Humility through learning

Last week I took my first Tae Kwon Do belt test. I started taking Tae Kwon Do classes a couple of months ago because my kids were in it, it looked like fun, and it was something my kids and I could enjoy together.2 As I approached my test, I looked back at what I'd learned in my first three months of classes and I realized that I had experienced something I wasn't expecting.

Learning something new

One of the aspects of Tae Kwon Do that I appreciated when I watched my kids was that it's not just a physical sport. There's also an aspect of mental learning involved too. As a martial art, Tae Kwon Do has many traditions. One of them being for new students to learn certain words in Korean. The first set of words a student is tasked to learn is counting to eight. This is used to count out stretches and warm up exercises at the beginning of classes.

In my first white belt class there were only about 7 students... me and 6 kids under the age of 9y old. Class began and we started to do our warm up and stretching exercises. Since I had watched my kids in classes before, I knew the routine was for the student to count first and then the entire class count back again. Each student clearly had been to several classes before because they went down the line and counted to eight with absolutely no trepidation. When it was my turn, an assistant instructor knew I didn't know the words and helped me count out each number. I haven't felt that lost since I took organic chemistry in college.

The next week I dropped my kids off at their school for a summer program. I was walking out and I noticed a young girl pointing at me. I recognized her, but I couldn't immediately remember where I knew her from. That was until I overheard the young girl say to her mom.

Mommy, that's the man that can't count to eight.

I really couldn't get snarky with a 7y old in the hallway. One, because all she had done was make an observation about what happened in the class and tied it to who I was. Two, because her observation was completely accurate. This got me wondering, when was the last time I put myself in a position to be completely lost in a new topic?

Being a student at any age

As my classes progressed, there were times when the white belts would be pulled aside from the other beginning belts for more elementary training. At the school I attend the master instructor emphasizes responsibility by his students, so there is a leadership team comprised of advanced belt students. One of the tasks the leadership students have is to assist with lower belt classes.

In a recent class, the leadership team was asked to take the white belts to the other studio to practice. The class proceeded like other classes before. We started working on the kicks we'd be tested on in a couple of weeks. I was trying to work on the speed of one of my kicks and I wasn't doing it very well. One of the instructors proceeded to demonstrate the proper kick and asked me to do it again. Then I got some coaching from the instructor.

Sir, your kick needs to come up a little higher. Pivot on your foot, then snap the kick, and...

She's 10 years old.

But the amazing part was I just stood there and just listened to her. Even at her young age, she had the experience and technique to tell me what I was doing wrong and how to correct my kick. After the class I looked back and thought when was the last time I was corrected by a child and I actually listened ?

Testing day

On the day of testing for my next belt, I realized I hadn't felt this nervous in over 20 years. A belt test consists primarily of three parts: demonstrate you learned your pattern (poomse), complete a breaking technique, and demonstrate you've learned certain Korean words or terminology. By now I had learned to count to ten in Korean. 1 To stand there, in front of a group of instructors, and be graded on what I've tried to learn in the past 3 months was nothing like anything I've had to do in my adult life.

I've never been asked in the work place to present what I've done the last three months to a senior leadership team and then get a pass or fail grade. 3The work I do is generally an iterative process. I get a set of tasks completed and those build on the next set of task to be completed, this builds on another set of tasks, etc, etc. The result of my work may not meet the expectations, but I cannot conceive of a situation where the last 3 months of my work could be peer reviewed, given a failing grade, and cause me to basically do them all over again. Maybe that's a symptom of my job, maybe it's a testament to the effort I put into my career, or maybe it's a bit of both.

I take pride in the things I've accomplished, but I couldn't remember being this nervous about something related to my career since my first job interview after graduating college.

Reflecting on what I've learned

As continued to test I got a sense of the larger organization I'd decided to join. Our master instructor gave us some history of Tae Kwon Do and what it means to be a student of martial arts. The work it will take to advance through different belt levels (geup) to eventually test for our black belt. This re-emphasized what I was taught about what the different color belts mean.

White belt lacks of color and signifies purity and innocence. The novice has no knowledge of Tae Kwon Do.

As an adult, I've taken on new challenges, but these were always related to something I had already been a part of or had tried earlier in my life. Even with the exposure of my kids previously participating in Tae Kwon Do, this experience has been different because I knew nothing going in - nothing of the Korean language, none of Tae Kwon Do's history, nor any of the techniques to physically excel at Tae Kwon Do.

Looking back as some of things I've learned, both in and out of the classes, I wonder if we should all be so lucky to be humbled in learning something completely new as an adult?

  1. Go ahead... ask me. 

  2. As opposed to video games, which was starting to drive my wife crazy. 

  3. Yes you get performance reviews, but that's an aggregate review of your work.