Monday, August 30, 2010

Vive L’amateur

In the mid 90’s I started taking an Aikido class in Seattle’s Chinatown. The crisp throws and graceful falls were all I needed to become hooked. The school advertised itself as “Aikido taught by professionals,” and was affiliated with a larger school north of the city. The instructor at the Chinatown dojo was a clean-cut young man, and as typical in martial arts school from Japan, he had a stern, militant voice.

I started the class because I needed to break a life pattern. The artist’s undisciplined lifestyle had been taking its toll, and I had had enough. Martial arts had saved me when I was a kid, and I knew it would do it again. As I began going to classes, first three days per week, then five, I became addicted, as did the other 20- and 30-somethings in the class. The class had a bunch of young men and women who bonded around Aikido’s unique philosophy of non-violence and non-aggression.

The students got along really well, and we thought we’d found the perfect school for us. Then, after about a year, these “professionals” started to make some changes to both the curriculum and, more significantly for me, to the payment plan. It was a time in the martial arts world when signing yearly contracts became popular, and the head instructors decided that was a good business model. In addition to requiring a contractual commitment with a lump sum up front, there were also tests fees, new uniforms, and other added expenses. It became a hefty sum of money, one that my wife and I could not comfortably afford.

When I balked at the new expenses, asking if there was a way to avoid some of them, the instructor railed into me, saying I wasn’t serious about Aikido and questioning my priorities. His response made my next move easy. I never returned. I soon found another martial art and dreamed of opening my own school. But after much reflection, I realized that to be a “professional” means making money and capitalizing on the role as a respected teacher to persuade students to purchase contracts, uniforms, and anything else that can bring in a profit. This is not illegal in any way, but it doesn’t sit right with me for one reason: trust. At the end of the day, a professional’s job is to make sure he or she is in the black. So they have to devise ways to excite, inspire, and persuade students to invest in the school’s future and purchase things, things they might not actually need.

Since then, I have decided not to open a school for profit or to formally attend one. Instead, I occasionally visit teachers whose primary income is not from their martial arts classes. That squarely makes them “amateurs,” which gives me a sense of trust and passion—after all, amateur means “lover of.” The amateur passes on knowledge because it provides meaning to their lives and, they believe, to the lives of others. Long live the amateur!