What lessons are you learning?

At the dojo with Kimo sense and a lot of old friends.

At the dojo with Kimo sense and a lot of old friends.

Last week we had a short visit from Kimo Wall sensei. As always, it was great to see him. We’ve known each other for 30 years next year and have shared a lot together. He was my first sensei and I am still learning from him. He introduced me to Matayoshi sensei, Gibo sensei, and Liu sifu, and indirectly (through Matayoshi sensei or Nakasone san at Shureido) to Sakai sensei, Gakiya sensei, and my other teachers and seniors in Okinawa. We have traveled together and shared training, sweat, friendship and more than a few good meals over the years.  Every time I see him I am reminded of how lucky I was to have found such a good teacher to start this journey with.

He was only here for a few days but we got some good training in. We also got to spend time with a lot of old friends and training partners. Kodokan Boston is 25 this year and we have had a lot of people through the dojo in that time. Most of the folks for the first 10 years or so were from UMass, students of Kimo sensei’s when he was there in the 80s or of Giles Hopkins sensei after that. A few of those folks are still training, but most don’t make it to the dojo much these days. These are people who, like Kimo sensei, I have shared sweat, blood, and meals with, but whom I don’t get to see very often. One of the best things about Kimo sensei’s visits is that they come out to say hello. Sensei gets to see them, and so do I. It is great fun!

Of course we train together. Since many of the folks who come out have not trained for a while that training often consists of the subjects we did endless repetitions of back in the day. People have a good time, and we all get to reminisce about the old days. Sensei also spends some time working with the folks who are training on classical kata, application principals, body mechanics, and so on. It is all good fun.

This seemed like a good idea when we were 20...

This seemed like a good idea when we were 20…

In addition to training we usually have a party of some sort, and spend time just chatting and sharing our lives with each other. This visit there was a lot of discussion of how training, whether one is still practicing or not, affects one’s life. Usually martial arts discussions center on the efficacy of technique, the physical prowess of the individual, the intensity of training, and so on. While there is occasional reference to the greater context of the practice, or how it is a “way of life” not a sport, this is usually a small part of the conversation. Not this time. Instead that was the main topic of conversation. Perhaps it was the demographic- there were a lot of people who are no longer training but for whom our karate remains a pivotal part of their lives. Since they could not talk about their current prowess or how effective technique x has been recently, they had instead spent time thinking about how training had shaped them and their lives and were sharing that.

It was good to hear. People like Kimo sensei, who has been teaching in the US since the 1960s, get to see the current crop of students but don’t often get to see how much impact they have had on the lives of people who are no longer in the dojo. It turns out he has had a huge impact on the lives of a lot of people. While we heard a few stories of people defending themselves the more striking themes were of character and self-knowledge. In many different ways people told of how their time training prepared them for bullies at work, for medical problems, for dealing with negotiations and managing subordinates, for all the various things life can throw at you. Of how deeply they were affected by the lessons they had learned, and how they were now passing them on to their children. And of how much they felt indebted to Kimo sensei for teaching them these lessons.

Calmness in the face of adversity, an ability to work hard and focus, and a sense that if something needs doing you should be the one to get in there and do it seemed to be what came up the most. As my friend Mike put it: “one of the first things sensei said was: ‘what are you gonna do?’. I use that every day at work. Problems come up and people sit around wondering who will deal with them and I say: what are you gonna do?” Other people mentioned phrases Kimo sensei has used around us for decades: “replace fear and doubt with knowledge and understanding”, “meet any situation without difficulty”, and the classic “you no be minus, you be plus!”, and talked about how these ideas had helped shape how they faced the world.  And made us all laugh.

It was gratifying to see Kimo sensei take all this in. It is easy to forget how much impact a teacher can have on someone’s life. Particularly when you don’t see those faces any more it is easy to assume that your impact is over. In some instances that may be true, but when a teacher challenges you, helps you push through and achieve things you didn’t think you could, and has something valuable and concrete to teach, that is seldom the case. That is one reason why hard training and attention to detail, personal effort, and most importantly character are so important in martial arts training. The technical results are of course important but often the most important effects of training are the less obvious ones, the ones that become part of who you are and how you approach the world. If your training is not challenging enough to change you, not deep enough to show you things you didn’t know were there, and not valuable enough to make you want to strive for it on your own, then your training is a shadow of what it could be. It takes a good, solid art to bring those things to the practice. But more importantly it takes a good teacher to bring them out in his or her students.

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Thanks sensei. As always, good to see you.

Drills, Exercises, and Understanding

A few weeks ago I was shown some “lock flows”. They were simple sequences of joint locks; in most cases each lock worked in the direction of the resistance to the previous one, a pretty common way to string them together. But in this instance the person showing them to me was slamming through the locks at high speed, with a fair bit of power and no attention to what their partner was doing. I realized they probably did not understand the drill very well, as that way it did nothing to train sensitivity to the opponent’s body- feeling for resistance, for when to apply and release pressure, for when the joint was open or closed, and for the rest of the body’s support (or lack thereof) of the joint. Done that way it was just a series of unconnected locks.

This is not unusual. Drills are just that, drills. They are not combat. But many people feel that their drills should be as “realistic” as possible. What that winds up meaning in practice is that they are done fast and hard, and are sometimes painful. While that may be something like combat it is not always good training. It is also really poor pedagogy, the old “when all you have is hammer” problem.

Training is a teaching and learning experience. You have a goal, a skill you want to develop, and you develop a curriculum to teach that skill set. Exercises inside that curriculum are designed to teach specific sub sets of the skills desired. To learn the skills properly, and as efficiently as possible, the drills need to be performed with a clear understanding of what they are teaching, how doing them inculcates that knowledge, and how you are measuring that.

So back to the lock flow. If the goal is just to memorize locks (a highly questionable goal to begin with) there are better ways to do that. If the goal is to learn how to move between joint attacks based on the resistance that your opponent is giving you, with an understanding of how your structure, his or her structure, and your relative strengths and positions will affect the outcome, you need to practice with that clearly in mind. You need to give your partner a chance to apply resistance, you to feel that resistance and react, you both to adjust your reactions based on the other person’s actions, and you need be able to do it relatively safely. If you slam through them with no attention to your partner there is no conversation, no flow. Your partner is also likely to go with your attacks easily to minimize their chance of getting injured, which further prevents you from feeling the resistance and exchange you are supposedly training.

This does not mean this drill needs to be performed weakly or at a snail’s pace, just that you both need to understand what you are trying to do and why, and communicate about it- what is the process, how are we measuring success, how much power and speed will we use, and how is that going to affect the goals for the drill. If you can’t do that and adjust accordingly, you may not actually know what you are trying to do, or how to do it, which means you won’t learn what the drill is supposed to teach. Even worse, you may associate skill with the way you are doing the drill- “It is hard, fast, and it makes my partner tap quickly”- with ability in the skill being taught “so therefore I can do joint locks on a resistant opponent”, which is probably not the case. Instead of learning a skill you will have learned a drill, and in the process possibly created a false sense of ability, a terrible thing indeed.

Is his head the hammer or the nail?

Is his head the hammer or the nail?

This process is the same for every drill you do. None alone can replicate combat. If they did you would have broken and dead training partners. Every single drill you do, every training exercise including full contact fighting, is a shared fiction. It is a story that allows you to replicate a piece of what happens in combat so you can learn how to deal with it. The rules around them are set up to allow you to learn. If you understand them and their purpose you can understand how they focus the drill on the skill being developed instead of it being just physical exercise with a martial flavor. You can also understand what the drill does not do; in that way you don’t think you are training something you are not.

For example, in one of our paired drills both people are free to attack or defend in any way, to any part of the body, including eyes and groin. The only rule is both people have to keep it slow and controlled. It is designed to give you time to feel how both peoples’ movement affects power and position, how your position affects options, and how to take advantage of those options. It has to be done slowly to do this. Speed it up too much and you don’t have time to recognize new options you can later put into other higher speed drills. Speed it up and you have to stay away from the eyes, throat, groin, etc. as a quick mistake can have serious consequences. Speeding it up too much means you can’t start to feel those new options on a physical level. But people have a constant tendency to speed up- it feels more “real”. They especially do this on defense, breaking down the story in a one-sided way, creating a totally false sense of success. So we have to remind ourselves of the reasons for the rules, and keep going back to those reasons in practice.

Like most drills it is only one part of a larger training protocol, one designed to work as a whole to develop skills. Taken on its own it has a variety of flaws. I have never seen a drill that does not have “flaws” if looked at from the perspective of something it is not designed to teach. For instance this drill does not teach hand speed or dealing with an adrenal rush very well, and those things are important. But it is not supposed to, we have other drills for that.

There are many ways to train. If you want to be totally realistic come into the dojo and fight until only one person can walk out. To the hospital, probably. More realistically, hide behind the door to the dojo and hit everyone that comes in with a bat. Even then they are coming to a place where they know physical violence is the subject, so better to surprise attack them somewhere else. I don’t think that is a very good pedagogical method though.

Instead, understand your drills, what they are teaching, and how the way they are performed affects what you learn from them. The things I see that make the biggest difference, and are most often done poorly, are range- a little too far away and any successful defense is an illusion, speed- fast feels good but speed can hide a host of mistakes and eliminate a whole set of learning possibilities, and contact- sometimes hitting hard is essential, sometimes it does not help.

Kamae!

Kamae!

Your drills are your stories. Understand those stories. They have a narrative; if the narrative is broken you may come up with a better story. However, you are more likely to wind up with the three bears eating Goldilocks and then going to sleep congratulating themselves on defending their home from a serious threat and believing they don’t have to be afraid of humans because they have learned how to deal with them. A real fable.

In Memory of Anthony Mirakian Sensei

Two weeks ago Anthony Mirakian sensei passed away. After he died it occurred to me that he has been a near-constant presence in my practice almost from the beginning, and I have been at a loss for what to say. For those of you that read this blog you will know that the relationships that develop through our practice are more important to me than who is tougher or who is higher rank. We are people first, martial artists second. But one of the good things about our practice is that it can bring people together. For me, Mirakian sensei was one of those people. The details of his personal history I’ll leave to others, his direct students perhaps. For me, this is not hagiography but a way to say good bye.

Anthony Mirakain Sensei, Okinawa, late 1950s

I first met Mirakian sensei in 1987. I went to his dojo in Watertown with Kimo Wall sensei. They had known each other since the 1960s. That visit was the start of a relationship that lasted until Mirakian sensei passed away. While he was never my teacher, over the time I knew him he taught me a great deal about our Goju Ryu, how to train, and how to comport myself as a martial artist. He had been in Watertown since 1960, like the rock of Gibraltar as he put it. I passed in and out of the area over the next 5 years or so, and for some reason he kept intersecting with my training.

I visited his dojo in the spring of 1990. A few months later, in August, I was in Okinawa, down from my new home in Amami Oshima visiting Matayoshi sensei for the weekend. While walking down Kokusai Dori I looked across the street and to my surprise I saw faces I recognized- Mirakian sensei and a few of his students. We talked and had lunch and I got to hear a few more of his wonderful stories from training in the 50s. His happiness at being back in Okinawa, deep respect for his teacher, and the attitude of the group of students he brought all made an impression on me; it was one of those moments when you learn something that might not sink in for a while.

Mirakian sensei and students, upstairs in Heiwa dori, 1990

It turns out though that it is a small big world. A few weeks later I went to Sakai Ryugo sensei’s dojo in Kagoshima for the first time. While being shown around the dojo I saw a photo from 1958 or so. In it Sakai sensei was standing next to someone I thought I recognized. Sakai said, “that is Anthony Mirakian, an American. We trained with Toguchi sensei together.” “I know him,” I replied. “I was in his dojo a few months ago, and just saw him in Okinawa.” There was shocked silence. Sakai had fond memories of him, but had not seen him in over 30 years. Eventually I put the two in contact and they exchanged greetings. They were both happy about it after so long.

Mirakian sensei with Yagi Meitoku sensei and other Goju practitioners on a trip to Tokyo, Beppu, and around Japan in the late 1950s.

Sakai Ryugo sensei and Yagi sensei on the same trip.

But that is part of the practice. You develop relationships that have strength because you share something- effort, sweat, blood, time, all these, and more. They stay with you. When I got back to the states a few years later I saw Mirakian sensei again. I assisted Kimo sensei in a kobudo seminar at his dojo and afterwards we had a meal. I updated him on Sakai sensei and his family and he shared some great stories of Sakai in the 50s, when they both were young. It was a fun day, and I was glad for the break in what was at the time a grueling grad school schedule. But to my surprise it was not to be a one-off. After I left Mirakian sensei and Kimo sensei arranged for me to come to Mirakian’s dojo regularly and teach kobudo to any of his students that were interested.

To say I was nervous is an understatement. Mirakian sensei’s dojo had been there since before I was born. Kimo sensei referred to him as his sempai, and I got a careful lecture about how to comport myself in his dojo. I also got a lecture from Mirakian sensei about how he had never allowed anyone not from Meibukan to teach anything other than a seminar in his dojo. So yes, I was nervous. For the first few months Mirakian sensei sat there and watched every training. We would share some stories afterwards, which was always interesting, and he was very complimentary of my teaching. But a few months in we started pair work. That night he started telling me some stories of Taira Shinken- how he had trained with him a little but passed on the opportunity to learn kobudo from him because he wanted to focus on his Meibukan Goju Ryu. (Years later my friend Mario would be horrified by this story!) But then he turned to me and asked if he could join us for paired work. I was shocked, and my nervousness hit new heights. But what sunk in that night, and the nights following, was that he was serious. In his dojo, well and truly my senior, he asked and would have accepted a well-reasoned no as an answer. He had made his decision about me teaching after watching a while and part of his ethos was trust- the teacher is in charge of his class. That was just how it was. A lesson in both humility and martial ethics that again took me a while to grasp. But the next part was the best. He got out on the floor and spent most of the time we were doing paired work asking for corrections and smiling. He was just enjoying the act of training. Forty years in and it was fun for him. That lesson sank in immediately, and it is one I keep with me.

Over the next few years we occasionally spent time outside the dojo together. In some ways I think he saw a kindred spirit in me- someone working to walk a path he was much further down. I remember his wife telling my wife that she was also a “karate widow” and them both laughing at our incessant karate talk. He shared some things he had picked up along the way- options for movements in sepai he learned from Yagi sensei, a version of sanseru he learned from Kyoda Juhatsu- and in return listened to my stories and enjoyed a little kobudo practice. I also remember a long terrible evening that was supposed to include old video of Higa Seiko he thought he had but instead devolved into a 3 hour diatribe about Peter Urban. We are all human… But through it all his passion for his art remained obvious, and infectious. A lesson in constancy, and in joy.

At a dinner for Mirakian sensei’s birthday.

I didn’t talk to Mirakian sensei for a while after the kobudo sessions stopped, but it seems inevitable we would spend some more time in the dojo together. In 2007 Liu sifu started coming back to the states and he wanted to see Mirakian sensei again (he had visited the dojo with us in 1997). I helped set up a seminar at the Meibukan dojo in 2009. The next year after the seminar Mirakian sensei asked me if I would be willing to teach in his dojo again, to work with his students on the Feeding Crane. I said yes, and that has turned into a relationship I continue to value.

Over the years Mirakian sensei shared many stories of training in Okinawa. He also shared photos, and one thing I kept noticing in them was who was sitting or training together. Yagi, Toguchi, Higa, and their students, sharing sweat and beer, travel and training. And more, photos of him with Uechi, Shorin, and kobudo masters, all hanging out together and sharing. That spirit seems to be mostly lost on Okinawa today, and certainly seems rare here. The different groups tend to stick to themselves, and sometimes even put each other down. I feel perhaps their founders would be disappointed. Of course karate is about the training, but we are people first. What type of karate-ka treats another human being with disdain? That is not karate, karate begins and ends with courtesy.

Me with Mirakian sensei and two of his senior students, Hing Poon Chan sensei and Paul Zarzour sensei.

That was another lesson Mirakian sensei helped teach me. By sharing his space, inviting me to run classes and train together with his students, he was demonstrating that open spirit. He saw benefit in our groups training together, and in learning something new. To be honest I am honored he saw something in me he was willing to trust his students to. He could just as easily have sat back and said “hey, I have been here since 1960. I know what I am teaching and I don’t need to disrupt the Meibukan I have dedicated my life to with a young teacher of a different art.” And he would have been right, he didn’t need to. But he saw a benefit in opening up his dojo to us. I know I have benefited greatly from the time there and from training with his students, a dedicated and generous group and a credit to their teacher. People that I am proud to call friends, students, and training partners. I would like to hope everyone else who shares our training has gained from it as well.

After a Feeding Crane seminar in Mirakian sensei’s dojo, 2011.

And that is the most important lesson Mirakian sensei shared with me. Community. A few years ago his dojo celebrated his 50th anniversary of teaching in Watertown. Fifty years. Looking around the room I saw faces I was familiar with, some from as far back as 1987. Mirakain sensei had active students who started training in the 60s. Highly skilled students who display an unusual level of loyalty and friendship along with their skill. I don’t know how one would measure a teacher, but someone that can bring together a community like that and have it last that long has done something right. To add to that a continued openness, even after five decades, is even more impressive.

This post is a little long, but for those of you who knew Mirakian sensei you will understand why I think that is fitting. It is sad to see him go. I will miss Mirakian sensei, his stories, and his willingness to share what he knew. I considered him a friend, and I will simply miss that friendship. But I also hope to keep the spirit he showed in asking us to train together alive. Our shared practice is important to me, for a host of reasons. It is part of an older approach to the Okinawan martial arts, and while not everything older is better this part certainly is. Meibukan, Kodokan, Goju Ryu, Kobudo, Feeding Crane, it does not really matter, as my friend showed me. Training and helping each other improve does. The martial arts are for self-preservation, for keeping one alive. And when is a human being more alive than when growing and sharing with friends?

Snow Days

Living in New England, winter weather can sometimes create disruptions in schedule. The last couple of weeks we have been hit by a record amount of snow and this has cancelled some of our regular training. But while it is a bummer to miss training together, it is also an opportunity. Of course it can be an opportunity to skip training all together and catch up on other things, spend some time at home, and relax, but of course that is not what I am talking about. One of the best things about our practice is that it does not require a lot of space, or a lot of equipment. A snow day is a good time to train at home alone. Figure out what you can do without the dojo, and without other people to help you along. You are in charge of your training anyway, so don’t not train just because the dojo is closed for the day.

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When I was a bit younger on occasion we went out and trained in the snow. I will always remember the pink footprints from doing sanchin in the snow and getting little cuts on my feet from the thin layer of ice on top. Good memory, probably not the smartest training ever. But while you don’t need to head outside to train on a snow day you should take the opportunity and run your own training. If you are not doing that regularly, you are not really training our arts anyway!

If You Can’t Say Something Nice….

I have seen a fair number of demonstrations over the years, and afterwards there is the inevitable de-brief. Most of the time this consists of a minute examination of exactly what the group in question has done wrong. Poor mechanics, sloppy organization, no contact, unrealistic application, poor conditioning, lousy tactics, bad posture, improper grammar, the list seems endless. Often these criticisms are valid. I have seen people teaching exercises that were so bio-mechanically incorrect I wanted to run into their class and cry out for everyone to stop before they damaged themselves. I have seen kata done so poorly I wanted to cry, and I have been told to do things visiting a class that were so absurd I have simply refused. So after seeing or experiencing these things it seems the conversation is inevitable: “how can they do that?!?”, “why do the students stay?”, “doesn’t the teacher know any better?”. All accompanied by a gratifying sense that while we may be making some mistakes at least we are doing better than….

But while this is pretty common it is also something I try to limit in myself. A number of years ago I went to a demo with two friends. The groups were all pretty bad- bad mechanics, a hilarious lecture on how to stay out of the center of mass attacks followed by the lecturer demonstrating by jumping right between two attackers, and a number of groups who got stage fright and lost track of their presentations. Most of the participants were pretty young, but one group had an older (probably early 40s) member who gamely followed along with the rest of his dojo. During the after-demo conversations, while we took the various demos apart one of my training partners said something along the lines of: well, that older fellow was doing well. He remained un-flustered when his group got lost, worked hard, and showed that someone in their 40s can train with college kids.

Out of what was admittedly a sea of pretty bad practices he had found something good to say and in the years since I have tried to take that lesson to heart. It is sometimes hard, but most of the time you can find something good in just about anyone’s practice. They get a good workout, the dojo has a safe and welcoming atmosphere, specific elements of their movement or application are unusual and interesting, there is almost always something.

Finding those good things and noticing them is important. On a practical level you are far better off training yourself to see what a potential opponent does well than what they do poorly; it’s what they do well you need to worry about. But more importantly, what you pay attention to is an indication of who you are. Are your arts teaching you respect for other human beings or are they teaching you to be critical and dismissive? Do you spend your time figuring out ways you are better than everyone around you, or are you comfortable with yourself and more interested in what others are doing well, what you can learn from them? Can you simply be happy for someone else doing something they enjoy, or do you have to degrade any part of it that you do not think is the “right” way to practice?

I’m not suggesting that all practice methods are equal, they are not. I’m not suggesting anything everyone does is just wonderful; sometimes it sucks. But I am suggesting that constant denigration of other peoples’ practice Is both unnecessary and often subtly self-destructive.  So next time you see a demo try to see the good side of what people are doing before criticizing them. It feels different, gives you a different perspective on what you are seeing. It opens up alternative areas of examination and can limit the self-importance that often comes with criticism. It can make watching or trying out someone else’s practice a much more enriching experience. And since karate begins and ends with politeness, shouldn’t we pay attention to what our mothers told us and if we can’t say something nice….

Schedule Changes

As of January 1st, 2015, there will be two changes to our training schedule.

1) Weeknight karate and kobudo will now go from 7-9 PM.

2) Starting in January our Feeding Crane training will shift to every Tuesday night. It is a welcome change! Feeding Crane classes will be taught alternately by Fred sifu and Mike Larimore sifu, and of course we will be training together with Mirakian sensei’s students in Watertown. 411-Sakai sensei dojo-bunkai 10

These should be some good changes for 2015. Looking forward to another great year of training here at Kodokan Boston!

Why do we have ranks?

What purpose does rank serve? This is not a rhetorical question, I would really like an answer that makes sense. So far I don’t have one. Rank is so deeply imbedded in the culture of the Okinawan martial arts (interestingly enough even more so in the West than in Okinawa, but that is another topic) that it is impossible for many people to conceive of the arts without it. But remember, rank in Okinawa is a pretty new thing. Funakoshi awarded his first dan rankings in 1924 and those were probably the first in any karate system. It took a while, really until after the war, before they became common in Okinawa. So they are not very old. And in all seriousness, what purpose do they serve?

Some people say that they help in teaching, letting the instructor know where the student is supposed to be. To that I reply that if your teacher does not know where you are at, go somewhere else, they are not paying attention. And if classes are so large such a system is needed you are not learning real karate anyway.

I have heard that they give people motivation for learning. OK. That may be good, for kids. But not for adults. In my opinion one of the main points of karate training is self motivation, and self discipline. If you have those you don’t need an external measure to keep going. Indeed, striving for such an external measure runs contrary to the ideals of the art.

But they are really really popular. People invest a lot of themselves in their rank. So much so that some people lie about it, switch teachers just to get rank, and do a variety of other things that say that the rank is somehow the real goal. They display it, insist on being referred to using it, and often seem to think that it says something about their personal attributes and ability, even outside the dojo.

But does it? Rank in one dojo seems to be unrelated to rank in another, at least in terms of ability. Certainly there is no universal measure of what any rank means. What about an out of shape former yudansha who has not trained in 10 years? Is his higher rank a measure of his greater ability compared to someone who has been training regularly the last 5 years? If rank is a measure of skill shouldn’t it be tested periodically and then shouldn’t people who have slipped in skill lose rank? If that is not the case (and I have never seen that done) then it is not a measure of skill. If it is a measure of time training couldn’t we just skip the idea of testing and give people a new rank every x years? That would make more sense anyway. I have literally seen a black belt get hit by a lower rank and say “you can’t hit me, I’m a black belt”. Really? Your rank now means more than the reality of training?

So rank doesn’t help with teaching, is not a real indicator of skill, and is not universal. I still can’t see the point. It seems to breed ego, and can hold people back, letting them think their rank defines what they can do along with what they should be able to do. I can’t think of any way rank makes things better, and honestly we would probably be better off without it. I have trained in arts that do not have a ranking system, or have a much simpler one (instructor and student, for example). In many ways they are clearer training environments. The only measure of status is skill, which can only be demonstrated on the floor. The teacher is the teacher because he or she can both do and teach, and because they have earned the student’s respect, not because they have more stripes on their belt, or a cool title, or some other nonsense. That makes more sense to me. It strips away a layer of obfuscation and puts it out there- what can you do, not what rank are you.

Isn’t that more important anyway?