computers as an example, I have pre-existing ideas and concepts about how computers function. The user interface has changed over the years, and numerous technologies have been developed, added, or replaced. In effect, the core of what I know is the same, but the layers of abstraction surrounding that core have changed.
I spent much of my life learning Japanese martial arts and, to my shame, learning to apply them in an unfortunate number of physical encounters. It was only later, when I read Bruce Lee's Tao of Jeet Kune Do, that I was able to fully make sense of the adaptations I had made to the Japanese arts I had learned. To be fair, a lot of earlier things I had read in Combat magazine (now discontinued), had more of an effect, but Tao of Jeet Kune Do consolidated that knowledge.
I currently study wing chun, and this is unfamiliar to me. Even after four years of practice, I question whether I am really picking it up. What I am learning in that class is being framed within an already existing philosophy, elements of which have been inadvertently passed on to some of the newcomers I have trained with over the years, during my attempts to assist them in getting to grips with wing chun. It is only after the event that I realise I have corrected someone's wing chun by explaining it using the principles of tai chi, jeet kune do or other previously existing knowledge I have acquired. Maybe I am a source of confusion, rather than enlightenment.
The whole notion that you can't teach an old dog new tricks is wrong, I believe. We never stop learning, or having the ability to learn. The process simply becomes more complicated, for the reasons I have stated. It is not, on the whole, a bad thing, though. Some time ago, when I was a jujitsu student, we spent a class sparring. As a spinning roundhouse kick neared my face, I stepped back out of its range and, as the originator of the kick had his back turned, stepped in and booted him in the backside. I couldn't tell you where I learned it (examining the movement, Shotokan karate seems to be the likely source), but it happened quickly, automatically and with little conscious thought.
The point is that we may appear to be a novice, and at the same time be capable of innovation, because our previous experience gives us a different perspective. We should also keep our ego under control, be humble, and realise that we can learn much from others.