The Black Belt Mind

The Black Belt Mind is a series of posts applying the wisdom and disciplines of the martial arts to your personal and professional life. I have discovered through personal experience that there is much to learn from the martial arts that can fuel success in every area of your life. In the coming months I will write on different aspects of The Black Belt Mind. This blog focuses on the power of perseverance and I hope you find it valuable. Please let me know your thoughts.

He was short, skinny, and uncoordinated.

The awkwardness in taking a step, throwing a punch, and maintaining his balance was humorous to observe. He had little flexibility from years of inactivity and he was not alone. The other students taking their first class looked just as awkward. They had not yet earned their white belt.

He was determined.

He did not know what it would take to become a black belt. He knew he needed to get in shape and that he needed to change his lifestyle. He knew he could be persistent and disciplined. Two years later after countless workouts; hundreds of hours of individual practice, stretching, conditioning, and sparring; learning “forms”, blocks, counters, holds, throws, breaking boards and bricks, and learning traditional weapons he would earn his first black belt. He was the only one from that first class that achieved the goal. Only about 1 in 20 white belts make it to black belt. Everybody wants to be a black belt. Not everybody wants to do the work.

“A black belt is a white belt that never quit.”

The above was me. Japanese martial arts were a part of my life for fifteen years. During that time I was privileged to become a Sensei in our school and to lead our demonstration team. It was exciting to watch students move from those awkward early stages to proficiency and then to excellence. There is one common attribute in every student that earns their black belt- they never quit. They never quit, they don’t take “time off”, they consistently and relentlessly keep learning, improving, getting stronger, and pursuing their goal. New students may not be strong or coordinated. They may not be athletic but if they commit to their goal and follow the course laid out with dogged persistence they will eventually become a black belt. The average student takes 3-5 years to earn a black belt. In some martial arts it takes much longer. There is no “instant gratification” in this type of training. One of most valuable aspects of martial arts training is learning to stay with something for a long period of time while you take small but progressive steps towards a seemingly overwhelming goal. You learn to integrate the goal into your lifestyle. It becomes part of who you are instead of just something you do.

You can quit when you stop breathing.

Most people have not learned the value of perseverance. In life and in business many things can be achieved by simply staying with them long enough. The Navy Seals only become so by enduring great hardship. On average, only 15% of those that begin the training actually complete it. Most “applicants” quit in the first three weeks. Only those that place their aspiration above their own suffering will make it. Everyone admitted to Seal training has already proven they have the physical and mental capabilities to become a Navy Seal. Thomas Jefferson said, "Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude." Leadership requires the ability to endure pain and hardship. Leaders find a way to keep going. Do you have what it takes to keep going?

Defeat is a state of mind.

Bruce Lee was one of the greatest martial artist of all time. He said, “Defeat is a state of mind; no one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as a reality.” Many of us experience setbacks in life. Personal tragedies, family crises, setbacks in our careers or finances, injuries and many other things can delay achievement of a goal or get us off course from where we want to go. We all face setbacks. What are you going to do when a setback comes? You must take care of priorities but once you’ve dealt with whatever setback has come your way you have to pick back up where you left off, resume progress, or try again. If a goal is worth achieving then don’t give up just because it’s hard or inconvenient. Never, never, never give up!

Fighting your way back.

During my years in martial arts I dealt with a number of injuries. During a martial arts demonstration one of the students was a little too enthusiastic with a flying side kick. The kick was to land in the center of a target pad I was holding and slightly pulled back at the end so as to prevent injury. Instead the kick came in high and I took the full force in my right shoulder tearing the muscles around the joint. It took months to regain proper use of the shoulder through rehab, ice, and stretching. It slowed my training as I couldn’t put weight on it. Throwing a ball or doing pushups were agony. Regaining mobility in the shoulder took months of diligence and of slowly doing what I needed to recover. My training was modified until the shoulder recovered enough to take the strain. It may take a very long time to recover from a setback. The key is doing what is necessary to fight your way back no matter how long it takes.

The secret to willpower.

Most people embark on a new course or set new goals and expect their willpower to carry them through. It usually doesn’t. If you have not structured your life to support your goals then you will not achieve them no matter how much you desire to win. You may need the support of your family and friends. You can’t create time to work on your goals without first choosing what you will give up and this can impact other people in your life. You have to be intentional in scheduling time to pursue your goals and disciplined in using that time for its intended purpose. For example, in order for me to get daily exercise I have to plan around time with my wife, family commitments, my work schedule, travel schedule, and my son’s basketball schedule. If I do not plan for it then it never happens. If you structure your life to support your goals you will be much more able to commit to a long-term process that takes you to where you want to be. Most worthwhile goals will require a long-term effort to achieve.

It’s worth the effort!

Anything worth achieving is going to be difficult. There are no easy ways to succeed. You should set meaningful goals for your life and for your career then do what is necessary to make it happen. Continuously learn and do what it takes to get better. Don’t quit, don’t grow weary, and don’t take a break. Structure your life to support your goals. Enlist the support of allies- family, friends, and colleagues. Don’t give up when it gets hard, deal with setbacks, and then fight your way back. Have the will to win. Never, never, never give up!

In the last two years I have transitioned from martial arts to marathon training. The lessons I learned in martial arts have shaped who I am and have helped me in every area of my life. I still set long-term goals and work diligently over a long period of time to achieve them. My latest long-term goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Each day, week, month, and year I am taking progressive steps towards that goal. For me, it’s not a question of if I will qualify. It’s only a matter of when. There are plenty of people who think I am crazy. I am just determined.
A black belt is a white belt who never quit!
-Alan Buttery