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.

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Little Black Belt is FOUR!

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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!

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

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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.

The Poomsae Series Part 12: Taebaek, Or, Old is New Again

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I’m officially a second degree black belt now, and that means with a new rank I have a new form and a new addition to the Poomsae Series! Yay! Enjoy!*

“It’s like a recap,” my chief instructor said one day when we were discussing the second dan black belt form Taebaek. “Now you’re second degree,” he continued hypothetically, “So let’s make sure you remember all your old color belt forms.”

“More like a clip show like on TV,” I countered. “They’re too lazy to make new material, so they just put a bunch of random old stuff together.”

I was marveling at the fact that Taebaek, the form we at my dojang learn as a second degree black belt, seemed so much easier to learn and seemingly less complicated than the two first dan forms, Koryo and Keumgang (Some teach Keumgang at second degree, Taebaek at third, etc. We do things a little differently). I’d heard my instructor for a long time claim that Taebaek was a mash up of old Palgwe forms, but it never really resonated until I learned the form myself.

I actually learned this form last summer as a first degree black belt, and it all started as a joke wrapped in a dare. During class one night a second degree black belt, who always seemed to forget that he had to use the bathroom until about 10 seconds before break time was over, was absent from his spot in line.

“Go ahead, Melanie, fill in,” my instructor said, gesturing for me to take my place at the front of the class. “Now you’re second degree!”

“Cool! Does this mean I can learn Taebaek?” I giggled. To my surprise (and utter delight) he took me up on it about two weeks later and taught me and a fellow first dan the form. This was the first form I had ever been able to remember in its entirety the first day of learning it.

If this form is a clip show, it’s also a video game filled with fun “Easter eggs,” at least for certain taekwondo practitioners who still do the old school beautiful and complex Palgwe forms. It truly is a mishmash of a sweet new moves like breaking an arm, which is awesome, and many signature pieces of color belt Palgwe forms, which I know quite well. (I suppose it’s new to Taeguk practitioners. If you’re curious, look up videos of Palgwes Yuk Jang, Sah Jang, Pal Jang, and Oh Jang, and see if you can spot the shout outs.) Like Koryo, it follows the very familiar Palgwe sideways H pattern. Unlike Keumgang, it’s not a directional mindf*ck.

Taebaek starts out with a new move, a crossed knife hand block (I found it a bit drill team-y but went with it) followed by a familiar front snap kick and double punch. Okay, this is interesting. Then as you turn to the front–BAM!–the double knife hand high block/strike from Palgwe Yuk Jang. What!? YAASSSS, the form with flair! Okay, um, that was a pleasant surprise! Let’s keep going. There are a few more new pieces (and in slow motion too!) and then BAM!–the signature “crescent moon” double block of Palwge Sah Jang. Oooh, this is fun to revisit, and it comes with arm break, and a punch! Get it girl, let’s kick some ass in style!

Turning in a 90 degree angle and moving to the back is reminiscent of the block/spear hand combo in both Sah Jang and Pal Jang, and then oh snap, it’s that f*cking scissor block from Oh Jang! Aw, HELL no! I thought we were done with that awkward, needlessly complex blue belt form, but noooo, it just has to get in one more jab. Y’all, I can hardly contain myself. Maybe a nicer way to refer to this form than clip show is homage.

Although Taebaek pulls heavily from lower level forms, it has a freshness and sense of humor to it. It’s a reminder that you don’t have to turn away from your roots when you want to keep growing. What got you to first degree won’t necessarily get you to second or third degree, but you can still draw on your experiences. It’s an opportunity to add black belt understanding to color belt principles. You don’t have to do away with who you are. Continue to draw on your good qualities, and just, well, turn it up a notch.

[*I actually composed this article last summer, but I didn’t want to jinx myself and post it before I got second degree…and then I learned that it’s usually a third dan form at other schools, and I’ve learned that one too already, so the hell with it, I’m writing an article on the third/fourth dan form Pyongwon. Stay tuned…]

Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan

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Tomorrow, after two years of hard work and training, I test for second dan. The obligatory post-test Veuve Cliquot Champagne and cupcakes are chilling in the fridge. The dobok I will wear is clean and folded. For once I don’t feel the twinge of any lingering injuries. I feel prepared and confident in my skills and warmth and joy that my family will be able to witness this next step in my taekwondo journey.

Getting second dan has a more subdued feeling to me than getting first dan did. I can’t explain it right now and probably won’t be able to until I’ve lived in my new rank for a while (that is, if everything goes as planned and my knees don’t decide on sudden mutiny). Maybe it’s because I’ve been distracted by a busy month at work, or maybe I’m just more aware of what I’m in for this time around.

Our Grandmaster has said that you’re not really a black belt if you just test, get awarded the belt, and then quit, which is the fate of so many martial artists, especially younger students. Those students have performed color belt techniques, and that’s it. They stop before they even begin the learning process that comes with being a black belt. I am the only one from my “graduating class” who is still attending our school.  When I got my black belt a lot of well-meaning people asked, “Now what?” as if that were the end rather than a spot on a continuum of training. I don’t think I’ll be asked that question this time. Most of the people I know have realized that taekwondo is an inherent part of my life. (How could they not, since I talk about it ad nauseam?)

I was proud to “get” my black belt. I was excited and happy during my test, and I don’t want to take away the importance from that moment. It was a very important point in my life and an accomplishment I’m very proud of. But the first time I put on my belt just meant…it was the first time I was putting on my belt. I wasn’t really living and performing as a black belt yet. I couldn’t wait to show up at the next class and start learning “black belt stuff,” and I’ve been in a learning mode ever since then. 

The learning has only intensified. I feel like I’m testing for my black belt every day in class, meaning, living up to the potential and responsibility of my rank. There are lower ranking techniques I still have yet to master, and every time I do “black belt stuff,” I’m looking for ways to improve my practice. I’ve learned volumes about teaching and by default, have learned more about taekwondo technique by teaching it to other students. Teaching has helped me better understand the “why” behind what we do and ways to make what I do stronger, faster, and more effective.

Being a black belt has taught me so much beyond new forms or advanced self-defense techniques. It’s helped boost my confidence both in the dojang and in the workplace, plus patience, adaptability, leadership, and oddly enough, more compassion, especially since I take responsibility for the students I help guide and coach. When I’m facing a difficult task at work or in the dojang (and sometimes in those tough physical therapy workouts), I think, “Come on, Black Belt, you can do this!” My belt isn’t just something I wear around my waist a few hours each week. It has become a part of my psyche and identity. I’ll be a black belt for the rest of my life.

I’m excited about my test tomorrow and recognize it for the important event it is (and that Champagne tastes really damn good, so I’m equally excited about that)…but it’s just one event in that never-ending continuum. I’ll show up to class on Monday with the same big dumb smile on my face, eager to learn and ready to keep practicing. Eventually I’ll be a second dan, and I look forward to the journey.

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.

You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For

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“You are who you’ve been waiting for,” the speaker said with joyful tears in her eyes as she addressed a group of leaders. My colleagues and I were hosting the final event for a program designed for talented leaders in our organization. Our last speaker was reminding them that the future of the organization was in their hands, and the time to act was now.

She had moved up through the ranks in the organization and discovered at one point that her success and her future rested squarely in her hands. New and a little unsure in one of her first leadership roles, she realized she had the opportunity to be the person she always aspired to be and that no one else was going to do the work for her. It was a scary but ultimately liberating feeling. She encouraged everyone in the room to not wait for anyone else to solve problems, make changes, or meet goals. We could all trust and believe in ourselves.

We’ve been told to dress for the professional role we want or “be” the person we want to date. I also recently heard the phrase “water your own grass” rather than always looking longingly over the fence at the metaphorical grass that is supposedly always greener.

That advice could also be ascribed to martial arts: Adopt a black belt mindset when you are a white belt. Develop the heart of a teacher while you are a student. Train your coaching eye while you are learning. Be the type of black belt you admire. Don’t wait for your next class. Begin now.

Sometimes it’s easier said than done to make that type of change when we are nagged by those pesky human emotions of doubt, fear, envy, anger, and attachment. Sometimes those feelings can be overwhelming, and it’s very tempting to be critical of yourself or of others. Sometimes I struggle deeply with those feelings although I choose not to share my pain with anyone–maybe denial is another one on the list, ha ha. It’s easy to blame other people or circumstances, and that doesn’t make you an inherently bad person. It’s just a natural part of being human.

…but…with a little self-compassion, patience, and practice (okay, a LOT of practice) you can begin to change your mindset from one of seeing the world as an adversary to seeing it as an ally. Focus on what you can do and control rather than what you can’t. Pause, observe without judgment, and find ways to get back on track when harmful emotions overtake you. Forgive yourself for not being perfect and doing what you “should” do or having what you “should” have. (I’m still working on that one.) You may not be able to change all the situations or people in your life, but you can immediately change your responses to them.

And isn’t that a wonderful feeling when it begins to take hold? Isn’t it awesome that the person who could change your life is looking out from the mirror at you? You don’t have to wait until the right person, opportunity, project, or amount of money comes along. Change and improvement can begin right now with you.

Water your own grass. Be the person you want to fall in love with. Wrap that proverbial black belt around your waist.

You are who you’ve been waiting for.