Sagat from Street Fighter

There are a number of ways to prove yourself an expert at something. You can apply for certification at an institute. Winning a competition or breaking a world record will bring recognition and fame. A university degree is a commonly accepted measure of your competence. Also, friends can spread word of your skills. But what if you want to pose the question to yourself? How do you measure your own ability?

Here’s a straight-forward question: What is a good fighter?

To respond with a direct answer, you could say, “Someone who can knock most people out.” A good fighter is someone who has been trained in the fighting arts, and has prepared himself for physical confrontations. He could be said to be a master of fighting. Now, these descriptions sound logical, and we could leave it at that, but we would be missing the underlying meaning of mastery. To define what a good fighter is, we first need to understand how mastery can be evaluated.


Students prepare for exams by studying. Runners prepare for marathons by improving endurance. Fighters also prepare for fights by getting used to combat.

A good fighter is a prepared fighter. He is someone who not only knows his techniques and counter-techniques, but can adapt to any kind of situation. A good fighter will rarely think what he will do next; he is capable of reacting to any physical attacks and get past them in order to incapacitate his adversary. He doesn’t need to think anymore; he has done his fair share of thinking while preparing. A fight calls for quick decisions and reactions, which leaves little working time for the cerebral cortex.

He needs to understand how human bodies work, how they tend to react, how fighters initiate their attacks, how balance works, how to deal with space, how to avoid disadvantageous positions, et cetera. All these concepts, and much more, have to be processed and hardwired into one’s system before the fight. Most of these concepts have to be learned in actual combat.

When the fighter has mastered and systematized all the necessary concepts and techniques, will he be able to move spontaneously. And it is this spontaneity, or ability to improvise, that defines a good fighter. He no longer needs to think what to do—he just acts. Fighting has become second nature to him; it is now a part of him, and he is able to speak his language of combat, just as an adept guitarist would play incredible solos through improvisation.

Evaluate yourself

To see how you’re doing on your path toward mastery, pay attention to how well you are able to use your skills spontaneously. How well can you improvise?

If you’re learning computer programming, see how well you’re able to apply your knowledge. Try creating something from scratch. Can you develop a calculator? A shopping cart system? A search engine using hash tables? How far can you go?

Or, if you’re learning how to play the piano, see if you can spontaneously start playing a tune. The aim is not to play a song that you’ve learned before—you should try to come up with a melody of your own and keep extending it while playing.

If you are a kung fu practitioner, try creating your own form. Any kung fu master should be able to create a unique kung fu form on the spot.

Be creative. Improvise. As Lee Siu Lung said, “Don’t think—feel.”

P.S. Here’s a recent guest post of mine, No Shortcuts to Success, at Josh Hanagarne’s blog World’s Strongest Librarian where I talk about some of the problems related to the incompatibility between expertise and instant gratification. Check it out.