Is There a Better Way? Innovation vs Tradition

Karate bow
Shutterstock / Manick Photo

What do artist Jackson Pollock, musician Eddie Van Halen and jeet kune do founder Bruce Lee have in common? All three were innovators.

We know the names of many innovators. Heck, sometimes statues are erected in their honor. That said, breaking from tradition with new ideas is not easy. It is often an unpleasant process that’s met with resistance — and rarely appreciated in its own time.

This begs two questions: Can new ideas be embraced without abandoning tradition? Should they be? That’s the challenge, the struggle between keeping things the way they are and finding a better way.

Questioning the Status Quo

Many martial arts students, myself included, have been in a lesson in which they quietly questioned what they were doing. “Why do we have this stance?” “Why do we practice this these forms?” “What is the point of learning a given technique the traditional way if my teacher and I know the technique will never work in competition or combat?” “Is there value in preserving something for tradition that would otherwise pass into extinction?”

Some sage advice on what to discard and what to keep comes from an ancient source:

Do nothing which is of no use.

The quote is from The Book of Five Rings, the classic book by legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi. It’s a powerful directive for improving, refining and seeking a better way.

Don’t Chase the Shiny Object

Things shouldn’t be thrown out just because they’re old. Tradition is how we pass down knowledge to the next generation, and some things have proved their worth over time. And for those things, If it works, don’t fix it.

So while it is important to strive for improvement, it’s also critical to not chase the latest shiny object. Everything old isn’t bad, and everything new isn’t always good.

Critical thinking and honest evaluation will always be the best ways to ensure that only the best ideas stay.


A new way of doing things is usually resisted. Respecting the past while striving to improve the material being taught is a nuanced challenge in direct conflict with our human nature of favoring the familiar over the new, even when it is better.

It’s vital to not become dogmatic or legalistic regarding the traditions of any martial art — or we run the risk of losing the dynamism that will keep it from becoming irrelevant.

Perhaps it is best to remember that everything old was once new, and over time, it became tradition. The utility, validity and efficacy of any teaching should be the criteria for what is handed down and practiced — and not because of when or where it came from.

If everything is valued on its merit, rather than on how it will affect business, feelings or egos, the way will always be clear.

Introducing Martial Arts School Listings on Black Belt Mag!
Sign Up Now To Be One Of The First School Listed In Our Database.
Don't miss a single issue of the worlds largest magazine of martial arts.