Think about things that have surprised you. Surprise happens when something is unexpected. 

There are big surprises, like when your cat pounces on you in the middle of the night (you moved!). Or when a giant tree limb falls to the ground for no apparent reason – this literally happened one time at Brown Belt Weekend in Bidwell Park, Chico, California. (I saw it happen. Thankfully, no one was injured; but the limb came very close to a grandma in a walker-seat.)

We can react to surprise in different ways. Shock (crazy cat!); disbelief (did that branch really just crash to the ground?!); reassessment (google search: sudden branch drop syndrome); action (move your family away from the tree that just dropped a giant branch).

Other surprises are more subtle. Sometimes we are surprised when a person acts in an unexpected way or has an unexpected idea. We’re expecting one outcome, then all of a sudden, there they are doing something we never thought they would; or, there they are coming up with a great idea. We react with surprise, and they see it.

When I was young, it was kind of neat to surprise others by surpassing their expectations. I still remember when, in kindergarten class, we were supposed to memorize our home address. When it was my turn, I recited my address, and the teacher said it was correct! I thought to myself, “Wow! I got it right!” This may seem like a small thing, but I think the memory has stuck with me because it was a profound experience. I surprised myself – in a good way! It was one of the first steps on my path to self-confidence. 

But in the course of a lifetime and a career, I’ve come to have a more jaded view of surprise. Let me explain.

Very early in my day-job career, my boss asked my opinion about two different options for wiring a new network cabinet. With the confidence of an inexperienced worker, I made a quick decision, identified one of the options, and said it was the best. A few days later, my boss came back to me and said, “I’ve spent several hours doing analysis on the two options. I liked the other option better and kept trying to make the numbers say so. But I give up; your recommendation is the best way to go.” My boss was surprised I had envisioned the best solution.

As my career progressed, I can’t tell you how many times that scenario played out. Even though I gained experience, developed a measured approach, used careful analysis in my decision-making, there continued to be surprise at my good outcomes. While I had confidence in my abilities, it took a long time for others to share that confidence. 

I had to ask myself, why should it be surprising that I – the individual I am, the person I see in the mirror, someone who is smart and creative, who has a lifetime of experience, who has proven herself time and time again – why should it be surprising that I can do what others cannot?

Then I turn that around and ask myself, am I surprised at the abilities of others? How does my own point of view limit my expectations of others? And, does that narrow their avenues of success?

It is easy to look for commonality and norms. It is natural to accept a person who quickly fits in with the existing group. It is common to expect success from a person who matches the mold of already-established successful persons. But for the person who surprises – the person who falls outside whatever “norms” I’ve accepted (consciously or not) – the “easy, natural, common” expectations can be detrimental.

Think about it in the dojo setting. Perhaps the bravest action new students can take is merely to walk through the door. Once inside, they will ask themselves if this is a place where they can see themselves learning, working and enjoying being part of the group. If they cannot see themselves in the group, they will not stay.

As a school head, it is my role to welcome newcomers and to encourage them in martial arts training. If I am insincere in my welcome, it will show. If I am surprised by their abilities, it will show.

As an instructor, I need to be open to the abilities of everyone who walks through the door. In my own heart, I need to do my best to be immune to influences that will tend to make me prefer – or shy away from – old, young, rich, poor, same race, other race, mixed race, big, small, introverted, extroverted, thin, stocky, muscular, domestic, foreign, flamboyant, plain, long hair, short hair, bald, tall, short, bearded, clean shaven, hairless, him, her, they. 

Whatever preconceptions I may have, I need to see to the heart of the person. The study of martial arts is not for everybody; but I believe it is for anybody who has the desire and will, anybody who wants to build and contribute.

No matter who I welcome into the dojo, I’ll do my best to expect success – no surprises.

Professor Jane Carr and Sensei Katie Murphy Stevens, 2010.

Professor Jane Carr and Sensei Katie Murphy Stevens, 2010.

Sensei Cynthia Frueh and beginner Katie Murphy Stevens, 1991

Sensei Cynthia Frueh and beginner Katie Murphy Stevens, 1991

Beginner Katie Murphy Stevens and uke Nerissa Freeman, 1991.

Beginner Katie Murphy Stevens and uke Nerissa Freeman, 1991.

Katie Murphy Stevens
Rokudan, Danzan Ryu Jujitsu
School Head, Makoto Kai