Letters to a White Belt: Failure is Your Friend.

Dear White Belt (WB):

I’ve decided it’s important to delve into the topic of failure. You see, failure is a key component of martial arts training. I want you to allow yourself to fail, and not feel bad about it. As is with most martial arts training, there is nuance in the term failure many don’t understand. As you walk into the dojo today, I want you to take this tidbit with you and consider it as you fall and stumble your way through training today. Let’s start with the actual definition of failure, shall we?

failure

feyl-yer ]

noun
  • an act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful; lack of success: His effort ended in failure. The campaign was a failure.
  • nonperformance of something due, required, or expected: a failure to do what one has promised; a failure to appear.
  • a subnormal quantity or quality; an insufficiency: the failure of crops.
  • deterioration or decay, especially of vigor, strength, etc.: The failure of her health made retirement necessary.
  • a condition of being bankrupt by reason of insolvency.
  • a becoming insolvent or bankrupt: the failure of a bank.

Sounds pretty grim. Why, dear WB, would anyone want to fail, let alone be friends with failure?

I’m so glad you asked.

There’s a Japanese proverb used frequently in the martial arts: Fall down seven, stand up eight. While this seems mathematically impossible (like, if you fall down seven, don’t you stand up seven???), it does speak to the concept of failure and resilience. The kanji for the saying is 七転び八起き (Nana korobi ya oki) and is transliterated as “seven falling down eight get up.” There’s some disagreement on what the transliteration and kanji mean, suffice to say, the proverb is speaking to not giving up.

Failure as a concept is feared and dreaded by many. People go to great lengths to avoid failure. Some will do anything to succeed, even when dishonesty gets them there. Some will avoid anything that smells of the possibility of failure, not wanting to look foolish. Perfection, the unobtainable goal of many leads many down the path to destruction. Popular memes constantly talk about failure as an abstract, something to be conquered. We must FIGHT! and keep climbing that proverbial mountain for the prize at the top. Which is presumably attaining a goal. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to sucker punch Failure in the face?

Failure as your friend seems odd. White Belt, you might ask why would I expose myself to ridicule and negativity? Isn’t failure like a slime mold, content to keep mucking up the works? That depends. I like to say that perception is key. How your brain filters incoming data about a thing, processes it, then spits out options for action determines whether something is good or bad, not how the thing itself behaves. We can see this difference in people who’ve been stung by bees that are now deathly afraid of any flying thing with black and yellow stripes, and beekeepers. Bees are doing what bees do. They aren’t capable of malice (no matter what the movies say) and cannot plot one’s doom. Beekeepers will mess with their hives, nonplussed about being contact with the bees. Years of experience and knowledge guiding their hands and actions. The others? Definitely freaking out. What if you’re allergic?? Bees are a mortal enemy. The circumstances determine how one thinks about bees.

Let’s ride this wave into the martial arts WB. As per the definition above, failure is the instance of something failing or proving unsuccessful. How does on fail in training? Let me count the ways:

  • Not completing kata
  • Falling down to soon, or not soon enough
  • Punching your training partner in the face
  • Dropping your weapon mid-strike
  • Smacking your hands
  • Smacking your partners hands
  • Missing the target
  • Failing a test
  • Failing to rank
  • Doing the opposite of what Sensei says
  • Forgetting your manners
  • Forgetting to kiai (my specialty)
  • Never coming back

I could go on. But, I’ll move on to proving my point, White Belt, so you can go back to your day.

All but one on the above list are kinds of failure, in a moment of weakness, but aren’t ultimate failure. The only true failure in that list is stopping. Prodigies are rare, and even they have to practice their inherent talents and gifts to polish up their technique. The rest of us don’t have the luxury of inborn skills we can fully rely on, we have to work at it. So what is work in the martial arts, and how is success won? It’s learning and practicing, WB. Practicing being the key element in this success formula. If we were computers and were coded correctly, we’d do everything perfectly from our programming on the first go. But, we aren’t computers, so we rely on our neurology to help us our learn and get better. Practicing something sets us up for growing new, or connected related, neural pathways in our brains. The amount times something is repeated reinforces, then stores as memories, our “programming.” If it truly takes 10,000 repetitions to fully automatize a technique in our brains, then practice is how we get there.

WB, You may have noticed that in the beginning, a new technique is awkward. We miss the target, we step the wrong way, forget to put our hips into it, or whatever the techniques requires for full strength. Or maybe, the new technique runs counter to what was previously learned. Many people experience this when asked to do the movement on the other side of the body. After learning that whole thing on the right side, doing it on the left side is like starting over. Repeat efforts to obtain the movement instinctively starts to smooth out the flow of the body. Your brain is signaling your muscles (some call this “muscle memory”) again and again to move on a certain path. As time marches across the Eternal Mats, you stumble less and move effortlessly. You can’t get there if you don’t allow yourself to fail hundreds of times during the transitions through Shuhari (a discussion for another day, but here is a link if you want to read about it). It’s nearly impossible to complete the journey without failure as the key component. Because that is a universal truth, a wise person befriends that which causes stumbling when viewed as an enemy. Getting chummy with failure means you will allow yourself to ebb and flow with the tides of hard-earned sweat. Attempting to stand against the waves will bring you down.

I hope you find the pearls of wisdom here White Belt, and apply them to your training, and your life.

Your Friend,

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