“A Punch is just a Punch”


So, this happened …

“Hit me,” he teased. “Go on, I won’t stop you. Hit me as hard as you can. Punch me in the stomach, I’ll even close my eyes.”

So I did. I checked there was no one standing behind him, I pulled my arm back, aimed at his stomach, and punched with all my might.

And . . . nothing.

I ended up hitting him on his side, and not where I was aiming. His shirt barely moved when I struck. And it was me that fell down on contact, not him.

“Great punch, Greg!” he exclaimed encouragingly, with a huge smile on his face. “For a seven year old, that was excellent. You’ve got a natural talent.”

I was conflicted between the failure I felt from the almost-punch I had just delivered, and the ego boost I got from my new Karate instructor’s compliment.

“We’ll work on your technique, there are just a few things to fix, and then one day you will be punch like this . . .”

He stood up, turned to the boxing bag hanging from the ceiling, and with what seemed like negligible effort, he punched the bag.

Actually, he whacked the bag. The bang was so loud I instinctively closed my eyes, and everyone else in the dojo turned around to see where the noise had come from. The bag almost folded in half from the impact as it swung up and away. Had that been a person, well, I’d hate to imagine the damage he would have caused.

In a matter of seconds, I had lived through a full learning circle, one that many people sometimes take years to appreciate.

  • I walked into the dojo that morning, a brand new student of karate. As far as I was concerned, a punch is just a punch, and I was going to learn how. Today.
  • Then, in the fraction of a second when I was in the process of punching Master Paul, I was overcome with the knowledge that a punch isn’t just a punch. I could feel my punch going off-target in the middle of the swing. My hand, elbow and shoulder all seemed to be fighting each other the whole way. And the impact was barely a whisper against his shirt.
  • Finally, when I saw my instructor casually and effortlessly smashing the heavy sand-filled bag into the air, I could see, after all, that a punch is just a punch.

“OK,” he said kindly as he got down on his knees in front of me. “Now punch me here again.” He paused, and then grinned.

“But this time, a little harder.”

Simple Definition

A punch is just a punch: This #hashtag-story encompasses the concept of the learning circle: in the beginning the topic seem very simple, then as you get into the details it becomes complex and even overwhelming, but once you’ve mastered the topic then things all seem simple and obvious again.

Summarizing what it means

Bruce Lee is probably the most famous martial artist of all times, an absolute legend. So even when he makes a really simple observation, it’s hard not to get philosophical about what he is saying.

In his book “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do”, Bruce Lee writes:

“Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.”

And that, my friends, is the learning circle.

Clearly it applies to learning how to do things – punching, speaking a new language, playing a new musical instrument, learning to drive.

But it also applies perfectly to learning about new relationships, different lifestyles, trying a new diet, beginning a new job.

  • When we look at anything new, it seems simple. It’s the “punch is just a punch” phase. How hard can it be?
  • But as we progress into the details, we become overwhelmed. The information is more complicated than we realized. There is much more to learn than we appreciated, it doesn’t really relate to anything else we know, and even applying that which we have already learned is challenging. It feels like we’ll never get it right. That puts us squarely in the “punch is not just a punch” phase.
  • But as we truly come to control this ‘new’ thing, suddenly everything just starts fitting into place. It now all seems really obvious and effortless. Which means we have at last reached the “punch is just a punch” phase. Again.

It’s a really simple idea, right? Precisely! Which means you are currently seeing this chapter (so-called “punch is just a punch”) as “just a punch”.

Circle of learning? Done! (Hmmm, not yet.)

But of course, if you pause for a second, you know there’s got to be more to it than the summary above. So you will read the next section below, and delve into the following: details of why we go through the cycle, how to tell what part of the cycle you’re in, the mistake that many people make of giving up in the middle phase when they are so close to reaching the mastery phase, how to tell the difference between being in the middle phase and being on the completely wrong path, and how not to confuse being in the ‘initial’ simple phase by convincing yourself that you’re in the ‘mastery’ simple phase.

There might be a lot to take in, and you might be a little overwhelmed as you read this chapter. But take your time, and by the time you finish it, you will have reached the final phase where again “a punch is just a punch”.

You will then be able to put all this into action in your own life, making significant improvements beyond what you’re doing at the moment.

Let’s get a little more complicated …

Discussing what it means

I’ve always felt that the concept of a Learning Circle was important, and have used this #hashtag-story often in discussions with friends and clients. But after having written dozens of chapters in this #HashtagYourLife system, seeing how all the concepts tie together, I am more convinced than ever how much these three phases drive so much of what we do – both in terms of success and failure.

Being overwhelmed can sometimes be a good sign – it’s an indication that you are on the path. Persistence and patience will get you through that, to mastery.

Why do these three phases exist?

There’s nothing magical about the progress from simplicity to complexity then back to simplicity. It’s actually quite obvious.

  • When we start learning or experiencing something new, we don’t know what we don’t know. We can’t imagine the complications that exist with this topic – so the ideas seem obvious. Perhaps we know people who have mastered this topic already, and they make it look really easy.
  • But then we get into the details, and our mind has to learn all this additional information, contextualise the facts, connect the relationships, and rationalise the logic. It’s a lot to take in. And each new thing that you learn, which you hoped would make things easier, just makes it more of a mess. (You know the famous saying about each new answer just creating more questions.)
  • But once all the facts are in our mind, when we’ve connected everything, practiced it all, seen what we’ve learned “in the real world”, then of course it seems simple. Everything has a place and a context, and there’s no more consolidation of knowledge required. It is what it is – why did we ever think it was complicated.

This is the Learning Circle, and it exists because of how we learn things, and how things are, after we’ve learned it.

Examples of the three phases of the Learning Circle

You can only optimize your response to what’s happening in your world, if you actually notice what is happening in your world!

To this end, we will go through a number of examples below to remind you how wide a range of processes or situations fit within this #hashtag-story. This should remind you to look more broadly at what’s happening in your own life.

So much of what happens in our lives – learning, achieving, communicating, habits – can be tied back the the Learning Circle. So get this one right!

And while it might be tempting to skip the examples, I recommend strongly that you don’t. It really is important to be aware of how much of your life goes through this Learning Circle. And with that knowledge comes incredible power.

Examples of learning:

  • When I began my actuarial exams, I knew it would be tough – everyone warned me. But somehow, each time I started a new subject, I’d enter with a “punch is just a punch” attitude. Statistics? Yeah, draw a few pie charts and calculate a few averages, I thought. Next thing I’d be crying myself to sleep because I couldn’t apply the least squares methodology to the Generalised Log Inverse Gaussian Distribution. But once I had passed all my exams, I just got on with doing what had to be done because I had knowledge of and a context for everything.
  • And this applies to any academic subject, at any age. It’s not just an actuarial thing. Obviously.
  • As we saw from the main anecdote above, when I trained in martial arts, I went through the three phases. Each time I entered a new phase of my learning, I’d go from thinking “just jump up, spin around, and kick him in the face – easy”, to “Argh my knees are so bruised from falling each time I fail to spin and kick”, eventually to “I didn’t even realise I scored the winning point in the tournament using a jumping spinning kick – I just remember getting the point”.
  • And for those of you who can drive – do you remember your confidence (“How hard can this be?”) before your first lesson? And then, like everyone else, you went through the overwhelm phase of struggling to remember to control your speed, and change gears, steer, and look in the rearview mirror, and watch the road signs … all simultaneously. I’m going to die!! And now, you can drive while texting (don’t do it!), listening to music, and talking to someone in the car with you, sipping on your cappuccino.

Examples of doing:

  • Years ago I used an app to help build a routine of good habits, and when adding new items to your daily list, users could see what the most popular ones are that others were using. Flossing was really high on the list – it appears that most people saw that as an easy win. Just floss, right? But when you looked in the discussion groups, it seems that flossing had a really high failure rate – which appeared to be a “punch is not just a punch” thing. When you’re actually flossing, your fingers are clumsy and not sure what to do next, you’re struggling to get the string between your teeth, looking in the mirror at your bleeding gums. It suddenly it all seems so complicated. So when it’s time to floss, your mind convinces you that it’s ok not to floss this time, because you’re in a bit of a rush. Of course, if you stick with it, it doesn’t take long to get comfortable with what you’re doing and to make it automatic – you make it into the “punch is just a punch” phase again, for the rest of your life. But you have to stick with it.
  • When you put something on your to-do list, it seems so simple: “Change lightbulb in bathroom.” So you go to the shop, thinking you’ll be out in less than a minute. But then you have to spent a little time thinking about whether you should go for the white or the yellow tint – which is better for a bathroom? 8W to 12W – what’s appropriate? Damn, I should have looked at the bulb itself – there are thin screw-ins and thick ones. Which one should I get? And then when get home with a new bulb to change it, you discover the chair isn’t high enough so you need the ladder (but can’t remember where you left it). Nevermind that can’t seem to get the cover off, so can’t actually chance the bulb. Argh … this should have been a 3 minute task, but you’ve been living in your head about what to get and how to do it, for like half an hour already! That middle phase 2 is a bitch sometimes.
  • Or what about when you learn to sell? At first it’s perhaps a little intimidating, but feels very doable. That lasts until you are there in front of your prospect, struggling to remember all the techniques you’ve learned, asking questions and having to listen to the answers, arguing with yourself inside your head about whether you should give them a discount, but hearing your boss’s voice echoing in your mind that you can’t discount the product. It’s just too much. Until it’s not. Once you’re in practice, once you’ve been through the process many times, once you’ve seen how prospects react to the stories you’re telling, then suddenly things start to feel right. Yes you’re still having to deal with all those things, but so many of them are running on automatic. A punch has once again become just a punch.
  • And even being sold to, is a learning that goes through the three phases. In the beginning you go in, buy what you’re sold and pay the price. It’s simple. But then you realize that as the buyer, you can be more specific about what you want, can learn during the sales process about what your needs really are, and that you often actually have the ability to negotiate price and terms – that’s a lot to take in. When you’re in phase 2 you realize you can get a more appropriate product/service at a better price, but you’re still overwhelmed, so you don’t do it. (By the way, now would be a great time to read #[I’m not just browsing]). But then you reach phase 3, you’ve thought through everything, you’ve tried things, you’ve won and lost in your negotiations, and suddenly you’re really good at buying. And it all seems so natural.
  • In the corporate world, you might have heard of the Peter Principle, which says that people rise to the level of their incompetence. It’s a rather flippant perspective, but it basically says that we get promoted when we’re good at our job (what this chapter is calling phase 3), and we continue to get promoted until we reach a level where we are no longer competent, because we’ve risen too high (i.e. we’re only in phase 1 or phase 2 at that level) – in which case the company is filled with people who have not yet mastered their jobs. It’s interesting to see how this can be seen in terms of an organisation filled with people who are in the “punch is not just a punch” phase.

Creating habits is a type of learning

As we saw in the example of flossing above, the over-confidence during phase 1, and the overwhelm during phase 2, can completely derail your intentions of creating good habits.

To help yourself manage the risk of quitting before you reach phase 3, there is a lot you can do. Take some time now to read these stories for some very practical discussions:

Different people deal with Phase 2 differently

It’s interesting to see how people deal with the “punch is not just a punch” phase. While reading the points below, think about what reaction you typically have, and see if you can identify your friends’ and family’s reactions too.

  • Some people love the challenge. They see the familiarity from phase 1 as a reason to get into phase 2, and then start learning, embedding themselves in the details, digging deeper and deeper.
  • And some of these people enjoy the challenge of learning so much, the feeling of progress towards phase 3 each time, that they continue pushing themselves. The upside of this is a lifetime of learning, the downside could be an obsession with the details, never reaching the point of being able to pull oneself above the mess.
  • On the other hand, there are of course those who don’t like entering phase 2 – it leaves them uncomfortable and uncertain. The likelihood is those people don’t like to explore new fields (or new relationships, or new lifestyles). To be clear, if they are happy in their comfort zone, then there is no need to push them out – you don’t have to be a learner if you don’t want to.
  • However, we know from #[Dog on the rusty nail] that sometimes people may dislike where they are, but “it doesn’t hurt enough” to trigger the effort required to change. Fear of phase 2, or the sense of overwhelm from phase 2, can be part of the problem. People have to be comfortable with change, with phase 2, in order to take action.
  • There are also impatient people who don’t mind feeling the confusion of phase 2, but they can’t tolerate it for too long. So while they might be in the habit of mastering simpler subjects into phase 3, but bigger areas tend to get neglected. People like this are perfectly capable of working through the complexity, they don’t. They just … stop. They couldn’t be bothered. In a sense, again it’s the #[Dog on the rusty nail] theme of “it doesn’t hurt enough” to push through for longer. And so they eject.
  • And of course there are people with an ego, people who believe they know it all, who never work their way through the three phases of new topics. They see no point in asking the difficult questions, since they already know the answers! They somehow convince themselves that their understanding that “a punch is just a punch” is actually phase 3 mastery, when it’s actually just phase 1 introduction.
  • It’s interesting to speak with people like this, to challenge their knowledge by asking about details in phase 2. For true masters, being able to respond to phase 2 details is easy, because they’ve worked through it before. But the know-it-alls have never passed through phase 2, and so cannot provide adequate answers to phase 2 questions. In my personal experience, when you ‘catch’ someone in phase 1 who thinks they’re in phase 3, the most common response they provide is that your challenge isn’t relevant, or it’s missing the point. The reality is they simply don’t know the answer, nor can they explain why your question is, apparently, irrelevant. “It just is.” You can read about something similar in #[Pigs on my birthday cake].

If you’re one of the people who enjoys mastering phase 2 complexity into phase 3 mastery, then make sure you’ve subscribed to the weekly #HashtagYourLife newsletter, and get regular reminders as new chapters come out, with additional material that doesn’t appear on the website.

Overwhelm, and the Imposter Syndrome

The phase of “punch is not just a punch” is, by definition, overwhelming. If it doesn’t feel like “too much”, then you’re either still in phase 1, or you’re only doing a partial phase 2 (which will not be enough to get you to mastery, just to having a bit more knowledge).

The [Stoics] have a phrase called “Amor fati”, which means “love your fate”. Don’t just accept your fate, or put up with it, but actually love it. And that applies here too. Don’t just tolerate the fact that in order to reach mastery you have to go through the confusing middle phase, but love that fact, and submerge yourself in the joy of progress.

When you become overwhelmed while getting into something new: well done, it’s your effort that got you there. You pushed yourself out of the safety of phase 1, into the mire of phase 2. Just carry on doing more of the same, and you will eventually come out the other side.

It may be unsettling, and it may take time, but you can get there.

Don’t see your confusion as a sign of being a failure, or of being incapable. Your having reached phase 2 is a sign that you are competent at progressing – so feel secure about that.

The state of “Imposter Syndrome” often comes up in this context – people are progressing and they’re learning, but they are also aware that they haven’t got there yet. Rather than focusing on having reached phase 2, they get stuck on the thought that they’re not yet in phase 3. There seems to be the belief that everyone around us is comfortably in phase 3, and we’re the only ones who are feeling lost.

Which of course is nonsense.

When you believe in your ability to get through to “punch is just a punch” again, then you are more likely to persist. And you will get there.

But when our coping mechanism for overwhelm is to eject, when our sense of Imposter Syndrome creates a sense of inadequacy, then we can do silly things, like giving up, or just getting stuck there.

Don’t give up. Overwhelm is temporary, it’s just a symptom of being in phase 2. Stick with it, regardless of how slow you go, and you will master it.

#HashtagYourLife is the quickest way through Phase 2

Did you have the awareness, while working through this chapter, that the #HashtagYourLife system is perfect for getting through each new Learning Circle you face?

Since phase 2 is overwhelming, this means there can be a lot of learning to get through to the other side. And because it’s a new area, each time, the new learning doesn’t always connect with your current knowledge of the world.

But #HashtagYourLife takes all these different aspects of our lives – decisions, habits, communication – into the context of a story and a hashtag. It’s crisp and self-contained. It gives you a tool that can be re-used. It gives you perspective, and helps you become more effective.

As you build up your library of #hashtag-stories, more and more aspects of your life that were previously complicated or overwhelming start fitting into place.

Things don’t seem “too much” anymore. Your life is again within your control.

That’s an excellent place to be. I’m glad you found us.

Making it personal

Your personal examples

Firstly, spend some time thinking about your attitudes and habits around the Learning Circle. In the Discussion section above we considered many aspects of this, including how comfortable, or even eager, we are to get into phase 2, and how committed and patient we are to get to phase 3.

Take some time to think about specific examples where you’ve made it right through to “a punch is just a punch” phase again. And try remember examples of areas where you never made it through phase 2 – can you remember why that was? Do you see any patterns in your life?

Right now, what is the most obvious area of your life where you are like a #[Dog on a rusty nail], and see how much of that relates to getting stuck in the “punch is not just a punch” phase.

How to take advantage of the existence of the Learning Circle yourself

When you’re communicating: Help them see your message in the context of things they know already. If you tell them things that they can’t contextualize, you are basically forcing them into the confusing phase 2 – and you’ll lose them. Storytelling is a great way to approach this, since you are in effect telling them something new, in the context of something simple that they can connect with – which helps them feel like they’re in phase 3. Doing presentations is the same – your job is to get them through phase 2 by the end of your session, so that when they leave the room, they feel like they’ve completed the circle.

More specifically, using the #[Animal Mammal Camel] approach is perfect for achieving this in a short period of time.

When you’re selling: This is of course a special case of communicating! Remember to make sure that what you say is easily understood (be careful of terminology). Technical sellers especially should not be throwing facts at the prospect – that just serves to keep them in phase 2 with complexity, and people tend not to buy while still in phase 2! Your job is to make the connections between their problem and your solution very clear, so that they don’t say no out of confusion and overwhelm.

When you’re entering a new relationship: You meet them, it’s simple. You then get to know them better, but suddenly it’s complicated – their background, their aspirations, whether they mean it when they say you can decide, which of your preferences clash with theirs. But after a while, it’s simple again. Either it’s a simple yes (and you stay together) or a simple no. It’s interesting that in relationships, some people are really excited by the “punch is not just a punch” phase, they love learning new things about a new person in their life, perhaps they enjoy the challenge of seduction (in the broadest sense of the word).

When you’re going through a transformation: My friend bailed on his personal challenge of being Vegan for 30 days, even though he’d tried vegetarianism before and it went well. Perhaps because the vegetarian experiment had gone well, he assumed that being vegan for a month would be easy too. He definitely entered that challenge with phase 1 confidence. But very quickly he found that it was much more complicated than he had expected – what food to buy, what snacks he had available at home, how to deal with the hunger that emerged quite early on, restaurant options. And so, without pushing through to phase 3 by research and patience, he gave up. The jump from phase 1 to phase 2 was just too much for him at that time. (Perhaps, had it not been a 30 day challenge, he would have been more patient, and not bailed?)

When we’re going through other transformations, we need to expect there will be challenges – many types of challenges – as we go through the “punch is not just a punch” phase. Preparation is an excellent way of simplifying getting out of phase 2, even if it pushes you quickly into phase 2 at the beginning. This applies whether you’re setting up an independent business, becoming heart-centered, moving into wellness, or dealing with your challenges (anger, co-dependency, insecurity, eating disorders).

On the one hand, some of the overwhelm we experience in phase 2 is real. For example, you suddenly discover how much your co-dependent behaviour has influenced all aspects of your life, so it’s a lot to deal with. But on the other hand, sometimes our overwhelm is because of stuff we’ve made up (see #[Putting trees in your field] – where you imagine all the sticking points you’re facing, which actually don’t exist). Whatever your challenges are as you go through the “punch is not just a punch” phase, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s real or made-up … that’s all part of phase 2. Be aware that the middle phase exists, prepare for it as best as you can, be patient and persistent. And then come out the other side, having mastered yet another topic.

Mastering Life: This is rather a big thing to deal with, but that’s what’s great about the #HashtagYourLife system. The goal is to keep you dealing with one aspect of your life at a time, becoming aware, learning to deal with it, and then mastering it.

Make sure you subscribe to our weekly newsletter, so you don’t miss out on bringing any aspect of your life under your control.

Welcome – a punch has again become “just a punch”.

Related stories

#[No I’m not just browsing]

#[Animal Mammal Camel]

#[Red-dot on the wall]

#[One push-up a day]

#[Pigs on my birthday cake]

#[Darth Vader’s little Lego head]

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