Is your martial arts training one of the most valuable things you’ve ever invested in?

posted in: Self development | 2
Tahir training with Andy the other day

Defence Lab instructor Tahir Ahmad has just written a lively, provocative piece on his blog about how he spent £500 on an hour-long private lesson with street defence legend Andy Norman.

This article you’re reading now is a response to that.

Just to be clear, it’s not going to be about whether Tahir was *right* to spend the money or not, as that’s none of my business.

It’s also not about whether a lesson with Andy Norman is *worth* £500 or not. As Publilius Syrus said many centuries ago: Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it.

Instead, this article is a look at the very popular idea that it’s better to spend money on experiences than on “stuff”.

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Here’s an excellent article which summarises some scientific research supporting the idea that you should spend your money on experiences not things:

In brief, this is what it says:

  • When we buy a luxury item, we’re happy at first, but we soon adapt to it and our happiness goes back down to its previous level. But people’s satisfaction with experiences they spend money on goes up over time
  • Material goods are always separate from us, while experiences become an ingrained part of your identity.
  • Even a negative experience can be reframed as something positive over time, e.g. as a character-building experience.
  • Experiences can connect us to other people – either because you experience something together, or because you share stories about it afterwards. One scientist says: You’re much more likely to feel connected to someone you took a vacation with in Bogotá than someone who also happens to have bought a 4K TV.
  • It’s very easy to “feature-compare” material goods with other versions, and end up feeling discontented. But it’s less easy to do this with experiences.

Tahir’s article is a perfect illustration of the high value of a special experience:

I can wholeheartedly say that I felt like I was in a WHOLE NEW WORLD of self defence and martial arts! Just when I thought it couldn’t get any deeper, any cooler, more frightening and more bad ass, Andy took me on a journey to a much higher level than I could have anticipated before.

I then began to ‘truly’ appreciate this man and his life long journey in the world of reality based Street defence. I constantly found myself with a huge smile on my face, I was constantly getting goose bumps as he demonstrated and explained things and I often found myself just thinking that this man has SO much knowledge and experience that it’s scary! And… I am, one of the few people to gain such knowledge!

Tahir with Andy on the day of the lesson

[…] To me, this was money beyond well spent. To walk away from this private lesson having taken away a little piece of Andy’s life is truly PRICELESS and a fantastic investment into myself as a Self-Defence and Martial Arts Instructor. Gaining such knowledge will only help my own students in future and as Andy says, this training really does get you thinking again!

I just had to write about and share this experience with you all. Yes….I am still obviously buzzing from it!

Inspirational words! It’s hard to deny that Tahir seems to have gained infinitely more from that session, than he might have gained from buying something like a £500 watch instead.

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So is it always better to invest in “experiences” over “stuff”? Not necessarily. Here are a few problems with this principle:

1. Access to many experiences is linked to wealth and privilege.

Many people struggle financially. For some, reading about someone spending a large sum of money on anything other than rent or food might cause them pain. Incidentally, a good online friend, Joelle White (also a martial arts blogger) is also currently experiencing financial difficulty and has written an inspirational piece recently, to encourage fellow warriors who may be facing hardship to keep on fighting.

We don’t all have the same access to time and money  to facilitate positive experiences. (Although I know from an email conversation with Tahir over this article, that the £500 wasn’t altogether easy for him either, and demanded some serious reflection and planning from him and his wife).

Neha Kale writes:

The assumption that people who do things to express their identity are morally superior to people who buy things to express their identity obscures the fact that the experiences our culture celebrates require access to time, money and resources.

Sure, your ability to teach orphans in the Congo or live out of your backpack in a Japanese fishing village might be noble but chances are that you’re also probably pretty privileged

[…]The best experiences, like the best things, say less about your priorities than they do about the contents of your bank balance.

2. The quest for “experiences” can become as materialistc and problematic as the quest for “stuff”.

Here’s an extreme example; a decidedly unappealing article called “Hey Big Spender!” by a 31-year old man (Tony) who chooses to spend all of his income on what he calls wild, rare, unforgettable experiences:

We sipped complimentary glasses of wine on the flight and then settled into a penthouse suite at Le Place D’Armes Hotel, which cost $640 a night. We hit Joe Beef and tried the horse with artichokes and pecorino, plus just about everything else on the menu—a habit of ours when we can’t decide what not to get

[…] We gorged and guzzled our way through the rest of the weekend, eating ridiculously decadent cronuts from a pâtisserie, smoked meat sandwiches from Schwartz’s, fondue from an amazing Old Montreal restaurant called Bistro Marché de la Villette. We uncorked bottle after bottle of Amarone as we went. The pinnacle of the weekend was two hours on a closed racetrack behind the wheel of a $200,000 dark blue Lamborghini Gallardo.

To each their own, but these experiences clearly have a different quality to the example of Tahir’s private lesson.

3. The distinction between “experiences” and “stuff” is not as clear cut as some people think anyway.

I discussed this article with one of my dojo brothers last week, and he said wisely: People buy stuff because they’re seeking good experiences – they’re seeking emotions. They want to feel young again, or beautiful, or cool or stylish.

So the boundaries are not necessarily that clear-cut.

Elissa Strauss writes:

Experiences aren’t the antithesis of stuff. Experiences are facilitated by stuff […] Tony makes this exceedingly easy to illustrate. There’s the planes, trains, and cars he uses to travel to destinations; the sheets he sleeps on, ironed and smoothed by the hands of hotel workers he will likely never see; the food he eats; the landmarks he visits; and the 170 different wines he tried within the past year. What’s more stuff-y than wine?

4. The “experiences over things” principle can lead to other people having to pick up the pieces.

decluttering-before-island-2 by Serene Vannoy. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Tony writes:

My mom does my laundry and makes my meals. And, yes, I can already feel your contempt. But hear me out. I’m not lazy, dumb or deluded. I’m a pharmacist, and I work hard—sometimes six days a week. I sleep roughly five hours a night. I make $130,000 a year, and I spend the vast majority of it on experiences.

And Phoebe Maltz Bovy smartly responds:

We’re meant to admire the experience-lovers for their indifference to stuff, which implies they’ve got their priorities straight: to live life to the fullest. [But] the bourgeois life they’re rejecting is simply one they’ve outsourced. After all, Tony hasn’t rejected the material life. He’s just got a woman—his mother—tidying up after him.

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And yet there is something valuable at stake here. Tony’s life sounds awful, but I did enjoy Tahir’s article; and his version of “valuing experiences over stuff” definitely resonated with my own values. I loved the sheer excitement and joy that shone through his words.

So what’s the difference?

I think it’s to do with what we make of the experience, and how we process it. If we just “consume” the experience mindlessly and hedonistically, without considering the impact on others (family members, workers in the service industry and so on), and deeply appreciating our good fortune in being able to access it, then it isn’t really any different to buying expensive “stuff”.

Rachel performing “Kihon 5”

But if we enter into the experience carefully and mindfully, consciously seeking personal transformation and perhaps also maintaining a spirit of wanting to put the experience into the service of others in some way, it may be a different scenario.

Because the right kind of experience can be transformative, as you probably know if you’re trained in a martial art (or any art) for any length of time. My dear friend and fellow martial arts blogger Rachel Nelson articulates this beautifully:

I don’t think I would be where I am today without what karate has given me. Every belt was a lesson about myself, a release of things I should not have been holding on to. A clearing process if you like. Early belts gave me a physical outlet, that enabled me to get the agitation out of my body so I could then organise my thoughts and verbalize them […] I am a different person to the new black belt I was in 2012. People don’t believe me now when I tell them how I was.

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Experiences don’t have to be expensive, dramatic one-off adventures to be valuable.

Many martial artists believe that the real treasures are mined from the quiet, day-to-day routines of dedicated training. It’s the discipline and consistency that work the magic. 

In a non-martial arts context, Elissa Strauss writes:

I fell victim to the experiences over stuff paradigm in my early teens and spent much of my 20s trying to live up to Thoreauvian and Kerouacian notions of self-actualization.

I’m now, at 36, about eight years into the “stuff” phase of my life (mortgage, husband, kid), and I have learned far more about myself during this period than I ever did while sojourning around the globe.

Domestic stuff—our couch, our dining table, the bathtub, the dishwasher—don’t just serve as the backdrop to my life; they are the tools we use while engaging with one another, and ourselves. Experiences.

Tahir’s experience was glitzy and stunning, which might seem to contradict this But in fact it only reinforces it. His hour with Andy Norman only had that thrilling impact on him because he’s obsessed with his training, and this took his decades of personal research to a new level. Without that, this would just be a story of an ardent fan meeting his idol for an hour, perhaps with far less substance underneath.

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Here are two inspirational stories on this theme:


Fujimoto-san’s story

In Dan Millman’s semi-autobiographical novel: Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior, we read about a character Sei Fujimoto, who used to be an obsessive photographer:

I never saw a man so passionate about images on paper. Years ago he would spend most of his days searching for the perfect shot. Fuji especially loved landscapes: the shapes of trees, waves breaking with the sun shining through them, and clouds by the light of the moon, or the morning sun.

[…] Then about six years ago, a fire destroyed all the photographs he had taken over those thirty years, and all the negatives, as well as most of his equipment. He had no fire insurance.

[…] Fuji mourned this […] But more than that, he understood the bigger picture, and came to a growing realization that something of great value remained that was never touched by the fire. Fuji had learned to see life in a different way. Every day when he got up, he saw a world of light and shadow, shapes and textures – a world of beauty and harmony and balance.

[…] His realization mirrors that of the Zen masters […] all activities – professions, sports, arts, crafts – serve as a means of internal development, merely a boat to get across the river. Once you get across, you no longer need the boat.

There are clear parallels to martial arts training, which as noted above does change us as people.


Judith’s story

In the same vein, I’d also like to share with you a beautiful story from a relatively new online acquaintance, Judith Jones. Judith is a keen aikidoka with many years’ experience, and that was how I took her, pure and simple, when we first connected on Facebook.

But last week I learned that there’s a twist to the story. Judith has a severe long-term condition called Fibromyalgia, which over the years has become so debilitating that it’s compromised her ability to train in Aikido.

And yet Judith has continued to cheerfully label herself an aikidoka through thick and thin. In 2014 she contributed to Quentin Cooke’s wonderful book, A Way To Reconcile The World: Aikido stories from everyday life (Highly recommended, especially as the profits from the book support international peacebuilding organisation Aiki Extensions.)


Judith’s story in the book was called: “The Body Might Not Be Willing But The Mind Is Strong”. She wrote about how Aikido practice had transformed her as a person over the years, enabling her to always “train” daily, even when she was too sick to enter a dojo. Her story concluded:

Judith Jones

In terms of my practice on the mat, unfortunately the effects of my [condition] became increasingly severe, which meant that I could practice less and less often and ultimately I had to stop.

My practice off the mat, however, has never stopped. Since 2008, I have been unable to work, and rarely able to leave my house. I am in constant pain, but the skills and mental attitudes I learned on the mat help me deal with whatever life throws at me.

I am positive and happy despite my problems. I keep moving and I’m not giving up. I still do what I can to support my fellow human beings. I can take the time to listen to people and offer support, on the phone or over the Internet, even though I am stuck in my house.

This is exactly the same as the story about Fuji in many ways. But I prefer it! The tale of Fuji is beautiful, simplistic, romantic and leaves us glowing when we read it – after all it’s a neat fictional parable written to be enjoyed and used for inspiration.

Conversely, Judith’s story is for real; and it’s messy, painful, perhaps uncomfortable to read – but ultimately more inspiring and powerful for its grittiness and ambiguity.

Life may have taken away much of her ability to breakfall; and wield weapons with skill; and apply or receive complicated joint locks. But nothing can take away the treasures that Judith’s experience of learning aikido has given her – these experiences are by now fully embedded in the woman she has become.

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It’s easy to get enthusiastically swept up in the modern-day cliché that “experiences are better than stuff”. But as critical thinkers we can do better than that, and should be mindful of the grey areas implicit in this statement, as listed above, when making investment decisions about training.

At the same time however, it’s a valuable principle, and resonates with the personal values and desire for self-improvement of many martial artists.

Whatever your training has given and continues to give you, will not wear out or break like an expensive TV or pair of shoes. It’s yours to keep now – like it is for Judith, Tahir, Rachel, Joelle, myself – and many, many others . . .

2 Responses

  1. Joelle White

    Wonderful stuff here, Kai! And thanks for the mention. I look back on my nearly-grown children’s lives and what I treasure most is the time I spent with them, not the toys and doodads I bought them. Our past and present financial troubles have shown me that if one is observant and creative, and if one knows how to network one may discover experiences and opportunities that are hugely nourishing to a discouraged and struggling spirit. Sometimes you lose a dream and then discover that another dream has chosen you. Anyway, as always I appreciate the sensitivity you have to the deeper nuances of martial arts!

  2. Kai

    Yes, as you say Joelle this is not just about martial arts – it’s truly about everything that’s important to us.

    I also agree with you that many precious experiences come our way as a by-product of hard times, even if we don’t actually want or welcome them! It’s perhaps only much later that we can see their value after all . . .

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