Black Belt LorneThere’s a curious phenomenon that occurs in Japanese martial arts where a master teacher will sometimes promote a student to a higher rank before they’re ready, before they’ve earned it. In Japanese culture, honor and pride then dictate that the student work even harder to be worthy of the honor their teacher has given them, to truly earn the rank. It’s partially a sign of respect and partially a test by the teacher to see how self-aware the student is; in some cases, less self-aware students tend to believe they have earned their rank instead of understanding that they’ve been promoted as a means of motivation.

Where this system breaks down is when people who don’t share Japanese cultural norms get involved. If a non-Japanese person has the same experience, there’s a good chance they’ll end up believing they are better than they actually are, to the point where they become dangerous to themselves and others. They believe they have capabilities that aren’t really there. The more self-aware non-Japanese students will figure it out and fit into the cultural norm, working to be worthy of their rank. The less self-aware tend to self-destruct pretty spectacularly.

What does this have to do with social media? In any medium, especially new ones where the trail isn’t obvious, we tend to look for leaders. We tend to look for people to follow. We tend, in other words, to promote people in our heads and in our words before they’re ready. We may not do it for the same reason as a master teacher in the dojo, but the net effect is the same.

So what should we do about it? If we’re the ones doing the “promoting”, then call into question the results that we’ve gotten from following a person’s advice. Look carefully at the goals you’ve set down for yourself and if you’re not getting the juice you’re looking for, perhaps the person you’re following got promoted a little too early in your own head. Be aware of that and start searching out other people who are getting the results you want to achieve.

If we’re the ones being promoted too early by our peers, take the Japanese route. Be aware of what your “promotion” ahead of time is. Redouble your efforts to learn more, to grow more, to explore more, to eventually become worthy of the various labels that your peers have chosen to give you. Like in the dojo, there’s a very good chance you’ll be the last person to get the memo that you really are the black belt someone else has claimed you to be.


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