Specialisation

There is a tendency in life to specialise. That is natural enough: to become a doctor or a lawyer, one has to study and practise for a number of years at different areas in the same general field. To be a good typist or computer operator, you have to become expert on a keyboard.

To type in Japanese kana-majiri, one has to learn a much larger keyboard. When Western typists are told about the Japanese keyboard, with the 600 common characters in the middle and the two wings of further characters, and are told that Japanese typists know the position of nearly all of them, we tend to say ‘Impossible!’ But a good many Japanese manage it.

Specialisation gives us a role in life: most of us earn our living by some kind of specialised skill. Brick-laying is a special skill: Churchill used to build walls in his garden, and he is supposed to have said that to lay bricks perfecdy is a fine art, but some people think it must be easy: ‘You just spread the cement and put the bricks on it. These are the people who think it must be easy to take the cloth and make a suit from it: you just cut it and sew it.’ But tailors and bricklayers must both be highly skilled, or the result is hopeless.

In the budo arts, specialisation is accepted as necessary until technique has been learned. But after that, it is a danger. One can become a prisoner of specialisation. And we see this everywhere in life. Specialists develop their skill in one field but then they begin to feel that this one field is everything. So they apply their specialist skill to other fields, where it is not suitable. Often they cannot free themselves from their imprisonment in their speciality. I will give a small but dramatic example.

My eldest brother was an expert boxer. His speciality was a terrific right-hand hook; he won most of his contests with this. He had so specialised in it, that it was natural to him.

My middle brother was an expert golfer, with a beautiful smooth swing. Occasionally we three brothers went for a week’s golf together. We had all played a bit when children. The middle brother now gave us a few lessons.

As a judo man, I was able to follow his instructions. ‘Golf is a lefthanded game,’ he told us. Think of pulling the club smoothly with your left arm. Forget the right arm and hand; they will do their work automatically and unconsciously.’ Though I played infrequendy, I soon got my handicap down to six, where it remained for 40 years.

It was quite different with my eldest brother. He was a sportsman, and he could easily imitate a smooth swing with just the club swishing through the air. But when he came to hit a ball, his right hook took over. He would begin with a beautiful smooth action, controlled by the left arm as he had been taught. But just before the club hit the ball, his body would tense and the right hand would give a lightning punch. The blow was strong, but as it was right-handed, the club cut across the ball. The result was a tremendous slice. The ball sailed away to the right, in a quarter circle. I have never seen such a huge slice. The ball would generally go far into the rough, or out of bounds. My brother desperately tried to control his punch, but he could not do it. His speciality had become part of him. He lost dozens of golf balls. In the end he gave up. Instead of the normal stance on the tee, he made a half-turn to the left. When he hit the ball, it would go far to the left, and then come in an impressive curve back to the fairway. But of course his golf was always very wild and he never got a good handicap.

There are many examples of imprisonment in technique even in technique itself. The excellence of a thing is its own undoing’ is the Chinese phrase of Chuang Tzu: in English it is two words: Too good’.

I remember some skilled judo men who specialised in ashi-waza (foot technique), and one of them was expert in tsubame-gaeshi or ‘swallow counter’. He would make an apparently careless step across in front of the opponent, who would automatically make a de-ashi- barai (advanced foot sweep) attack. The expert would make a lighting circle, avoiding the attack and coming up behind the attacker’s foot. It would make a brilliant counter. But this same expert was once caught by his own excellence. He laid the trap by making the seemingly careless step in front of the opponent, whose foot came forward for the ashi-barai. This set off the tsubame-gaeshi. But instead of going for ashi-barai, the opponent took his foot up to the knee, and made a sort of hiza-guruma (knee-wheel). The knee had no support below it, and the tsubame-gaeshi expert was completely trapped and fell heavily.

These are examples of a general principle. We can see it in life. Man has succeeded in developing, whereas other animals have remained prisoners of their specialisation. Man gave up specialisations: our finger-nails were once specialised claws, but we gave up clawing in favour of a general use of the hand. We have given up specialisations of scent, and sensitivity to vibration. We use inference to tell us about our surroundings.

In our own lives too we can see specialists who are imprisoned in their own skill. There are people who are experts at estimating the price of things; when they see a thing, they can at once estimate what its price could be. Or rather, they can estimate what they could buy it for, and then how much profit they could make by selling. But such people can become unable to see anything but price. If they look at a fine picture, they see its beauty, but as an indication of the price. They may think, “Yes, it is beautiful, but that style of painting is not popular today; the market is down for that sort of thing.’ Then they actually lose interest in the picture altogether; it would not be a good investment. They know about the price of things, but not about how to appreciate things in themselves.

A British multi-millionaire once made a striking remark: “Anyone can make a lot of money, if they are willing to sacrifice everything else for it. Their friends, their marriage, their spare time – everything has to be for the purpose of money. If people knew how narrowing the pursuit of money is, they would not want to devote themselves to it.’

This same millionaire tried to relieve the narrowness of his own life by supporting various charities. For instance, he and some others set up a factory where severely disabled people could earn a living by making toys. One day he visited the factory, and went round the work places. This gave him (as he said) a temporary relief from always thinking about money.

He stopped to watch one young man who had lost some fingers from each hand. This man was slowly and carefully gluing pieces of some coloured material together. He had only just begun this job, and it was not clear what the toy would be. The old rich man bent over and asked in a kindly way:

‘What are you making, son?’

The worker looked at him and said:

A pound an hour.’

 

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