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

EPSON DSC picture

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.

Advertisements

Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice

Leadership Concept

[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.

Finding Fresh Ways to Learn…Or, I Geek Out at a Forms Seminar

get-excited-and-start-learning

This past weekend I attended a poomsae (forms) referee seminar sponsored by USA Taekonwdo, the national governing body for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and is a member of the World Taekwondo Federation. I’m not really interested in judging or refereeing at tournaments, but since forms are one of my favorite aspects of practicing taekwondo, I was curious enough to sign up.

I figured it would be good to know what judges were looking for so I could prepare our students (and myself) to compete in forms at the next tournament and just improve our daily practice in the dojang. Plus I get a little tired of always being on the facilitator side of training, so once in a while I like to be a participant and learn something new.

Oh my, the math and the details! I knew when we were handed a sample of the official scoring sheet that our brains were going to be spinning. We discussed accuracy and presentation (and the sub-categories of each), major deductions versus minor deductions, disqualifications, and rules for recognized forms versus freestyle forms. I didn’t realize how much and quickly forms judges need to react, calculate, and recalculate all within about a minute of a competitor performing a form.

The fun part began when the instructor began demonstrating details (both mistakes and what judges want to see) of kicks, blocks, strikes, and stances. “Is that a major or minor mistake?” he’d frequently ask. As the morning went on our answers were more confident, and we’d nod and smile in recognition. He then began performing combinations of forms and asked us to critique through the lenses of accuracy and presentation.

While the instructor used Taegeuk forms for most of the examples, which I am not familiar with (we practice the older, more traditional Palgwe forms at my dojang), he did make several references to the black belt forms Koryo and Keumgang, so I had light bulbs exploding over my head during those moments…if anyone saw me nodding and whispering “Ah-haaaa” while scribbling down notes it was probably during the Keumgang examples.

Did I not have a clue about accuracy or presentation during the Taegeuk combinations? Of course not. It turns out that technique is technique is technique, which I suspected all along. It’s not like the Taegeuk forms have completely different movements. A low block is a low block no matter where it falls in the form. Alignment, accuracy, tempo and rhythm, power…those are key elements we teach as well with our Palgwe forms.

And lest anyone think I’m cheating on my own home dojang instructors, I still defer to their teaching methods when I’m practicing my own forms or coaching another student. However, it’s nice to get an outsider’s perspective once in a while, even when I disagreed on some of the finer details. For a poomsae nerd like me, talking about nothing but forms for four hours was heaven.

Now to truly prove that one can use transferrable knowledge to a new situation (meaning, I can perform and judge a form blindly) I probably should have stayed for the second part of the day when the class was going to perform several Taegeuk forms. Technique is technique, right? I should just be able to learn and perform the form on the spot since I’m supposedly good at forms and pay a lot of attention to detail, right?

Well…yeah…but I opted out, mostly because I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time since I’d just slow down the process (everyone else knew the forms). I also knew my Koryo and Keumgang were different enough stylistically that I’d stand out if we did the black belt forms, and I happen to prefer my ways of doing Koryo and Keumgang. And…well…I had company coming that afternoon and figured opening a fresh bottle of wine would be a better use of my time.

I thanked the instructor, told him the lecture and demonstration portion was fabulous, and assured him that I could apply everything I learned that morning back in my home dojang. The seminar inspired me to refine my own forms practice even more, and it gave me some language and talking points to use when I give feedback to other students.

The moral of the story: seek out continuing education in whatever it is you love to do whether you’re feeling stale, looking for a new perspective, wanting to learn a new skill, or simply want to enhance and revitalize your practice.

Feeling Stupid? Good! How to Stay Motivated When Learning Seems Hopeless

i-cannot-brain-today-i-has-the-dumb-cat

“I feel like a dumbass.”

The tall, grey-haired white belt sighed with frustration. Adults in our small dojang are few and far between, so when one shows up I make a beeline for them, try to get to know them, and make them feel welcome. I was waiting for the advanced class to start, so I was chatting with this man about his upcoming orange belt test and what he had learned so far. He had been meticulously practicing fundamental blocks in the white belt class and was struggling with getting the movements just right.

I remember that frustrating feeling when learning blocks as a white belt. Inside-to-outside middle block was one of the hardest things to master. How could a simple twist of the elbow and flick of the wrist be so damn complicated? Suddenly I didn’t know my left from my right, and my brain felt like it was trying to wrap itself around quantum physics. Girl, bye.

“It gets better,” I assured him. “It just takes time and practice. You’ll be frustrated for a while. I still feel like a dumbass with some of the stuff I have to do.”

Sometimes we just have to sit with discomfort, whether it is frustration, grief, uncertainty, or feeling like a dumbass. We can’t bypass it or take a shortcut. We can’t wish it away or admonish ourselves for our sins of omission. We just have to get through it.

The discomfort of not knowing and stumbling as we learn can be an opportunity to think outside the box and deepen our understanding of an unfamiliar concept. I was recently working with a group of nurses on a communication tool they commonly use when calling physicians or during shift changes. This time, however, we were using the tool with a non-clinical scenario. The nurses remarked how weird it felt to use the tool out of their normal context. Suddenly they weren’t the experts, and that felt very uncomfortable. They had to think differently and be more mindful of how and what they communicated than they typically do when they are in the hospital. Hopefully they now have a deeper understanding of how they communicate when sharing vital information about their patients.

Not knowing can also be an excellent lesson in humility. Getting a black belt is a great ego boost, don’t get me wrong, but much of BEING a black belt is realizing what I DON’T know and adding to the list of things I need to work on. If I knew everything and did everything perfectly that would get boring after a while. Not knowing means I have room to grow and opportunities to see my practice with a fresh perspective. It’s kind of fun to go back to techniques I learned as a color belt and tweak them with the skill I now have as a black belt. It’s like getting to learn what I love to do all over again. I still have so far to go. At least I am a self-aware dumbass.

I have no doubt my new white belt friend will be practicing his blocks with great effort and concentration over the next week. He will work hard and try his best, which ultimately will make him a better black belt than if he just breezes through the motions. The learning process he is building now will be a foundation for him as he moves up the ranks and learns more complicated kicks, sparring techniques, and self-defense. If he’s anything like me, he will have many more moments of feeling like a dumbass, and that’s okay. It will make that moment of realizing he mastered something so much sweeter.

Learning Theory and Hook Kicks…or…Sweat and the 70/20/10 Principle

adult-learning-presentation-tips

Training is useless without application…and it looks like Hannibal Lecter found this guy before we did.

As I was leaving taekwondo practice Monday night I mentioned to my instructor that I liked the sparring drills he added at the end of class. Monday is typically cardio and conditioning night, but lately we’ve been doing some no contact sparring (i.e., we’re not wearing protective gear so we try not to kill each other), reaction drills, and fighting techniques during the latter half of the class. That night we had done a simple drill during which one partner attacked with a roundhouse kick, which is a very typical (and predictable) attack during free sparring, and the defending partner would counter with a low block and a hook kick to the chest. Fun, simple, but surprisingly difficult for some students to do intuitively.

My instructor’s concern was that students, myself included, hadn’t developed the habit of countering. We strike…hop around…wait for the other person to strike…then we strike again…hop around…and the cycle continues. Ideally a sparring match would be a continuous flow of attacks and counter-attacks from both partners. Sparring skill is a combination of training, technique, strategy, and intuition, and unless a student is naturally gifted, it requires a great deal of practice to master. It’s not like we weren’t practicing; maybe our problem was that we weren’t practicing “smart.”

As I walked out to my car I thought, “Wait a minute! This is theory and application! This is the same thing we’re trying to get our employees to do in the workplace!” I thought about that night’s drill. Hook kick is my favorite kick. It looks cool, it’s fun to do, but all I’ve ever really used it for in sparring is a stalling tactic: swiping a hook kick at someone’s face distracts them and keeps them at a distance, but I’ve never made contact. I wasn’t using it in any context. I do a hook kick just because I want to do a hook kick, but that doesn’t mean I was using it effectively. Incidentally, two days later in sparring class, I got a few good shots to my opponents’ chest with hook kicks because I was using it as a counter technique, not a “just because I want to” technique. Point!

My classmates and I have spent a lot of time practicing kicks and prescribed, memorized self-defense techniques, but we haven’t given as much effort to putting what we learn into practice other than a weekly free sparring class, which even then is restricted by the polite rules of engagement. It makes perfect sense in theory…but when it’s put into practice it’s evident that we need to spend a lot more time experimenting and applying what we’ve learned. We’re not making the connection between what we learn in theory and what we can put into practice when the opportunity presents itself.

In our weekend bo dan/black belt class we’ve been playing around with more freestyle fighting against weapons or each other’s hands. Last week one of my fellow new black belts and I found ourselves blinking dumbly at each other as we tried to wrap our little minds around some new twists on the hand-to-hand self-defense techniques we had learned as red belts. Some black belts we were! It made sense in theory…but was useless without practice and application. Mimicking our instructor is not enough. We taekwondo practitioners have to be able to think quickly and be able to use anything from our arsenal at any time.

Training of any kind, whether it’s taekwondo or those pesky grown-up professional skills such as having a difficult conversation or running an effective meeting, runs the risk of being futile if it does not include a method of application. The problem is that we often put so much weight and expectation onto the training itself to magically solve whatever issue we’re having without any effort or change on our part. In my professional life as an organizational development (OD) consultant I’ve heard many times from clients the complaint that they took a class on building an accountable culture or having a critical conversation or whatever the problem might be, but “it didn’t do anything.” Amazingly enough they were demanding that same class, as if somehow this time it would be different. “Training” always seems to be the first solution to a problem that is often times not even thoroughly defined.

The issue isn’t the training. It’s how it’s applied. The 70/20/10 model of learning, which has been attributed to the Center for Creative Leadership for pioneering, dictates that for learning to be effective it should follow this ration:
-10% of learning is from traditional education: reading, listening to a lecture, more “passive” learning.
-20% is from coaching and feedback, collaborative learning, mentoring.
-70% is from on-the-job (or in our case, in-the-dojang) application.

We often reverse this ratio and wonder why nothing changes. It’s not surprising since our first experience with learning as a child was being expected to sit quietly while we listened to a lecture from a teacher and would somehow magically absorb and regurgitate the information. For some people that works, but for most learners, especially as they get older, it doesn’t. My best and most memorable teachers in high school in college were the ones that encouraged experimenting, asking questions, working with partners, trial and error, and discovery. The ones who did straight lecture were ineffective and forgettable, although I’m grateful that my grad school finance teacher was so boring because I used his worthless class time to find my current condo on a home finder app. What, I was still practicing finance, it was just personal finance!!

Learners, most notably adult learners, benefit most from instruction that is centered on solving a problem (e.g., What do I do when someone punches at my head?), provides application and experience of what is being learned, allows the adult learner to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction, and is immediately relevant to the adult learner’s life….meaning, if I’m simply told what to do if someone punches at my head, it won’t sink in. I need to see it, kinesthetically experience it, receive feedback on my performance, ask questions, relate it to my current experience and situation, and repeatedly try it over and over.

The beauty of this principle is that it holds the learner accountable even though there is initial responsibility on the person training/coaching/mentoring/supervising the learner to provide information, feedback, and opportunity to practice. I can’t expect my taekwondo instructor to do my work for me any more than we can expect a corporate trainer in a workshop on having difficult conversations to do the work for the person attending the class. They are major influencers and help set the learner up for success, but ultimately the learner is responsible for their own performance. Whatever we’re learning, whether we’re kids in elementary school or adults in a university or a hospital or a corporation, we have to practice, seek feedback, take the initiative to make changes, and continuously evaluate and improve our performance.

My instructor is on to something. He’s been adding more reactionary (i.e., defending against an unpredicted punch or kick) and countering drills (i.e., fighting back when attacked rather than just blocking and waiting for the next thing to happen) to all our classes so we would be better prepared to defend ourselves against any situation in sparring class or in the worst case scenario, a real life attack.

Wednesday night during the advanced class I thought about the 70/20/10 principle as we practiced some more reaction and countering drills. In pairs, we were given simple instructions to attack with a punch and counter with a punch. That was the 10%. Pretty soon my partner and I were adding on more defenses and attacks, asking each other what we thought would work, trying different approaches, and getting feedback from our instructor on whether it was effective or not. That was the 20% (collaborative learning, coaching, and feedback) and a bit of the 70% (practical application). Had we had time to get into more “freestyle” fighting that would force us to think quickly and respond on-the-spot that would have been the 70%. It was the perfect opportunity to be introduced to a concept and experiment with it so we could become more effective taekwondo practitioners.

The moral of the story? Learning is not just listening, which is still the pervasive assumption in many aspects of training for both children and adults. Learning is practicing, experimenting, application, seeking feedback, and making incremental changes. That type of learning leads to mastery.

How an Introvert Ended Up Talking by Day and Yelling by Night

introvert

Oh if only I had this! Add a doormat that says “GO AWAY” and I’m all set.

Yesterday I conducted a workshop for a tough crowd of nurses despite having a voice weakened by allergies and an absent second speaker, and then I went to taekwondo class where I jumped around and yelled with my classmates and worked on my sad-looking flying side and turning back side kicks. I didn’t get nervous at all. If you had told me twenty or even ten years ago that that’s how I would be spending my Monday I would have run away screaming.

I never talked to strangers…or anyone for that matter. My dad’s best friend told me that when I was little I would throw my forearm over my eyes whenever he (or any other adult) tried to talk to me. Once I was in a store investigating a little toy when a kind woman came up behind me to show me how it worked. Out of sheer shyness and mortification of being spoken to I turned on my heel and walked away, leaving my frustrated mother to apologize for my rudeness. Sometimes at school my voice would sound clogged and hoarse the first time I spoke in class since I had used it so little that day, leaving me feeling more self-conscious and less motivated to talk at all.

I never had a really bad experience with an adult (or another child for that matter) – I just didn’t like interacting with people. I turned down invitations to hang out at friends’ houses after school when I’d reached my comfort quota of people time. No one understood that I needed my down time to read and draw by myself. Then I was good to play again until another self-imposed exile.

To this day I don’t talk to little kids I see out in public because I remember how much I hated strange adults invading my space and acting like they could get all up in my grill. Now I only have to contend with the occasional insecure redneck or patronizing old gentleman of the Greatest Generation barking at me to “smile!” as if I owe them something. Sometimes I want to go all Russell Crowe in “Gladiator,” throw out my hands and scream, “Are you not enteraaaaained?!?”

I still prefer time alone with my thoughts and interests over socializing. I’m curious and fascinated by life; I just don’t need a gaggle of margarita-sipping cronies to click and cluck behind me while I explore. It took me a good two years to really gel with my team mates at work. We work very well together, but I couldn’t be in meetings with them or “on” with clients every single day. Other than taekwondo all the athletic activities I do are completely solo even when I’m surrounded by others doing exactly the same thing. I would much rather spend a silent hour gliding back and forth through the water than cutting up with buddies on the basketball court. I still need to take breathers when I’ve been in an over-stimulated environment with a lot of people and noise. I just want to explore and enjoy my world on my own terms. Go away before I hold your head under water.

If you haven’t figured out by now, I’m an introvert. Now, does that mean I’m anti-social or pass out at the thought of speaking in public? No, I’m not. I happen to like people, and part of my job includes speaking in public, which I’m quite comfortable doing. For those of you playing the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator game at home, my personality type is INJF. No, I did not get that off some random internet site that promised to match up my type to a Star Wars character. I’ve taken the real MBTI twice, and I’m certified to administer and interpret the assessment….so to get really picky and technical I should say I “prefer” introversion. Preferring introversion or an extraversion (yes, that’s how it’s really spelled) refers to how you are energized, not whether you’re the stereotypical quiet wallflower or lampshade-wearing center of attention. People, noise, crowded spaces, congested streets—all those things may be stimulating and exciting to another person, but they drain the heck out of me. Huge department stores with too many choices and swarming shoppers have nearly brought me to tears.

So how the hell did I end up in a job and a hobby that both require me to interact with people and perform in front of a crowd?

I like learning and in turn like helping other people learn. That’s the core of it. My job centers around helping other people learn and improve their performance. My number one hobby, taekwondo, centers around not only my own learning and improvement but helping others learn and improve too. This, for the MBTI followers, is where my F comes in, the extraverted feeling portion of my personality. For those of you who are sitting here saying “MBTwhaaaaat?” that means I care deeply about and connect to the well-being of others, and I seek out ways to encourage it. For the MBTI techies, yes, “feeling” actually indicates my decision-making preference, and more often than not, my personal values and concern for other people’s feelings and well-being play into my choices. In fact, my MBTI Step II report (that’s the one that goes into much more detail than just the four main letters) states that as an INFJ I am “most interested in helping people see new possibilities. [I] like others to develop a deeper understanding of themselves and often work one-on-one to help individuals do so.” Yup, that’s right.

A participant in a workshop I facilitated told me I had a very “nurturing” style. That’s the mode I go into when I do my day job or coach other taekwondo students. It’s not about me and getting praise for my vast knowledge; it’s about bringing out the best in them and seeing those lightbulbs go off over their heads. The most joyous moment in workshops or meetings I’ve facilitated is seeing participants discuss topics with each other, generate their own ideas, and get excited about their own work. Last night in TKD I quietly pulled a promising young student aside and gave him some feedback on his roundhouse kick. That was just as fulfilling as doing the kick myself. Coaching, facilitating, and even consulting with clients every day would kill me, but I sure would miss it if I were stuck in an office by myself all day.

As for the performing part—the day job really is about being a channel for other people’s learning, although I am very proud of the workshops, meetings, and learning tools I’ve created from scratch. There’s a little more ego and striving for perfection in taekwondo. I did theater in high school and minored in dance in college so I’m not terrified of being “on stage” or stared at by strangers. I lose myself when I am facilitating by day or kickin’ it with my peeps (pun intended, sorry) by night. I am the most focused and peaceful in those moments, even when chaos is swirling around me. I joke to people that I black out during those moments, but it’s partially true. My spazzy mind completely shuts down and who I really am at my core takes over. I can express myself in these moments when it can otherwise be very difficult.

Both the athleticism and beauty of taekwondo pull me out of my isolated shell. I love the way it feels to kick and jump and lose myself in forms, and you can’t help but be enthusiastic and let out a yell (or you yell because your instructor gives you the side eye and says you didn’t ki-yahp loudly enough). What a delightful way to slough off everything I’ve been holding in all day in my internal world–yell and hit sh*t! I don’t care what I sound like. I don’t care who sees me. I know I look ridiculous! So does everyone else. I. Don’t. Care. At the end of most classes I am as red as a tomato, mascara is smudged under my crazy bloodshot eyes, my hair is plastered to my head, and my dobok is crumpled against my profusely sweating body. I. Don’t. Care. I was more nervous during the first few months, especially doing things that highlighted my weaknesses, but I soon realized that the dojang was a safe place to experiment, practice, and even fail. Everyone respects and honors each other, and even when we’re throwing kicks at each other’s heads we’re doing it from a place of love.  I am doing what I love, and there is no room for any doubts or fears or self-consciousness in that moment.

And then I go home and get the hell away from everybody.

Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD

stooges graduate

[Disclaimer: There’s nothing I can do in the post to NOT sound like a humblebragging privileged tool, so if that really bothers you I suggest you cut bait now.]

“When are you going for a PhD?” my dad asked jokingly during a recent visit.
“I’d rather just advance in black belt ranks,” I replied.

I’ve done the grad school thing. Twice. The first time was when I was a fresh-faced twenty-two year-old who could handle the crazy hours of commuting six days a week to two internships, managing two to three classes a semester, and staying up until 2 AM most nights to finish assignments. The second time was when I was a sallow-faced thirty-two year old, slogging through three hour night classes after a full day’s work, plus changing careers and buying a house within that time period. It was difficult, tiring, and sometimes I wondered why the hell I was torturing myself, but in the end they were some of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I have some nice diplomas on my wall and a career that has been boosted by my education…and I’m done. If I never see the inside of a university classroom again I won’t be too heartbroken.

Taekwondo is difficult, tiring, and sometimes I wonder why the hell I’m torturing myself…but going back to it was also one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Here’s why I’m glad I chose going after my black belt over another round of grad school:
Better ROI: A college degree, whether it’s a bachelor’s degree or a PhD, isn’t a surefire ticket to career success and financial stability. It’s certainly a leg up in the working world, but what you do with your education is what really sets you on the right path. I’ve already looked at the numbers for what a PhD in my field would make, and it’s not much more than I’d make now. I don’t want to teach or go into leadership, so how far would that degree really take me? Would it be worth the thousands of dollars and hours spent on attaining another degree? For some the answer is yes. For me it is no. I’m happy where I am in my chosen profession.
A black belt is just a stop on the way of continuous growth and improvement in skills. You also gain confidence, a higher self-esteem, better health, new friends, mental strength and discipline. You could gain some of those things in grad school (except perhaps the better health part), but with taekwondo it seems to be a more immediate return, and one that keeps growing over time with compounded interest.

Less Expensive: Have you seen college tuition costs lately? And I’m just talking about state schools. If your martial arts school costs more than a year’s tuition then you have a serious problem with your choice of dojang.
Besides, I’ve never heard of anyone thousands of dollars in debt from a martial arts school loan.

Better Health: Do I really have to explain this? Graduate school required a lot of sitting—sitting in the car after sitting at an office job all day, sitting in class, sitting at home studying. The only sitting we do in taekwondo class is a few seconds at the beginning and end for a brief meditation. Taekwondo class is an hour of crazy cardio, sprints, lunges and squats disguised as jump kicks, and of course knuckle push-ups. (I add Pilates abs if I’m leading the class) You should even be breathing hard and sweating with forms if you’re doing them correctly.

I didn’t really need to lose any weight when I started TKD, but I’ve noticed my muscle tone has improved quite a bit as well as strength, speed, and stamina. Grad school makes you smarter (sort of), but you look like death warmed over half the time from the stress, plus it’s easier to slip into bad eating habits when you’re on the run or cramming school work in with the rest of your busy life. I still like fast food and candy, but TKD motivates me to maintain a healthy diet that keeps me fueled and doesn’t slow me down. I sleep like a rock on nights I have taekwondo class. That’s way more fun than logging into Blackboard at 11:30PM to upload an assignment.

Better Hours: We have to account for kids, so our classes don’t go any later than 8:30 PM. We’re efficient and get stuff done in an hour. Some of my college professors could have learned a thing or two about getting to the point from my TKD instructors. And see my comment above about doing school work late at night. Who does flying kicks at 10 PM unless they’re drunk?

Studying Is a Lot More Fun: Improving my spin kick versus reading a thirty-page article…hmmm, what to do…. I had to force myself to study, as in setting timers and giving myself little rewards when I had made it through a study session. I hated studying, even though I was paid to be an expert researcher for many years! Practicing (studying) taekwondo is the reward in itself. Study = fun, instant payoff.

The Learning Model is Actually Conducive to Learning: I’m a learning and development professional. I know how people learn, and passively sitting through a lecture is not that great of a method, at least it wasn’t for me. In TKD you do initially learn by listening and watching, but most importantly you learn and apply by DOING, plus you get instant feedback from your instructor.

The Formal Learning Never Stops: This isn’t exclusive—or at least it shouldn’t be—to taekwondo. You want to see continuing education in all professions. If your doctor hasn’t set foot in a conference or picked up a peer-reviewed journal since medical school…RUN.
First degree black belt is just that…first, the beginning. There is still so much more to learn, plus the expectation to teach others, which helps me learn my craft even better.

Cool Title: Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be addressed as Dr. LittleBlackBelt or see those three letters after my name, but that curiosity is often soothed by hearing a room full of people scream “YES MA’AM!!” at me when I am leading the class.

The Korean title for first dan is “jo kyo neem,” or “assistant instructor.” You know your place in the ranks, you’ve proven you are worthy of the title, and what is expected of you is written right into the title. The weight of that responsibility actually freaks me out a little more than being called “Dr.”

“Graduation” Is Actually Exciting to Watch: My family has been through their share of boring graduation ceremonies with me. I fell asleep during one of them and was only disturbed from my slumber when an undergrad tripped on the stage.
There will be no sleeping during the black belt test…unless I get knocked out during a sparring match. Hopefully it will be a lot more interesting to watch, and instead of long-winded speeches you just hear people yelling in Korean. We get to the point in taekwondo.

They make you work for it in the black belt test, though. We don’t actually get awarded our belts for another week or so, so you get to sweat it out a little while longer. The diploma you get onstage during college graduation is fake, but at least you get something.

I wasn’t nervous during any of my graduation ceremonies. Meanwhile at every belt test my heart feels like it is going to jackhammer through my chest. There’s a lot more at stake. At a graduation ceremony I know the degree is guaranteed. I’ve already completed the work and have been allowed into the ceremony. With a belt test there’s always that threat hanging over your head that you *might* not advance. That makes getting the belt or stripe at the end of the test all the more of a sweet relief.

I won’t say there isn’t such a thing as a boring belt test, but seeing people flop around and beat up on each other is vastly more interesting than hearing five hundred names being called out. The only redeeming entertainment factor of a college graduation ceremony is seeing all the colorful outfits of the faculty and staff PhDs. Every time I go to a graduation ceremony I pretend I’m at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the PhDs are professors of magic.

You Get to Yell and Hit Stuff: Do you know how many times I wanted to do this during those late-night classes, boring lectures, and tricky assignments?

Either Way I’d Get to Teach: I love teaching. I love helping others learn and develop and grow. A route for many PhD recipients is teaching at a university, and that’s just not my cup of tea even though I’ve been a guest teacher at a few university classes. I wouldn’t want to be a professor, because you have to…you know…work…and publish..and put up with whiny students and stuff. We have plenty of whiny students in TKD but they do what I say without question most of the time because they’re children and I’m an adult. TKD makes me want to give back to my fellow students, and I enjoy coaching and teaching almost as much as I do practicing taekwondo myself. I get to share what I love with others, and it doesn’t feel like work at all. That’s how my dad felt when he was an art professor, and that’s when I feel when I’m coaching two little kids to kick the crap out of each other.

You Don’t Have to Wear Shoes…Ever: This is the best reason by far.