Sweep the Dojo

I’ve recently begun a (slow, but steady) campaign of personal development, by reading books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Outliers, and blogs like Study Hacks and You Are Not So Smart. Believe it or not, I’ve actually begun to learn some things, and develop a philosophy about how to be successful in life.1 As I gain insight I’m going to try to write about it here from time to time, and we’ll see how it goes.

It could be said that there are two major components to becoming successful: (1) being skilled in what you do, and (2) external factors, such as birth date, upbringing, and cultural legacy. There are books like So Good They Can't Ignore You which focus entirely on (1), and at the other extreme books like Outliers which focus on (2). Some of these external factors are pure luck, but others are keys to success which anyone might learn, regardless of their IQ. These are advantages that can be cultivated, but how? My new quest is to discover techniques that will give me these sorts of advantages: both advantages of skill, and advantages of circumstance.

Advantage Number One

My first post in this vein discusses something which fits into both categories: the necessity of being outgoing. A key component of learning a new skill and getting better at it is to have good feedback on how you're doing. Often this comes in the form of a coach or a mentor who can help guide you and give you opportunities to learn. A coach or a trainer not only gives you immediate feedback, but also guides you toward mastery by giving you challenging tasks. Tasks that push the limit of your ability and immediate feedback are two central components of deliberate practice.2 So one big question is, how do I learn from others? How can I convince someone to be my mentor? This leads us to conclude that to learn from others, you must be sociable.3

So that is how being social can help you develop your skills. But what about those external factors I mentioned? Well, being social is tightly wrapped up in those ideas, too. I'm sure you have already heard people emphasize the importance of networking to career building. "It's not what you know, it's who you know," the saying goes. Most of Gladwell's Outliers focuses on those less tangible factors for success. As he says in the introduction to his book:

... the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.

The whole premise of Outliers is that we cannot begin to understand a person's path to success until we start thinking in terms of community—in terms of "the people we surround ourselves with." I believe being a friendly, helpful person can contribute just as much to our career as learning from others. It means you might be able to use your connections to find out about great opportunities and solicit great recommendations. Being friends with kind, thoughtful people has a good influence on myself and my character. Likewise, I believe being friends with successful people predisposes me to success.

The Reluctant Extrovert

A friend of mine recently read Quiet, and was distressed by the value our society places on extroverts and the massive potential of introverts that goes untapped as a result. Chapter 4 in Outliers bears a similar lesson: those who are taught from an early age to speak up and get what they want tend to be more successful.

Quiet seems to posit that this “Extrovert Ideal” has developed or gotten much worse in recent years than ever before, but I am inclined to believe that this has always been the case. Most undiscovered talents probably stay undiscovered. After all, we would never have had A Confederacy of Dunces if John Kennedy Toole's mother wasn't a persuasive woman. How many other great Southern writers have we missed out on? Lewis Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius has shown us that pure ability does not often lead to success, as Terman himself was forced to conclude that “intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.”

This is tragic, though to some extent it is not unreasonable. The introvert will not have the help of others. He will have to make his way alone. And as it is phrased in Outliers, “no one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone.” Perhaps someday we will develop systems to help those who cannot help themselves, but for now we will have to learn to become reluctant extroverts. We will have to learn to market ourselves and reach out to others. So how do we begin?

On Scott Young’s blog, Get More From Life, there is a very nice post on networking which implores us to Be High Value and Be Generous as a first step in our networking strategy. To receive help from others, we must first be helpful ourselves. That involves developing skills, and then being generous with those skills.

You may ask, however, how can I develop my skills without someone to help me? And how can I possibly help someone who is leaps and bounds ahead of me? There are many times when it seems that we have nothing of value to offer to our mentors. Isn’t this a chicken-or-egg problem? Well, I recently heard a great piece of advice, a personal motto of sorts...

Sweep the Dojo

What does it mean? It means that if we admire a great master of martial arts, and we wish to learn from them, it is true that we cannot offer to spar with them. We cannot offer to help them teach other martial arts students. But we can always offer to sweep the dojo.

There is always some way for us to help everyone, if we dig deep enough, no matter how small. If there is a professor in another university whose work you are trying to understand, perhaps you can offer to be their copy editor in return for the privilege of gaining early access to their publications. If there is a clever entrepreneur you want as your mentor, maybe you can start by managing some of the tedious details of running a business that they don't have time for.

As you do menial work for them, you can observe them, get to know them, and begin to learn tidbits from them, while studying on your own in your free time. If they are worth having as a mentor, they will recognize your efforts and begin to give you more opportunities to learn.

If they already have a graduate student or a secretary or whatnot to help them in that area, they will at least appreciate the effort and will already be much more open to your communications than they would have otherwise. Who knows, they may agree to help you anyway.


  1. Developing a philosophy and actually living it are two different things, but hey, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
  2. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of deliberate practice, I recommend you start as I did, by reading this blog post, followed by this one.
  3. You must either be sociable, or you must have the money to spend on professional classes. But if you are to be a lifelong learner, you can't just keep paying for classes your whole life. Better to find mentors and partners.
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