Thoughts on Identity Formation & Time Compression Diseconomies

As a scholar, I have been working on a paper that uses professional sports as a research context. In reviewing the literature during the writing stage, I came across a fascinating paper entitled, “Identity in Sport Subcultures” by Peter Donnelly and Kevin Young in the Sociology of Sport Journal. While the paper has no mention of martial arts, it did contain some interesting commentary that I would like to share, and then reframe in terms of participation in the Bujinkan.

The paragraph of interest is as follows:

“As we have noted, in order to pay homage to the subculture’s focal concerns (Miller, 1958), some novices will undergo anticipatory socialization procedures. That is, they will vicariously perform roles in various situations that they assume are expected of them. For example, a typical trait of novice climbers is to want to display to both climbers and nonclimbers that they are now climbers. This is part of the first stage of identity construction. Display involves wearing climbing clothes and boots in nonclimbing settings, carrying equipment, books, and magazines about climbing as conspicuously as possible, and turning the conversation to climbing as often as possible. Novices have even been seen wearing the extremely uncomfortable boots designed specifically for rock climbing (removed immediately upon completion of a climb by veterans) in a number of nonclimbing situations such as attending class or in a bar. While they may claim to be breaking in the boots, such novices are invariably pleased that one has recognized their boots, thereby recognizing them as a fellow climber. In fact, the purpose of the display is to indicate to nonclimbers that one is now different, and to signal to other climbers that one is now a fellow member and may be approached as such. Of course, what such display actually does is indicate to climbers that one is a novice.” (pp.229-230)

As practitioners, we have all seen such novices running around in the Bujinkan. With their wide eyes and hunger to learn, they are like puppy dogs excited that the Bujinkan world even exists in the first place. Speaking frankly, when I have observed this novice behavior in the past, I dismissed it as the individuals being either dorks or too inexperienced to know better.

What’s intriguing about the description of the novice rock climbers is that it conjures images not just of newbie whitebelts, but also of newly minted Shodan, newly minted Godan, and newly minted Judan in the Bujinkan. Clearly, having reached the levels of Shodan, Godan and Judan, these individuals are not newbies to the art, and they certainly should not be too inexperienced to know better. Yet, there they are….

And their existence always kinda bothered me. Be it an individual who has business cards printed the day of passing his Godan test in order to distribute widely to those in Japan (yes, this happened), or the individual who alters his dojo website within days of being given a Judan even before getting home from Japan (again, yes, this really happened), these activities always left me puzzled. “Perhaps they are just dorks” was the only rationale I could find the behavior.

I had never even considered the role such activities play in the construction of one’s own identity, both as a martial artist and as a member of the Bujinkan organization.

The Donnelly and Young paper continues:

“As novices become more experienced and more secure in their identity as climbers, their need for display will decrease, and they will gradually become conscious that such behavior is not “cool.” Overt display is a rookie error that highlights the subcultural values of coolness and understatement. While display is expected from novices, it may be ridiculed as the individual becomes more experienced. Normally, the more obvious signs of display are removed-ropes are removed from the outside to the inside of a backpack, climbing boots are removed and more comfortable shoes worn when not climbing, and conversations with other climbers turn to the subject more naturally. Recognition of other climbers becomes more subtle. Without quite realizing it, the individual begins to notice the rolled-up magazine, the guidebook in the hip pocket, and the cuts and scars on an individual’s hands that could only have come from climbing rock.” (p.230)

In the Bujinkan, it is not rolled-up magazines and climbing scars that indicate experience, it is the quality of one’s Budo–the shape of the space created by the individual, the subtle adjustments in structure that lead to big changes in the uke‘s body, and the facility with which the individual can see the movement of the teacher and replicate its principals. The more mature one becomes in the art, the better the movement.

This brings me to an important theory of learning that also comes from the literature, this time from scholarship on firms. Back in 1989, Ingemar Dierickx and Karel Cool wrote one of the most important papers in the history of management scholarship, entitled, “Asset Stock Accumulation and Sustainability of Competitive Advantage.” As a measure of its importance, this eight-page paper has received almost 4,500 citations from scholars around the world to date.

There were many insights in this paper but the most relevant for a martial arts context is the idea of “time compression diseconomies.” Given the paper’s management audience, the concept was framed around corporate R&D. Dierickx and Cool wrote,

“In the case of R&D, the presence of time compression diseconomies implies that maintaining a given rate of R&D spending over a particular time interval produces a larger increment to the stock of R&D know-how than maintaining twice this rate of R&D spending over half the time interval.” (p.1507)

Said differently, if you invest X over Y number of months to generate Z amount of knowledge, investing 2X over half the number of months will not lead to Z amount of knowledge.

The implications of time compression diseconomies on your budo are profound. Doubling your training time over half the time will not yield the same knowledge creation as putting in your time. You see, some things in the world are “flows” that can be purchased or received, changing instantaneously whether you “have” them or not (e.g., a belt to tie around your waist, a drawing from Soke to hang on the wall, and, yes, even a new rank such as Shodan, a Godan or a Judan). Other things, however, are “stocks” that take time to build up and cannot be rushed; budo is a “stock” not a “flow.” And there is a real danger when students of budo interpret their budo progression as a series of flows (i.e., ranks that pour in), rather than the stock that it is.

People who perceive their budo as flows, and receive those flows in an overall shorter time period than those who take their time, often become disenchanted with their training and with their place in the art (i.e, their identity). They say things like, “I’m X rank and I am shocked that I don’t know Y.” This is because they view their budo as a flow and have failed to recognize that time compression diseconomies have made it impossible for their budo to reflect the flows received to date. As a good friend of mine likes to say, “You can never go back.” He is referring, of course, to people who rush to fill their cup from the flows (i.e., rushing to take the Godan test) and who neglect the fact that they lack the proper gestation time to accumulate stock in the art. If you take rank flows too quickly, it is not uncommon that as your time in the art lengthens, you will begin to feel that your (overflowing) flows do not match your (paltry) stocks. And it is at this point when people start looking elsewhere, rather than looking inside themselves, for the cause of their “flow-stock” mismatch.

I have watched a few people go to Japan every year and return with a new rank. They tell me, “It is rude to turn down a rank.” But they also neglect to mention that they are always asked one question before they are promoted. That question is always the same: “What is your rank?” If previous experience with this question has always led to a promotion in rank, and if you have reflected on your stock of budo and personally do not feel that you should be receiving any flows at that time, why not answer the rank question as a Japanese person might–by avoiding the question all together? A simple, “High enough for now” should suffice and you will have communicated your own understanding of your own budo stock at that moment in time in light of a potential new flow. Soke will be pleased that you see where you are in your own understanding of budo, and will simply continue on….

And hopefully you will, too. Remember: To be successful in budo, you need to know where you are along the path. Do not confuse flows for stocks, and that should help you see where you are and where you need to go.


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