I earned my 1st Degree Black Belt in 2013.
Many people earn this rank and quit. Heck, that might be the majority of us who reach that rank. Some of us stick and keep training - earing additional rank in our home systems, or we branch out and cross train.
Some very few of us, though, earn this rank, leave our systems, and then go on to "found" our own martial arts styles, and stop training with anyone outside of the people they convince to study under them.
People say that "Black Belt is only the beginning", and my own personal experience proves this to be true. Since earning my Dayang Isa rank, I've had the opportunity to train with some of the most experienced people around, not only in the Filipino Martial Arts (much less my own art, Modern Arnis or Presas Arnis), but in other styles, from a variety of backgrounds.
I know for a fact that I became a far better Dayang Isa after several years holding the rank than I was first promoted in 2013. Not just because of the time I've spent training and teaching others, but also because of my continued exposure to these very skilled, highly ranked martial artists.
I've spent a lot of time "punching up" - getting my ass handed to me sometimes, but working with the best I can find to work with, people who have forgotten more than I'll ever know.
THAT'S why I've improved over time. I like to say, "I suck less" than I used to, because it's true, if I'm honest with myself (note - it's not that I don't still suck, it's just I suck a lot less than I did, which is progress!)
I am always impressed by long-term martial artists who strap on white belts and keep learning. Some of our biggest names and most experienced people do it. It's inspirational to me, and it proves to me that the best of who we are and what we do are always learning and growing. These truly great martial artists move outside of their comfort zones,and recognize that there are others who have things to offer and teach.
This eternal student mindset is, to me, how one becomes a true "Grand Master" in the modern martial arts.
If you never spend your time working with people better than you are, who can challenge you, who question you, who can beat you, well, that's how you end up with things like this:
It goes from martial arts training into cultish self-delusion over time.
That's why I will always seek out martial artists better than I am to train with. It's the best way to learn and grow over time. It's how I can be sure I'm the best martial artist I can be. I don't want to reach a point where I think I know it all (because I think that's impossible, and thus, has to be a self-delusion).
It's like sharpening a knife. You can't do it on a soft surface, one the knife can cut through easily. You have to sharpen that knife against a hard, unyielding surface, one tougher than the material of the knife.
I plan to be as sharp a knife I can be.
How do you seek out other martial artists - how do you "punch up" - to learn and grow? Do you know people who avoid doing so? Tell us your stories in the comments below!