“For one minute on stage, you need ten years work under the stage.”
-Old Chinese Saying
I’m an old guy, so my taste in music is not contemporary. I like old school classic rock, progressive hard rock, that kind of stuff. You think about those bands, and you know their songs; maybe you have their greatest hits album. But you only recognize them for the high point in their career. For example, do you know how long AC/DC has been around? They’re not an overnight success, but the Iron Man movie catapulted them to another level. They’ve actually been around since 1973, but no one knew them back then. They probably had to play dive bars and outdoor festivals and every nasty little gig they could get. They did it because they loved playing rock and roll. It took a good 20 years or more for them to get noticed. You’ve seen this time and time again.
Take the example of a Broadway actor. These guys have been working at their craft since their youth, doing small plays, Shakespeare in the Park if they were lucky, doing every little acting gig that they could, until they broke the ice. Then, all of a sudden, you’re successful, and everybody maligns you and says, “Look at that guy, look at that girl, they’re an overnight success. They must have known someone, paid someone, or slept with someone, to get somewhere.” You’ve been working so hard, but no one took notice of you until you got that one big chance that catapulted you into the spotlight of mainstream society. The people on the other side of the coin think that you just popped up out of nowhere. To them, you’re an “overnight success.” Many of us, myself included, have looked at a singer, an actor, another martial artist, and said, “Where’d this guy come from? All of a sudden they’re all over the place. They must’ve ‘did’ something to get there.” And the truth of the matter is, they did DO something to get there. What did they do? They did their hard work; they sacrificed. They put so much time, effort, blood, sweat and tears into their craft for countless years until finally someone took notice. Then we, as the greater public, look at them and go, “Come on, you just crawled out of the woodwork because you have friends in high places.” That’s not really the case. The truth of the matter is, those individuals have probably been working at it for at least a decade or two in order to make it. Very few just make it right off the bat. With that being said, we shouldn’t be quick to judge or dismiss the so-called overnight success because there is no such thing as an overnight success. None of us will become an overnight success, and this is what we need to remember. Just because you don’t see the decades of work someone has put into their craft doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Another good analogy is Chinese cooking. Did you ever wonder why you’re able to go to a Chinese restaurant, be it a sit-down restaurant here in Chinatown or a take-out joint, and literally get your food in five to fifteen minutes? It’s all about the preparation. This really speaks to Kung Fu, because you work, you practice; you practice, you work; you work out, you refine. You do the same movement again and again, and you do the same form for years on end. Many times, you question yourself and ask why? Why am I knocking my brains out to do a repetition of this thing thousands of times? You don’t understand, you get frustrated, until that one moment when you actually need it and you’re able to apply it. Then you understand why it’s so important to be prepared. That goes back to the analogy of your Chinese takeout food. Why can they can crank it out in 10 minutes? All the preparation has been done; everything has been diced and chopped. Everything is ready to go so that when the order comes in, they can put it together and it’s done. It’s not fast food; it’s the nature of how they cook. This is also the nature of your martial arts. You have to be prepared. Prepared for what? Prepared for anything. If you don’t practice like this, when you go to utilize it, it’s not there because you haven’t done the preparation. That’s the same for any actor, singer, dancer or martial artist. Anyone who’s involved in an art that requires a skill needs to put in that time and do the preparation on a regular basis or the skill will not be there when you need it.
There’s an old Chinese saying that says, 台上一分鐘 台下十年功 “For one minute on stage, you need ten years work under the stage.” My teacher, Grandmaster Tak Wah Eng, trained under a famous Kung Fu opera star and master, Lueh Gwok Cheun, and you may not know his name. But he was one of the top martial art coaches for Shaw Brothers Productions during the sixties and seventies, and trained many of your favorite stars, including Cheng Pei Pei, Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and Chen Koontai and many more. He was very fond of telling my teacher that statement again and again. He travelled the entire world performing Peking Opera and training stars to perform martial arts in countless movies. It’s the gravity of the statement that shocks me. One minute is equal to ten years. So how many years do you need to be able to actually perform, to be able to do to what’s deemed as up to par? You need decades and decades. According to this statement, thirty years is three minutes. Maybe it’s not that extreme, but it’s pretty close. You really have to be dedicated and devoted to your craft in order to attain that height of performance. That just boggles my mind. When someone says you’re just an overnight success, we have to take a step back and think about what this old master is saying through his decades of experience teaching and performing live shows. I think his saying that statement over and over again is just amazing. That sums it up. One minute is equal to ten years worth of work, so we better start working. The clock is ticking.
This comes back to the overnight success. Just because now you’re a so called “overnight success” doesn’t even mean that you’ve really made it. You still have to keep “making it” all the time. That means you still have to keep putting in the work, you still have to keep putting in the time. You’re only as good as the very last thing that you did. Just because people think you’ve made it doesn’t mean you’ve made it, either. You have to go back every day and start preparing again; it’s a continual process. AC/DC still has to go in for a sound check; they still have to rehearse; they still have to practice. The successful Broadway actor still has to go to class. It has to be real every day; otherwise it’s not real at all. Otherwise it’s just a fluke, an “overnight success”. You have to prove yourself on a daily basis. That’s the hard part that everybody has to deal with. Can you make it happen? That’s up to you.
Relating this back to our martial art training, no matter how good a system we pick, no matter how good our teacher is, no matter how amazing we think we are, we need to remember that there’s no such thing as overnight success for any of us. Nothing can replace hard work, dedication and loads of time.
-Sifu Paul Koh