We all have this misconception about experience, that somehow time is a defining factor in determining one's expertise. However, the truth is that it's not how many years you spend in any endeavor but how you spend those years which determines your progress. Let's think about this for a minute.
The average practitioner trains 2-3 nights per week for an hour or so each night. That amounts to roughly 150 hours of training each year. But what about someone who trains as if it's a full-time job? Of course, this situation is rare now but there was a time when 40 hours per week training was considered the norm. You were committed to the art, and possibly even lived in the dojo. At 40 hours/week, you'd accumulate 160 hours of training in a single month. So then, in the course of a year you had nearly 12 times the amount of training as someone who only trains a few nights each week. Your experience level would far outweigh the number of years you've been training, and you would be greatly underrated. So how can we accurately gauge what someone truly knows?
If you're curious about what someone else can do or how much they know, talk to them. Get on the mat with them. An experienced practitioner can have a single conversation and watch someone for 2 seconds before determining how skilled or legitimate they are. Again, it is not the amount of time (as measured by the calendar) they've spent training but how they've spent their time that's important.
What I want to know is how often they practice outside of the dojo. How many private lessons have they had with their instructor? Have they spent time living with their instructor receiving "round-the-clock" instruction? There is a big difference in being a student and being a true deshi, a subject I'll expand upon in a later article. Is martial arts a hobby or is it something they've committed their life to? All of these things and more determine how quickly someone can progress in any given time. And as hard as this may be to accept, some people just have a natural ability to grasp and understand the arts better than others. I'm not talking just about physical skill, which may have more to do with athleticism than anything else. Some people are just able to process and internalize information faster than others. What may take someone repeated sessions to understand may only take someone else a single class. It happens.
Another thing that bothers me is when someone reaches a plateau, and stays there for many years while thinking they're more experienced than someone with less time in. I'm sorry, but doing the same mediocre thing for 20 years does not make you more knowledgeable than someone who reached the same plateau and continued to progress, even if you have more calendar years of training. I cannot stress this enough. I don't care how long you've been training. If you're doing the same thing over and over, your training has ended. You are a robot. Everyone always talks about how there is always something to learn, yet few ever really seek it endlessly. They get promoted up to 4th or 5th Dan, and continue to receive honorary rank above that because they've been around a long time or know the right people. However, do you know what Albert Einstein calls doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result? Insanity!
Here's another example. Doing something wrong for 20 years does not put you ahead of someone doing it correctly for 10. While there is something to be said for experience and trial-and-error, the person who's been doing it correctly for 10 years is progressing at a faster rate simply because it took the other person 20 years to reach the starting point.
So again, the amount of years someone has been training can be a good indication of where they stand. However, there are too many variables for it to be a deciding factor. What is more important is how many mat hours one has. How much of their time was spent physically training, studying, researching, etc. compared to everything else in their lives? This concept of measuring experience by calendar years is a Western thing, because like everything else we like to impress people with how much we have rather than the quality of what we have. How many koryu practitioners attained high levels of skill and licensing in a handful of years? My favorite example is Kano Jigoro (the founder of Judo), who earned Menkyo in Tenjin Shin'yo Ryu Jujutsu and Menkyo Kaiden in Kito Ryu Jujutsu at the ripe old age of 22, in a span of four years from the date he started training.
So therefore, I'm way more impressed by someone who has 5-10 solid years of training than someone who has spent 50 years going through the motions. What about you?