Think back to a time when you learned a new martial arts technique. Did you get it right the first time? Probably not. How did that make you feel?
If you were a white belt, you probably didn’t feel surprised at all, because you knew you were a beginner. You knew it was natural to make some mistakes when starting something new.
If you were a more advanced student and didn’t pick up the new technique immediately, how did you feel? Did you
feel stupid? Incompetent? Did it make you wonder if you really deserved the rank you wore?
There’s a challenge to learning in martial arts that tends to grow as we move up in rank. The farther we move forward, the more we are tempted to feel frustrated when we don’t pick up new things instantly. When our sensei shows us a new move and makes it look effortless and even magical, some of us think, Wow, I’m a [insert belt color] so why can’t I do it like that?
Let me suggest that the problem is that advanced students frustrate themselves because they think they should be experts right away. My previous martial arts instructor told me that sometimes you have to give yourself permission to be a white belt. His point was that anytime you learn something new, you’re still a white belt as far as the new material is concerned—no matter what color belt is tied around your waist. So if you tell yourself it’s okay not to get something right the first time, you can avoid the self-doubt and frustration that come with expecting perfection.
This has been one of the most valuable lessons I have learned in martial arts. I came to aikido less than a year ago after training for much of my life in taekwondo. Although I hold a black belt in that style, I could not expect to do perfect aikido the first day I stepped onto the mat because most of the concepts in aikido were new to me. As I put on
a fresh gi and a white belt for the first time in 30 years, I had to give myself permission to be a white belt. I knew I wouldn’t do aikido like a black belt the first night or anytime soon—and that was okay. It was more important to acknowledge I was a beginner if I was going to give myself room to learn and not grow frustrated.
This is a valuable lesson in life off the mat too. Some people don’t try new things because they think they wouldn’t be any good at them. Maybe they are right, but so what? Maybe people would try new things if they would give themselves permission to be beginners. When you take up a new hobby, start a new job or take a new class, you are a putting on a white belt in that new hobby, job or class. Suppose you’re learning to play the piano. Work hard, but don’t demand that you will play like a black belt in piano immediately. Tell yourself there is no shame in not getting something right the first time. Then you won’t get as frustrated about your mistakes and shortcomings as you polish your new skill.
Can an advanced student catch onto new material faster than a beginner? Sometimes, because the advanced student has spent more time on the basic material that leads up to the new technique. But even for an expert there is a first time for something new. If the expert admits that, he is ready to learn with the open-mindedness and humility of a beginner.
Remember, no matter what rank you wear in class or what you do outside the dojo, we all have moments when it’s okay to be a white belt.