Becoming a learning machine

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt John B Will explains his fascinating approach to martial arts training which encourages efficiency and effective problem-solving.

“My first priority is to be a black belt in learning! Everything else will follow easily!”

Becoming a Learning Machine

I began my serious martial arts journey once I left Australian shores and began to search abroad; primarily, at first, in Asia. In those early days, I didn’t understand the Indonesian, Thai, Japanese or Indian languages, etc; and so I had to train myself to ‘look’ and ‘think’. For all intents and purposes, I may as well have been deaf. My very first learning epiphany came when I worked out how to spot the best practitioner in the class and do a comparative analysis that would reveal what he was doing that the others were not doing.

This was the first real skill I developed; and it still serves me very well today. I realized, very early on, that exceptional outcomes in performance were usually the result of someone doing exceptional things. I became determined to develop my skill at spotting what these exceptional things were; and then of course, trying to replicate them myself. I quickly learned that if I did the same sorts of things that everyone else was doing, I could only expect the same sorts of results that they were getting. If I wanted exceptional results, I had to do those things that the exceptional people did.

That sounds easy to do; but in fact, it was not. Looking, very, very carefully at the small (let’s say ‘almost invisible’) things that the exceptional martial artists were doing, opened my eyes to this little-understood secret – the secret of detailed-modelling. It is not enough to just ‘model’ the successful behaviours of other people; the real trick is to understand those behaviours and take ownership of them. The next learning epiphany I had was the realization that ‘efficient’ use of time really made a difference in the long run. If the class was allocated five minutes to drill a technique – and say, the majority of the people in that class completed 20 repetitions in that time – I would try to complete 30.

That’s 33% more experience – in the same timeframe! Over a year it really adds up. Eventually it’s almost equivalent to having done three years training for every two years training that everyone else does; three decades compared to two decades, etc. I would also try to get a couple of extra reps in before I left training to head home that day; and then a couple more before training started the next day; all of which resulted in me usually doing double the amount of reps that the average person in the class was doing – and I didn’t need any extra days to do it in, I didn’t need to do any extra travel or any more washing of training gear, etc. I just made much better use of my training time. Efficiency!

The next learning epiphany I made was realizing that the ‘elite’ weren’t necessarily smarter than I was. I had intelligence and I could bring that to bear on the same sets of problems they were dealing with. In other words, I could ‘think’ for myself; and not just blindly follow; no matter how talented my role-model was. Cultivating the habit of analytical thinking and problem-solving is a habit really worth putting time into. The wonderful bonus is that analytical thinking and problem-solving capabilities can be brought to bear on a plethora of other challenges that life throws at us. Being able to systematically break a problem down to it’s component parts and then being able to develop a solution to that problem is a skill-set that can drive our lives from success to success even under adverse conditions.


We should all become better problem-solvers; and problem-solving begins with an analysis of the problem. Slicing a problem down into manageable portions is a great way to clarify a way forward when things seem difficult. We cannot change or improve someone’s ability to teach us anything; but what we can do, is learn to become better students.

We can practice taking notes; practice breaking things down into smaller (more manageable) chunks; be first there for class; be the last to leave; come with questions at the ready; be respectful and helpful to those who are trying to teach us; be front and center at all times; be engaged! Life requires that we learn. So why not be the very best learners we can be. I am privileged to have earned my black belt in a number of styles – but at the risk of sounding corny – my first priority is to be a black belt in learning! Everything else will follow easily!

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.