“How to beat a ninja”


So, this happened …

I remember the night he savagely tried to attack my knees. He was a trained martial artist and I was simply trying to help him. But he had something else on his mind!

In my twenties, I was training in a martial art called Tang Soo Do. (Without getting caught up in the details right now, let me say that it’s a Korean kicking style like Tae Kwon Do, and Chuck Norris was a black belt in Tang Soo Do.)

This story begins when I was already black belt, and an assistant instructor at the ’Alchemy Dojang’ club. Whenever a newbie arrived to check us out, I’d be allocated to spend a bit of time with them off to the side, so they could get a feel for what we did. This would allow them to decide whether our style was right for them, without committing to class fees before they’d experienced anything.

When the new guy came in, Simon, I took him to the side while the class continued in the main hall. He was already black belt in Ninjutsu (the martial art of the Ninja) but claimed he was considering broadening his studies to learn a Korean kicking style like ours. I soon realised that he had brought quite an ego with him, and was there more to try demonstrate the superiority of his style, rather than to truly understand ours.

I respect the the art of Ninjutsu, but Simon wasn’t a star student who was representative of the way of the Ninja, certainly not as stellar as he thought. One key aspect of Ninjutsu is that it’s not meant to be showy, nor is it intended to be safe for tournaments. It’s meant to be quick, effective and devastating. For example, a generalization might be that if your opponent came close to you, rather than trying anything fancy (like a jumping spinning 360 degree aerial kick) you would simply try smash his knees to protect yourself, even if it meant hobbling your opponent for life.

And if all the students in his Ninja club were taught this way, with a focus on a small set of vicious techniques, when they fought together they would be single-mindedly savagely thrusting at each others’ knees, to the exclusion of everything else.

I suggested he and I spar together, so that he had a chance to get a feel for our style, and I could get a feel for the level of his skills. We squared up, and upon the command he immediately launched himself at my knees, trying to smash them, trying to disable me. But I had been training in a kicking style for years, and was capable of both short- and long-distance kicking, so I simply stepped back to take myself out of reach. This left him stabbing away into the empty space, trying to get closer to my knees.

The world went into slow motion for me. I was a little further out, watching him from a distance, while he was passionately focusing downwards towards my knees. His upper body was totally exposed, and his head was vulnerable. Using my rear leg, which Simon wasn’t even watching, I slowly swung it around until I firmly (but not viciously) kicked him on the side of his head. He stopped, shocked. Where did that kick come from? But being the true little killer that he was, he immediately resumed attacking towards my front knee, while I slowly kicked him again in the head with my back leg, this time a little harder.

This made him angry, “What did you do that for?”

“We’re sparring,” I said. “Your head was exposed, so I kicked it.”

“Yes,” he said angrily. “But high kicks are showy and ineffective. You’re meant to focus on sharp tight kicks.”

“Ineffective? I just kicked you twice in the head and you didn’t see it coming.”

“You’re not meant to kick high!”

“Look Simon, in Tang Soo Do we kick wherever we want. If we were fighting in the street, would you be telling me what was and wasn’t allowed? I get that when you train with others in your club, all of you focus downwards, so no one is attacking with high kicks, and no one has to defend against high kicks. But outside your club, can you see that you will have set yourself up to lose?”

But Simon couldn’t see. He refused to see. He stormed off muttering something about ‘should’ and ‘ought to’, and I rejoined the rest of the group.

And that night I paid particularly close attention to not leaving my head vulnerable when I was sparring with the others.

Simple Definition

How to beat a ninja: When we surround ourselves with people who think and act the same as we do, we can get confused that this is how everyone thinks and acts. By limiting ourselves to living within this bubble, we are left with narrow thinking, and are very vulnerable to people who live in the wider world. By integrating with the wider world, this makes us less vulnerable and indeed more formidable.

Discussing what it means

Probably the context in which this concept is most commonly discussed these days is the “filter bubble”. If you are a regular user of Google of Facebook, then over time their algorithms learn what kind of websites you like and which ones you don’t. If you have a liberal political view, if you believe in eating meat, if you think a guitar is the best musical instrument to learn, then over time the search results (and adverts you’re fed) will start to reflect those views. After a while, when all the sites that come up in your search results are liberal-leaning, and you never seem to see piano content appearing in your feeds, it’s reasonable to believe – even sub-consciously – that the whole world is just like us.

We immerse ourselves in these bubbles through the sites we visit, the social media we follow, the people we hang out with, the clubs we attend, the books we read. And we start to think our opinions, our jokes, our preferences, are somehow ‘right’ (or at least ‘better’ than others’). And from this, an arrogance grows within us.

Not you of course. You wouldn’t be vulnerable to this, but everyone else is. Like Simon – his arrogance exposed him to walking the streets thinking he was unstoppable, not realising how vulnerable he was to people from outside his knee-smashing bubble.

(Like the old joke goes: The reason you always win arguments in your head is because the people in there all think like you 🙂 .)

I was particularly aware of this in my 20s.

  • My one group of friends was a bunch of martial artists – we discussed fighting, how to knock people out, how easily an elbow can be broken or a nerve can be cut by a knife. And we watched Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude van Damme movies.
  • Another group of friends was made up by my actuarial buddies from university – we discussed yield curves, fitting mathematical models to mortality rates, and finite differences. And we watched movies like Wall Street or The Firm.
  • I also had a group of friends I still hung out with since school – we were still anchored in our teenage years, and we spoke about ‘80s music, girlfriends, and sport. We didn’t watch movies, we just ate in restaurants together.

The bubbles that we live in will affect our belief as to what is ‘normal’. For those growing up in a conservative religious bubble, for example, they might have a somewhat negative opinion towards an active sex life if non-procreational sex is deemed to be a sin, and judge those who are more active than they are. And at the other extreme, teenagers who watch porn videos might understandably believe that anal sex is the norm when all couples make love.

And you can tell so easily when others live in bubbles that aren’t your own – so we should wonder what other people see as your bubble. For example, I remember meeting up with a friend from South Africa. Although both of us had been living in London for 5-10 years at the time, he was still talking (in English) using strong South African slang (“I skim that must be kif to see!”). It was obvious to me that – years out of South Africa – his entire social circle must still have been made up by other South Africans. Nothing wrong with South African friends, of course, but he must have been missing out on experiences and cultures, because of this bubble he had created for himself.

We know that when we differentiate ourselves, we get noticed. Perhaps that sucks as a teenager when you want to be just as ‘emo’ as the others, but in the business or sports world, you need to be differentiated in order to be noticed. Back to martial arts, I was competing in a lot of Tang Soo Do tournaments in my 20s, and the one day, while waiting for my turn to demonstrate my ‘kata’ (it’s a martial art pre-choreographed fight sequence) I noticed that everyone ‘entered’ the ring in the same way: the judges called the next person’s name, who called back ‘yes’, then ran onto the mat and did their kata. When it was my turn, when they called my name, I didn’t just give a polite ‘yes’, I shouted as loudly as I could. And I can shout damn loud! The people around me were stunned into silence, everyone looking around to see where the noise came from. To the judges who had watched a dozen blackbelts do their kata before me, perhaps one competitor was starting to blend into the next, making their task of differentiating between the best really tough. Well, after my shout, you can be sure every judge had his or her eyes on me, so they noticed my performance. I had differentiated myself, and ended up winning a Gold that day.

If I was rubbish, of course even the shout would not have helped. But when the other contestants were competing in a similar way, not really differentiating themselves, that left them vulnerable to someone like me who came in and did something that was from well outside their bubble.

The Ninja who is just a Ninja is a vulnerable Ninja.

Making it personal

I would like to challenge you to answer a series of questions for yourself. Sure, you can get through these in under 60 seconds, but what if – by doing this properly – you can get better insights in your life, improve your performance in many areas, and overall make yourself stronger for your contribution to your world?

  • How would you classify your social circles? Is it one group (or just one person)? Is everyone part of the same football or yoga or pub crowd? Or do you have different interests and different social circles?
  • Do you hang out with people with whom you disagree on key issues (and who actively disagree with you)? Do you have friends who support a different political party? Are all your friends vegetarian like you? Do you have close friends from different race groups and religions?
  • In areas of your life where you compete – including sports and work – are you competing in the same way as the others? Have you learned from similar sources, taught by similar teachers, using the same style, giving similar-sounding ideas and asking similar questions? How could you expose yourself to others from outside your bubble, to increase your chance of winning?
  • When last did you change your opinion on something on the basis of a challenge from someone in your close social circle?
  • What bubbles have created your sense of “normal” in terms of sex, alcohol, meat, carbohydrates, reading, exercise, swearing, arguing, self-improvement? How many of these bubbles are worth bursting?
  • How many people in your social circle would benefit from reading this article?

If you want to beat the ninjas like you, it’s important that you also fight with non-ninjas – you might actually learn a new trick that the others haven’t seen!

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