Tradition: The Mother of Innovation

A woman is making a pot roast, following her mother’s recipe. She cuts both ends off the roast, slides the heels in sideways, then puts everything in the oven. While it bakes it she starts wondering about something so she calls her mother up, “Why do we cut the ends off the roast?” she asks. “I don’t know. I’ll call bubbie about that.” She calls up her mother and asks the same question, only to get this answer, “That’s how I was taught by my mother. Of course you have to realize that when she first came here from the old country, she didn’t have a big enough pot to accommodate a full roast…”

I sometimes tell this tale as a good example of the differences between tradition and traditionalism. Too often people think they are attacking or defending tradition when really they are talking about their own perceptions of what they think the traditional should be..

Tradition is always a form of information, often based on some type of reality. Unfortunately the results can twist a bit in time’s storms. My wife manages a big used book and record store named Logos. Passing the CD bins she hears an eight year old instructing a six year old. “These are the Beatles. They were really popular. Here’s George, Ringo, Huey and Duey…” Keeping the information going is traditionalism. Keeping it right is tradition.

Hung Gar Kung FuTradition lives in ritual but if the ritual is weak and doesn’t speak to the living, it is counter-productive. Things also break down when improperly understood. The ritual of a funeral, for instance, is not just to display your feelings—possibly so confused that even you can’t name them—but it also teaches you how to grieve.

If tradition is heartfelt, it inspires innovation. Take the Quaker Meeting, deadlocked for over two years on a single tangled issue. Half the Meeting wants a new mezzanine, but to create that a certain section of the Meeting Room—paneled with beautiful inlaid wood—must go. Finally, one member stands up and shares, “A vision has come to me of a mezzanine built out of our wooden panels…” Innovation is easy; letting it open new possibilities that are grouped in real human experience is the trick.

It works both ways: some people think they are starting with innovation. I’ve seen martial artists create “new” styles and approaches all of which are supposed to be “breaking away” from the dead past. Yet, objectively viewed, there is nothing new whatsoever to their technique; the teacher had simply not noticed that these ideas already existed. And the break with tradition? No reality whatsoever.

Fu Jow PaiSome real innovations are simply re-combinations, a contribution not to be looked down upon. When all of your students are being bullied in school and get into fist fights, it is no break with tradition to concentrate on empty hand rather than classic weapons practice.

Tradition is like your parents. You may or may not agree with them but, if you are honest, you will recognize your sources and inspiration, positive or not. Steve Jobs takes a calligraphy class in college and brings that sense of form fused with function into his vision of Apple. Modern Dance was an attempt to bring the soul of tradition back into dance performance. These two poles are mutually complementary, rarely needing to be in conflict.

Tradition, real tradition, inspires innovation. When Newton was asked how he could have seen so far and such new horizons, he said it was because “I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

Below are some examples of misconceptions detailing traditionalism, tradition, and innovation.

Instructors NEVER make up forms. These are “handed down” through the ages. Obviously this is not true, because the forms had to come from someone.

Lineage can ONLY be passed on from teacher to pupil. Teachers often have disciples, but disciples are not necessarily successors. And, as far as inheritors, it often happens that no one has been designated properly. Nowadays this wreaks havoc with the system; in former times the issue was less important. Quality trumped lineage.

Praying Mantis Kung FuStudents should only master one style. The teachers that told me this had been multi-style students. I don’t think they were hypocrites. I think what was in their head was different from their reality. Innovation thrives on clever comparison. You don’t have to master five styles to borrow ideas or inspiration. Wherever your find it is the right place to look.

The usage of techniques is “classical” and fixed. There is a saying in martial arts that, like Cleopatra, a good technique is a think of “infinite variety.” This is not just hyperbole. After thousands of years of warfare, the world’s largest arsenal of weapons, and boxing styles numbering in the thousands; we can hardly dismiss CMA as lacking innovation.

One Response to “Tradition: The Mother of Innovation”

  1. Jeff says:

    What a timely article. I’ve been having many of the same thoughts.

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