Kung Fu vs natural talent

People's perspectives are always the subject of great fascination. Quite often when I suggest to people about giving Tai Chi or Kung Fu a go I receive a response along the lines of "oh, I couldn't possibly do that" followed by a justification such as "I'm too unfit, I'm too old, I don't have enough time, the world's about to end, locusts, earthquakes etc". People view it, for whatever reason, as something beyond their abilities and solely reserved for those with a natural talent for such activities. The word talent is both a means to stunt your own potential and a discrediting term when we look at it for what it is.

People often view talent as something innate, a golden egg handed to the chosen few whilst everyone else has to make do with standing on the sidelines. This attitude relinquishes the responsibility for your own potential. It offers a way to hold your hands up and say "I can never be that good, I don't have natural talent like those other people". This is merely a get-out clause which people like because it offers a way to avoid hard work and effort. Obviously due to physical differences some people are inclined towards certain activities. I have not seen too many 25 stone powerlifters who moonlight as horse jockeys. Talent implies a level of skill however, which is not necessarily dependent on genetically assembled physical attributes. Skill is something that is learnt and not implanted at birth, which means that it is available to all of us, it just takes effort. This is one of the most empowering shifts in thought available to us. By removing the word talent and replacing it with effort we can see the potential within us all if we have both the desire and perseverance to sustain that effort.

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." 

Thomas A. Edison

Sorry to disappoint but there are no magic potions, fairy wands or hidden genes; it just takes work. This is at the core of Kung Fu, the word itself translating as merit from hard work. A Swedish psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University named Anders Ericsson has dedicated much of his effort to this subject. As a research project he assembled a team who went to the West Berlin Academy of Music and conducted a detailed study of violinists. Unbeknown to the students, Ericsson split the class of violinists into two groups, one with expectations to make international soloist level, and the other with expectations to 'only'  reach 1st Violin, 2nd Violin etc in symphony orchestras at an international level. After conducting interviews with the students, the teachers and the parents, it was apparent that all of the violinists from both groups had extremely similar backgrounds.  They had all begun playing at around the same age and won similar competitions as they grew up. They were also all currently putting in similar practice time. The single aspect which separated the groups was the amount of lifetime practice hours. The first group on average had conducted 7,410 lifetime practice hours whereas the second group had conducted 5,301 lifetime practice hours. Put simply the first group had put in more effort.

Ericsson concluded that to reach an expert level it requires 10,000 hours of practice. Lets break this figure down into different daily routines to see how it translates into pure effort.

  • 1 hours practice per day = 28 years
  • 2 hours practice per day = 14 years
  • 3 hours practice per day =  9.5 years

What thoughts are going through your head when you read these figures? They do allow for the occasional day off for other activities just to be realistic. 28 years of 1 hours practice every day may seem like a long commitment to some but if we break it down further it easily becomes more manageable. We could approach it as 2 x 30 min sessions, 3 x 20 min sessions or even 6 x 10 min sessions. By utilising our time efficiently we can make our training an integral part of everyday life. All of those 5 minutes throughout the day whilst we are waiting for something such as the kettle to boil, the taxi to arrive or the pasta to cook can be used for practice and all add up by the end of the day. Even everyday tasks we take for granted such as opening doors, switching on lights and standing on the bus can be used as Kung Fu training if we use our imagination.

It is all Kung Fu

Some people feel that to practice a physical activity you firstly must have the correct equipment. You need the right gym apparatus, the right squishy mat, the stretchy things, the bouncy things and especially the regulation Carlos Fandango signature edition matching spandex outfit with signature edition water bottle and sweatband. All of these things give us more excuses to do something else which requires less effort. I don't have the right shoes, I don't have the right top, it's too rainy, it's too hot and so on and so on. Kung Fu offers an environment in which it doesn't matter how good you look and what other people think. It is an opportunity to put your ego centralised politics to bed and focus entirely on who you really are at that exact moment. People spend too much time concerned with what everyone else is thinking and doing rather than what they themselves are thinking and doing.

On the one hand there are the people who think they are 'talented', the gifted ones who come to a class to demonstrate their proficiency in front of an audience. More concerned with making an impression and how they are viewed by others, they bypass any opportunity to learn. But then they didn't come along to learn. Then there are the people who have a fear about coming to a class because they do not want to look like a beginner, they have a fear of being perceived as incompetent by all of the talented people. All of their energy is focused on other peoples judgements too but without realising that all of the 'talented' people were once incompetent too. If you could do something really well, why would you need a class to learn it from anyway? It just takes time to fully understand that the path to competency and then excellence is the same path that any 'talented' person has taken and it is far from exclusive. We all have a choice of whether to walk that path or to construct reasons why we should not walk that path.

The versatility of Kung Fu practice really negates any excuse. There is no need for a special outfit, special equipment, special time of day or special hair-do. Because Kung Fu exists as an expression of oneself, all that you really require to be able to practice it is quite simply yourself. Once learnt, the forms that we teach are stored inside the head and can therefore be practiced wherever you are with enough room to stand. Even sitting on the bus they can still be performed in the mind using the imagination (which is actually a very good exercise). Because White Crane Kung Fu is first and foremost a practice of self-defence it is designed to be expressed in everyday attire, on any type of ground, in any weather and most importantly can be integrated into everyday life. You will not be too unfit, too old or not have enough time.

We all have the same amount of time in the day and it is up to each individual to choose how they wish to spend it. We all have complete free choice over this. The use of the word 'need' as in "I need to do this and I need to do that" is just another method of shifting responsibility away from our ourselves and onto external factors. You may want to do something to avoid the consequences of inaction, but you never need to. It all boils down to priorities and what we hold as important in our lives and then ultimately in which way we wish to direct our effort. Kung Fu is a complete leveler in the respect that if we want to achieve skill, it simply takes effort. Those 28 years of 1 hour per day may seem like a long time to you, but it is time that will pass anyway. It is up to you to choose how you spend it. Rather than detaching from responsibility and making excuses, be absolutely honest with yourself and decide how far you wish to take it. With Kung fu there is no ceiling to hit, there is no limit to reach and you just keep on improving with age. The best thing of all is that it's fun, really good fun. And if it's not fun and you need to find those excuses, just do something that you find fun. It's your life, it's your choices and you only get one shot at this.

For people who have achieved skill, to say they are talented may appear complementary on the face of it. By calling them talented we are in fact saying that they have been given their skill as a gift, somehow fast tracked to the upper echelons. This massively undervalues the degree of effort which they have exerted to get to that level and does not give them the justice they deserve. Even people generally considered as talented have throughout their lives put in huge amounts of practice to reach their potential. From the earliest age Mozart was practicing his skill as his father was a dedicated musician, in a similar way to how Tiger Woods became 'talented' at golf.

We all have the potential to be amazingly 'talented'. It is simply a case of putting on those overalls, rolling up your sleeves and getting on with it. Unfortunately this is not something that everyone wants to hear. But this, but that, but the other. Kung Fu is skill, and can be achieved through something as simple as balancing a pencil on your fingertip. Decide what skills you enjoy in life, those little things which wag your tail. Then practice and practice and practice, not for 10,000 hours but for the rest of your life, to see how far you can take that skill. In doing so you will undertake the most rewarding journey of self-discovery and perhaps one day realise that the skill itself is insignificant. By freeing ourselves from excuses we can take full responsibility for our own lives and choose how we wish to spend our time and effort and all become 'talented' in our own way.

Dogs know Kung Fu