Matthew Polly: What happens when you drop out of Princeton to move to the Shaolin Temple and master Kung Fu?
“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.”
— Neal Stephenson
And, yes, at 21 he left Princeton to move to China, find the Shaolin Temple and study Kung Fu.
It’s an incredible story (which he detailed in his first book American Shaolin) and so I decided to interview Matt about risk-taking, the 10000 hour rule of expertise and getting your ass kicked by monks.
The full interview was over 30 minutes long so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post highlights here.
Subscribers to my free weekly newsletter get access to extended interviews.
When you look back on the whole dropping out of Princeton, going to China and studying at the Shaolin Temple, do you think, “I took a calculated risk”, or “it was something I was passionate about” or “I was nuts when I was a kid!” How do you think about that now?
I look at it kind of like it was a different person, like I was nuts. You know how you kind of look at your childhood self and it’s you but it’s not quite you? It does feel a little nuts to me. It’s something nuts that I’m proud of doing and I think that was the important thing.
When I see a lot of my friends who went to the same type of schools, most of them never took a risk. The way they got there was by just taking that next step up the ladder. At a certain point, it felt to me like they didn’t know what the next step was and so they never followed their passion to do anything and there’s a certain emptiness, I think, about that.
On the other side though, taking a risk often puts you outside the system. The whole kind of American capitalist system rewards people who follow the rules. You join a corporation, they give you healthcare. You try to do freelance and do it on your own, well, you’ve got to pay for everything. I do sometimes joke that if I were ever asked to speak to college graduates I would tell them not to follow their passion.
At the end of the day, I think if you take the risk, even if you fail, you’ve taken your shot at it and there’s not that feeling of that you didn’t have your shot, you didn’t take a chance. I think in the end, that’s worth it but I’ll tell you, there are days when I do wonder.
First and foremost, let me take a step back. Can you recount for me what happened there? I’m familiar with it but for the sake of the interview, can you give a quick round up of the Shaolin experience?
The Shaolin story. I was one of those skinny, scrawny, nerdy kids who got picked on in grade school and middle school. I developed, like a lot of nerdy kids, this kind of fantasy about what it would be like if I were super tough and a super hero and fell in love with kung fu and Bruce Lee and David Carradine. When I got into college, I started studying martial arts and Chinese and Chinese religion but was really fascinated by the fighting styles.
At a certain point, I read the book “Iron and Silk” by Mark Salzman and it tells the story of this Yale graduate who goes to China and learns kung fu. That was the first sort of idea I had that this was possible. I went to my Chinese language teacher who came from mainland China and asked him if this was cool and what I should do if I wanted to study kung fu in China.
He said, in Chinese, “[speaking Chinese]”, which means, “Are you afraid to eat bitter?” I said, “No,” lying to him, and so he said, “If you want to study really real kung fu, then you have to go to the Shaolin Temple.”
This was back in like 1992, before there was much Internet search or anything and there was no records anywhere that I could find of what the Shaolin Temple was but the idea of going to the place where the T.V. show “Kung Fu” was about, where all the Wu Tang Clan talked about, “Enter the Dragon”, Bruce Lee, was a Shaolin Temple monk.
This was like my whole childhood fantasy, the idea that I could live it out. So that’s what inspired me to take the risk and basically drop out and defy my parents and get on a plane and fly to Beijing when I had no idea where the Shaolin Temple was.
I landed there literally with a Fodor’s map, a book, of China and walked around Tiananmen’s Square asking people, “Do you know where the Shaolin Temple was?” [laughter]
I did finally find somebody. Several people thought it had been destroyed or they didn’t know and finally I found this old lady who came from the province where the Shaolin Temple was located. She said, “I know how to get there. Get on a train,” and that’s how I ended up finding the Shaolin Temple, just walking in cold.
It truly was like some sort of old school adventure which, now, with the Internet, people are there blogging about their life at the Shaolin Temple. You can get a Google Maps of it so it’s completely different now. At the time, the Shaolin Temple had one telephone line in the whole village so it was completely cut off from everyone.
Yes but there’s a big difference between somebody saying, “I’m flying to the United States today,” versus being Christopher Columbus. You did it first and you did it when it was really hard.
There is an aspect of that. At the same time, I had a return ticket so if everything failed, you could still come back. Christopher Columbus, if he didn’t find anything, was going to die. [laughter]
It’s funny, it’s such an unbelievable story, man. Give me the quick basics. You were there for how long? What did you learn? What did you take away from it?
I spent two years living there. I studied kung fu like seven hours a day. The whole Chinese thing is about eating bitter. That’s their whole training method. They’re not into scientific training, peak performance, up and down. It’s just grind. They had like 30,000 young Chinese kids studying kung fu and the very best got to be Shaolin monks.
When I watched, for example, the Opening Ceremonies to the Beijing Olympics, that was like what China was, to me, the Shaolin Temple was, thousands of people doing the same thing over and over every day in perfect precision.
One of my takeaways was just I discovered how very American I am because the Chinese are extremely nationalistic, so being the foreigner all the time was eye-opening. I was a minority of one there so I learned a lot about what it was like to be an outsider.
Two, kind of strengthened my sense of pride in where I came from but also my concern, just politically speaking, since we’ve talked about this before. I came back very concerned that we needed to up our game because the Chinese were coming to, you know, they had the eye of the tiger.
Then, three, personally, it was a sense of I felt like the lion in the Wizard of Oz looking for his courage. Then afterwards, when things would come up, I was like, “Well, it won’t be as bad as Shaolin, whatever happens.” You do a job interview, whatever happens, it’s not like I’m going to get beat up by a bunch of monks. [laughter]
It gave me kind of baseline of confidence that I could do something completely crazy, go off the map and come back in one piece. That, to me, is the great advantage of risk taking is that even if it fails, you know that you had the courage to do it and that you have the courage to do it again.
What made you come back? Did you originally set any sort of, “I’m going to do this for two years?” Did you ever say to yourself, “I might never come back,” or was there a certain achievement or was it blurry and something happened where you said, “OK. I’m ready to go back now.”
Yes, originally what I told my parents just so they wouldn’t arrest me and not let me go was that I was only going to go for a year. Then towards the end of the year, I realized I still didn’t feel like I understood China or the Shaolin Temple or the culture yet so I extended it two years, which, at that point, my parents were furious and they ended up cutting me off.
It was in the middle of the second year where I felt like I kind of got, that I understood the culture, I understood Shaolin. I had also kind of achieved my goal. My goal in learning kung fu, I thought it was originally to be the baddest fighter on Earth and then I learned that’s not possible. There are always tougher guys than you are.
I came to the point where I realized I was tough enough and that I didn’t need to be a world champion of kickboxing. I just needed to be good enough to feel secure if some bully tried to push me around like in grade school. At that point, when I felt like I had achieved that goal, it no longer seemed as necessary to stay there and suffer and eat bitter. And I wanted to come home.
I think a lot of expatriates, you go to China with a lot of goals but it’s a very tough place to be a foreigner and it wears you down over time. I got tired of being the outsider forever and I wanted to come back and actually live in my own country. That’s kind of what changed. By the end of the second year, I was ready to come home.
Overall, how do you think that kind of shaped your attitude on risk taking in general?
For me, it was a signature moment of my life. If I look back, it was the transformative moment. Some people it’s high school. Some people it’s college. For me it was going to Shaolin Temple. I was a different person when I came back. That, I think, is the most important point about risk taking is you get to find out who you really are when you push yourself outside a comfort zone and discover resources you didn’t know you had.
For me, that’s why I always think, in the end, even though it is risky by definition, it’s worth the risk if it’s something you’re passionate about. There’s no point taking a risk for it’s own sake. If there’s something you really want to do, and it involves risk, that you should, especially when you’re young and you have no commitments to anyone. No one’s going to starve and you don’t have kids.
I thought it was the perfect time and afterwards, I would meet people easy road and I always kind of felt sad about that. You’re not as interesting a person if you don’t challenge yourself like that.
Do you think that a challenge like that, do you think it revealed who you were? Do you think it changed who you were or either?
No, I see what you’re saying. It’s weird. I think it does both. One of my goals in going was I didn’t like who I was at the time. I wanted to be something different, I had an active sense of wanting to be more courageous than I felt I was at the time.
It’s strange, since I was actively trying to self-improve. I think all challenges reveal something you don’t know about yourself, but if they’re tough enough, they change you in fundamental ways and I was when I left. And not all of it was for the better. I was a little edgier around the corners for awhile and a little more cynical than I was.
One of the things about living in a desperately poor village in the middle of China is you get a real sense of how hard life can really be. Just kind of growing up upper-middle class white in America and going to an elite college, I had a pretty privileged background so I’d never lived in conditions that were that primitive. A lot of the guys I knew, some of them in caves, they didn’t have enough food to eat many days. They’d go hungry.
It kind of flipped me out when I went back and finished my senior year at Princeton, all these people worrying about things that seemed so trivial. “Am I going to get a job at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs?” [laughter]
“Oh, my 25-page paper is due and I’m a day late, instead of an ‘A’.”
For awhile, I couldn’t readjust to it. What people were worried about at Princeton seemed trivial to me because it is, so it did actually have that kind of effect where I found it hard to re-relate to the things that Americans get really upset about. Because in the context, I had a whole new perspective and context and so it took me awhile to kind of readjust to that.
Another thing I’ve kind of explored on the blog a lot is expertise, becoming an expert, studies in “deliberate practice.” That’s pretty central in a lot of ways to what you were dealing with and what you said about the practicing. Can you just talk a little bit about that, just kind of expertise, moving towards perfection, trying to get better, what did you learn about that?
There definitely is but Gladwell was this 10,000-hour series, he’s very good at coining something that’s kind of common wisdom. But definitely what you found was the monks, they knew how much time you had to train kung fu to be good at it. There was just a general sense and the idea if you went through the program the way they talked about it and you did everything you were supposed to, it took 3 years to get good at it and it took 10 years to master kung fu. They didn’t consider you to have a mastery of it until you’d done about 10 years worth of work.
Now some guys are a little fast than others. Some people are smarter and pick up things quicker and some people have a kind of inherent talent that others lack. But most of what it takes to be an expert at something is the grind and putting the work in. That’s the thing that was fascinating was that you could watch the beginning students and they all moved up at about the same rate, some a little faster than others, and it was the people who were lazy, didn’t put in the work, who couldn’t achieve expertise in the subject.
That said, the difference between very good and great, there is some sort of intangible at the highest level. The work will get you to very good but the difference between that and greatness is something that is kind of beyond. That’s the mystery. At the very end, I felt like I’d gotten very good at martial arts but I realized I’d never be great at it. There were guys that just had a kind of athletic ability or sensibility about them that I would never achieve.
Got you. Has any of that carried over to your writing or to other things you’ve done since?
Yes. I really did feel like my sense of what my art in life, that was the thing, the change for me, is I realized that my goal wasn’t to be a master of kung fu, it was to master some art form. Writing, for me, became where I transferred all my passion. While I’m certainly no master at it, it is where I put in the 10,000 hours and the 10 years worth of work and feel a comfort level. Martial arts became more of a hobby and writing became not only my job but where I think my art is.