I first read about this concept in Ryan Holidays, Ego is the Enemy, in which he credited Frank Shamrock with a learning concept he called Plus, minus and equal. It’s really one of the better learning concepts I’ve read about. There was just one problem…
… I really disliked Frank Shamrock (in the way that you dislike someone you have never met, ha ha)… Well, to be fair it was more Ken Shamrock than Frank. I was always a Don Frye fan, which sorta precluded me from liking Ken and therefore by association Frank. Frank Shamrock is Mixed Martial Arts champion, that might not be immediately apparent to people who aren’t into that sort of thing. Ken was his brother. (After reading Frank’s autobiography I found out that they were actually foster brothers and in no way related) In the early days of Pride and UFC I really liked a mustachioed freestyle wrestler named Don Frye. Ken and Don had a bit of feud going. In one really horrible, bloody bout Ken repeatedly ankle locked Don really damaging him. (Don eventually became addicted to pain killers as a result of this bout). Don Frye would not tap and eventually won the bout by split decision. That cemented Don in my mind as one the toughest fighters that ever lived. It also made me actively root against anyone whose surname was Shamrock.
After reading Ego is the Enemy I lamented, why did it have to be Frank? Eventually I took a leaf from Ryan Holidays book and let my rather arbitrary feelings slide.
I bought Uncaged, Frank Shamrock’s autobiography and immediately flipped to the last chapter where Frank talks about what life lessons he’s learnt from martial arts. (I did subsequently read the rest of the book, but only much later)
I had to eat a great big helping of humble pie and (grudgingly) admitted that Frank Shamrock had a damn fine theory. And also since he was in no way related to Ken, I feel like I should apologize to Frank for the slander by association.
According to the theory in order for you to achieve greatness you need three things. Someone who is better than you are. Ie. THE PLUS. This is the person that knows more than you do, the person you can learn from. A teacher, a mentor or guru.
Then you need someone who is not as good at something as you. Ie. THE MINUS. This is the person that you can teach, instruct and develop. Its only when you have to teach something to someone that you can truly understand and appreciate it.
Finally you need someone who is just like you. Ie. THE EQUAL. This is someone that will challenge you, someone against who you can test yourself against, a rival or competitor or sparring partner.
The greatest challenge in each part of this equation is letting go of your ego.
Revealing that there are people who know more than you, from whose wisdom you can benefit from is your first hurdle. Being a boxer and a grappler this concept was never a problem for me, when it came to fighting at any rate. In Jiu-jitsu this is an easy concept to appreciate. When you’re a white belt a blue belt will crush you like an egg shell. When you’re a blue belt a purple belt will make you feel like you’ve just wasted two years of your life. When you’re a purple belt a brown belt will make you question if you actually know anything about grappling at all and so on and so on… ad infinitum. In grappling there is ALWAYS someone better than you.
The same cannot be said for other areas in my life. I was always proud of my trading ability which I thought was so beyond reproach or criticism, no-one could teach me anything. I was scornful and dismissive. Until I met my wife, and who demonstrated quite simply and without effort that I didn’t know anything about anything. I was a lowly toilet bug when it came to finance.
There is always someone who knows more than you do about something. Even when you feel you’ve achieved mastery of a certain field. Stay humble and always remain a student.
Remember however, that you also have a skills that someone else lacks. Even though you may sometimes not think so. Eventually in MMA I progressed far enough that I became an instructor. I became aware that I didn’t really know or appreciate a technique until I had to break it down for someone into its most basic components. Something as simple as an armbar, for someone who has never rolled before, is really challenging. We forget that we started at the bottom. Having someone that you can teach really makes you consider what it is that you are teaching. Just because you understand a concept in your mind, being able to vocalize it and explain it somebody else who doesn’t share your experience is often really difficult. Often you’ll see something you never noticed before. I am learning this now even more than ever before with my two year old daughter, when she (constantly) asks ‘Why?’. I’m realizing how ignorant I am about the world around me.
The equal. How do you measure yourself unless you challenge yourself against an equal. You need a benchmark to see if you’ve improved or fallen behind. You constantly need to assess and appraise. If you’re not testing and evaluating feedback you might be lulled into a false sense of self. And in that place ego thrives and more than anything Ego is the Enemy.