Guest Writer: How to Reduce Stress at Work

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Work can be stressful although it doesn’t have to be. Even black belts can’t be super calm and relaxed at work all the time. Once in a while I sneak in a little taekwondo practice in my office (yes I’ve done a spin kick in a dress). Other times I look for more traditional ways to bring a sense of calm to my workday.

I found these tips from the blog at ClickTime helpful and great reminders of simple things we can do to reduce workplace stress:
How to Reduce Stress at Work: 12 Strategies to Handle Stressful Careers

 

 

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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.

The Poomsae Series Part 15: Learning Taeguk Forms and Accepting Corporate Bureaucracy

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It’s begun. I am learning Taeguk forms. Sigh.

A little bit of history about poomsae (forms): The preference for Taeguk rose alongside the focus of taekwondo turning to sport taekwondo, or Olympic style sparring. Stances are higher and shorter, and the movements are much simpler than the Palgwe forms. I also think some practitioners just didn’t want to associate with the similarity Palgwe forms had with karate and in turn the unpleasant history Korea shared with Japan. But what do I know.

I don’t like Taeguk forms, but it seems like the rest of the taekwondo world does, and if I want to continue my career as a black belt, instructor, and potential poomsae competitor I’ll have to put them into my repertoire at some point. I mean, white zinfandel is loved by lots of people for some reason even though it’s terrible. But it’s popular enough that I have to deign to walk by it in every grocery or liquor store. White zinfandel is cheap, common, but does the job if you need to get buzzed.

I need some more poomsae stimulation. The 22 forms I know just aren’t enough to get me high (We have an eight-pack of keebons my grandmaster created in case ya’ll are trying to count. Plus four black belt forms and the outliers “Koryo One” and Nopei). I’m a poomsae-aholic. I need that buzzzzzzz of a fresh form. Guess I might as well open up my mind and learn a whole new set.

The business of taekwondo is becoming more and more like a corporation. There are more hoops that coaches, referees, school owners, and instructors have to jump through. If USAT or Kukkiwon decides everyone is going to dye their hair purple and kick while standing upside down, then by God we’d better all do it, and for a fee we have the privilege to be certified in purple hair and upside down kicking. I know the intention is consistency, and we all appreciate that, but when does too much control in the name of consistency impeded individual talent?

And wouldn’t you know, I’m experiencing some of this encouragement to conform in other areas of my life. The department I work in has greatly widened its reach across my large company, and understandably, the powers that be are trying to systemize processes and standardize services. My little team of experienced and creative consultants can no longer make completely autonomous decisions in our little princedoms. Services we deliver must be approved, sanctified, and tracked. It makes sense, but sometimes the red tape can blind us to the immediate and unique needs of our clients.

On the flip side, I do appreciate a more structured approach to what my team does. I don’t feel pressured to say yes to every request, and I don’t have to create everything from scratch. I get what I bargain for by working for a large organization: a nice salary with great benefits, and I have to play along with the decisions that are made. I can live with that.

I’m pretty open about my Palgwe snobbery. #sorrynotsorry. Palgwe forms are intricate, beautiful, strong, and pretty badass when it comes to self-defense. I think Taeguk forms, on the other hand, are boring and unnecessarily illogical. Why yes, of course when I turn to face an opponent who’s coming at me from my blind left side I’m going to block with my BACK HAND while leaving my torso open even though my little right arm is too short to effectively reach whatever kick or hand strike is coming towards me. Oh my goodness it makes perfect sense. And I feel so stable in this walking stance, which one of my masters used to call “broken knee stance.” Why, I feel like I could kick or jump out of the way or…wait, no I don’t.

My students still do Palgwe forms at tournaments. Sometimes they win gold because technique speaks for itself no matter what style of form they’re doing (I’ve seen plenty of crappy snap kicks in both styles), and other times they are at the mercy and bias of judges who are openly anti-Palgwe. I’ve been told by other instructors, judges, and referees that we need to change our ways at our dojang if we want to have any chance of doing well at tournaments. For now though it seems we’ll be that rogue school sticking with Palgwe because (1) tradition, duh (2) they’re excellent for teaching self-defense (3) my Korean grandmaster has over 60 years of experience, so I’m good with his direction and (4) Palgwes look really cool, and I feel like a gangster when I go all out with them.

Okay, okay, I’ll give you this: I do find myself standing taller when I spar than when I’m doing other taekwondo-y stuff (but not with completely straight legs). And during sparring I do end up doing some weird instinctual blocking based on whatever is flying at my body or my head. But look, I’m 5’3” and have zero interest in nor the build for sport taekwondo. I’m looking for practical ways to beat the crap out of someone, and Palgwes provide a good opportunity to practice that. And when I’ve taught forms I’ve been able to make references between those forms and sparring on many occasions. But that’s just me, that’s just my style. I like the way I do things, and I’m good at it.

Same thing at work. Sometimes I go rogue. I can’t wait on my “USAT” to make a long drawn-out decision when I have “students” who need my help right now. I have to rely on what I know, what my strengths are, and what I think is best for the people I serve. But, as with the politicized realm of taekwondo, I have adapt to the balance of what I can do as a creative individual and what the needs and direction are of my organization. I have to rely on others rather than being completely independent, and I have to adjust to new processes. My ultimate goal is helping people through the work I do and making as much money as I can to support myself (hey, I’m an independent woman, and that involves looking out for number One)…so I can play nice. The work I do is not life-saving (I leave my clients to do that) so it’s not worth worrying about.

I can still be me, but I have to also be very good at playing the political professional game and drinking the “company white zinfandel.” (And as a side note, “drinking the Kool-Aid” is such a horrible, morbid, and overused reference. Real people died. Let’s lose that expression and stick with white zinfandel.) I’m looking at it as a learning experience, an interesting challenge, and something I might as well get good at if I want to keep up with the changing times.

So, Taeguk it is…in my living room…by myself.

Taekwondo Has Become an Afterthought and an Albatross

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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.

Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice

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[Warning: I was in a really corporate-y mood when I wrote this, so you’re getting a taste of Work Melanie’s voice rather than my usual silly, contemplative, self-deprecating Black Belt voice.]

I’m a learning and leadership development consultant, which in a very tiny abstract nutshell means that I listen, diagnose problems or needs, and help people make decisions and take actions that improve their performance on the job. As a bonus they very often end up happier too, which is my favorite part.

Since I’ve become a black belt and am nearing my test for second dan, I’ve seen many parallels between how leadership is managed where I work versus in the dojang. One positive point for the dojang (and an example I often use in the workplace) is how my chief instructor began grooming me for a leadership role before I even tested for black belt. That way I was prepared to adapt quickly to the new expectations and responsibilities of a black belt. That doesn’t always happen in the workplace, which results in leaders who feel overwhelmed and unsupported.

Another difference I’ve noticed is that in the workplace change or improvement is expected to happen with one shot: one meeting, one email, one workshop, one team building event. This year on two separate occasions I’ve had executives come to me after I’d already worked with their leadership teams to help address ongoing challenges. I was actually glad this happened, because it proved that you can’t expect change to happen overnight, no matter how fun or interesting or engaging the workshop/team building event was. My learning events didn’t “fail.” They were just a set up for longer term work, the beginning. So now I’m digging into their ongoing challenges and helping them better apply and practice the skills and concepts they learned earlier. It’s time to get real.

In the dojang, learning, practice, and application are blended seamlessly and are ongoing. Sh-t’s real all the time. If we are presented with a new concept that promises an improvement in skills or change in behavior, we can’t leave it at one demonstration and expect to see change. It takes ongoing practical application, feedback, and refinement. I still practice technique I learned as a white belt, and I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching and leadership skills. My instructors provide constant feedback, so I know where I stand in my performance. Just as a manager shouldn’t look at their new role as a stopping point, they should continue to learn, practice, and encourage their staff to do the same, just as a black belt does.

If you are a leader in the workplace (or your martial arts school of choice), you are responsible for implementing and supporting change, whether it’s a new process or a new standard of behavior. It requires not only daily practice from your team to develop a new habit, but it also requires you to practice your influential and strategic skills to ensure the change is successful.

Here are some ways to practice those leadership skills and be a black belt in your chosen field:

Support
Are you providing support for behavioral change? Have you set clear expectations? Do your staff or students have the resources they need to do what you’re asking them to do? Are you thinking ahead to the finished product or event? Are you helping them overcome barriers? And are you seeking support from your own leader? (Unless you’re self-employed, ha.) I ask my instructors for help fairly often, especially with teaching. I’ve developed my own style of teaching and coaching, but sometimes I just pointedly ask how to teach something that I find confusing or difficult. Leaders need support too to improve their daily practice.

Rewards and Recognition

While you don’t want to reward an employee just for showing up and doing the tasks that are on their job description, make the time to point out when they’ve gone above and beyond. “Catch them in the act of doing it right,” as one of my coworkers can say. So often on teams leaders focus on the low performers and don’t give feedback to those who are doing well or far exceeding expectations. If we black belts chose to focus all our energy singling out the kid who’s doing it “wrong,” it would be discouraging and frustrating to us and that student, but also other students who would benefit from positive feedback.

Be specific with your positive feedback. Depending on the age of the student I’ll point out exactly what they changed and improved to reinforce the behavior.

Leaders like recognition too, whether it’s public or private. The other day my grandmaster corralled the black belts (who all happened to be first dans) together to work on our forms. Right after we finished Keumgang, he told us to turn and face one of the black belts. He had been spending extra time over the past few weeks with this black belt, chipping away at habits that needed to go and encouraging skills that were improving. Grandmaster praised that black belt for hard work and told us to applaud—literally. That was a nice feeling. I’m looking forward to a reward (that I will hopefully earn fair and square) after my second dan test.

Continuous Improvement

Once you’re in a leadership position you don’t have to learn anything new, right? You don’t have to teach anything new because people should know how to do their jobs (or manage their own martial arts practice), right?
Nope.
While you’re helping the people around you, look for ways to improve your own skills. Read, research, ask mentors, and above all practice. Practice will help you make your knowledge a habit and an integral part of who you are as a leader.

How Martial Arts Can Help You Succeed in the Working World

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It’s either this or punch a hole through the monitor.

I’ve been in the corporate world for roughly 15 years, and much of that time has been spent in healthcare. Taekwondo has been a major influence in how I carry myself, how I handle stress, how I communicate, and how I prioritize.

You don’t need to be in martial arts to reap its benefits and kick ass at work because I’ve done the work for you! I’ve compiled a list of articles that can help you successfully handle the ups, downs, challenges, and changes of the working world. Enjoy!

Communication and Teamwork
Learning to Be Human
How Punching People Made Me More Empathetic
Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two
How I Would Teach a Taekwondo Class: a Parody

Change
The Poomsae Series: Koryo, or, Managing Change Like a Black Belt
Closed Door, Open Window: How Adversity Can Hone Adaptability
Can We Pause for a Change?
What’s Your Span of Control? The Answer May Surprise You!

Conflict and Stress
Sparring Multiple Partners
Guest Post: How Martial Arts Can Help Reduce Work-Related Stress
When Life Takes a Swing at You
Don’t Be So Defensive—Unless Somebody is Trying to Punch You in the Face

Leadership
To Lead or Not to Lead
What I’ve Learned from Coaching Children and Business Leaders
True North
The Jyo Kyo Neem’s On You: First Days as a Black Belt

Prioritization
It’s All Cookies and Crackers
In Defense of Complacency
Defending Your Work-Life Balance
Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD

In Defense of Complacency: When Good Enough Is Good Enough

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Good enough. Let’s move on!

In new employee orientation at my workplace we play this video with alarming statistics of what could go wrong when 99.9% is “good enough.” Newspapers are missing front pages, shoes are shipped in mismatched pairs, newborns go home from the hospital with the wrong parents, planes crash…you know, fun uplifting stuff. We ask the new employees their opinion and of course they say, no, 99.9% is not acceptable. I work for a healthcare organization, so understandably excellence, use of best practices, and an aim for zero mistakes has a heightened sense of urgency.

(This is the part where I lean in conspiratorially)

…Caring for hospital patients and landing planes aside…Don’t you think there are times when good enough is good enough? Right now you want to say, “No, that’s not true! We should always strive for perfection! We have to always try our absolute best!” But I also know you’re fighting the urge to admit that I’m right…just a little bit, at least in certain circumstances. Ladies and gentlemen, I now take the role of the little devil on your shoulder and will present my argument for why complacency is sometimes the best approach, or why good enough is indeed, good enough.

There are times in taekwondo class that I do revel in the mechanical minutiae and the persistent pursuit of perfection, most often in forms. Forms are my moving meditation and give me the chance to really immerse myself into my practice. Whenever I’m leading a group of students through their form I encourage them to try just one little thing differently the next time they do it. That staves off the boredom that can accompany repetition (I remember those seemingly endless form practices as a child). Compared to fast-paced sparring, practicing forms is a downright luxurious, dare I say decadent (and delicious) deep dive into technique.

And then there’s sparring. I don’t have time to worry about the minutiae during a fight. Hopefully all my training outside of sparring have programmed certain skills, minutiae and all, into my body so it reacts subconsciously anyway. I try my best in each fight, but I don’t necessarily do my best. I’m okay with that. As long as I’m defending myself effectively (for the most part), getting in a few good hits on my opponent (for the most part), and most importantly having fun, that’s good enough for me.

And then there’s jump spin kick…and 360 roundhouse (tornado kick)…and 540 spin kick….yeah, y’all gettin’ good enough from me and that’s it. I’d like to think a sign of maturity is not only a healthy awareness of one’s strengths but also of one’s limitations. I’m petite, pushing forty years old, and have a messed up back, hips, and right hamstring. I push myself hard during workouts, but I’m also well aware of my physical limitations. With these types of complicated airborne kicks I just think, “F-ck it,” do my best, and put my energy into activities I can master with both feet on the ground. The kids can jump all they want, and I enjoy watching them fly around in the air. I’d rather play with knives, hand strikes, our hapkido-inspired self-defense techniques, and my trusty forms. Good enough for me.

The question is, “What’s the best use of my energy and my time?”

I naturally do better and more effortlessly reach that 100% of excellence when I’m doing something I enjoy, I feel confident, and I’m being creative. I can get that 100% with things that are more difficult or less enjoyable if I approach things piece by piece, rather than take on the entire burden at once. And sometimes I just call it good enough and move on.

Sometimes it’s okay to accept “good enough.” When time is limited or resources or limited (or capabilities are limited), it’s perfectly fine to give your best version of good enough and move on. That’s a smarter and healthier approach than running yourself into the ground trying to do something that for you is too frustrating, too difficult to be worth the trouble, or infringes on more important priorities. If you’re running in circles, trapped in analysis paralysis, going down a rabbit hole, or in the throes of any other metaphor I see way too often in the corporate world all in the pursuit of absolute perfection I suggest you stop wasting your time, stop stressing yourself out, and accept “good enough.”

Perhaps there’s a fine line between giving your all and picking and choosing your battles. One of my coaching clients compares his approach to his career development and his work as hospital leader to how he approaches woodworking, his favorite hobby.

“I want to make sure I get the measurement just right before I put the pieces together,” he told me. “If you’re careless and you cut a piece too short then it’s too late. You can’t put the piece of wood back together.” I suppose that’s true for major decisions about his career or choices he must make that would have a major impact on employees and patients….but there are other times when you can just slap shit together and call it done.

Complacency, at least in the context of this article, is not giving up. Perhaps a better word would be “Contentment.” You do what you can, and at the same time you also let go and accept what is.

And that’s good enough for me.