From Dojo to Graduation: How Earning a Degree Is Like Earning a Black Belt

In eighth grade, I decided I wanted to learn karate. I admit, this decision might have been influenced by one too many Bruce Lee and Jean Claude Van Damme movies, by hearing stories from my father about his time doing karate, and, most importantly, by a bout with a bully. Ostensibly, I wanted to learn how to defend myself. Deep down, however, my driving motivation was to earn a black belt.

The Importance of the Black Belt

Belt levels serve as signifiers of your achievement. To those familiar with the belt system, it gives a shorthand for what level of mastery you have achieved and what basic competencies you hold. Black belts also can help drive goal-oriented people to achieve mastery.

The Black Belt of Higher Education

I recently returned from the ASU-GSV conference, where there was a lot of chatter about the death of the degree. I do not agree with this assessment. Much like a black belt, the degree, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, can serve as a signifier of achievement.

How a Black Belt Is Like a Degree

Earning a black belt and a higher education degree (be it an associate, bachelor’s, graduate or even a professional certification) are not exactly the same, but they do share some significant similarities.

Trust is critical. Elite martial arts schools earn their reputation in a lot of ways – word of mouth, producing champions, and frankly, not accepting everyone. Colleges, too, build their reputations over decades, if not longer. What is common among both is that outcomes matter. Students choose a martial arts academy, or a college, because they trust they will get a return on their investment, whether that’s earning the belt they want to earn or earning a degree that will get them a job.

Compounding interest pays off in education and karate, as well as banking. At its most basic level, compounding interest allows money to make money. Like money, skill acquisition works the same way. The more students know, the more they can learn.

Earning a black belt is a defined path – you must acquire specific competencies in a specific order. You can’t learn to do a jump reverse hook kick without first learning how to do basic kicks. The same is true of a degree. While options are important, the fundamentals must be mastered before learning more complex skills. A degree can signify to the world that you have learned skills on a curated path designed to teach the most complete set of information possible.

Setting long-term goals can provide necessary motivation. Former Navy SEAL Mark Divine talks a lot about his principle of 20X – the idea that humans are capable of 20 times more than they think they can handle. This idea resonates strongly with me, and has motivated me to do many things, from earning a black belt to an MBA to completing an Ironman.

But for goals to be motivating, they have to be internally set. Earning a black belt was not something my parents pressured me into; it was something I chose for myself. Higher education has become a minimum standard of entry for many professions, which I think is leading to more students attending university who may not be internally motivated to do so. I think we need to reconsider the notion that everyone needs to pursue higher education, and they need to pursue it immediately after high school.

Not only do goals need to stem from internal motivation, they also need to be difficult. Earning a black belt takes persistence, dedication, and skill – a college degree should be the same. I want to be clear, though, that while I am advocating for it to be tough to earn a degree, I am a huge fan of increasing accessibility and affordability, so that all those who have the motivation can achieve their goal.

Approach failure as an opportunity. In both karate and my education, I had wonderful instructors but also my fair share of bad classes. I do not think of this as a failure of either karate or higher education, though. Instead, I think this was great training for the real world. One of the most important parts of the working world is simply showing up, even when you don’t feel like it, and my bad experiences, as much or more so than my good, helped teach me how to do that.

Achievement is not necessarily competency. After immersive study in Rome, when I had no other option but to communicate in Italian, I was able to demonstrate competency in the language. Three years later, when I returned to Italy, I was barely able to order food in a restaurant.

My point is that you can achieve competency, but it requires continuing work to maintain. Just as we require certain professions to complete continuing education credits annually, having learned knowledge once does not mean you maintain that skill level forever. Consider refreshing your skills on a regular basis to ensure you are achieving your goals and maintaining competency.

Universal standards simplify a situation. Let’s imagine a world without college degrees. How would employers distinguish between candidates, especially on the mass scale? It could be done, but it would be difficult and would likely require some kind of complex big data technology.

Degrees, then, provide a shorthand for what skills a graduate has. By setting some universal standards, comparisons can be made more easily.

The Future of Education

I don’t think the degree is dying, but I do think the definition is expanding. Alternative credentials are getting a lot of press, and for-profit and non-profit institutions are exploring their potential. Even Learning House owns The Software Guild, a coding bootcamp provider, and I am proud of the work we are doing to help people learn the skills needed for software development jobs.

A black belt and a degree are not the same, but they both illuminate a few universal truths – hard work pays off, mastering skills takes time, and knowledge should be transferred from expert to student. Setting huge goals motivates people to exceed their limits and gives a sense of pride like no other. Education, then, not only enriches the mind but nourishes the spirit. As education evolves, how can we, as educators, continue to help students discover the value inherent in higher education?

A version of this article appeared in Louisville Business First.

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: tzipper@learninghouse.com