My New Goal: Give Zero F*cks By Forty

relax on beach

I am celebrating my 39th birthday this week. While I won’t be eating complimentary cake in my dobok with my other black  belts and taekwondo students like I did last year, I’ve enjoyed some extended time off and have a few fun things planned. The biggest thing I plan on doing is embarking on a year-long quest to take me into the next decade of life with a smile: I want to give zero f*cks by forty.

Many people start improvement plans on their way to forty: some do a “Fit by Forty” exercise regime, which I don’t need because I already am. Some people get their financial act together, which I don’t need to do because it already is…Hmm, I suppose I could embark on a year of humility, but…nah!

So why the “Give Zero F*cks by Forty” program? Frankly, I have spent most of my life sweating the small stuff—and the big stuff that turns out to be relatively small in the big scheme of things. Work, school, what other people think of me, what other people say to me, my body, what I do or say, the worries and limiting beliefs and troubling thoughts that take up real estate in my mind–ENOUGH! I’m exhausted!

Giving zero f*cks about the  things that really don’t matter (which is most of “the things”) sounds like a dream. I would be calmer, more relaxed, more open-minded, and more accepting of the shifts and tides of my life.

It won’t be perfect from the beginning, and I know I will have many setbacks and have to re-commit myself many times between now and next July. I’m a control freak in many aspects of my life. It’s served me well academically, career-wise, and financially, but it’s left me pretty tightly-wound too. Letting go of my hatred for a particular body part will be hard. I’ve been failing at that since I was 13. Not being pulled into senseless panic over things at work that don’t matter can be difficult to resist if everyone else is doing it (although working alongside true lifesavers in the healthcare industry has given me a pretty good perspective on what is truly important and what isn’t). The political landscape and division in the United States is a nightmare. Social media is a tempting time drain. Sometimes I daydream about rude, hurtful things people have said or done to me in the past, and it can be a chore to yank myself away from those runaway thoughts and move forward. Letting go of the things I want the most out of life and trusting that they will come to me in due time and without desperate attempts is a huge act of faith.

Does this mean I won’t care about anyone or anything anymore? No, it doesn’t. My new mindset doesn’t mean I’ll stop loving people who are important to me (but it will mean I won’t waste thoughts on people who aren’t) or not put in a good effort at my job (but it will mean I’ll stop taking myself and all the corporate-ness so seriously) or stop trying in taekwondo class (but it will mean I’ll loosen it from my heart strings just a little; holding onto taekwondo too tightly is hurting me this year). What this really means is I’ll stop needlessly worrying about all the stupid petty crap that makes me miserable. We all get pulled into senseless worrying depending on what’s going on in our lives. It sounds so easy and so inviting to let it all go, but sadly we’re programmed to hang on tightly to the very things that make us unhappy.

I’m glad I’m giving myself a whole year.

…but I can do it. If anything I have that black belt stubbornness that makes me continue to challenge and motivate myself.

Join me. Sit back, relax, give zero f*cks, and let yourself finally enjoy the people, things, and experiences in life that truly matter to you and bring you joy.

Zero F*cks by Forty begins in three…two…one…

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Make Yourself Miserable or Make the Most of It: When That Big Change Doesn’t Go Away

Choices

Last year I was on top of the world.

Due to some restructuring in my department at the end of 2016, I was sent to a different work location that is MUCH closer to home, a much more fun and lively environment, and I have a big office and garage parking. At the beginning of 2017 I quickly rekindled past work relationships and built new ones, and I created a presence in my new domain. I couldn’t wait to get to work every day.

Meanwhile in taekwondo I was going to the dojang 5-6 days a week. Some of those hours were spent training in my own upper ranking classes, and other hours were spent helping my Master teach lower ranking classes. We had a little clique of black belts that cracked each other up with jokes and worked together well as a team when it was time to lead in class or coach our students at tournaments. I couldn’t wait to get to taekwondo every day, plus I had my second dan test to look forward to at the end of 2017.

2018…not so much.

This year started out as a big ball of stress: During January I was filling in for the lead facilitator at new employee orientation, which my department hosts every week for 80-100 people. I had been specifically chosen for this task because I was so well regarded as a speaker even though I am extremely introverted. I don’t know where that talent comes from. Black belt mojo I guess. [insert eyeroll here] While it was fun and somewhat fulfilling, it was utterly exhausting. I didn’t like giving up my Monday every week. I didn’t like having to be “on stage” and deplete all my energy.

In addition to orientation I was quickly being pulled into other time-consuming work projects plus learning that expectations of myself and my team had changed as well as the direction of our work. I didn’t like some of that change. While I’m financially comfortable and really do enjoy my job most of the time, I was starting to feel stuck. I don’t want to do training anymore even though apparently I’m pretty good at it. I want to shift to coaching and writing and have more quiet time. I do have those opportunities on a small scale in my current role, but my “talent” as a facilitator will be tapped into more often this year and the next. I haven’t left due to some sense of loyalty and fear of certain consequences (namely, not having income).

Meanwhile in taekwondo we went through a MAJOR shift that took up a lot of physical and emotional energy. We were moving from our dojang to a community center at the beginning of this year. Every day for the first week or two in January I worked all day and then spent hours at the dojang with other students and family members helping to pack up and store items from the school. I took it upon myself to text parents daily about changing class schedules. I was micromanaging the process, and I wore myself out. I didn’t like this change.

Now we have class twice a week in a new, more ascetic location, and lately I’ve felt pretty unmotivated to go. I’m tired of teaching and want more “quiet time” just spent training. As much as I care about my students, I dread having to spend 12-14 hours at another tournament. I want to shift from being “on stage” so much to training in earnest for my third degree and possibly competing in forms and breaking at tournaments. I don’t see those opportunities on the near horizon in my current situation. Once again I began to feel stuck due to some sense of loyalty and fear of certain consequences.

By May and June the stress was starting to subside although as I said earlier,  I’m not thrilled with my current situation. I had been free of new employee orientation by the end of February. I had gotten into a more comfortable and organized groove at work (and more accepting of certain changes), and I found fitness activities to substitute the time I no longer spend in taekwondo class. Am I as ecstatic as I was last year? Nope. Do I have my moments of thoroughly enjoying where I am right now. Yes. A few breaks from the routine have been helpful, too.

It helps to remember that even though I feel “stuck” right now I always have choices. I have the choice to leave as much as I have the choice to stay. More importantly, I have a choice about my mindset. I can choose to be miserable, or I can choose to make the most of it. Usually when I make the latter choice things have a way of working out even better than I could have planned.

It also helps to have those refreshing moments that remind me that things aren’t so bad. This past week I taught a communication workshop to a group of enthused, fun, hard-working adult learners. Later I spent that evening sparring with some of my taekwondo students and teaching new black belts how to referee. Even though I’ve been telling myself over and over that I’m tired of where I am, I have to admit I had a pretty good time. I still love helping people learn, although for me it may take a different form in a few years. I made the most of it rather than wishing I were somewhere else.

For now I’m staying where I am and focusing on what I like about my status quo rather than ruminating on what I don’t like.

Here are some things we can all do when we feel stuck in a less-than-desireable situation:

  • CHOOSE how you feel. No one can control your emotions and reactions except you.
  • Accept what you can. My status quo might be…well…the status quo for a while so it won’t do me or the people dependent on me to fight it.
  • Look for the positive. It’s in there somewhere.
  • Plan when you can. Just because you are in a particular situation you don’t like doesn’t mean you can’t work on your exit (or change) strategy.
  • “Don’t borrow trouble from the future.” I heard this advice from a man in the course I recently taught. He warned against getting caught up in all the “what ifs” that can distract us from the real life that is happening NOW. That phrase is golden.
  • Focus on what feels good.
  • Make the most of it and remember, another change is inevitably coming.

The Motto That Keeps Me Motivated (and Annoyed)

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I have a poster in my work office that reads, “A black belt is a white belt who refused to give up.” This is a popular phrase in the martial arts world, and it’s popped up a few times on my blog.

I’m kind of annoyed at myself for buying it. Every day it hangs over my head, reminding me of my power, potential, and the expectations set upon me, even on the days when I just don’t wanna.

I’ve had a lot of days lately where I “just don’t wanna.” I was pretty burned out personally and professionally at the beginning of the year. I feel like I’m finally coming out of that fog, but I’m not out entirely. All the while that stupid poster has been there, glaring down at me and reminding me that I can’t give up. I’m resentful of that. What if I do want to give up? I’m tired of having to be my own savior and champion and foundation…but here I am with my f-cking black belt.

The motto is also a reminder of my roots. As a white belt I was open-minded, eager to learn, and willing to take on challenges. You probably felt the same way as a new student or when you first started a new job. Lately as a black belt I’ve felt overwhelmed, jaded, and secretly toying with the idea of quitting. It’s helpful sometimes in class to revisit taekwondo fundamentals, skills we learned as white belts. Practicing simple blocks, strikes, and kicks has a calming effect.

In some circumstances  quitting, giving up, leaving, letting go are appropriate responses if it means choosing a new and better path. There’s nothing wrong with that. “Refusing to give up” sometimes means making a change or taking a new opportunity that takes one in a different direction. I don’t want to “quit” my current situations, but I am actively seeking a change.

What gets me through taekwondo classes and the work I’m currently doing is reminding myself of why I got involved in the first place and how much I enjoy helping people. What gives me hope is that the same discipline and determination I display in the dojang can help me take control and change other situations in my life.

So I’m going to keep the poster in my office. Every day it’s a reminder of where I came from and who I can be. It’s a reminder that if I’m not happy with my current circumstances I have the power to change them. I can control my responses, just as I do in the dojang.

We were all “white belts” at some point. What makes us black belts in martial arts or in life is the desire to keep learning, improving, making changes, and designing our own destinies.

Little Black Belt is FOUR!

number 4

My blog turns four today! Thank you for reading and commenting on my posts. I’m glad I could reach people all over the world and share my love of the life changing martial art taekwondo. During the past year I went through a major change at work, learned the mystery of  a lingering health problem, and passed my second Dan test. To celebrate my blog’s birthday I’m sharing my favorite posts from the past year. Enjoy!

1. You ARE Something (Other People Believe It, So It’s About Time You Did) (April 2017) A new opportunity at work teaches me about valuing myself as much as others do.

2. The Best Birthday (July 2017) My master and fellow students make my birthday one of the happiest ever.

3. You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For (August 2017) A speech at a work event teaches all of us about the power of stepping into who we really are and what we can really accomplish.

4. So I’m Eating Meat Again: a Cautionary Tale of the Rules We Place on Ourselves (September 2017) I realize that my foray into vegetarianism triggered a latent eating disorder and I take up hamburgers again.

5. Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice (October 2017) I see a lot of parallels between black belt leadership and the leadership skills I encourage people to develop at work. Just like being a good taekwondo student and instructor, being a good leader takes diligence and practice.

6. Saying Goodbye to the Parasites In Our Lives (October 2017) A little microbe I named Plankton and the relationship I had with “him” taught me that sometimes it’s harder than we think to give up things that are ultimately harmful to us.

7. Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan  (November 2017) The day before my second dan test I reflected on what it means to pass the test and the responsibility attached to actually wearing the belt.

8. Being Okay With Where You Are (November 2017) A yoga class and a botched board break teach me that it’s okay to be forgiving of myself and accept where I am and what I’m capable of doing moment to moment. (And you can do that too!)

9. Why I Teach (Even Though I Want Everyone to Leave Me Alone) (February 2018) I have a love/hate relationship with teaching and presenting, a skill I’ve cultivated both in the workplace and in taekwondo. I seem to have a knack for guiding, coaching, and inspiring people, but damnit, sometimes I just want to be quiet and not talk to anyone for a week. My blessing is my curse, sigh.

10. You Know More Than You Think You Do: What I Learned from Practicing “That Old Japanese Form” (The Poomsae Series Part 14) (February 2018) This post marked the end of both The Poomsae Series as we know it for now and the end of a treasured student-teacher relationship and the lesson I was able to carry with me.

Thank you for reading. Let’s make it another good year!

Taekwondo Has Become an Afterthought and an Albatross

broken-heart

I used to be a taekwondo person with a growing career. Now I’m a successful career person who just happens to have a (2nd degree) black belt in taekwondo.

I don’t like that feeling.

Sure, I have a poster in my office that says “A Black Belt is a White Belt Who Refused to Give Up,” and I go to class once or twice a week…and that’s it. I don’t think about it much. In reviewing the past several months prepping for my four year anniversary blog post I realized I didn’t write about it much either, even last year when I was heavily preparing for my 2nd Dan test. Regular life has taken over, and taekwondo has taken a back seat.

Taekwondo had a very prominent place in my life for several years, and within a few months it suddenly dropped to nearly nonexistent. I’m just now starting to notice the negative effects. I’ve let myself get pretty stressed with increasing work demands the past few months, and I attributed a piece of it to my lack of “outlet.” I had taekwondo to look forward to almost every day for the last five years. I planned for it, thought about it, daydreamed about it, and could always count on it to be a healthy balance of all the “adulting” I had to do during my day job and just keeping up a household.

I have a nice home and nice people to visit with outside of work and nice hobbies, but I’m missing that euphoric high I used to get from a hard-working, fun taekwondo class. I’m missing my drug and my life balance. I feel like I’m missing part of my identity too.

My taekwondo world went through a huge upheaval at the end of last year. I don’t want to go into details here. Suffice it to say there was some tension and stress among everyone involved. The schedule has changed, the location has changed, and some of the people have changed. I went from going to the dojang five or six days a week to maybe two. I backed away from teaching the lower ranking class because I realized how much I disliked it and how stressful it was for me after a long day at a busy job. Now I only go to the “advanced class” once or twice a week. The temptation to stay home after a late meeting or long commute instead of going to class is fairly regular.

I’m not very happy with my current situation at my taekwondo school. I’m not getting much in the way of “black belt training,” my favorite instructor is gone, the location is sub-par, and I know I don’t have the same conditioning I had last year. There’s only so much one can do in two hours a week, especially if about half that time is spent teaching. (I also don’t have an intestinal parasite to keep me really skinny like I did last year) I’d like to train and test for third degree, and in the meantime I’d like to compete in forms and breaking at tournaments. My current situation allows me neither the time nor attention to focus on those goals.

If I were coaching me as I do with other people, I would remind myself that I do have the choice to leave…and right now I’m choosing to stay. I’m not very happy where I am but I feel like I need to stay out of obligation even though the world would not fall apart if I left. Certain people have certain expectations and assumptions about black belts and “loyalty,” and if I chose to leave there might be trouble, at least in the short-term.

I don’t know if going to another school would inspire me to make taekwondo a bigger part of my life again. I think some of that has to come from me. I think I can try harder to make the best of the situation I’m in now and come up with ways to practice taekwondo outside of the limited class time.

Right now I have eight students testing for first degree, and that is keeping me motivated and positive. I care very much about my students and am not ready to move on from them yet. After the test I think I’ll have to reevaluate my place in the school and decide whether I’m brave enough to do what’s best for me or to wait it out a little longer and hope for a deus ex machina.

Stand Your Ground: What I Learned From Practicing Pyongwon (The Poomsae Series Part 13)

stand sunset

I love poomsae (taekwondo forms), and I never miss an opportunity to practice and learn new forms. Pyongwon is typically learned at 4th Dan although at my dojang we learn it at 3rd Dan. Several months ago I talked my Master into teaching it to me shortly before I tested for 2nd Dan, just to give me a fun challenge to play with. We already do things differently by teaching Koryo AND Keumgang at 1st Dan and move on to Taebaek at 2nd Dan, so why stop there?

This form is short and linear, but also powerful and intimidating, both to watch and to learn. This form taught me to be strong and solid in my foundation, which I had to rely on recently in “real life.”

The concept of Pyongwon is twofold: (1) it represents a plain or vast field of land, which serves as a foundation and sustenance for life and (2) it’s based on the idea of peace and struggle….or, standing your ground. The physical movements of the form require core strength and mental concentration. Practicing the form itself feels like a mental struggle–which way to I go? Do I fight? Do I change directions? Do I stand firmly in place? Each movement is a calculated decision.

It’s an interesting form, but it’s not flashy like Koryo or Taebaek. This form is more reminiscent of the sturdy, complex yet primitive Keumgang, and even borrows that form’s signature mountain block. I get the same glint in my eye and twinge of quiet brutality in my stomach when I do Pyongwon as when I practice Keumgang. It challenges me to ground myself and focus on commanding the space. It taps into a darker part of my psyche.

Recently a colleague and I were placed in a very difficult position where we had to rely on our foundational values and internal strength. We faced the possibility of challenging an authority figure to defend what we believed was right. We faced with the very painful possibility of cutting ties with people we loved in order to defend and protect others we cared about. Feelings could be hurt on all sides, and relationships could be irreparably damaged.

The last few days have been stressful and emotionally draining in light of this challenge. I played scenarios over and over in my head–sometimes I was stoic. Other times I was volatile and biting. Other times I was calm and poignant. I reminded myself that whenever this situation might come to a head I would need to model the black belt tenets of integrity, courtesy, respect, perseverance, and compassion, even if I wanted to run or if I wanted to go against what had become my foundational values.

Thankfully the crisis was somewhat averted. Drama did not ensue (too much), and I felt a weight lift from my shoulders (two big glasses of wine also helped). Reflection on how events actually played out, however, strengthened my resolve to stand my ground, bravely face the internal struggle of the desire for peace and the instinct to fight, and protect the people I care about.  That is the true calling of a black belt.

Being Okay With Where You Are

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“Yoga is about being okay with where you are today,” said the teacher as we slowly worked our way through poses in a mid-morning class. I’m not sure the ancient Yogic scriptures included that in their philosophy, but hey, it’s a nice thing to hear on a Monday morning. I’ve been practicing yoga for twenty years, and have for the most part been totally okay with those days when I’m more wobbly or the decline in my flexibility over the years. I’m pretty chill with where I am, at least on the mat.

It was also a reminder that outside of yoga class and perhaps the workplace, I often am not okay with where I happen to be in a given moment, which keeps me unfocused, wrapped up in my own thoughts and the lies I tell myself, unaccepting and unable to let go, and unable to comfortably remain in the present moment.

I had a very profound moment of not being okay or accepting of where I was during my second dan test. Everything was going well: I had retained my balance and strength during a very difficult slow-motion kicking portion, put power and precision into my forms (and it meant a lot to me that my mom said I should compete in poomsae at future tournaments), executed my self-defense well (and kinda accidentally hurt my partner, but that’s what he gets for attacking me), and fought two bigger, stronger black belts without getting whacked in the head. Cool. I was going to ace this test.

We ended the test with my favorite activity, breaking. We practice breaking quite a bit in classes, but it’s a rare thing to actually get to break boards. I love breaking not even so much for the challenge and creativity of putting a sequence together, but let’s just face it, hitting shit is FUN. Breaking stuff is cathartic. Black belt promotion tests are years apart so unless there’s a demonstration, actual breaking is a very rare treat. I was beginning my sequence with a spinning knife hand strike followed by a punch. I had practiced this countless times and had successfully completed it at a demo last year. Yay! Let’s do this. I took a deep breath, wound up, spun around and–

THUNK.

The board didn’t break.

Crap.

I was in shock that I didn’t get the outcome I was expecting, but I didn’t skip a beat and tried not to show my disappointment externally. I kept going, thankfully nailing my final break on the first shot, which was a flying roundhouse and the one in theory that was the most difficult. In the end everything was broken, there were shards of wood everywhere, and all was well.

Only in that moment it wasn’t. My mood dropped significantly, and I had to force myself to smile in the photos we all took after the test. Other than my breaking, I knew I did well, and I’ve known before the test that I had already earned that second degree with all the work and dedication I’ve put in over the past two years. My masters assured me that it was not a big deal and overall I had done a good job. On the way to lunch at my request for some “coaching,” my musician brother told me about a time he saw Billy Joel, one of his idols, make a mistake on national television. Billy just rolled his eyes and kept playing, and it helped my brother accept those times when he made mistakes in his own performances.

Not passing my test wasn’t the issue. I was disappointed that I didn’t perform at the level I expected, especially during my favorite testing portion. I wasn’t perfect, and I had a hard time accepting that. I was still able to enjoy a celebratory lunch (and of course Champagne and cupcakes) and a pleasant afternoon with my family, but my dampened mood nagged at me. I wasn’t okay with where I was that day.

I think my next big challenge and perhaps something I should focus my efforts on in 2018 is letting go of specific, “perfect” outcomes related to what I love the most: taekwondo and my personal relationships. Experience has proven that “letting go” and not agonizing over a particular situation opens up doors of opportunity to outcomes even better than I could have imagined with my limited knowledge. I care too much about certain aspects of my personal life, and all that does is cause me stress and pain.

I have mastered the practice of healthy detachment with my career, partially to keep myself from getting too stressed out about work and partially to spite society, which assumes that women who do not have partners or children MUST be married to their job and be absolute workaholics. I’m very good at what I do, like and respect my coworkers, care about my clients, have a fantastic work-life balance, and am happier with my job than I ever have been before. Just this year I got a big private office and the shortest commute I’ve ever had, plus twice the salary of what I made when I first started with my company…but I could walk away from it all in a heartbeat and never give that job or anyone related to it another thought.

It’s not that I don’t care about work. I’ve had plenty of moments of being upset, angry, or worried about work-related situations. But I don’t let those feelings overtake me or serve as a sense of purpose or fulfillment in my life. I love my job, but I don’t let work define me, whereas I seem to do the opposite with my personal life. I’ve made plenty of mistakes at work, but I’ve been able to brush them off quickly and remind myself that they don’t impact my overall performance.

If I don’t have work at least I still have my personal life, and perhaps that thought keeps my work detachment going. But if aspects that I value in my personal life go away or I fail or I’m rejected, I feel like I will have nothing. I’m holding on to those aspects so much that I can’t open myself up to the organic growth and opportunities that I’ve seen with my more relaxed take on my career.

I’m okay with where I am in my career. You could even say I’m content. I’m not always okay with where I am personally. Throw in one little metaphorical wobble to my personal life, namely taekwondo or the ambiguity of some of my personal relationships, and I panic. I feel lost and scared without the security of knowing that things will be okay, that I will still be accepted in my dojang and by the people I love. I berate myself for not trying harder and for supposedly disappointing the people I care about. I’ve put this same undue pressure on myself regarding my physical appearance since I was a teenager. Hell, I’m still underweight thanks to an intestinal parasite, but I habitually still look for flaws. “Thin” is such a an unfamiliar descriptor to me that I have a hard time attributing it to my physique. I’m holding myself and the rest of what I value in my personal life up to such impossible standards that the foundation threatens to crumble beneath me.

I can take disappointments at work in stride, and I long to have that healthy sense of detachment with my personal life. The fear of loss and the pain that it causes is unbearable. I never feel hatred or jealousy at work, and I rarely feel doubt. I can’t say the same for my personal life, and all that does is cause more pain.

Not breaking the board the first time wasn’t the real problem. Being so attached to things going my way was what made my mood crash when my expectations weren’t met. I’m so afraid of losing taekwondo or people I care about that I let the worry and fear overtake me before anything even happens. That causes more unnecessary stress and sometimes more mistakes.

I want to be okay and content with being who I am without those safeguards I’ve built into my personal life. I want to be able to not give them a second thought when they’re not needing my attention. I want to detach from everything and everyone in a healthy way.

Perhaps not breaking that board on the first attempt was the best thing that could have happened. It was a good reminder of where I am with the unrealistic standards I put on myself. No matter how I did at Saturday’s test, I’m still a black belt, and I’m still going to class tonight, ready to keep practicing…in a healthy, detached way of course.