Respectful Irreverence by Rob Pincus

As I transition from my recent series of posts on Col. Jeff Cooper, Gunsite, and the Modern Technique of the Pistol to a forthcoming series of posts on Gabe Suarez and his Pistol Gunfighting School, it seems an appropriate time to post an essay by Rob Pincus called “Respectful Irreverence.”

The article first appeared on the Breach, Bang, Clear blog in September 2008, but was lost in a tech related transition over there. The version below has also been reprinted as Appendix A in Grant Cunningham’s 2013 book, Defensive Revolver Fundamentals.

I appreciate Rob Pincus allowing me to re-post the essay here. Even before meeting him, I found his understanding of teaching as a way of cultivating humanity compelling, and there are echoes of that perspective in this essay. During my long weekend of observation of his Combat Focus Shooting Instructors Conference I found that he adheres to the principle of respectful irreverence himself, for better or worse.

Rob Pincus at Combat Focus Shooting Instructor Conference, 2017. Photo by David Yamane

Respectful Irreverence

When any person, idea, technique, school, piece of gear, team or tactic is put on a pedestal, we risk stopping progress. I first wrote an essay with the chapter of this title many years ago for the Breach, Bang, Clear Blog. It was one of the most popular pieces of writing that I had published online and is still referenced to this day by many people in the firearms training community and beyond. Conceptually, the tenets of Respectful Irreverence apply to any field of research or human endeavor.

All people should be trying to constantly improve their own abilities and their level of understanding. If we assume that we already know all that there is to know.  In the defensive/tactical world, that means becoming more dangerous to our enemies and better prepared to deal with violent conflicts. If, at any point, we decide that someone or something is beyond being questioned we will limit our ability to improve.

History is full of revered truths and experts that turned out to be wrong. Acknowledging this simple fact should remind us that today’s experts and truths may be just as vulnerable to improvement.

Being open to questioning those who would be experts does not mean disrespecting them. In fact, if we look hard enough, we will probably find that our heroes themselves challenged a previously held belief or expert in order to develop their own conclusions and truths. This process is necessary for progress. I don’t think anyone in the training industry has less than outstanding intentions. As instructors, however, we are all limited by the exposure we have to ideas and our ability to process them. We are limited by the type of students we have worked with, the facilities at which we’ve taught and the systems in which we operate. It has been said that a 3rd year college physics major today knows more about the relationship between matter and energy than Albert Einstein did when he wrote the Theory of Relativity which describes it. In a perfect world, the students will always eventually outshine the instructors. I know that I have learned a lot from students and their feedback. Student questions have forced me to examine my own teachings more closely and sometimes change them for the better. Occasionally, feedback from students (including those who watch instructional DVDs or read articles like this one) can turn an idea on its ear and initiate a whole new approach to a problem or explanation for a solution.

I have spent a lot time over the last few years doing instructor development for civilian, military and law enforcement personnel. I want to take this opportunity to share with the readers of this blog some of the important tenets that I pass on during those courses that I think benefit us as students as well in our approach to training.

Success Breeds Complacency:

We learn from mistakes and improve through failure. Success breeds only complacency and pride. While we love to celebrate our victories, we need to spend much more time analyzing our losses in order to find areas to improve. Training that revolves around ego building and developing a positive mental attitude tends to become a choreographed series of feel-good-drills and simplistic scenarios.

The fact that some technique or piece of gear or training method has been used successfully does not mean that it is unquestionable. History is full of examples of “best ways” that were bested through innovation, experimentation and critical thinking.

Avoid Absolutes:

Never say Never. Skepticism is an important trait in anyone seeking to improve on an existing system. Without a fair dose of skepticism, one is likely to jump on the first bandwagon that passes by. Once on-board, a failure to think critically can lead to figuratively being taken for a ride. One of the first indications of a need for questions is an absolute. If someone says “Always” or “Never”, it is your responsibility to find the exception. By identifying the exception, you will improve the system and be able to better prepare. If the exception doesn’t exist… look again, or be open to accepting it (and adjusting appropriately) if someone else finds it.

Ask (and Answer) the “Why?” Questions:

“Just another tool for your toolbox” is potentially the single most damaging phrase in the training industry. Instructors owe their students more of an explanation for investing time & effort (let alone money) in a technique, tactic or principle than to just offer that it is something that might work for them. Most instructors do not use this phrase out of ignorance. Many use it to avoid confrontations with Type A students who might want to argue based on previous training. Some use it out of their own complacency because it has never been questioned. Some might use it because they truly believe that the tactic is simply just another tool. I think the student deserves a detailed explanation as to why the instructor is teaching any given skill or concept. Intellectual Comfort with an idea is vital to efficient learning.

If the answer to the “Why?” question is “…because that’s how [we/the team/some other team/this school/etc] does it!” I really suggest a long & hard deep breath, followed by extreme skepticism throughout the rest of the course. Dogma has no place in this arena. My staff instructors operate under threat of termination if they ever use this type of answer with a student.

An instructor should always teach what they truly believe to be the best option for any given situation and be ready, willing and able to explain why. An instructor who side-steps a why question with a subjective answer or false humility (“a way, not the way”, etc…) is abandoning his responsibility as an educator.

Of course, as I often remind my students and myself, an instructor may be wrong. He may find out later that he was wrong about something or he may find out while having a discussion with a student about why he thought he was right. I have changed my mind about many things and realized I was wrong many times in the past. That doesn’t stop me from passionately sharing what I believe to the best information on any given day for any given student.

Context dictates Curriculum:

Students should be taught things that will work in the context that they are likely to need them. Spouting content blindly without regard for the realities of the student is simply lecturing, not teaching. Picture the guy who stands in front of a power-point and reads it to the class. Unfortunately, this type of “instructor” is far too common and sometimes offers little to the student.

Any course outline needs to be open to adjustment to accommodate the student situations, questions, equipment and abilities. I always say that I know about 95% of what I’m going to teach at the start of any given course, the last 5% comes from student interactions and it is often some very important stuff!

If you follow these four principles as often as possible, and look for instructors who do as well, you should be able to get more out of your training time and effort. Avoiding complacency and absolutes, answering the “Why?” questions and allowing context to influence curriculum whenever you can, may not be easy. It might even bruise some egos… maybe even yours. If the attitudes of those involved are properly aimed at the goal of improving without regard for personal preferences, the irreverency does not have to be disrespectful. We should all be standing on the shoulders of the giants that have come before us in the training industry, which enables us to see farther and reach higher than they did. If we instead kneel at the feet of those giants, be they people, schools or organizations, we will fail to build on what they have established and stagnate. The dictionary defines ‘irreverent’ as ‘lacking in respect’, or ‘impious’. I prefer the latter definition in this case and believe that it is possible to be respectful of people while still not worshipping any one source of information. In short, the next time you think about your preferred source of tactical wisdom or technical expertise:

Honor the men, challenge the material.

Screen cap from Grant Cunningham’s book, Defensive Revolver Fundamentals (2013)

7 comments

  1. That’s a beautiful essay. Works for all academic fields as well, which should be no surprise. I’ve noted the best scientists are respectfully irreverent and many are memorializing that famous quote from Donald Rumsfeld*. The pompous blowhards are tolerated but not admired.

    * “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

    Liked by 2 people

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