The Path to Mastery: Bridging Shuhari and the S-Curve of Learning

Ric Raftis

The process of gaining mastery over a discipline is never a simple, linear path. Knowledge and expertise are acquired through cycles of learning and growth, often punctuated by moments of difficulty, realisation and innovation. Two philosophies that beautifully encapsulate this journey are the Japanese martial art concept of Shuhari and the Smart Growth S-Curve by Whitney Johnson.

Shuhari is a three-stage process representing the path to mastery in martial arts, but it is often applied to other disciplines as well. The first stage, Shu, is about tradition and obedience, where one learns the rules of the discipline. The Ha stage, which follows, is about divergence – breaking and challenging the rules. Lastly, Ri is about transcendence, where having known and questioned the rules, the person leaves them behind and becomes an innovator, creating their own path.

Whitney Johnson also offers a concept of growth and learning in her book “Smart Growth”. She describes the S-Curve of learning, a model that highlights three stages of personal or professional development: the lower bend characterised by slow growth and learning, the steep slope representing rapid growth, and then the upper bend, which again signifies slowed growth as one reaches their potential in that area.

Linking these two concepts together is remarkable as they both capture the process of growth and mastery. Much like Shuhari, the S-Curve encapsulates the phase of learning, the phase of fast growth, and then reaching a plateau where growth slows, analogous to reaching Ri, the transcendence stage. While Shuhari roots into the regime of martial arts and the S-Curve in the business world, they both underline the universal truth of the journey of learning and mastery.

This brings us to the well-known saying, “The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.” from Oliver Wendell Holmes. This beautifully couples with these concepts of mastery. The young man in the saying represents being in the Shu stage or the lower bend of the S-Curve – he is still learning the rules, still gaining experience. On the other hand, the old man signifies being in the Ri stage or the upper bend of the S-Curve – having known, practiced and questioned the rules, he understands the exceptions.

The young man knows the rules but the old man knows the exceptions meme.


In essence, mastering a discipline isn’t just about knowing and adhering to the rules – it’s also about understanding when these rules can be broken or manipulated for overall benefit – a vital understanding that forms the Apex of the S-Curve and the Ri stage of Shuhari. It’s about achieving a level of understanding and intuition that allows for creativity and innovation while adding value to the existing knowledge base.

Ultimately, both the S-curve of learning and Shuhari remind us that the path to mastery is a cycle, not a linear journey. It invariably goes through phases of adhering to the rules, breaking them, and finally transcending them to understand exceptions and forge new paths.

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Ethics Statement

AI Collaboration: Starting from the ideation phase until the final editing, this article was created in collaboration with an AI tool, OpenAI Assistant. The AI provided real-time research, content generation, and helped in connecting complex ideas effectively. While the article benefited significantly from AI assistance, the final piece was carefully reviewed, edited, and approved by a human editor to ensure it meets our quality and accuracy standards.

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