Art of Good Learning 1 – Circle of Competence

I am 2/3 through the book “The Art of the Good Life” by Rolf Dobelli. Some of the advice that he puts up for having a good life (as opposed to a wealthy life) are interestingly what I also follow. The only difference is I don’t have a name for the principles I follow though they are written about in books on Zen and Taoism.

Some of the principles written about in “The Art of the Good Life” can be translated across to improve our Tai Chi skills. I have selected a few to write about.

First up is the title of Chapter 14 The Circle of Competence : Why It’s Important to Know Your Limits.

Dobelli mentioned that it was Warren Buffett who used the term circle of competence. Its importance to our learning of Tai Chi can be summed up by this passage :-

Inside the circle are the skills you have mastered. Beyond it are things you understand only partially or not at all. Buffett’s life motto : “Know your circle of competence, and stick within it. The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital”

Further down Dobelli wrote :-

Alongside the impulse to step outside your circle of competence is the equally powerful temptation to broaden it……… Resist it. Skills don’t transfer from one arena to another. In other words, skills are domain specific. A master chess player isn’t automatically going to be a good business strategist.

How does this translate to learning Tai Chi? For starters if you want to master Tai Chi as opposed to just learning it then you have to work on gaining competence. Once competent then you consolidate and widen your circle of competence. In this way you will know a lot more about the art than if you just learn everything at the surface level.

For example, I have students who learned Tai Chi or other arts for a decade, maybe even two. So why is it that when I bring something up about a technique, a principle it sometimes seem as if I am speaking Klingon to them. They somehow do not see the point.

I do not expect this from someone after a decade or more of learning. The only conclusion I can reach is that they learned, they practiced but at a swallow level. Or they tried to learn too many things and do not spend enough time on a core skill of competency so they don’t have a good foundation.

So first focus on your learning. Build your foundation. Deepen and stabilize it. Then finetune the core skills whether by looking inside out or outside in.

Is this not basically widening or stepping outside the circle of competence? Is this not contrary to what Dobelli wrote? Yes and no.

An example – I don’t mind knowing how to kick better. But it does not mean I want to master how to do high kicks. I like to look at such skills but I won’t try to add them to my repertoire. More so since I have already tried learning them like ages ago so I know its not for me. But knowing how high kicks are applied deepens my understanding on how to defend against them.

Similarly, in Tai Chi we use a circle to control our center. But knowing Wing Chun taught me how to control the center in another way. Knowing about the strengths of a centerline also highlighted to me its limitations.

Ultimately, I can understand better why we do not really use a centerline in Tai Chi. It is not that we can’t but then instead of freeing ourselves we will end up confining ourselves and limiting our movements. This is something which the use of a circle would not impose because on the perimeter of a circle any point can be used for defense and attack.

In that sense instead of limiting ourselves to a centerline defined by the middle halves of our body we can actually use multitudes of centerlines that are either defined by different lines referenced to our body or defined in space by our intent. Would this not be more liberating even though it takes more work to attain this circle of competence?

Conclusion – to master Tai Chi make sure you know what defines your circle of competence and work towards mastering the knowledge.

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