Congratulations on becoming a Black Belt — whether it was a month ago or a decade ago it is an achievement to be proud of. Please notice that I used the term becoming a Black Belt. Some people mistakenly use the term getting, which misses the point. With deference, some people use the term earning. This is better. But still strikes wide of the mark. Through arduous study and training you became a Black Belt. The piece of fabric around your waist is simply a token to remind you of what you have become — but it was never the objective. The years, the sweat, the blood — that was not given to earn a belt, it was given in the service of becoming something more than you were.
Now answer me a couple of questions.
Are you a better or worse martial artist today than when you became a Black Belt? Do you train more — in and out of the dojo — or less than you did before becoming a Black Belt? Are you a better or worse student — that is to say, do you seek knowledge and challenge more or less aggressively — than you did before you became a Black Belt? Are you doing a better or worse job of realizing your potential as a human being than you did before becoming a Black Belt?
There is no answer key. You know what the correct answers are and you know how you scored. But let me explain why I am asking. A number of things happen as people advance in rank and especially when they become Black Belts — and not all of them are good.
When we become Black Belts we have a tendency to ‘believe our own’ press. Everyone thinks that Black Belts know everything — most of us thought that was true before we became Black Belts. However, now that we are Black Belts we should be honest — we don’t know everything. It is okay for other people to think so, just so long as we don’t delude ourselves.
This is important because to the extent that we believe that we know everything we shut ourselves off to additional learning. White Belts seldom make excuses for their mistakes, they know that they don’t know anything and are eager to learn. However, Black Belts sometimes choose to ‘explain’ why they made a mistake. Saying things like, “The reason I did it that way was. . . “ Statements like this preclude the possibility of learning — if your cup is so full, how could it possibly hold more?
Another stumbling block for some Black Belts is using an absolute — rather than relative — measure of their abilities. By doing so they feel very good about how far they have come rather than thinking about how much further they can go. For most people, by the time they become a Black Belt they are far better than they ever thought possible. The challenging part for any student is to realize that they have surpassed their former limitations, and that they must now push harder than they did before.
Workouts are a practice in variable resistance and we set the resistance ourselves by the power and speed of our movements, the depth of our stances, and the height of our kicks. Finding a workout to be ‘easy’ is not a comment on the workout — it means you weren’t trying. Today you might be able to strike harder than you could as a Green Belt without breaking a sweat, but you should be striking as hard as you can now. You might be able to hold a better horse stance than you could as a Blue Belt without even trying, but instead you should be in a much better horse stance. You have become more efficient and therefore must work even harder.
Maybe you feel like life has been busy and that this year will better. And I think you’re right. But this year will only be better if we make it better. Or maybe you don’t feel that this letter has anything to do with you, and maybe you’re right. But please keep it handy and read every now and then — just to make sure that it never does.
Either way, I think you’re great. I really do. I’ve always been proud of the quality of our instructors and students. There is an old saying (of mine) that everyone has their demons — we just take more notice of our own demons. I’ve never been impressed by people without challenges in their lives. I’m impressed by people who face up to their challenges and overcome them — like you.