Are You Driven By the Process or the Project?

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My mom is a prolific knitter. She always sewed, crocheted, did needlepoint, but ever since she retired she really took off with knitting. Mom loves it, and I have drawers full of pretty scarves, shawls, and gloves as a side benefit.

Recently she told me about the concept of being a “process knitter” versus a “project knitter” and determined that she is most definitely a process knitter. She likes choosing a new pattern (the more challenging, the better), hunting down the right yarn, selecting the needles, and working through the mathematical process of following the pattern and watching it gradually transform into a finished product. I suppose there’s a meditative aspect to it too. Once she finishes a project she’s ready to move on to the next one and begin the process again.

It made me wonder whether I am a process-driven martial artist or a project-driven one. Am I more stimulated by the long-term aspect of honing my skills over time or by the project, the higher belt rank at the end of a process? Am I driven by the journey or the destination? Both mindsets allow me to apply what I’ve learned, but the motivation is different.

From the beginning I was more process-driven. I wasn’t concerned about getting a black belt when I first returned to taekwondo, much less getting to the next color belt level. I just wanted to be there, learn new things, and practice. The emotional, mental, and physical benefits were almost immediate and addictive. I started this blog, in fact, because I was so enchanted by the process.

I’ve had my moments of being more project-driven, sometimes so much that I would lose long-term focus, especially during my red belt year. I just wanted to work on my testing requirements rather than the comprehensive whole of my practice. The six months before my black belt test I was definitely project-driven, but the Monday after the test I showed up to class with my same goofy, eager smile, ready to start over with a new process and learn new things. I don’t want to discount my short-term focus, though. It served me well when I needed to quickly learn and apply new techniques and polish my performance before tests.

Doing “black belt stuff” feels more process-driven since so much of it revolves around honing previously learned skills, although there’s a fair amount of new content to learn too. The waiting periods between promotion tests stretch out to years rather than months, so the black belt student has plenty of time to focus on details, refinement, and revision. This past year alone has given me a lot of time to think, experiment, and reflect on the improvements I’ve been able to make through my practice both as a student and as an assistant instructor (and become more aware of stubborn, long-term bad habits).

With other students I seem to be more project-driven. There’s nothing more fun for me than getting a student ready for an event (okay, hitting stuff with my hands is more fun, but helping students is a close second). Let’s get you ready for the tournament! Let’s get you ready for your red belt test! Hurry up and get bo dan so we can get you ready for your black belt test! I think I am more excited about the students who will be testing for their first degree black belts next year than I am about my own upcoming second dan test.

Perhaps there is a way to be motivated by both the process and the project over time. We may be able to see the forest AND the trees. I don’t want to devalue the finished product or project nor do I want to skim over the lessons I can learn along the way. I know I will become more project-driven as I get closer to my second dan test next year, but hopefully I will remain aware of the overall process of being a taekwondo black belt, regardless of where I am in the process.

Don’t Sweat Fools

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I had this boyfriend who would often say, “I don’t sweat fools,” meaning he tried not to let people rattle him, especially over petty, pointless things. I’ve found myself thinking that quite a bit throughout this year…well, alternating between that and my favorite line from the RuPaul song “Sissy That Walk”: “’Less they paying your bills pay them bitches no mind.” Better words were never spoken, Mama Ru. (Now sissy that walk!)

Saying you’re not going to let people get to you and actually practicing it are two different things. I struggle with it although it’s become easier over the years as my confidence has improved. When our values or our livelihoods are threatened, when our character is questioned, when human decency is trampled upon it’s hard to not take things personally…because many times it is personal. This is when I’ll have to tap into my taekwondo “indomitable spirit” and keep moving forward, fools be damned.

So I’m done. I’m tired of the BS and tired of giving my power over to people who ultimately don’t matter, whether they are acquaintances, old classmates, ex-boyfriends, coworkers, public figures, or total strangers. I’m making a commitment to myself not to sweat fools anymore. I’ve never had a very wide circle of trusted, favorite people to begin with, and that circle’s gotten a lot smaller in the last two months. I just can’t care anymore. It’s time to keep a LOT of people at arm’s length and insulate myself with the people I truly care about. Bye Felicia.

Maybe this—pushing away rather than embracing–isn’t the best way to cope with what has been a very difficult year, but it’s what I have to do to remain calm and in control. Perhaps that’s a bit nihilistic, but that’s how I’m feeling right now. And what a year it’s been. Beloved celebrities have died, violence is happening worldwide, illness and death have struck my family and friends, my workplace was turned upside down, and of course there’s been this vitriolic political landscape in the United States. Other than the nice respite of the summer Olympics, I think most of us can agree 2016 has been a rotten year. I think on December 31st many people will be welcoming 2017 with open, exhausted arms.

Most people don’t matter, not really, not in the big scheme of things. A good friend once told me, “What other people think of you is none of your business.” The people who are the most vindictive, bullying, and aggressive tend to be the most insecure. Why let someone else’s hangups (or highly charged Facebook posts) ruin your day? Why let someone else tear you down when you’ve worked so hard to build yourself up? Don’t sweat those fools! You’re too awesome to do that! Focus on the ones you love and on making yourself even more awesome.

Not sweating fools doesn’t have to be reserved for people who are the most overtly aggressive or mean-spirited. It’s a reminder not to sweat the small stuff. Loved one getting on your nerves? It will pass. Got a last minute work assignment dumped on you? Just get it done and don’t dwell too much on the person responsible. This will also pass. People being contradictory, indecisive, or running around like headless chickens? Rise above and don’t get pulled into the senseless panic. Did someone make a rude or ignorant comment? F—k ‘em. You don’t have time for fools. Other people don’t define who you are, nor are they responsible for your feelings…they don’t deserve that power over you.

I have let people abuse me, bully me, play mind games, or even just let what they said or did get to me when what they actually said or did wasn’t a big deal. I have taken offense by creating it from thin air. I have been subjugated to pettiness and cruelty,and I let them win. I don’t need to be afraid of anyone anymore, and neither do you. (Well, I’m a little afraid of my Grandmaster, but that’s a healthy fear.)

And I can’t ignore the fact that sometimes I am the biggest fool in my own life. I’m extremely harsh and judgmental of myself, especially when the world around me becomes more stressful. I tend to turn inward rather than lash out at people externally. I scrutinize everything I do or say. I ruminate on what other people have said and start to fantasize about confrontations. I isolate myself because deep down I believe I will be rejected because of aspects of my personality, looks, and past. I believe I have to shoulder my burdens alone because I don’t trust anyone to help me. I believe the only time I can be happy is when I’m practicing taekwondo in the dojang…

…talk about a buncha BS and giving my power away. I know, right? Looks like this whole not sweating fools thing needs to start with the woman in the mirror.

Guest Post: How to Deal With Life’s Uncertainties Like a Black Belt

Check out my latest guest post on the martial arts travel site BookMartialArts.com:
How to Deal With Life’s Uncertainties Like a Black Belt 

This an expansion on a post I wrote several weeks ago. Life can be frustrating, scary, and stressful, but maintaining a black belt attitude (whether you’re a white belt, black belt, or not even into martial arts at all) can help you get through tough times with confidence and grace.

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Looking for a great way to lower your stress levels? Why not sign up for an affordable martial arts training camp? From Taekwondo to Krav Maga, BookMartialArts.com has camps on various types of martial arts disciplines to choose from!

Am I Substituting Taekwondo For Relationships? (Or, Part II to the Vices Post)

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Looks like paradise to me! I don’t even want a talking volleyball.

A few nights ago I was watching a Facebook video of a hometown friend playing guitar and joyfully singing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Just as he jumped up and started to dance I suddenly started to cry. It wasn’t the song or feeling nostalgic for my WestTexas hometown that was getting to me, but rather it was a feeling I dreaded would make an appearance sooner or later.

I am profoundly lonely.

My second thought was, “STFU, you’re not lonely. You’re just bored because you got home early and don’t have anything to do tonight. You’ll go to class tomorrow night and forget all about this being lonely and wishing you had someone to talk to nonsense. Don’t you have a dishwasher to empty? A book that needs reading? For that matter, don’t you have a book that needs WRITING? A jigsaw puzzle that needs puzzling?”

Damnit, I was wondering when this was going to happen. Let’s be clear, I am no stranger to being alone and in fact gravitate towards solitude. I grew up in rural, big skied, and most of all QUIET West Texas. I’ve always been shy and preferred to spend most of my time alone, so when true loneliness strikes me it is deeply unsettling and confusing. I don’t particularly like spending a lot of time with people. It makes me uncomfortable, bored, and antsy to escape. The thought of an entire weekend to myself to do whatever I want whenever I want is heaven…And yet here I was feeling mopey and wondering if I should entertain the idea of dating again.

I HATE this feeling–not the feeling of loneliness, but the feeling of longing. I feel weak and undisciplined! After my last serious relationship ended a year and a half ago I committed to embracing a solitary life. Never before had I appreciated being single; I’d always resented it. Now I truly appreciate it and relish in my freedom and self-reliance. I’ve made peace with the fact that I may spend the rest of my fabulous life alone…fine by me, I’m retiring to Marfa, Texas by my own damn self. And I’ll probably be a taekwondo master by then. Bye Felicia!

Being single has been really good for me. No, I’m serious! I’ve made huge strides since I stopped dating. I became more bold and confident, I took more risks at work that paid off for me, and I tested for and received my black belt all on my own with no one backing me up. I am an independent woman. I am a walking Beyonce song. And yet here I was, sitting on my bed crying because I realized I didn’t have anyone to share my pretty spectacular life with. God I hate myself for feeling that way.

Of course  after my little Facebook video-watching meltdown I worked a long day and then spent about three hours in the dojang the next evening, and I was fine…Although I had a moment at home afterwards sipping whiskey and working on my jigsaw puzzle when I thought it would be nice…just once…to be able to tell someone about the fun things we did in class. Or to get dressed up and go out to dinner or an arts event. Or to go wandering around the lovely downtown part of my city. But I swallowed that feeling–and another few drops of whiskey–and continued working on my puzzle.

These conflicting emotions have confronted me with a disturbing theory: I am hiding behind taekwondo so I don’t have to interact with people, especially potential romantic partners, and also, it keeps me so busy I don’t have to confront my feelings. I tell myself that interaction with my instructors and classmates is enough interaction for me. I’m afraid any change in my routine, one that might keep me from going to class or make me start slacking off on practice will also keep me from the warm, fuzzy emotional highs I get from taekwondo. I’m not sure any guy is worth that sacrifice. I’m not yet able to believe I can have both.

Crying over a Bob Marley song was what made me first wonder if I was using taekwondo as a crutch to mask darker feelings, which I explored in a previous post. I still stand by my stance that there is nothing wrong, defective, or sad about being single by choice. Being in a relationship is not somehow the human default. I don’t put a “yet” on the question of whether I’m going to be in a relationship or get married. If those things happen, they happen. If they don’t, they don’t. I’m still me either way. I wish everybody had the opportunity to be single for a while so they can truly focus on themselves, who they want to be, and what they want to accomplish.

Taekwondo is incredibly fulfilling, and at this point I think my life would be pretty empty without it. It has taught me to love, which in the past I’d only reserved for blood relatives. It’s graced me with the opportunity to give, serve, and hell, I’ll even throw in the word fellowship with other human beings. I am a better version of myself in the dojang, so why ruin a good thing? (Here’s a fun game: every time I get starry eyed and mention how much taekwondo has changed my life for the better, do a shot!)

I’ve been very open about not wanting to be in a relationship. At first, I needed time to heal. Then I needed time to get used to being independent again. Then I needed time to truly embrace being alone rather than resenting it. Then I needed time to enjoy how far I’d come. What I haven’t admitted is that I’m scared.

Relationships have been nothing but trouble for me. I was not my best self in relationships, and in fact some brought out the worst in me, whereas taekwondo of course brings out the best. (Do another shot!) I stayed too long in abusive situations and tolerated neglect and non-commitment. But the bigger problem was myself. I made mistakes, impulsive decisions, did and said things I regret, and embarrassed myself. I had my moments of being abusive too, and I’m so ashamed.

I was not who I am today when I was someone else’s other half. If the men I dated saw me now they wouldn’t recognize me. I wish some of them could see me now. And as life plays out they’d probably think I’m awesome. Guys always think I’m super cool right at the point when I don’t give a shit about them anymore. Or maybe they’re still glad they dodged a bullet, whatever.

So what am I afraid of? Let’s start with the tired cliches: I’m afraid of getting hurt again, duh. I’m also afraid of being rejected for superficial and not-so superficial things. I’m afraid of being rejected for my pesky demons and skeletons in the closet. Digging deeper: I’m afraid I’ll revert to my old ways and lose myself in seeking approval rather than riding on my own wave of self-respect and confidence.

And honestly, do you know what I’m most afraid of? This is going to sound silly. I’ve convinced myself that my new kick-ass reality (superficial stress and all) is the result of eschewing dating or even the thought of dating. Notice I’m not placing the blame on men. I like men very much and actually prefer their company over other women. I’m saying not being in a relationship has been one of the best things for me. I’m afraid I will lose this life I have now–my freedom, my independence, my past times–if I begin to open up my life to someone else. I keep going back to the fact that I don’t want to admit: Spending my time in class rather than pursuing love protects me from potential heartache and rejection.

I haven’t convinced myself that it’s possible to find someone who is complementary to my life rather than consuming or conflicting. I’m afraid at my age all that’s left are aging, out-of-shape party boys or crabby workaholics. Who out there works out like a monster but also likes to get dressed up and go to an art museum or enjoy a good bottle of wine? Who’s going to be cool with me getting up at 4 am to swim or staying late at the dojang because I want to help a few kids who are testing for their green belt the next day? And more importantly, who is going to be down with drag shows AND country bars? (The drag shows because they’re fun and the country bars for the irony and they’re unintentionally hilarious. Plus I’m Texan and I like to two-step.)

Let’s be clear, I’m not looking for the male version of myself. I don’t want a pet or a puppet. A partner doesn’t have to have the exact same interests as I do, nor should he. Maybe I can learn about something new and interesting, or we can continue to pursue our interests separately. For example, I hate bicycling, and if I were with someone who cycled, I’d politely decline the invitation for a couples ride, hand him a bottle of Gatorade, and wish him luck on the ride. See ya! Fishing trip? Bye! Camping! Enjoy pooping outside by yourself while a bear is watching! NOPE!

Would it be nice to meet someone who is into martial arts? Sure, that’d be great. But if not, hopefully he’d just politely decline the invitation to join me in class, hand me a bottle of Gatorade, and wish me luck in my sparring match. (Showing up for my next black belt test, however, is mandatory). People, single or coupled up, should have time to independently pursue the things they love. If their partner shows an interest or participates with them, then great, that’s more time together. If not, that’s okay too, and hopefully their time together is richer because of their own personal fulfillment and satisfaction…but I’m still not convinced that type of symbiotic partnership is possible for me, and I’m not wiling to sacrifice what I have on a whim.

I’ve come too far and made too many personal changes to let a temporary, fleeting moment of sadness send me spiraling back into codependency and living for a g-ddamn text message from some guy who probably isn’t that into me anyway. I am set in my ways and really like being able to do what I want and when I want. I really can’t comprehend finding someone who could mesh with my lifestyle and who’d be willing to share me with my commitment to my dojang and my taekwondo practice (one more shot!)–although there’s a part of me that hopes that will happen somdeay.

I am going to ride this Single Lady storm out and power through this temporary loneliness. Wanting to be with someone is just a feeble lie my mind is telling me. That has gotten me into trouble too many times before, and I have too many scars. A relationship is a nice-to-have, but I certainly don’t need one. Taekwondo has been too good to me and too good FOR me to let it slide. Relatioships are fleeting. Black belts are forever.

So, the conclusion is..NOPE. I’m going to class tomorrow and will continue to keep myself safe and preoccupied. And probably start a new jigsaw puzzle. And maybe shoot for two-a-day swimming workouts on the weekends. Here’s to vices! (Clink!)

Am I Replacing One Vice With Another? Part I

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These are a few of my favorite thin–oh you guys, lighten up, I’m joking!

A few years ago I questioned whether taekwondo was something I was going to stick with for the long haul or a hobby I was going to toy with for a while and then set aside. I’ve since proven to myself that taekwondo is most certainly not a “passing fancy.” It’s what I turn to for physical and mental fitness, it has pushed me to and beyond my limits (and many times my patience), and I’ve achieved milestones and goals in the dojang and elsewhere I never would have thought were possible a few years ago. It’s not just a hobby or a sport. It’s a calling and a community. I want to practice taekwondo until I die.

I once told a friend that I get from taekwondo the same feeling I had hoped to get from church–it has nothing to do with my Christian faith, which is very personal and private, but rather it gives me a sense of belonging and a desire to serve with like-minded people I care about. I always felt alone and guarded everywhere else but the dojang. I still do.

These past few weeks I’ve noticed a heavy weight sinking onto my shoulders and an increasing sense of emptiness. I put on a good front when I’m in public, but often when I’m home I deteriorate quickly. I’m struggling. I don’t completely fall apart though. I never allow myself to because I’m all I have–falling apart is not an option, but I know I don’t feel content in my Fortress of Solitude like I used to. Weekends and long nights have been hard. I don’t want anyone’s help though (and if anyone from my real life asks I’m going to give you the same answer). The thought of spending extended periods of time with people annoys me even more than the anxious thoughts that swirl around in my brain when I’m trying to sleep. So what should I do about this uneasy feeling?

Lately the only place where I’ve truly felt good is at the dojang, and this has been an excellent time to “throw myself into work,” as one might say. Last month we prepared students for a tournament and two other students to test for black belt. This past week we’ve been helping a number of lower ranking students prepare for a color belt test. I’ve been busy teaching, coaching, refereeing, fighting, kicking, sweating, and sometimes having a really hard laugh. Guys, I’ve sometimes felt so “high” I probably shouldn’t be allowed to drive after taekwondo class.

And then I go home, and the dark clouds rush back. I’m ready for my next hit and wishing it were time for another class again because it feels so damn good and more importantly, it keeps me distracted from what I don’t want to face. Hell, after the color belt test on Friday I went home feeling what comedian Katt Williams so eloquently described as, “Hungry, Happy, Sleepy,” although he wasn’t attributing those feelings to taekwondo. My problems and worries seemed so insignificant! I was elated, if only for a few hours.

Things started to make sense when I asked myself a tough question I’ve been avoiding for quite some time:

Is taekwondo is just a replacement for other pain-numbing vices?

I can get addicted to things fairly easily–substances, people, exercise, ideas, hopes, feelings, beliefs, thought patterns, activities. I have poured my heart into taekwondo, but perhaps I set myself up for a new addiction right from the beginning. I went back to taekwondo because my life was in shambles, at least beneath the surface. At first it was a solitary activity. Getting a black belt was an afterthought. I went to class, listened intently to instructors, and practiced my techniques. Then I started to open up to my instructors and accept them as friends, and I also realized I had a talent for leading other students. Nothing has ever felt so natural. This little mistrusting, very guarded introvert was making connections.

I fell in love with taekwondo for many reasons, but the largest one was how it made me FEEL. Even on nights when I was frustrated, I still felt that endorphin rush, soul cleanse, mind rinse off awesomeness that I get out of just about every class. That’s why I continue to go. Yes, I definitely want to test for second degree, but I still mainly go to class because it’s FUN and I feel SOOOO GOOD. I love the physicality, practicing the techniques, seeing myself improve, and especially helping my instructors and other students, not to mention hitting stuff with my hands is indescribably, viscerally satisfying. I like to tell myself that the dojang is the one place where I can give selflessly. Or maybe I’ve found myself to be in a one-woman cult of my own trapping.

I think the real cause of this overwhelming, sinking feeling of loneliness and emptiness is a combination of things: illness among family and friends, the death of a young coworker, job insecurity, this ugly and frightening American political landscape, and just within the past few days, a death in the family that has hit me much harder and haunted me more than I thought it would. I am emotionally and physically exhausted. But let’s face it, 2016 has been hard on everyone. It started off with David Bowie’s death and pretty much fell to absolute crap after that. I suppose breaking from the weight of this awful year was inevitable.

I’ve learned the hard way  that no one and no thing (not even taekwondo) can save me from this exhaustion but myself. I’m pretty good about reminding myself that when I’m feeling down. I know I sometimes put too much stock into taekwondo to give me those happy feelings. Taekwondo is not magical. It’s just like money, weight loss, or a relationship–feels good in the moment, but at the end of the day I’m stuck with myself, so I’d better be happy with who’s looking out at me from the mirror.

These dark clouds will pass. These painful situations I’ve been in will lessen. As my dad said to me about this time last year when I was feeling low, spring will come. Things always work out for me in some form or another, and like a good black belt, when I fall down seven times, I get up eight. It’s time to get up, Black Belt.

I’m tempted to take some time off from taekwondo to see how well my emotional coping skills work without it, but right now I just can’t. If this is my new vice, then so be it.

The Case For Getting Your Ass Kicked

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“I think I went a little too hard,” a young red belt whispered grimly to me after a sparring match at a recent tournament. He and a young red belt girl also from our school were doing an exhibition match. Typically students from the same school don’t compete against each other, but because at the time the coordinators couldn’t find competitors in their age, rank, and weight class, these two agreed to have a friendly fight (or…well…we coaches and their parents agreed for them).

This little guy is a natural. He’s fierce, scrappy, and I’m so jealous of his jump spin kick. He was trying to hold back and be more controlled since he knew his opponent (and his classmate) was smaller and less quick in the sparring ring, but sometimes he couldn’t help going full force.

“That’s okay,” I whispered back to the red belt boy. “She needs a good challenge. We all do sometimes.” The red belt girl lost the match but held up just fine and had a priceless little sly smile on her face when she later showed me the gold medal she won in board breaking. We have some great kids.

There are a few people in my dojang whom I can count on to beat the daylights out of me on a regular basis. They’re faster, stronger, usually bigger, smarter, and almost always younger (although I’ve also had the shit kicked out of me by people twice my age). Some are higher ranking than me, and some are lower ranking. They force me to become better.

I always have a little twinge of dread when I’m paired with them, but even more so I enjoy it because of the challenge it presents. My mind jumps into high gear like an excited dog who’s ready to go on a walk: “All right! It’s time to play! How can I outsmart them or at least get out of their way? What new tricks can I try? What habits do I notice so I can predict what they’ll do next?..My brain feels wobbly and I have a headache–did I just get a mini concussion when I was thrown to the ground?”

Challenges can be thrilling, frustrating, fun, scary, or some combination of all those feelings and more. Without challenge, whether it’s generated internally or externally, we remain static. We never change. We never grow. We never live up to our potential. Sometimes challenges show us a fork in the road and give us the opportunity to make a choice. Maybe it’s time to give up a particular battle and choose a different direction. Other times we choose to charge straight ahead into the fire.

So if you find yourself in a situation where you’re getting your figurative or literal ass kicked (one that is not abusive or dangerous, mind you–if that’s the case, GET OUT), ask yourself:
What am I learning from this?
What can I do differently next time?
What were the things that DID work for me?
When can I try out what I’ve learned?
What do I do once I’ve overcome this particular challenge?

It’s not always a bad thing to lose or to fail. It’s not always a bad thing to bite off more than you can chew. Failure can teach us things that triumph cannot. The key is what you do with that ass-kicking. Do you let it keep you down or do you get up again?

And in other news: This is my 200th post! YEEEAAAHH!

Black Belt: A Year in Review

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Photo by Alfredo Delgado Photograpy. The Trying-Really-Hard-Not-To-Laugh expression is all me.

I tested for first degree black belt on October 24, 2015. It was quite a trying month in more ways than one. By the time I tested I’d driven through enough torrential Texas downpours (of course this year it’s nearly 90 degrees and sunny) and gritted my teeth through enough hamstring and hip pain that I wasn’t nervous at all. I was definitely excited, but I wasn’t nervous. A few days later on October 28, 2015, I was officially awarded my black belt. It was one of my proudest moments and signified a beginning rather than an end.

“Now what?” Many people asked me this right after I tested. Those unfamiliar with martial arts may assume that a black belt is IT. It’s the pinnacle of your training, and you don’t need to do anything else. Of course that is the furthest thing from reality. Some may have expected me to move onto another hobby or to take a break for a while. No way. Black belt wasn’t even my goal when I started taekwondo lessons at age thirty-three. I needed something positive in my life, and I wouldn’t trade what I found for anything. I keep coming back to class because of how it makes me feel, not because of the belt around my waist. Besides, there’s quite a learning curve as a new black belt! In fact, much of my first year of being a black belt has been spent figuring out what I don’t know and then finding a solution. So my answer to the question my friends asked was, “Go to class on Monday!”

It seemed fitting that the one year anniversary of my black belt fell at a very busy time for our dojang. Lately I’ve spent much of my time teaching, coaching, and refereeing other students. Last weekend we hosted a large tournament, and I spent 14 hours running around coaching (including other people’s students who were in a pinch), giving pep talks, drying tears, and even dabbing up a little blood. This past week I helped prepare two students to test for first degree black belt on Saturday, and of course I attended the test and ended up being a sparring partner and board holder like a good black belt (and I only got kicked in the hand once).

“Jyo kyo neem,” the Korean term for first dan black belt, roughly translates to “assistant instructor,” so I suppose I was living up to my title. I take that role seriously, and I enjoy it very much. It’s fun, and I seem to have a natural calling towards coaching and guiding whether it is at work or in the dojang…But there’s a surprising downside. While it’s true that teaching and explaining techniques helps me improve my own skills, I think I’ve been hiding behind it for the past several weeks. If I’m focusing on another student I don’t have to focus on myself and continue to chip away at my own technique. I’ve spent more time working with color belts on their own technique than I have working on my own black belt stuff like advanced self-defense techniques and my two forms Koryo and Keumgang. It feels like a very loving form of procrastination. If I get too comfortable being in teacher mode then my own fitness level, drive, and desire to improve might start to slip.

This weekend’s black belt test seemed to recharge my desire to learn and deepen my own practice. As I watched a young man testing for second degree black belt suddenly a thought boomed from deep within me: “I WANT THIS.” I WANT to move to the next level. I truly love being an assistant instructor, but I also want to improve my own intellectual and physical black belt skills. I want to be a faster, stronger, and smarter martial arts practitioner. I have a lot of work ahead of me.

At the end of the test our Grandmaster made some very poignant remarks about the significance of being a black belt. I’d once heard a master say that you don’t really earn your next belt at the test. You do the requirements and might be awarded the belt of course, but your really earn it afterwards. Grandmaster’s words had a similar sentiment.

“If you just get your first dan black belt and quit,” he said to the exhausted and excited bo dans,”then you’re still a color belt. Wait another two years to second dan–then you’re a black belt. You should always be learning. I’m still learning.”

If a ninth dan Grandmaster who has practiced taekwondo for over sixty years realizes he still has room to learn and improve, then the rest of us certainly do. I feel like I have been earning my black belt every single day for the last year. Each time I go to class I discover something new, try to do something in a different way, and make mental notes of what worked well for me and what didn’t. Black belt, especially first degree black belt, is far from IT. There is so much to learn, so many mistakes to make, so much to improve, and so many opportunities to take.

I’m ready to go back to class on Monday and continue earning my black belt. Getting a black belt, as in, going through the requirements and being awarded the belt, is a one time thing. Being a black belt is a lifelong process, and for me, that is a life well spent.