“Why do we do this?”
I was in taekwondo class and had corralled a small group of students to the back of the room to teach Palgwe Pal-Jang, one of the most complex forms of the color belt repertoire. It was the most difficult form for me to learn (Even Keumgang didn’t make me weep with frustration the way this one did), although since then it’s become one of my favorite forms for the very same intricacy and complexity that frustrated me in the beginning.
The student asking me the question did a backfist with her right hand, a movement that immediately follows the low block that opens the form. She wanted to know why she was supposed to do that. I could have just told her, “Because that’s part of the form,” or “Because I said so,” but I thought it would be a fun opportunity to help her and the other students develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of something they would be doing over and over again.
“Ah!” I said, “Because of this. Do a low block in front stance.” I kicked at her so she would block my foot.
“See?” I continued. “I just kicked you, and you blocked, but I’m still not out of the way. I might attack you again. You have to strike back, and that’s when you do the back fist.” She swung her fist through the air, and I nodded approvingly.
As the lightbulb went off over her head I remembered when Pal-Jang finally clicked for me. One night Grandmaster had corralled the red and black belts to the back of the room much in the same way I was working with the young students, and explained the purpose of the form piece by piece. Someone grabs your arm. Someone tries to choke you. Look out, your attacker is still behind you. Click!
“Forms help us practice self-defense. That’s why you have to be strong in your blocks and strikes in a form. They’re not just pretty movements.” I demonstrated a few of the particular forceful motions of the form to emphasize my point.
Over the rest of the hour the students asked more questions about why we did certain movements in the form. Every time I acted out the reason behind a block, strike, or escape move I had some lightbulb moments of my own. It helped me fill in an outline with energy and intention. I know my understanding of all those “Whys” will influence the way I do the form in the future.
The next morning at work I was sitting in a planning meeting for one the most complex projects I’ve ever worked on in my career. My team and I were making decisions about an extensive program that would impact the future of many people in the company. It’s been in development for nearly two years and is ready for launch, but as we dove deeper into the finer details we found ourselves asking the same questions the young taekwondo students had asked the night before:
“Why do we do this?”
The danger my colleagues and I could have fallen into was just accepting things “as is” because a decision had been made six months ago or twelve months ago. We could have just gone through the motions the way a taekwondo student might half-heartedly breeze through a form, both of which would result in inefficiency and lack of understanding. Instead we chose to be intentional about our decisions and actions.
With a deeper understanding of our program we realized we had the power to shape it into something that was effective and meaningful. We had a thoughtful discussion that did exactly what my “Pal-Jang Theory Workshop” had done for me and my students the night before: it filled in the outline. We made solid decisions and figured out what exactly needed to be done to make our program successful. It wasn’t quite as much fun as elbowing someone in the stomach, but I had the same sense of satisfaction after that meeting as I did after my Pal-Jang lesson with the kids.
The takeaway? Ask why. Seek clarification and understanding. Question the status quo. Use your newfound information to set your intentions. Don’t just react blindly. A deeper awareness of the “why” behind our actions will help us be more mindful and tactical about the decisions we make.
And if you ever get a chance to elbow someone in the stomach, it’s awesome.