Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Own Your Skill Level

I entered an art contest my freshmen year of high school. I drew a picture of a little girl in braids. She was looking out at you, the viewer, with a sort of somber look on her face. I won first place at the regional competition and went on to an international competition where I placed within the top 15 in monochromatic pencil. I was good. Everyone told me I was good. I knew I was good.

That summer I enrolled in an art camp and we were required to take a drawing with us to show the instructors what we were capable of. I took my little girl.

The instructors were going through the other student's work. Some of it was good. Some of it was not so good. When he got to mine he said it was good and was about to move on when I asked him to critique it. He looked at me and said, "How honest can I be?" I encouraged him to be completely honest.

"Her right eye isn't looking the exact same direction as the left. Her left eye isn't a perfect circle. Her mouth is curved wrong. Her nose could be much more defined. You have very light shading. In black and white, skin isn't white, it's grey..."

I had a choice. I could have been offended that he was being so hard on me. I could have believed that I was good enough and I didn't have to listen to his criticisms. I could have gotten mad. I also could have defeated myself by thinking his criticisms meant I wasn't good. That I somehow failed. I decided neither of those choices would help me.

He looked at me and must have thought I felt he was being too harsh. I was just staring at my drawing and he said, "I'm sorry." What he didn't know was that I was in awe. I was in awe that he was seeing these things and instead of just patting me on the back and allowing me to continue doing them wrong he was willing to point them out to me and help me improve. I wasn't offended, mad or defeated. I was inspired to do better. I chose to improve.

Over the week he pushed me hard.

The next year I entered the same competition and drew a picture of a soldier sitting on his cot with his head in his hands. I won first at the regional level and second place at the international level. I went back to the same art school and took both the girl and my new work.

He immediately took it in front of the entire class set it on the podium gave a speech, "If you are willing to open yourself to honest criticism and listen to our instruction, this is what you are capable of."

He pushed me even harder that year and the following year I did even better.

What does that experience have to do with shooting and self defense? I'll tell you.

This weekend I went to the Rangemaster Instructor Course. I was good shooter when I enrolled. I knew I was good. I've been told repeatedly I was good. I was confident and ready. I knew I was going to be challenged but I didn't know how much. I figured it wouldn't be easy but I didn't expect to have my butt kicked.

It took me about an hour to see where my weaknesses were. Every thrown shot, every time I took a shot after my time was up, every time I struggled with a drill, I felt like I was failing. Like I was no good. Like I didn't belong at that class.

On lunch on the second day one of the instructors said there was only a handful of people in the entire class that he thought had a good handle on all of the fundamentals. I asked him if I was included in that group. With a look of apology on his face he said, "No."

It stung. Bad.

But then it hit me. I faced a decision. I could ignore him. I could think I was "good enough." I could puff out my chest and assume he didn't know what he was talking about. I could also feel defeated and give up.

I'd been choosing defeat all weekend. I was defeating myself by thinking I was terrible. I was beating myself up and feeling like everything I'd done to that point was for nothing. I was feeling like a failure.

I kept questioning everything I'd ever taught others. How could I possibly be a good instructor when I wasn't performing perfectly here?

But I remembered that art class. I remembered how I felt being critiqued by that instructor and the third choice I could make.

I could improve.

I had the choice to accept that all of the work I had done to that point was valid. I was good. But, I could be BETTER. I could stop kicking myself in the butt, get out of my own way, stop letting my pride screw with my head and absorb the instruction I was getting.

I asked him where I could improve and he critiqued my presentation (draw) from the holster. I could immediately see where what he was saying was valid. He wasn't telling me anything new. He was showing me that I'd gotten lazy. I wasn't applying every step of what I'd learned. It was time to hold myself to a higher standard.

I went back to my hotel room that night and drew my gun for twenty minutes.

I dry-fired, did magazine changes and committed myself to improving.

The next morning I shot my best score on the qualification.

It's easy to convince yourself that you are "good enough" or above criticism. It's also easy to defeat yourself when your errors are pointed out to you. It's harder to own your skill level for everything it is and for everything it isn't and accept the criticism of others to your own improvement.

At the same time, you have to be careful of where you get your criticism from.

I don't accept the criticism of people on the internet who I don't know to be an authority on the subject. I put myself out there and so I get a lot of criticism. The anonymous jerk who goes off about how stupid I am and tries to list all of the things I'm doing wrong doesn't make me bat an eyelash.

I also won't allow people to tell me I'm no good. Not even myself. I know I'm good. I have no doubt that, if shooting were necessary, I would be a formidable opponent. I know I can pick up any handgun and operate it to a basic standard. I will not allow some arm-chair commando tell me I don't know what I'm talking about.

But I also will not allow myself to think I'm above instruction. I have areas where I need to improve. I have a higher standard for myself and when I reach my next shooting goals I'm going to reach higher.

And if one of the instructors I know well and respect wants to critique me I am all ears. Every new instructor I train under or who reaches out to me to critique me will get my full attention. They are trying to help me. They are trying to help me improve.

I choose to improve.

What's your choice?


  1. You gave us a valuable point of view, and it is independent of how well you shoot.

    Improving isn't a feeling. It is a commitment to time, effort and attention. Even the world's best shooters go back and practice the fundamentals. The best shooters practice until they always do them right. Then, they push themselves farther to find out where they start to fail.

    I bet if you scratch the pride of a world champion you find humble and determined student.

  2. Excellent observations. Honest self examination is often painful, but the only real way to improve.

  3. Love it! I'm going to read this with my son tonight as it applies to anything we think we are "good" at.

  4. Thank you for representing an honest, humble, and mature perspective. The only thing we truly own for ourselves, that no one-not even God-can take away from us, is our agency...our choice. You've illustrated the very best means to achievement: choosing to improve. It takes courage and self-honesty to make permanent changes to better ourselves, and I believe this attitude is the root of wisdom. I'm grateful to you for sharing your experiences.