What Are the Odds of Becoming a Black Belt?

People often ask me to help them assess what their odds of success will be in some new endeavor: What are my odds of succeeding as a full-time blogger? What are my odds of succeeding as an indie game developer? What are my odds of succeeding as an entrepreneur?

On the surface it seems intelligent to assess your risks before embarking on a new venture. Unfortunately the way I’ve seen most people do this is rather silly.

Often such seekers will look for a certain statistic to help them assess the risk: What percentage of people who attempted a similar venture actually succeeded to the degree I’d like to experience? For example, if you want to earn $5000/month as a blogger, your question would be, “What percentage of bloggers who try to generate full-time income actually earn $5000/month or more?” Suppose it’s on the order of 1%. You then interpret your odds of success as the same figure.

What does such a statistic have to do with your personal chance of success? Nothing at all.

To me this is like asking, “What are my odds of success in kung fu?” If you’re committed to becoming a black belt in kung fu and are willing to put in the time and training, you’ll probably do just fine. But if you’ve never studied martial arts and are looking for a fast and easy road to success, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

In many fields you only see a 1% success ratio because the other 99% are merely taking up space. They’re just dabblers, not serious contenders. You’ll often see this 1% figure in fields with a low barrier to entry such as blogging, acting, or music. You’ll find a small percentage of people who are really committed to mastery, but the rest have virtually no hope of notable success.

Pulling away from the pack in any field is largely a matter of choice. That choice is a commitment to mastery. But very few will make this choice because it requires hard work, resolve, patience, self-discipline, and a long time perspective. A would-be actor who gives up within the first year clearly hasn’t made this choice. Nor has a blogger who quits after six months. If you want to succeed in a new field where you lack experience, you should be thinking of at least a 3-5 year commitment. If that scares you away, then save yourself the time you would have spent dabbling, and don’t bother.

When you start out in a brand new field with no experience, you’re going to suck… most likely really suck. But the worst part is you won’t even recognize how truly pathetic you are. There you are, setting off on a new venture, brimming with confidence, and you’re completely incompetent and don’t even know it.

So what happens? You’re going to screw up. If you’re lucky your results will just be bad instead of painfully bad. But screwing up is perfectly OK. That’s supposed to happen. Screwing up is how you learn. Every mistake helps you make new distinctions and increase your skill.

Consider a martial arts student who spars for the very first time. The student lacks timing, speed, coordination, balance, endurance, and flexibility… not to mention confidence. Sparring involves trying to avoid banging knees with your opponent. But everyone starts out this way. Even the most accomplished black belts began as white belts.

As you build skill, which normally takes years to achieve competency in any worthwhile field, you move out of the 99% and into the 1%. That 99% will continue churning away with high turnover. Dabblers will enter the field, try it for six months, and give up after concluding it’s too hard. A challenging field is good though because it means your long-term investment in skill-building will mean something, like a black belt. It wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment if it was too easy.

Imagine starting as a white belt in kung fu with no previous martial arts experience. You go to your instructor and say, “I want to compete in sparring tournaments at the black belt level.” Your instructor will probably laugh at you. If you were to spar a halfway decent black belt, you’d take a beating every single time. If you spar 100 matches, you’ll lose 100 matches. This is where the dabblers conclude that it’s impossible for them to succeed in kung fu. Those who are committed, however, know that they have a long road of skill-building ahead of them. Becoming a black belt is a choice, albeit certainly not an easy one.

What’s unfair about easy-entry fields like blogging, acting, or music is that white belts and black belts are thrown into the same pool. White belts are forced to compete against black belts who’ve been honing their skills for years. It’s totally unfair. But that unfairness is what provides the challenge and makes it fun.

When you start out as a white belt in an unfair playing field, you get creamed. The black belts beat you again and again. No matter what you do, nothing seems to work. But when you’re committed, you know that early success isn’t to be expected. This is the training phase. Your goal is to survive and to learn, not to win. That’s where you have the advantage because as a white belt, you can develop your skills much faster than a black belt.

So you train. And train. And train. And if you stick with it long enough, eventually you’ll find yourself a black belt in your field. At that level everything becomes easier because your skills have risen to the challenge. Consequently, you’re able to achieve and maintain positive results that are virtually impossible for those who are just now entering the field. Then you’ll have to figure out what to say when people begin asking you, “What are the odds of becoming a black belt?”

Your odds of success in your field of choice won’t be found in any statistics. Success is a choice, not a coin flip. You succeed by deciding what you want, knowing why you want it, and committing to it.