How would Batman fight? Part one: Predatory thinking

 

How would Batman fight? Take a second and think about the question. Really, step away and consider it: you’ve got 60 seconds. Go.

 

Okay: unless you’ve actually got some experience in thinking about fighting, you probably came back with an answer that focuses in on Batman’s actual techniques: whether he prefers Aikido or Savate or Silat (it’s Malaysian), or, if you’re a canon fan, how he apparently knows 127 different martial arts. This isn’t the wrong thing to think about, but it’s not the first thing to think about.

 

The first thing to think about is: what are Batman’s goals?

 

‘Goals dictate strategy,’ writes Rory Miller, a former Corrections Emergency Response Team member who now trains people in how to deal with violent situations. ‘Strategy dictates tactics. Tactics dictate techniques.’

 

Goals, Miller points out, will change from encounter to encounter: sometimes, what you need is to incapacitate someone, but other times it’s just to get away or get enough air to scream for help. He also points out that most people need to operate within certain parameters – like not letting a family/team member get hurt or losing a weapon from your belt or (for most people) getting sued. Broadly speaking, though, most people’s goals and parameters are in a violent situation are:

 

Don’t get hurt.

Don’t go to jail.

 

That’s why learning to run away better, de-escalate situations or even recognise and avoid them in the first place should be key elements of most people’s self-defence training, although they usually aren’t. Compare and contrast this with the goals (and parameters) that police have:

 

Uphold the law.

Don’t use excessive force/go outside of procedure.

Don’t abandon your partner/lose your gun.

 

…or the goals that military guys have:

 

Complete the mission (whatever it is).

Stick to the Rules Of Engagement.

 

…and you start to recognise that what works for a civilian isn’t likely to be the best plan for a soldier or cop. Cops aren’t supposed to run away, and soldiers can’t abandon the mission without good reason – but they can probably get away with a lot more force than a civilian in most situations they encounter. Civilians can’t shoot a guy from half a mile away or call for backup, but they can count any situation where they come away unscathed as a pretty clear win. 

So what are Batman’s goals and parameters? He has basically four:

 

Protect innocent people.

Send bad guys to jail.

Don’t kill anyone.

Don’t use a gun.

 

Another important distinction that Miller makes is between the two key types of violence: social, and asocial.

 

Social violence is what happens when you’re part of a group. It used to happen in tribes, and now it happens among groups of young men who go out drinking on Saturday nights. Social violence is usually easier to see starting – Miller calls the ritualistic squaring-off that usually precedes a barfight ‘the monkey dance’ – and easier to avoid.

 

Asocial violence is what you do outside your group. It includes hunting, butchering livestock and swatting flies – but it’s also what genuine predators do, whether they’re mugging someone for their wallet or murdering them for their land. It’s done with the goal of maximum efficiency: it isn’t a contest or a show, and there’s no attempt to prove to a cow that you’re ‘better’ than her. Asocial violence is about hunting, not communication, and the predator works to send deceptive signals or no signal at all. Think about what you’d do if you had to get a mobile phone off someone in the next ten minutes: absolutely had to, and they wouldn’t be persuaded by anything you could say. Would you square up to them and ask for it with your fists raised, or whack them on the head with a stick from behind? That’s asocial violence, and it’s what predators do.

 

Batman is a predator. He doesn’t care about making fights fair: he cares about fulfilling his goals with maximum efficiency. That’s why some of the best interpretations of Batman are seen in the Arkham videogames and Zack Snyder films – Batman will happily use the element of surprise, hit people from behind, shoot them with a taser or a Batarang, throw a box at them, use a smoke pellet – and, on occasion, run away. On the flipside, the most famous examples of Batman agreeing to a ‘fair’ fight – his two bouts against the Mutant Leader in The Dark Knight Returns – actually happen for ‘social’ reasons: he wants the Mutant gang to respect and fear him. Compare and contrast with his ‘fight’ against the KGBeast, where he just locks him in a room and leaves him to it.

So this is where you have to start when you consider the question ‘How would Batman fight?’ – not with a consideration of the moves he’d use, but with his aims, and his reasons for fighting. Batman is trying to protect innocent people and send criminals to jail, without using a gun or killing anyone. Batman isn’t going to fight fair. Batman is also (probably) going to train for situations that don’t begin with two people facing each other at a reasonable distance across a dojo floor: he’s going to train for situations where he needs to fight five dudes who’ve just jumped him, or where he needs to save a hostage, or fight two panicky dudes on a fire escape without accidentally killing either of them, or where he’s got his hands tied behind his back or he’s been blinded by fear gas or the other guy’s made out of living clay.

Hopefully you won’t have to face most (maybe any) of these situations, but if you’re interested in fighting a bit more like Batman, this is worth considering: think about the sorts of situations where you’re most likely to encounter violence (which will differ depending on whether you’re a small woman, large man, 60-year old accountant or professional bouncer) and what you’ll need to know/practise to survive them effectively. If you do kickboxing or judo, have you ever practised running for a door that’s being blocked by two dudes, or scrambling for a weapon, or screaming for help or assuming body posture that doesn’t let the other person know that you’re ready to elbow them in the mouth? These are the sorts of things that Batman would be good at. Be more like Batman. And next week, we’ll talk about what martial arts Batman would do. Promise.

What next? Work out what your goals are likely to be in the sorts of fights you’re likely to encounter in your life, and ask yourself what kind of fighting would most adequately prepare you for those. Don’t have a clue where to start? Come back next week.

How good is Batman at chess?

Probably not all that good.

 

There was a time, coincidentally not too far from the year Batman was invented, when even very smart people still thought that being good at chess was highly symbolic of (and reliant on) being really, really clever. This becomes most obvious when you look at how people talk about the problems involved in creating chess-playing computers: in one paper on the subject published in 1958, researcher J.C. Newell writes that ‘If one could devise a successful chess machine, one would seem to have penetrated to the core of human intellectual endeavour.’ Back in this era, it was assumed that for a computer to play chess at a grandmaster level, it would have to have a high level of what A.I. professionals call general intelligence: it might need to be able to learn abstract concepts, think about strategy, compose flexible plans, make logical deductions and (maybe) model one’s opponent’s thinking. When this was still the accepted view, it would have made sense that Batman would be good at chess: he’s a brilliant tactician and a supreme logician, able to adapt to any and all circumstances and (of course) predict what his enemies are going to do. That’s chess, right? He’d be amazing.

 

The only trouble? This isn’t actually true.

 

Firstly, it turns out that you can build an excellent chess-playing robot that isn’t anything good at anything else: experts call it narrow intelligence, and you can do it with what’s known as a special-purpose algorithm. The best chess-playing bots have been able to beat human players for two decades now, but general artificial intelligence is still a long way away.

 

Secondly (but relatedly), any good chess player will tell you that high-level chess is actually about pattern recognition, not general intelligence: it’s about who’s played the most chess, and memorised the most board positions. Chess is a long way from being ‘solved’ (in the sense of it being possible for a super-smart computer or human to play a move that’s technically perfect from any position, which is the case with tic-tac-toe or checkers), but most of the work involved in becoming a grandmaster at chess is actually to do with deeply studying endgames and openings, and learning the correct response in thousands of different positions. This is why it takes thousands of hours to get to genuine grandmaster level at chess, though there’s an argument that you could simply get very, very good in much less time: Emanuel Lasker, who was the longest-reigning champion in chess (from 1894 until 1921), suggested that it might take as little as 200 hours, divided between rules of play and exercises (five hours) elementary endings (five), openings (ten), tactical combinations (20), position play (40) and play and analysis (120). But even that is a lot of hours to spend on an endeavour that doesn’t add much to your crimefighting ability, when you could better spend that time on criminology, weightlifting, or sleep. Batman might not spend it. But you know who might?

 

Villains.

 

Smart People Play Chess is, of course, a popular trope across TV, film and comics: mostly to do with the misunderstandings above, it’s pretty common for any character in need of an intellectual crutch to have a chessboard close at hand. This happens a lot in DC comics: let’s have a look at how good they are.

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Ra’s Al Ghul is the most famous chess-player in the Batman pantheon. This makes sense: he’s 500 years old, so he’s had a lot of time to do all of that memorising and pattern recognition. He plays Batman to a stalemate in Son Of The Demon, which suggests that Bats plays to a semi-decent standard. On the face of it, this makes sense: the Arkham residents are a traditionalist lot, and a bit of basic chess-playing ability’s probably handy for decoding some of their puzzles.

 

But hold on a minute, because it turns out that at least two other members of the Batman rogues gallery have also played against Ra’s, which lets us get a slightly better handle on the rankings. Firstly: Bane.

Image result for ras al ghul chess
What the other sets are for is anyone’s guess.

Again, it kind of makes sense that Bane might be good at chess. He was raised in the brutal surroundings of Pena Duro prison, where he didn’t have much to do except do calisthenics, practice his swimming (when he was left in a cell that flooded every night), and – presumably – work on his Ruy Lopez (which is actually an opening and not an endgame strategy, but maybe Ra’s is just trying to sound clever here). Working from first principles to become amazing at it seems like it would be hard, but whatever.

Then there’s the Joker.

Image result for ra's al ghul joker chess

Apart from Bane, The Joker is apparently the only other man to have beaten Ra’s at chess, on the basis that – quoting here – he had a lot of spare time in prison to learn the game. An aside: some people will argue that the Joker is good at chess because he’s so perfectly insane, and therefore can make moves that will perplex a chessmaster. This, of course, doesn’t really work: you might throw a grandmaster for ten seconds (if he respected you in the first place) by making an outright ridiculous opening move, but in two or three he’d shut you down and destroy you. It’s a bit like starting a fight with the crane kick: you might cause some initial confusion, but unless you’ve got some solid skills to back it up things are going to end really, really badly.

 

So: the only conclusion it’s really possible to draw from this is that Ra’s Al Ghul is not all that good at chess (maybe his henchmen all let him win) and that neither, sadly, is Batman. But this actually makes sense: chess, ultimately, is a game that takes thousands of hours to master, and Batman would never dedicate that amount of time to it when he could be spending it on useful things. Batman is not good at chess. But you know who is?

Image result for batman alfred chess

 

Oh yeah.

 

What next? If you’re interested in how the principles that you learn by getting good at chess transfer across to learning in general, pick up a copy of The Art Of Learning by one-time chess prodigy and then world tai chi champion Josh Waitzkin. Interested in chess more generally? Stephen Moss’s The Rookie is a treasure trove of anecdotes about the old masters, and also a fun read. Or, of course, you could just dive online and find some games. Once you’ve done your press-ups, of course: it’s what Batman would do.

Would Batman meditate?

Definitely.

 

Not every Batman writer seems to know the specifics of meditation – there’s a lot of hand-waving about ‘mastering the body and mind’ in the early issues – but more than one comic has Batman sitting cross-legged or thinking back to the mental training he’s undergone with mysterious monks of…wherever.

 

References? Okay: in Batman RIP, it’s mentioned that Batman has mastered thogal (sometimes written tögal) meditation, a Tibetan practice which he uses to experience death, spending 49 days shut in a Nepali cave to overcome his last vestiges of fear. In a flashback sequence during Court Of Owls, he masters Tummo meditation during a nine-month sojourn to the Himalayas, actually managing to melt the ice he’s full-lotusing on while he sits near-naked in sub-zero temperatures. 

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Flexibility: required.

 

In Venom he manages to put his brain in the ‘theta’ state, enabling him to stay perfectly relaxed (and rested) while staying alert, and in a muuuch earlier comic, the Yakuza’s most deadly assassin teaches him to unify his mind and body to heal himself. Yes, really.

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Spoiler alert: some of this stuff isn’t real. But what is, and how much of it actually works?

 

Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that a huge amount of successful athletes and thought leaders meditate. Arnold Schwarzenegger does it, alongside Rickson Gracie, Arianna Huffington, Russell Simmons and LeBron James and about six hundred others that I’m not going to waste your time by listing.

Meditation, notes 4-Hour Body author Tim Ferriss, ‘is a ‘meta-skill’ that improves everything else. You’re starting your day by practicing focus when it doesn’t matter, so that you can focus better later when it does matter (negotiation, max deadlift attempt, conversation with a loved one).’

It’s also, according to practitioners, a way to de-stress, and also to calmly observe your thoughts (and thought patterns) without getting overwhelmed by them. There’s some evidence that it can modulate pain, improve cognitive function, and – yes – actually produce changes in grey matter density in areas of the brain related to learning, memory and emotional regulation. According to research conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Zen meditators were able to weaken the mental processes that produce pain by altering the connectivity of the two brain regions associated with it. Even if that was all it did (no self-healing bullet-wounds or fearlessness required) it would still be worth doing. So, how does it work?

 

Basics first. In real life, most forms of meditation can be roughly broken down into what Buddhists call Vipassana and Samatha. Vipassana (rough translation: ‘insight’) is the one that has more similarities to what Batman seems to do, since it focuses on maintaining a clear awareness of exactly what’s happening as it happens. Samatha (‘concentration’ or ‘tranquility’, depending on who you listen to) is about focusing on one item – a prayer, a candle flame, a religious image, a Bat-symbol or whatever. Vipassana is the older of the practices, and more all-encompassing – the general idea is to begin with paying full attention to everything in your surroundings, and eventually graduate to seeing the truth of impermanence and selflessness. Modern ‘mindfulness’, with its focus on being fully engaged with the present moment, has its roots in Vipassana, and Transcendental Meditation, which is mantra-based, has similarities with Samatha. Which would Batman do? Well, there’s actually some overlap between both: Samatha can be done first, for instance, to calm the mind and strengthen concentration in order to prepare for Vipassana. The former is more calming, the thinking goes, but the latter is about developing clear insights. Batman would probably do both.

 

What about the more esoteric stuff? Well, to start with the thogal meditation: it’s not really supposed to be about tasting death. Traditionally, it’s a Dzokchen practice where the practitioner allows their pure nature to shine forth in the form of luminous Buddha images. ‘Rather than being intentionally visualized,’ notes author Geoffrey Barstow. ‘These forms appear spontaneously to a practitioner’s visual consciousness…it is a practice for revealing the pure, radiant nature of everything someone experiences, with death being just one experience among many.’ Tögal, explains Barstow, is a practice concerned with experiencing primordial purity in the present moment, not brooding about your death. Pretty cool, but maybe not Batman’s jam.

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Yikes.

Then there’s Tummo, or ‘inner fire.’ This one’s Tibetan again, and, yes, there’s some evidence that you can use it to make fairly-dramatic changes to your body temperature – though that isn’t its main purpose. Wim ‘The Iceman’ Hof uses a variation of Tummo – including frequent exposure, meditation and breathing techniques designed to oxygenate his cells – to withstand extreme cold, and some tests have seen experts use it to heat wet sheets thrown over their shoulders. Could you use it to melt ice in the nude, or (say) survive being abandoned in any icy cave? Current research is inconclusive, but Batman might learn it just to be on the safe side.

 

So how would Batman meditate? Probably every day. Even in a packed schedule, he has plenty of time for the 5-10 minutes most practitioners agree is the minimum for getting results, and he’d probably get it back in improved focus and clarity elsewhere. He’d probably use a combination of Vipassana and Samatha, concentration and mindfulness, possibly tackling both in one day via breathing or a mantra followed by awareness exercises. He might also use technology to enhance his experience, engaging in neurofeedback to regulate his brain waves – but that’s a subject for another post. Could he heal himself, melt ice, or lose his fear of death? Maybe not, but he’s pretty good at that stuff anyway.

 

What next? The basic version of Vipassana is simple enough: sit comfortably with your spine erect, either in chair or cross-legged on a cushion, and take a few deep breaths, gradually becoming aware of the sensation of breathing and bringing your mind back to it every time it wanders.

 

Of course, as author Sam Harris notes, that’s a bit like saying that walking a tightrope is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other – it’s a bit more complicated than that, and it takes loads of practice. To help, Harris has recorded his own guided mindfulness meditation – or, alternatively, you could try out apps like HeadSpace or Calm, which have a variety of both styles. If you want to try mantra-based meditation without spending money on a TM course, you can sit silently and repeat a two syllable word – no, not ‘Bat-man’ – for 10-20 minutes first thing in the morning. According to Ferriss and others, seven days is probably the minimum investment to see results. It’s not long…to become a bit more like Batman.

How does Batman work out?

How fit is Batman?

 

Pretty fit, whatever standards you’re using. Of the 10 commonly-agreed on metrics for physical fitness – that’s strength, cardio, flexibility, muscular endurance, agility, balance, coordination, power, speed and body composition (notably the only non-performance one, but still helpful because it improves your power-to-weight ratio), Batman probably scores in the top 95th percentile of the population on every single one. Is he the best at each? Well, no, because that’s not physically possible, but more on that in a second. The question is: how do you best develop all of these qualities at the same time? And the follow-up: could you actually do that with a demanding job as a nocturnal crimefighter? Short answer: maybe. Long answer: weeeeeell…

 

Myth-busting first. Neal Adams, one of the all-time greats in Batman illustration, once said that Batman would win, place or show in every event at the Olympics. Unfortunately this isn’t really possible because of the way bodies work: at the very simplest level, the body shape you need to run a 2:05 marathon and the ones you need to throw a hammer or swim a world-class 100m or hoist 200kg overhead are completely different. But there are also other problems: training fast or slow-twitch muscle fibres, for instance, tends to give you a preponderance of those types, and emphasising one energy ‘system’ would mean performance dropoffs in the others. So if Batman isn’t superhuman – and he isn’t – then let’s assume that’s not actually possible.

 

Realistically, then, Batman would need to be very strong and extremely fast, with good power endurance and the work capacity to push on through an entire day (or week) of crime-fighting with very little rest. He’d actually be unlikely to need, for instance, the long, slow distance style endurance that marathoners develop: it’s more likely that he’d need to grind through a long night of medium-to-high-intensity tasks, sometimes requiring explosive power or a high degree of strength. To give you a good example, consider one of his more exhausting nights out: the culmination of Knightfall, where he takes on the Joker and Scarecrow together, on the same night as fighting Bane and all his henchmen. There’s climbing, sprinting, leaping, underwater swimming (while carrying the mayor) and, of course, loads of fighting, all at the end of a week when he’s already been having punchups with the giant Amygdala and the psychotic Victor Zsasz.

 

To develop the ability to cope with that sort of stuff, he’d probably train with barbells, but also with bodyweight movements, which improve coordination, and gymnastics, which trains the sort of straight-arm strength that’s difficult to work on elsewhere (but, for instance, which the real-life Iron Man insists is valuable for flying a wingsuit). He might use ‘odd’ objects, like sandbags and farmer’s walk bars, as well as rope pulling and truck pushing.

 

In terms of being good at all of these things, it’s difficult to argue that the athletes of the CrossFit Games are some of the world’s best. A few years ago, for instance, Ute Crossfit – two-time Games victors, led by 2009 silver medal individual finisher Tommy Hackenbruck – estimated that any winner of the games would need a 260kg deadlift, 160kg bench press and 185kg front squat, alongside a 160kg clean and jerk and a sub-60 second 400m dash. Olympic decathletes are a lot faster than that – the best can do a 400m in 45 seconds – but they aren’t as strong. Strongmen are a lot stronger, but after about 90 seconds of effort, they’re toast: CrossFit athletes are frequently expected to perform for 40 minutes or more. Games Athletes are also expected to prepare for events they’ve literally never encountered before, including shoving a 225kg weighted cylinder (the ‘snail’) across a football field, or taking part in off-road trail runs and open sea swims. And finally, they have to develop the work capacity to do all this over a four-day competition, usually including a dozen unpleasant ‘workouts’ to tackle and recover from during one extended weekend.

 

This is all an extension of the original purpose of CrossFit, which was explicitly to prepare people (including first-responders and the military) for anything they might come up against in a non-average day. Imagine you’re a cop: one minute eating doughnuts in your car, the next sprinting after a suspect and wrestling him to the ground. That’s a mixture of strength, speed and skill, drawing on different metabolic pathways in unpredictable order. And that’s what CrossFit workouts are designed to promote, mixing barbell movements, bodyweight calisthenics, gymnastics and cardio in unpredictable combinations at high intensity. If you can crank out a set of heavy deadlifts and then run a mile in a weighted vest, or flip a 300kg tyre a bunch of times and climb a rope without using your legs – that’s pretty Batman, right? So Batman would just do CrossFit? Well, not so fast.

 

There are two key problems with training like an elite CrossFit athlete: skills, and time. Let’s tackle skills first: yes, CrossFit does insist on athletes learning an array of things that would make it very, very difficult for an incredibly strong, very fit non-CrossFitter to do well in the Games, but they’re quite narrowly defined. Good technique in the Olympic lifts, for instance, is key: three out of 13 events in the 2017 Games included snatches or cleans, including heavy variations of both – certainly ways to build and display power, but not super-transferable to broader applications. Gymnastics moves get mentioned a lot, but ring muscle-ups and handstand walking (again, not that transferable) are prioritised over almost everything else: there’s basically no attention paid to tumbling, acrobatics, breakfalling or parkour. Some CrossFit athletes are genuinely world-class at Olympic lifting: in the obstacle course event from 2017, every single one of them would have been outclassed by a semi-decent freerunner or Ninja Warrior competitor. Double-unders – that’s turning a skipping rope twice for every jump you take – are hugely important in competition, but climbing, for instance, is never mentioned. Whether this counts as a criticism of CrossFit depends on you, but it’s unarguable that it wouldn’t be efficient for Batman.

 

The second big problem is time. In ‘traditional’ CrossFit – following the Workout Of The Day (WOD) online – followers train in a three-days-on, one-day-off structure, following workouts that are essentially random and usually very short. One day might be a 10k, the next might be seven rounds of a three-rep hang clean, and the next might be 20 minutes of press-ups, pull-ups and squats. Obviously this isn’t enough to prepare for the modern Games: four-time winner Rich Froning, for instance, trained five times a day at his peak, using multiple workouts to hit every different area and technique and build up the immense work capacity that the main event demands. Most other top-level athletes quickly followed suit, but there’s another wrinkle: the best now use what’s commonly known as conjugate periodization to ensure they’re training efficiently. Don’t worry too much about the language: ‘conjugate’, in this context, just means ‘aimed at improving lots of things at once’, and ‘periodization’ means planning training in phases, usually aimed at peaking for a specific time or event. Basic periodization might involve working on strength for four weeks, then switching to power or power endurance for another four – or steadily increasing training volume during a running plan, then increasing speed. CrossFit periodization is more complex, and takes a few forms: programs like the Outlaw Way focus on strength but never cut out conditioning, while CrossFit New England’s Ben Bergeron skips ‘metcons’ – that’s metabolic conditioning, or CrossFit’s signature high-intensity workouts – at certain times of the year while heavily increasing it at other times. Periodization’s been standard practice in sport for decades, but Batman isn’t training for a sport: you never know when Professor Pyg’s going to go on a rampage or Killer Croc’s going to pop out of a sewer.

 

This presents a bit of a paradox: it’s pretty clear that having a plan for your training is the most efficient way to do it, but at the same time you can’t plan to peak if you don’t know what you’re peaking for. Critics of CrossFit’s traditional programming point out that once CrossFitters cross the gains-heavy beginner stage – where even doing press-ups can improve your 5k run time, for instance – random stresses work less well. At the higher levels, gains become incremental, and athletes plan training blocks in terms of years, not weeks: something Batman can’t really afford to do.

 

So how would Batman train? It’s up for debate, but here’s one model:

 

During his ‘pre-Batman’ phase – or, say, after the sort of enforced layoff he experienced in Knightfall – he’d be able to lay a lot of groundwork, building up his work capacity with a very high volume of training. Here he’d probably focus on qualities like strength, which takes a long time to develop, and build a solid aerobic base, improving his ability to recover from workouts. Because he’d also be training in martial arts and other physical skills, he’d need to incorporate the time and recovery from those into his schedule: pro MMA fighters, for instance, are likely to do sparring early in the week, when they’re fresh, and save drilling and technique for heavy strength and conditioning days. An alternative/complementary strategy would be to incorporate skill work into workouts, both to build movement efficiency and discipline-specific cardio. Doing all-out intervals on a heavy punchbag, for instance, might be more transferable to Batman’s nightly routine than working out on a rowing machine, while doing bouldering-style 4×4’s might be more efficient than pullups. This is where Batman would use periodized training, possibly splitting workouts into blocks as mentioned above.

 

He might keep this simple, or he might tackle several qualities: strength, gymnastics work and metabolic conditioning in a single workout, as best seen in the free workouts posted by Ben Bergeron. Rather than focus on skill work with little transfer, though, he’d probably focus on movements he’d be likely to need on the streets: maybe the Parkour climbup, or the diving forward roll. And finally, he’d probably ignore Olympic lifting in favour of the more ‘functional’ movements seen in strongman training, which tend to better mimic the kind of strength needed in the real world. Atlas stone lifting, tyre flipping, rope pulling and sandbag carrying all mimic the kinds of things Batman does on an everyday basis, from carrying orphans out of burning buildings to carrying henchmen up towers so he can interrogate them. With smart programming, you could do them a lot, and still benefit.

 

While being Batman, he’d need to scale all this back a bit. Training multiple times a day at the same time as being the saviour of Gotham City definitely isn’t practical, but even 5-6 times a week might be tough, depending on scheduling. To deal with this, Batman would probably keep his training programme very simple and short, maybe only lifting for 2-3 days a week and doing minimal, hard conditioning. He’d almost certainly use what experienced athletes call autoregulation, or adapting workouts on the day, depending on how tired he is. Hostage crisis at Arkham Asylum? He might keep it at a few sets of heavy overhead press and ignore the endurance/metcon work, reasoning that he’d got enough of it from fighting the Mad Hatter’s crazed goons. Quick dustup with Calendar Man? He’d probably do some extra training.

 

Would Batman take steroids? That’s a question for another post.
What next? If you’re interested in getting in Batman shape, work out a training regime that allows you to train with a plan that involves progression, and preferably one that includes elements of strength and endurance, either tackled simultaneously or in reasonably-sized training ‘blocks.’ Start with basic bodyweight and barbell moves, then build up to strongman movements and more complex gymnastics as you improve, while doing conditioning/cardio with activities specific to your goals, like running or bagwork. If you’re training in martial arts or other physical disciplines, factor all that in, and include elements of it in your training if you can.

How does Batman stay motivated?

He doesn’t have to.

 

Yes, Batman has a lot motivating him. Famously, his parents were shot by a robber on their way home from seeing The Mark Of Zorro, and after that he decided either to:

 

  1. Avenge their deaths by declaring war on all criminals or
  2. Make sure nobody would ever have to suffer that kind of pain and loss ever again

 

…depending on which version of the mythology you’re listening to (the first is the classic, the second is probably more current). He also has the fortune, mansion, militarily-trained butler etc to make his plans a realistic possibility, but disregard that for the moment, because we’re talking about motivation. Is it enough?

 

Well, maybe. Your life being ripped apart is certainly enough to motivate a lot of things, and there are definitely times, when Batman wonders if it’s all worth it and he visits his parents’ graves to reaffirm his commitment to the mission. But would it have been enough to get him through all of it? The martial arts training in remote monasteries, the relentless nights of criminology study, the time designing the costume and building the car and hauling all of that stuff down into a massive cave? Can you really be that motivated?

 

Maybe, maybe not. But you don’t have to be.

 

The science of willpower is in turmoil right now. The short version: for the past 20 years, Roy Baumeister, probably the world’s leading authority on self-control, has been running experiments that suggest that willpower is a limited resource and acts a bit like a muscle. In one seminal study, for instance, volunteers were shown into a room containing fresh-baked cookies and a plate of radishes, and told to eat one or the other. Afterwards, everyone tried to solve puzzles that were (secretly) designed to be impossible to complete, and the students who’d been eating radishes lasted half as long as the cookie group before quitting in frustration. Baumeister and his co-author Dianne Tice (also his wife) called this effect ‘ego depletion’ and said it suggests a fundamental fact about willpower: we all have a limited supply, and it decreases with overuse. Eating a radish when you’re surrounded by fresh-baked cookies represents a serious feat of self-denial, and one that really wears you out. Willpower, argued Baumeister and Tice, draws down mental energy – it’s a muscle that can be exercised to exhaustion. The effect was replicated in dozens of studies, suggesting that willpower can be depleted by everything from not reacting to films to making purchasing decisions – and also ‘trained’ through regular use. You could, according to Baumeister, built character by regularly doing tough things and then allowing your willpower to recover and get stronger, just like you would with a muscle.

 

Convincing stuff, and extremely Batman-relevant: after all, if there’s one thing spending your late teens studying ninjutsu in a remote mountain enclave is good for, it’s probably building willpower. But this is where things get tricky, because more recent studies aiming to replicate the results have found have found zero effect: no sign that the human will actually works this way. The critics argue that meta-analyses don’t bear out Baumeister’s results: Baumeister argues that the more recent studies mostly use computers and (for complicated reasons) therefore don’t test willpower as accurately. It’s fascinating stuff and worth reading more about, but what does it mean for willpower? Is it a finite resource, or isn’t it? What would Batman do?

 

There’s another complication. In recent research, test subjects beliefs about the nature of willpower actually influenced their ability to exert it: if they’ve been told that it’s a limited resource, one study suggests, they’ll act as if it is, performing worse on tests of self-regulation when they’ve already exhausted their ‘resources’ by doing demanding tasks. On the flipside, students with a ‘non-limited’ theory of willpower had higher expectations about their progress in unpleasant tasks and stuck with them for longer. Even if there’s some placebo effect at work here, it’s an important distinction.

 

So: it’s confusing, but this suggests that a decent solution, at least based on the current research, is to believe that willpower is unlimited but act as if it isn’t: to assume you’ve got infinite reserves of discipline waiting to be unleashed, but still avoid depleting it when you don’t have to, just in case that’s not true. Or: if you’ve got a tough day of mountain climbing and ninja lessons ahead, don’t expend all your energy worrying about what to have for breakfast.

 

This, you see, is where the most well-established commonality between high-perfomers in every field comes in, and that commonality is habit. Habit is what you use so you don’t need willpower, and it can make or break your attempts to do absolutely anything. Habits are ingrained: one study suggests that 40 percent of your daily actions are built up of them. And, importantly, your brain can’t tell the difference between good and bad ones – all it  understands is triggers and actions and rewards – so replacing good with bad might be all you need to do to live a much more productive life.

 

A simple example is breakfast. The worst thing to do is be locked in the habit of eating terribly: mindlessly munching through a bowl of high-sugar cereal that gives you zero protein or nutrients and leaves you starving by 11am. The slightly-better thing to do is to agonize over whether to eat cereal or a four-egg omelette with spinach and peppers, wasting precious morning-time and (depending on who you’re listening to) blitzing through precious reserves of willpower that you’ll need later. What Batman would do is make the omelette the habit: no decisions or willpower required, just a good choice every single morning. And it’s the same with the gym, or Muay Thai lessons, or going out on patrol: you might decide to do these things, wrestling with whether or not you’d rather go to a bar, but Batman just does them. Monday morning (or whenever) is when Batman does chin-ups, Wednesday is sparring with Nightwing, 9pm each night is time to check the police scanners and throw on the cowl. There’s no deviation from the routine, and no need to think. It just happens. It gets done.

 

There are a few ways to build a habit, and some of them are better than others. The simplest is to just gut it out: keep forcing yourself to do the good thing and not the bad, until eventually the new behaviour takes over. Better, according to Power Of Habit author Charles Duhigg, is to look at your existing habits, figure out what cues are triggering them and what rewards they give you, and replace them with more positive habits that do the same thing. Imagine, for instance, that you usually get loaded on Friday night: you’ve been doing it forever, you can’t imagine not doing it. The cue is that it’s Friday, so the question is, what’s the reward? It’s not just the taste of beer, it’s probably not bubbles on your tongue (otherwise you’d drink sparkling water), so it must be something else: something to take your mind off work, a way to socialise and talk to people, a way to relax. How could you do these things without the destructive behaviour? The answer’s going to be individual, but Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a book club or getting really into lock-picking are all possibilities. Keep the cue and the reward, shift the habit. Do that with everything, and suddenly your life looks a lot more like Batman’s.

 

Funnily enough, though, the thing that makes Batman most able to do what he does is the very fact that he wears the cape and the cowl and has a secret identity that only his butler knows about: the fact that he is Batman. This isn’t circular logic, it’s psychology, and it works the same whether you’re trying to kick a junk food addiction or become an Olympic champion. You can’t stop yourself from doing the bad things that you like, or force yourself to do things you don’t want to do: not indefinitely. You can, however, change the kind of person you are into the kind of person who does (or doesn’t) do that stuff. Try this at home: next time someone offers you a beer or a bong or a slice of cake, instead of ‘I can’t’ or ‘I shouldn’t’, tell them ‘I don’t do [whatever]’. Yes, it makes you look more in control to them, but it also reinforces your own self-image as the kind of person who acts takes care of what goes into their body.

 

This is how elite athletes and hyper-productive entrepreneurs think: not making every single decision afresh, but by being the kind of people who are constantly making good decisions. And Batman is the ultimate end of this process: Bruce Wayne comes with baggage, he is (depending on who you listen to) a dilettante or a dandy or a spoiled billionaire or a tragic figure, but Batman is the protector of Gotham City and he makes the good decisions. Read Batman comics with this in mind and watch for how often Batman talks in the third person about the kind of hero Gotham needs Batman to be: spoilers, it’s a lot.

 

This is how you make real, lasting change: you have to decide you are the kind of person doesn’t waste time on the bad stuff and focuses on the good stuff. Motivation, willpower, new year’s resolutions: these things don’t work in the long run. Decide to be a better person, and get new default activities that reflect that.

 

And if you can’t think of a better person to be, ask yourself this:

 

What would Batman do?

 

What next? Pick one behaviour you’d rather stop and figure out how to replace it. It could be your 11am raid on the office biscuit tin, your smoking habit, or just the fact that you binge-watch Netflix shows every night. Figure out the cue and reward – boredom, low blood-sugar, the need for a break, something to take your mind off life – and how to switch it out for a different habit, that’s more in line with your goals. Aim for small wins at first: research shows that even making your bed has spillover into other areas, and that exercise has positive transfer to almost everything else. This is how soldiers train, how Olympians win, and how business-leaders become successful. And it’s what Batman would do.

 

 

How does Batman remember everything?

If Batman has an ability that would be practical for almost everyone reading this, it’s remembering stuff. Leaving aside the obvious – Batman has to remember how to fly a plane, steer a boat, perform basic field medicine, track criminals, speak Japanese, pick locks, do 127 different martial arts and so on and so on and so on – Batman also seems to be excellent at remembering the sort of esoterica he needs to solve weird crimes and obscure Riddles.

He’s also, depending on which writers you listen to, phenomenally good at remembering stuff on the spot. In one novella, he describes finding a murderer by near-instantly memorising a parking-lot full of number plates and then working out which car disappeared after the crime. In another comic, he talks through a fight he had years ago, recalling moves well enough to help him in another fight. If you’re going to accept these things as possible, does that mean that Batman’s memory is just some insane genetic quirk, some inborn thing that he has and you don’t?

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Wait, you haven’t memorised the positions of all the security cameras in your city?

Actually, almost definitely not: photographic memory, according to scientists, is not a real thing. Only one case of it has ever been recorded in scientific literature – that of a young Harvard student called Elizabeth Stromeyer, who could supposedly ‘fuse’ pictures consisting of thousands of dots into one coherent image. The problem? Stromeyer married the person who first tested her, didn’t do any more tests, and nobody else has ever been found who can replicate the trick. Eidetic memory, which is a real thing that occurs in 2-15 percent of children, just means being able to recall images – but not words – better than average for a few minutes after seeing them. It’s not nearly as impressive.

 

So, what is Batman doing? In reality, there are a few different mechanisms that could let you do this stuff – as well as some actual memory skills/tricks you can teach yourself.

 

Firstly, let’s talk about the fighting – which also explains a lot of the other stuff. Is it implausible that Batman would remember the details of a fight he had years before, one of hundreds, even if it was a memorable fight? Not necessarily. To understand why, you first need to understand about chunking.

 

You’re already familiar with chunking, because you do it every day. For instance, which of these two letter strings would you find easier to remember?


riddlemethis

 

rdmtehdileis

 

Probably the first one, right? Even if you glanced at both just now, you’d still be able to spell that one out, but not the second. That’s because you’ve already learned to ‘chunk’ letters into groups – you did it when you were a kid – and now, rather than being bound by how many letters you can remember, you think in words. The concept of chunking comes up a lot in chess, where it’s crucial: when you hear about grandmasters playing blindfolded chess, or glancing at boards and then memorising them, that’s because they’re chunking those boards into positions they already know – the Queen’s Indian opening with a pawn up on the left side, say, or some other variation of a well-established pattern. There’s no need to remember the individual positions of 32 different game pieces – one big pattern with a couple of variations is enough.

 

It isn’t mentioned much, because chess is easier to study like this than than fighting, but it’s easy to see how the same principles apply in both. A basic movement in jiu-jitsu, for instance, might look to a beginner like an incomprehensible entanglement of limbs – while to an experienced practitioner it’s just a kimura grip. Or think about grabbing a goon by one lapel, circling your other arm around his head, spinning on the ball of one foot and sweeping him over with the hamstring of your other leg – in judo, that’s just called uchi-mata. As you get better at fighting, you can describe entire moves in this sort of truncated chess-match terminology: the guy shot in, I sprawled and span to his back, hit the spiral ride, got the mount and finished with an Americana. To a jiu-jitsu guy, that’s like e4d62 d4Nf63 Nc3g64 Be3 to someone who’s serious about chess. Could you remember an entire fight from weeks/months/years before? Maybe not if it was a hired goon, but if it was a memorable encounter with a kung fu master who pushed you to the edge of your ability? Yeah, you might remember it. Like a chess game.

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Exactly like a chess game.

But what about other stuff? Languages, obscure chemicals and counter-toxins, little-used skills that Batman still needs to access occasionally? Is there a way to access these more efficiently? Yes: you might have even seen it on TV, though there’s a chance it was portrayed wrong. It’s known as a Memory Palace.

 

The idea of the memory palace comes from the fact that, generally speaking, humans are better-evolved to remember spatial and visual information than lists of names or numbers.

Evolutionarily, this makes sense – being able to find your way back to a sheltered cave or clump of berries you’ve previously only glanced at would be a useful skill for a caveman. Think back to the house you grew up in, your old route to school/work, or even a videogame level you’ve played a lot – chances are, you can trace a path around it reasonably accurately, probably even adding in a few key spots, known by memory pros as ‘loci’. Assign memorable images to these loci, and you’ll be able to pluck them back out of your brain, in order and at will. A high-level memory expert, like Batman, might keep dozens of these: represented by rooms in Wayne Manor or alleys in Gotham City – and stock them with the names of obscure anti-venoms or old Joker-aliases that he never knows when he might need. Alternatively, he could use them to memorise fresh information at speed: pros use ‘pre-made’ images to represent, say, every card in a deck of 52, allowing them to memorise the order of an entire pack in under a minute. If Batman kept images for the numbers from 00-99 (not all that difficult)– he’d be able to memorise a six-digit number plate in seconds, and a decent-sized car park – say, 30 cars-worth – in a minute or so. Would he bother? Maybe not: but it’s possible, and without any genetic mutations.

 

Another interesting thing about the competitive memory circuit is that current champ Alex Mullen is pushing forward the science of using these techniques for real-world applications: using them to memorise Mandarin vocabulary and complex medical terminology as well as decks of cards and phone books full of digits. Mullen stresses that he mainly uses memory palaces for things that are tricky or counterintuitive: for drugs with strange side effects, say. For most other things, he recommends conceptual learning – see How Does Batman Learn? Part 2 – or simple spaced repetition.  

 

But there’s one more part to all this: less scientific than chunking and simpler than using memory palaces. It’s something you could start doing today.

 

What is everyone in your house wearing right now? If one of them went missing, that’s important information: ‘brown hair, quite short’ is harder to search for in a crowd than a red sweater. Can you draw a map of the place where you spend the most time out of the house, whether that’s an office or college or coffee shop? Do you know where the exits and fire extinguishers are, or which windows you’d be able to smash if you had to? If there’s a car parked outside the window right now, do you know what colour it is without checking?

 

Paying attention is the last important thing that Batman does and you don’t. You can’t remember anything that you don’t notice, and most of us are pretty shockingly unobservant. Thankfully, this is easier to practice than chunking, or even a memory palace: just start doing it. Make a habit of scanning rooms when you walk into them, to check where the exits are. Next time you’re sitting on a train, glance at the people around you and then try to remember, without looking again, what they were wearing and where they were sitting. It sounds like a hassle, but it quickly becomes a habit…and habit, as we’ll find in our next post, is something that Batman’s really, really good at.

 

What next? Start paying attention to your surroundings: instead of tuning out next time you’re out and about or saying goodbye to your partner in the morning, imagine where you’d run in a fire or what you’d say if they went missing. Then get to work on a Memory Palace – if you’re after a Batman-style challenge, try the Periodic Table. Oh, and check out Alex Mullen’s website – he’s practically a real-life superhero. 

 

How does Batman learn? Part 2: The Tree Of Knowledge

Part One is here.

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose,” says fiction’s other most famous detective, in his first recorded adventure. “A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it, there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

 

Sounds convincing. But is he right?

 

How much space is there in Batman’s brain? Assuming he isn’t a metahuman (he isn’t), then he has about as many neurons as Sherlock Holmes and everyone else: about a billion. Each of these has about a thousand connections to other neurons, making up more than a trillion connections.

 

‘If each neuron could only help store a single memory, running out of space would be a problem,’ says Paul Reber, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, writing in The Scientific American. ‘You might have only a few gigabytes of storage space, similar to the space in an iPod or a USB flash drive. Yet neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes – or a million gigabytes.’

 

It’s difficult to say exactly how much you need, because as yet, science doesn’t have a clear idea of how much space one memory takes up: presumably, details take up more space. 2.5 petabytes is a lot, though: more than three million hours of TV, if you’re recording at a decent resolution. Because of that, it seems unlikely that you’d ever run out of room in the attic, certainly over the course of a human lifespan. So Sherlock’s wrong in one sense: you won’t ever crowd out memories. In fact, some neurobiologists think that you don’t really ever lose any memories once they’ve formed – every book you’ve ever read, every conversation you’ve ever had, everything you ever had for breakfast is still there, but inaccessible, shoved into some deep recess far from your conscious mind. This isn’t even close to being universally accepted science, but what is accepted is that the brain is an enormously complicated thing, and that those networks of neurons collaborate in insanely complicated ways that explain why you might, for instance, associate certain smells with your childhood, or memories with the places you formed them, or patterns on rectangular squares of cloth with different anthems and nations and ideologies. But the brain isn’t always that great at retrieval: when it’s trying to haul things out of long-term storage, it has to use things like context and concepts or ideas associated with whatever you’re trying to remember. So one of the big problems in learning a lot of stuff is organisation: how do you put it in your brain-attic in a way that means you’ll be able to pull it out again when you need it? If you’re Sherlock Holmes or Batman, you do it very, very carefully.

 

Here’s one more question: why do people so often say that they just don’t ‘get’ maths (or other STEM subjects), but rarely say the same about history? Give it a bit of thought, and the answer’s obvious: you don’t need to understand history from first principles. If you have a bad history teacher for a year or a long bout of illness you might not learn about the French revolution, but nothing about that stops you from learning about World War Two. Have a bad spell in the middle of your maths learning, and things are much harder to recover from: miss a year of trigonometry, and you’ll find calculus almost impossible. You need foundations, or you’ve got nothing to build on.

 

So, considering both of these things, what would Batman do?

 

To answer these questions, it’s worth taking a look at Elon Musk.

 

Musk, as former co-owner of PayPal, CEO of SpaceX and chief product architect of Tesla Motors, knows a lot of things about a lot of different fields. He also made the jump to rocket science mid-career – essentially, by reading a lot of books about rocket propulsion and astrodynamics and space launch systems and then asking lots of questions of lots of smart people. Among other things, he’s also pretty conversant on lithium batteries, car design, electric motors, rocket structures, rocket engines, avionics and aerospace engineering. Side note: Robert Downey Jr. went to meet him when he was first researching the role of Tony Stark.

 

So how does Musk remember all this stuff? Someone asked him that question in a Reddit AMA. His answer:

 

“I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.

 

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

 

(Another quick side note here: Musk is also a big fan of first-principles thinking, where you boil things down to the most fundamental truths you can find and then reason up from there, but that’s not entirely relevant to this post. Anyway.)

This, it turns out, is a good way to learn a lot of things. Jumping to the advanced stuff is tempting but doomed: without a solid conceptual framework to hang your new knowledge from, you can’t expect to really remember new ideas. With science subjects, this means mastering the absolute fundamentals: concepts like the scientific method, or how evolution works. And though science is almost impossible without this approach, it also helps with history and the arts: if you don’t have a handle on the main ideas and debates at the heart of, say, a key territorial crisis, you’ll never be able to fully understand it.

 

All good, when you’re in the classroom. But what about the Shaolin temple?

 

Well, here’s the thing: you can absolutely learn to fight, sprint or lift a car off someone, without ever considering the basics of biomechanics. But it makes sense that if you start with the foundations of human movement, you’ve got a solid conceptual base for working out everything else. Instead of learning endless moves by rote (and then learning that some are less efficient than others) you can go back to common principles, and assess from there.

 

Confused? Don’t be. One solid unifying principle of human movement, for instance, is that you generate force best when your spine is in proper alignment: that’s why NFL players don’t twist their heads around when they’re making tackles, and why nobody tells you to lift up a fridge with a rounded back. You’ll see good spinal alignment in any athlete generating force, from sprinters to Olympic weightlifters to people swinging kettlebells or lifting Atlas stones or going for a slam dunk. Sometimes it’s not so obvious, as in swimmers and people rolling around on the floor as they practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu – but watch the best people in these fields, and they still keep good spinal alignment whenever they can.

 

Other unifying rules? A good one is that power generation often comes from good hip movement: the twisting motion in swinging a baseball bat or throwing a punch really isn’t that different, and ex-soccer players often make the best kickers in mixed martial arts. Another is that the ‘leg press’ movement is one of the strongest the human body can do: something to bear in mind if you need to lift a rock or kick a door open, but also important if you’re going to try to triangle choke Killer Croc, since angling your legs properly will take the strain off your weakest muscles (your adductors) and put it on your strongest ones (thighs and hamstrings).

 

The key to learning, then, is to get down to the bedrock: look for the fundamentals, and make sure you understand them before you move onto the advanced stuff. Build a strong trunk of knowledge, and the branches can grow outwards.

 

How do you remember it all? That’s what we’ll talk about in the next post.

 

What next? To get to the bottom of anything you don’t understand, look for the points in your knowledge where things get fuzzy. One way to do this is via the ‘Why’ game – the one you play when you’re a kid, where you ask ‘Why’ for every single fact you think you know. When you get to a question you can’t answer – that’s a gap on your knowledge, or a bit of the trunk that’s missing. Fix that, and you’ll understand the rest better.

How does Batman learn? Part 1: How to outswim a shark

How does Batman know everything he knows? This is the fun part. Conservatively speaking, you’ve got to assume that Batman knows…

 

How to drive a car, fly a plane, ride a motorbike and steer a boat, several languages (including Kryptonian), how to track criminals, pick locks and rappel up buildings, a solid amount of first aid and mechanical maintenance, military tactics, a whole lot of survival techniques, enough about espionage, social engineering and acting to infiltrate criminal organisations and the GCPD, quite a lot about computer hacking, enough history and literature to solve the Riddler’s riddles and get all of Scarecrow’s references, enough biology and chemistry to untangle the Joker’s various venoms and develop antitoxins for when he’s kissing Poison Ivy, and (of course) several dozen ways of punching and kicking people.

 

That’s a lot to learn, but is it impossible? Maybe. But for Batman (and anyone who wants to be more like him), there’s an important key:

 

Once you learn how to learn, everything else gets easier.

 

First, think about how you learn anything: driving a car, doing maths, programming a computer, or whatever. For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re learning to swim. If you start as an adult, not at all confident in the pool, you might not know anything about it, and so you’ll probably hire a coach. He’ll show you what to do with your legs, how to move your arms, how to breathe efficiently – and if he’s good, he’ll probably give you a few drills and exercises to work on those skills. You might have a couple of sessions on your own and realise that you aren’t very economical in the pool or can’t go very fast, and then you’ll go back, until you reach a level where you’re comfortable enough in the pool (or the sea) to just have fun in the water. You don’t have to think too much about it, and you can go to the pool every weekend and do a bunch of laps, or go out in the sea when you’re on holiday, and enjoy it. You’ve gone from being a non-swimmer to a swimmer, in the sense that you’ve reached a point where you can perform the basics fine with little effort.

 

Batman, of course, would not stop here, because this level of swimming is not good enough to be Batman. He might need to (briefly) outswim a shark, for instance, or swim underwater to escape an elaborate deathtrap. These things are unlikely to happen often, but if they happen once and Batman isn’t prepared for them – well, that’s the end of Batman. Normal people, in the absence of sharks and deathtraps, follow the same pattern of ‘improve until you’re good enough’ performance with almost every skill they learn, from making an omelette to speaking in public. Research actually shows that, generally speaking, once you’ve reached the ‘acceptable’ level of performance, more years of, say, driving or doing open-heart surgery will actually make you slightly worse, not better, because your abilities are only going to deteriorate once you stop trying to improve. So what would Batman do?

 

The man who knows best is Anders Ericsson, who’s devoted more time and thought to the science of skill-acquisition than probably anyone alive. Ericsson notes that expert performers in every field – music, sport, chess, whatever – use the same set of general principles to harness the plasticity of the brain in well-established ways. And so, though the process might be tough, once you know how to get good at one thing, you can apply the same principles to getting good at anything. The question, then, is: what are those principles?

 

Basically, it’s all about how you practice.

 

The most inefficient type of learning, for instance, involves what Ericsson calls ‘Naive practice’, or just doing the thing again and again, hoping you’ll get better. This is what you’re doing if you just hit a punchbag without any thought about technique, or play a piano piece over and over again without worrying about where you’re making mistakes. It’s what kids do when they don’t really want to be doing the thing in the first place and what adults do when they haven’t really got a clue how to get better. You just do it: you aren’t really trying to improve.

 

The next step up, and the furthest a lot of people get in a lot of things, is what Ericsson calls ‘Purposeful practice’. Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals, like ‘Play the piano piece three times through without making a mistake,’ or ‘Swim four lengths in under 20 seconds each.’ It’s also focused, and involves feedback – you have to know when you’re making mistakes, and preferably as soon as you make them. By recognising weak points as they occur, you can eliminate them. This seems obvious, but it’s actually pretty difficult. If you’re, say, boxing, it’s not enough to say that you’re getting hit a lot, because you also need to identify why – are you not moving your head enough, are you vulnerable to a specific feint that the other guy keeps doing, are you dropping your hands when you throw a punch? Sometimes you’ll be able to work this out on your own, but more often it helps to have people watching who know what’s going on. They’ll also have to tell you what to do, and you’ll have to do it, which brings up another point: purposeful practice also involves getting out of your comfort zone, which is why a lot of people don’t do it past a certain point. You need to be working at the specific point where you’re being challenged, though not at the point where you’re in panic mode. Lady Shiva, the greatest martial artist in the DCU, perfectly illustrated this idea during Knightsend, by sending a series of successively-better ninjas to fight Batman during his recuperation from having his back broken. Always a challenge, but never too much. Right in the comfort zone. 

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Also, if you stop paying attention you die.

But there’s another level to practice, and it’s one that most people hit rarely, if at all. When you study highly developed fields, Ericsson notes – the ones where people have been improving for decades or centuries, like ballet or music or chess – the principles of practice are well-established and pretty uniform across disciplines. Ericsson calls it ‘Deliberate practice’, and notes that there are a few things that set it apart from ‘Purposeful Practice’:

 

(A little side note here, in case you’ve heard of ‘Deliberate Practice’ somewhere else: there’s a chance you’ve been reading a misinterpretation of Ericsson’s work, in which case you should pay attention to what the man himself actually says. He notes, for instance, that you can’t do it in a field where the principles of superior performance aren’t well established – like being a manager, or an engineer, or doing the gardening. The best you can hope for there is purposeful practice, and that’s fine – but the names you give to things help your thinking, so it’s a good idea to get the distinctions right.)

 

Most importantly, deliberate practice has to be designed by an expert in the field. It’s informed and guided by the accomplishments of the best performers in the field and what they do to be the best. To put that another way, you can only do it in fields where the best training techniques are already well-established: otherwise, you’re just hoping that what you do works. Deliberate practice also takes place outside your comfort zone, involves specific, well-defined goals and breaks down general improvement into a series of much smaller goals: it takes full concentration, and near-maximum effort, for all the time that you’re doing it. It involves building good foundations that you can build on later for cumulative results, which means that you need to learn good habits early on, which only a coach can teach you. It also involves spotting mistakes – preferably on your own, at some point – and adjusting accordingly. It is really, really hard.

 

So what would Batman do?

 

Batman would do deliberate practice in every situation that he could: by seeking out and studying under experts who understand exactly what elite performers do to excel in their fields. He might be able to do this in martial arts – judo, for instance, has been around as a competitive sport for almost a century, and what works is reasonably well established – or in other fields where ‘what works’ is well-known, like gymnastics or swimming. In other realms, he’d have to apply the principles of deliberate practice as much as possible: basically, by finding expert performers, figuring out what they do and why they’re so good, and then coming up with training techniques that let him do it too. One tip: Ericsson suggests that, in order to avoid your own biases, you should probably have some objective way of deciding who the ‘best’ experts are, which gets more or less tricky depending on the skills you’re aiming to learn.

 

One final aside here: you might have heard of the so-called ‘10,000 Hour Rule,’ an invention of Malcolm Gladwell that’s based on a misreading of Ericsson’s research but also incredibly popular. 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, according to Gladwell, is the rough amount of time it takes to become an expert in anything – except that, clearly, this isn’t actually true. In Ericsson’s own research the time it took musicians to become experts varied between 7,000 and 14,000 hours, and Ericsson himself points out that it’s definitely not as simple as that, because (obviously) different types of skill vary in complexity. Olympic shot-putting, for instance, is less complicated than Brazilian jiu-jitsu or playing the piano, and probably both of them are less complicated than brain surgery…depending, of course, on what you need by complicated. The real number of hours of deliberate practice you need to become an expert in a skill depends on two things:

 

  1. How complicated the skill is in the first place and
  2. How much time the other experts in the field are putting in. Back in the early days of mixed martial arts, for instance, you could be fairly competitive with a decent background in high-school wrestling and a few kickboxing lessons: now, you need to be fully competent in submissions, striking and takedowns to even stand a chance, and be training full time. Meanwhile, in music, pieces that were once considered near-impossible are routinely played by applicants to Juilliard, because the real measure of ‘expert’ in music is ‘how much time the other experts put in’. The goalposts change, and Batman would have to recognise that, and manage his time accordingly.  

 

So: that’s skills covered, and the most effective way to learn them. That’s a huge part of what Batman does, and if you assume that he took this approach with every single skill in his repertoire – no wasted time, no mindless ‘naive’ practice, no just-good-enough days – you’d have to expect him to progress at a pace that would outstrip all but the most dedicated other performers in every field (how much deliberate practice he could do, of course, is another interesting question: because it’s so draining, rest is a huge part of most elite performers’ programmes). By learning how to pursue focused, goal-driven practice laser-targeted at destroying weakness first, Batman would be in the perfect position to learn absolutely anything else.

 

But what about knowledge? How does Batman learn so much, and how does he understand it all? It turns out there’s an interesting answer to this, and it applies to everything from learning rocket science to mastering a dozen different martial arts.

 

That’s what we’ll talk about in the next post.

 

What next? In your next practice session at anything you want to improve at, pay attention: this isn’t deliberate practice, but it’s the single easiest thing to change about the way you behave that will have an impact on your performance. It even works in repetitive, mindless sports: researchers studying long distance runners have found that amateurs tend to daydream, while elite athletes stay attuned to their pace and how they feel so they can run harder and make adjustments.

 

Or, of course, you could have fun. There’s nothing wrong with playing sports or music or doing anything else because you enjoy it, and if you’re good enough to do that on your own terms, then that’s absolutely fine. It’s just not what Batman would do.

What CAN Batman do?

Short answer: anything he wants.

 

Long answer?

 

When Batman made his debut, he had a decent right hook, could drive a car and fly a plane, and was pretty good at detective work. A few issues later (Detective comics 33 is the first to include his origin story), it’s established that he’s a master scientist able to perform ‘amazing physical feats,’ and later that he’s an expert detective who’s mastered criminology. He’s really good at fighting and moderately good at Parkour – early comics describe him ‘easily clearing’ high walls, and there’s only one instance where he looks completely hopeless (in Detective Comics 32, the debut of the Batarang, he repeatedly fails to lasso a post with a rope while he’s trapped in a wolf pit, completely forgetting about his new gadget until the morning).

 

Later, as Robin’s introduced, it’s established that he’s good at jiu-jitsu and tumbling (in one memorable comic, he slides down a banister and explains that he hasn’t done it since childhood), and he gradually adds stuff to the utility belt, from suction gloves and knee pads to ‘choking gas.’

 

After that, things go quiet for a while.

 

For most of the 60s and 70s, Batman’s just a pretty good detective, merrily bonking heads together and occasionally building a super-lifelike robot, but otherwise not being particularly amazing. But things escalate, and just as Superman has most of his powers thanks to writers lazily deux ex machining him out of impossible situations, Batman adds a feat here, a capability there, and pretty soon he’s…well, it’s complicated.

 

Here’s the thing. Logically, what Batman can do doesn’t always make sense. In the continuity of Knightfall, for instance, there’s no reason Bats couldn’t have just called in Superman to fly over from Metropolis, X-ray the city to find Bane, and wrap him up like a muscular pinata in about three seconds. At the same time, 2000s Batman is a member of the JLA, and so if he’s going to do any more than stand around looking gritty, he needs to be able to plausibly hold his own among a group of demi-gods who can manifest their willpower through magic rings, haul planets around, block bullets with their bracelets, and talk to fish. How believably this works is largely down to the skill of the writers involved, but Batman’s successfully fought everyone from White Martians to Darkseid to the JLA themselves, and if you’re going to believe that, you have to believe that Batman can do basically everything…except for when he goes back to Gotham City and he’s suddenly vulnerable to being cracked on the back of the head by a mugger like everyone else. Fans speculating on Batman’s ability to beat other heroes talk about ‘prep time’ a lot, which is kind of a corollary of this: the idea being that, if he knows who he’s fighting far enough in advance, Batman can take down anyone.

 

Also, Batman’s very much been the subject of power-inflation, just like Superman. The canon is complicated, but whenever Batman casually mentions doing something completely insane in a comic, someone, somewhere adds it to a list of ‘things that Batman can do.’ Artist who doesn’t understand how weights work draws Batman bench-pressing 1,000lb? Boom: on the list. Writer mentions that Batman has mastered 127 martial arts? Ka-pow: it’s officially true. Sometimes, like when Batman talks about how he plans, in advance, to escape 1,000 deathtraps a day, he’s probably just playing on the old ‘cowardly/suspicious’ thing to build his own hype. Other times, he might believe it. Either way, it isn’t helpful if you’re trying to be specific.

 

There’s another question that comes in handy here, though, especially if you’re aspiring to be more like Batman. It’s one that isn’t often asked.

 

What can’t Batman do?

 

Loads of things.

 

Batman, as far as his comics history goes, can’t juggle, or play the guitar, or replace a U-bend. He can’t play Street Fighter 2 or summarise the plot of Dawson’s Creek or recite the lyrics to Forgot About Dre or tell you the names of all the Kardashians. He can dance – a bit – but only because Bat-Woman once insisted on teaching him the infamous Tango De La Muerte. According to some of the comics, he can’t even make a sandwich properly: that’s the stuff he leaves to Alfred. He doesn’t have (and has never had) a proper job, so he’s probably never filed a tax return or dealt with an unruly customer or had to deal with a stupid boss or made a pizza or filled in a spreadsheet. Batman has never raised a child.

 

This is important for two reasons:

 

Firstly, it draws attention to the vast amount of stuff most people do that isn’t Batman-relevant. Sure, being Batman seems to take an impossible level of effort, but if you took every minute of TV you’ve watched this year and replaced it with jiu-jitsu lessons – well, you’d be a hell of a lot better at jiu-jitsu. If you switched the time you spend on videogames or social media for studying criminology, or biochemistry, or escapology, you would be a hell of a lot better at those things. And if, of course, you could quit your job and rely on a butler to keep you alive, you could slam all this into overdrive: working on the grind of becoming a Bat-themed crimefighter 24/7. Suddenly, it all sounds a lot more realistic.

 

Secondly, as you might have been mentally pointing out a couple of paragraphs ago, there’s no doubt that Batman could do all this stuff if he wanted to. If foiling the Joker involved infiltrating a high-level Street Fighter tournament or the Riddler suddenly developed an obsession with Dawson’s Creek, Batman would absolutely become an expert in those things, in the minimum amount of time it would take anyone. Because what Batman must really be the best at, you’d have to agree, is becoming the best at things: to become what he has, he’s obviously mastered the processes and habits and strategies that allow the very best in the world to learn at a rate that massively outstrips what everyone else is doing.

 

So here’s the starting point: since trying to stay true to canon is only going to end in tears, our basic assumption about Batman is going to be that he’s as good as he can possibly be. He can’t deadlift 1,102lb and run a 2:01 marathon, because even though two human men can do those things, the energy systems and body shapes involved in both mean that no single man can. He can probably deadlift 700lb and run a three-hour, because that’s probably about the limit of human ability. Similarly, he’s near-as-damnit the best at the things that are most important to him, like martial arts and criminology, but simply very very good – as good as the rest of his time allows – at second-tier stuff, like flying a plane or swimming or make-up artistry. He’s as efficient with his time as he can possibly be, and he’s constantly improving. And if he wants to be amazing at something new, he does it really, really quickly.

How does he do that? That’s what we’ll talk about in the next post.

 

What next? Write down all the things you’d like to be learn, or the skills you’d like to be better at. It could be learning French, doing gymnastics or something as everyday as interacting with people. Do this now, or at least before you read the next paragraph. Done that? Okay.

 

Now, write down how you spent your time for the last three days – or, better yet, spend the next three days keeping track. How much time did you spend on the things that you mentioned above? If the answer is ‘none’, that’s a bad sign.

 

Obviously, you can’t do much about the time you spend at work, school or asleep. Everything else: that’s yours to manage. If you find yourself making excuses about why you can’t do them (they’ll mostly start with ‘But…’), ask the smartest person you know to brainstorm ideas about how to accomplish a few of the things on your list. You aren’t a billionaire, but could drinking less lattes help you afford scuba diving lessons? You have to commute an hour a day, but could you spend that revising with kanji flashcards or watching MIT lectures? If your smart friend finds a workaround, you were making an excuse. Don’t have time? How much time do you waste in a day? Don’t know how? Find out how. And if you don’t have a smart friend, just ask yourself one question:

 

What would Batman do?