html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Contempt is for the second-rate.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Contempt is for the second-rate.

When I was on the college tkd team, one of my coaches was a recent Olympic gold medalist. Watching him move was astounding; he was a big guy, fought heavyweight, and shockingly quick. He was interesting in a couple other ways. He was the worst fight coach I ever had, couldn’t tell me the opponent’s weakness or how to adjust my technique in the second round or anything. No doubt he could have done any of it, and he was great in training, but he was not a helpful ringside coach. He was tkd born and raised. Father was a martial artist and he was raised in a tkd studio; spent his childhood winning everything in tkd. So I was really sad for him the day he told me that he never liked it. Yeah. He never liked it. He did it for his dad. He wished he could stop, but everywhere he went (like our university) the tkd crowd would beg him back into it.

I caught him watching the white belt class one day, which surprised me. He didn’t love tkd, and if there’s anyone in the world who knows what a bunch of white belts look like, it is a man who’s been teaching them since he was nine. So I asked him what he was looking at. “Look at them,” he said. “They’re trying so hard. That’s got to be so hard for them. I haven’t worked that hard in taekwondo for years.” I watched him after that and he always meant it. His bows to white belts were long and sincere, no different than he gave to his world-class peers. He respected everyone.

I’ve seen that same thing since, and I’ve come to think there is a pattern to the respect people give out. Regular people give out respect in some proportion to their own skills, recognize they’re in the middle somewhere and respect half of people for being better than them, disrespect half of people for being worse than them. As their gifts or natural talents or intelligence go up, they adjust that proportion, respecting themselves and their peers a good deal, disrespecting more people as being less gifted. That continues up the continuum until you reach the very top, and at the top it flips. At the top, the smartest, most accomplished, most talented, most impressive people I’ve ever met? They respect everyone.

I don’t know what it is, some additional edge of empathy or maybe the kindness that comes with everyone always acknowledging that you are the best, but the most impressive people I know never badmouth anyone. “Hm. That isn’t the conclusion I’d have come to, but he must have gotten there somehow – maybe this is why he thought that.” “Oh man, look at the effort trying to get to that catch. If she keeps it up, she’ll be someone to reckon with someday.” “Wow, full props for trying that. That angle won’t work, but watching him try to do that reminded me…” Or maybe they can afford to be magnanimous, since the little people aren’t competition for them. But I’ve seen in everyone that I thought was just in an entirely different league, a giant among us. They feel contempt for no one.

Seeing them makes me realize that contempt is for the second-rate. Truly impressive people don’t feel it unless it is for a person who is morally bankrupt. The most impressive people I’ve met are interested in all the ways people do things, proficient or no, and find something to respect during the attempt. Or maybe truly impressive people don’t feel contempt because contempt is a dismissive shortcut. It is cheap and easy to write off a person for not doing something well and there’s that nice little rush of self-satisfaction. Maybe the people who’ve gotten great at something aren’t in the habit of taking cheap shortcuts. Having a deep respect for everyone isn’t enough to make a person great on the scale I’m talking about. It probably isn’t even a causal factor. But I’ve seen it in the truly amazing people I’ve met. I associate it with that greatness, and I’ve also developed another association. Contempt and disrespect are a signal for second-rate thought. They’re very often the first sign that the thought will be shallow and flawed. Contempt for someone else earns doubt from me. Respect for everyone makes me think you’re someone worth more respect.


Blogger bobvis said...

I had been in the habit of telling my students to call me "Bob". I still consider myself as from industry, and we call each other by first name. Respect is earned and not awarded through a title and all that jazz. Someone strongly recommended that I stop doing this though and go by some sort of title. She said that I can only really go by Bob when I'm 70 and I can be finally be closer to the students because I'm further away.

This reminded me of that.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I called all of my students by an honorific and last name. I wanted them to behave professionally, so I started by treating them as if this were a formal circumstance.

11:26 PM  
Blogger billo said...

bob, I fully agree with you that there can be a slavish respect for titles and status but I've never fully understood the opposite idea. Does one respect one's parents becasue of what they "do" i.e is it "earned" or is it just there? Same with the old.

As for teaching goes, if teachers had to earn repsect (by their performance) then I think 'respect' would in some ways be diminished.

I think it's incredibly difficult to respect everyone (because everyone is different) or respect people to the same extent. Could a tkd champ have the same respect of an academic, say, as he would for another of "his own"? Or vice versa.

11:35 PM  
Blogger billo said...

sorry, that should be "respect FOR an academic..."

1:19 AM  
Blogger bobvis said...

But that's the point! First name *is* professional! I've never worked for a company (other than when I worked for the government) that would tolerate your calling their CEO Mr. ___.

Does one respect one's parents becasue of what they "do"

I'm not sure. If you're a blank-slate kind of guy, yes. There is no other place that the idea of respecting one's parents can come from. I think you're more likely to be right though and the respect for one's parents is largely just there.

if teachers had to earn repsect (by their performance) then I think 'respect' would in some ways be diminished

That interests me because I think if the respect you are given would not have been earned without the title, then the respect is largely worthless.

4:52 AM  
Blogger billo said...

don't get you, bob.
When one respects a teacher what else is one doing but respecting his/her profession to which he/she belongs? (same with doctors). Of course, I agree with you: respect for a teacher can grow because of the way they act-just as it can diminish because of their attitude. But I think the default position is one of respect -and that is partly down to their "title"(and not their personal characteristics).

Anyway, perhaps we can continue this on your blog.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Regular people give out respect in some proportion to their own skills, recognize they’re in the middle somewhere and respect half of people for being better than them, disrespect half of people for being worse than them.

I don't know ... many people of ordinary skills respect those of lesser skills if the people with lesser skills are doing their best and trying to improve. It is, of course, a big "if."

9:52 AM  
Anonymous Sifu Tweety said...

Dangit, and here I was about to bag on Tae Kwon Do.

9:37 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Oh, you can make fun of tkd. Lot of people do. Jealous people.

12:14 AM  
Blogger Purple Avenger said...

I reserve my contempt for those who know better and chose to do a shitty half assed job anyway.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...

I dunno...this was a pretty idealistic post that did not accord with my experience...I haven't seen that phenomenal levels of talent make you a better person. Not a worse person either, the full range applies.

There are plenty of super-talented people out there who don't suffer the untalented gladly, because they just don't see how something that comes so easily to them is so difficult for others.

8:33 PM  
Blogger Zubon said...

Experienced people have had time to make every mistake or at least see how common it is for others to make it. Doing X is not a sign that someone is an idiot: it means he is normal at worst, and you may remember when you had trouble with X. Success breeds humility because the path to it often runs through failure, loss, or suffering in great variety.

3:52 PM  
Anonymous bryn said...

What happened to the 3 strike judgement rule? (which is a totally reasonable thing that though I disagree with, still respect you because I believe your goal - eliminating negative things from your life is a good one even if it means some things are swept up in the judgement) -- how was that recovery?

2:37 PM  

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