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957 Words About Beginning and Staying

31 Dec

I recently unearthed from my personal library George Leonard’s Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. I purchased the book 15 or 20 years ago because I’d come across an article by Leonard, a precursor to the book, in the May 1987 issue of Esquire magazine as part of their Ultimate Fitness series. (Follow that link to the issue in the Esquire archives, if only to enter a Wayback Machine to 1987.)

I only started my current, serious round of martial arts training in 1993 (at age 33) and came across that article sometime thereafter while digging back for that Ultimate Fitness series. I wasn’t terribly fit and was grasping for any secret fitness leg-up I could find. The mastery article presented concepts pertinent to me at that point in my martial arts journey. With perhaps a year and a half or so of practice under my (Purple-Trim?) belt I was at the point where many students might drop out, due to the “Brown Belt Blues” phenomenon.

Getting to Purple-Trim belt — or Third Gup — means I had put in consistent practice and had progressed through six belt levels in that time, testing about quarterly. I’d done a lot, learned a lot, and realized that now things were about to get real. In a way I felt I’d survived but a lot more was yet to come. The students I’d observed from other, older schools who were at these three levels before black belt (Purple-Trim, Brown and Red Belts) were serious, talented and experienced. Now I was entering into that group?

I had a glimpse of possibility, but also a sense of getting out while I could. I’d come this far OK; why chance it? Get out while I was on top, be happy with getting to that point, and gracefully exit. That’s what I’d done in my younger years: four different starts and stops in two different Karate styles and Tai Chi. A couple of belts in (or the equivalent time in Tai Chi) and then convincing myself that I should stop with whatever was the excuse of the moment. Maybe the excitement of the brand-new endeavor was gone; maybe I was chickening out. Had I stuck with my training back then, I might have been a multi-level black belt in Karate by my mid-thirties, with the lessons and gifts that would have provided, rather than a Third Gup at thirty-five.

The experience at the senior Gup levels is not one of only learning more stuff and more difficult techniques; it is also an experience of further-developing in the techniques and principles learned so far. More time is simply spent practicing and working to get better. There is more time between those last promotion levels and then to Black Belt. It’s work and time.

I shared a copy of Leonard’s article with my instructor and we talked about it a number of times. I don’t think I ever told him that I was toying with a graceful exit; I’m not sure I was even fully cognizant myself of my inclination at the time. He and I talked about the three archetypes whom Leonard describes when referring to people who either drop out of their practice or who end up “treading water”, making no improvement. (The Dabbler, The Obsessive, and The Hacker.)

To whatever degree I was considering quitting, I never really considered it further after those discussions about the article. That was partly because I realized the degree to which I’d been a regular Dabbler and Obsessive; I didn’t want to leave and have my instructor think of me as a Dabbler!

More than simply avoiding those archetypes, I was reoriented to continue on by the mastery concept Leonard presented. Mastery means living on the plateau, the long times of no discernible progress while simply practicing for the joy of regular practice. The path of mastery is practicing. More than simply hacking or messing around, it is intentional practice, with the vision to improve over time. The reality is that much of the time there is no discernible progress. Until there is. Then there’s another long plateau. One must simply practice to practice.

There is no excitement of the new endeavor (what attracts The Dabbler) and no rush of new techniques or new belts or regular, noticeable improvement (what keeps the Obsessive). There is no hacking, just showing up and going through the motions. There IS intentional, regular practice, with lots of time of nothing: no improvement, many bad days, no new techniques, no belts or awards. Just practice.

I realized all that was required of me to go wherever it is I might go with Taekwondo was to show up and give it my best shot that day. I had instruction, I had support, I had opportunity to push it to my edge. Most of all my part was to simply show up and train. Again, and again and again. Roundhouse kick, roundhouse kick, roundhouse kick again. I was to train with whatever intention I could bring that day, each kick, each class, each time — and to enjoy those cool new techniques when they are presented!

I’ve still slipped into dabbling, obsessing and hacking in different endeavors since then, including in my Taekwondo. Still, the path of mastery has remained in me, in Taekwondo, in my marriage, in my spiritual life. I have it in mind as I continue with yoga practice, and as I try to follow each breath in meditation sessions, and as I take intentional small, regular actions to improve situations I am in with people, in my work, at church, in community service: show up, take action with intention, accept the place, repeat, repeat, repeat, appreciate the gift when it comes, then keep at it some more.

Molly and the Indomitable Spirit

30 Jan

I attended a taekwondo tournament this past Saturday. At two hours away from Duluth, it is one of the closer tournaments available to our students, so I encourage them to participate since there are few such convenient opportunities. Tournament competition is an infrequent experience for nearly all of our students, so I like for them to have it and to benefit from it.

One student of ours who participated was Molly, a petite eight-year-old girl. She and her brother Sam participated last year; however, this year, Sam chose not to participate, largely due to the overbearing sparring match he had last year. As a smaller tournament, organizers are hard pressed to split competitors into ideally appropriate divisions based on age, rank and experience. Sam had gotten consistently scored on in sparring by another boy who was, I believe, older, bigger, higher rank and more experienced.
Even though Sam had competed well in forms and breaking competitions, the sparring experience Continue reading

Sharing Joy Should be More than Passing the Dish Soap

21 Sep

I was sitting in church having taken part in some uplifting music and now, with a thought-provoking, spirit-challenging sermon in my head and gut, we get to the time in the service when we share Joys & Concerns.

(In summary)

” Paul will be leaving for school.”
” Alison has a job and found a roommate.”
“Eva passed away this week.”
“My sister has pancreatic cancer.”
“My wife’s treatments are continuing.”
“Jim will be leaving for another tour in Afghanistan.”
(followed by more concerns. . .)

Typically during this part of the service I am struck by three thoughts:
1. There are many more Concerns than Joys, and often no Joys whatsoever.
2. If you want to share a Joy, you’d better do it at the front end because, I don’t know about you, but I’m reluctant to share a Joy after hearing many of the Concerns.
3. There should be three question marks after the word Joys in the bulletin (Joys??? & Concerns).

I’m left with one question: “Why are we reluctant to share Joys?” When I say we, perhaps I should reference Presbyterians (I used to be Roman Catholic). Or, perhaps, I should put it in the context of Scandinavian culture in Minnesota (I was born and raised in Massachusetts, to immigrant Azorean Portuguese). Perhaps it is a broader phenomenon that crosses faith traditions and cultural heritage. Or maybe I am living in space between the formality and privacy of the “Frozen Chosen” (Presbyterians), and the passive-aggression & self-deprecation of so-called Minnesota Nice. In any case, I feel there is supposed to be more.

Admittedly, it can be hard to mention good things in the face of other people’s struggles and tragedies. It doesn’t seem in good taste. There you are with a husband dying of cancer and I shove the Joy of my son’s new joy right in your face.

In northern Minnesota in particular, it seems people tend to refrain from talking about themselves, about achievement, good stuff in their family or about their kids; it can easily be seen as bragging, or at least we think it will be seen as such. I can just hear Garrison Keillor telling news from Lake Wobegon, imitating Sven Carlsen sharing his opinion with wife Ingrid after hearing someone at church coffee time going on about their son who’s moved to Minneapolis : “I t’ink he’s maybe a little bit full of himself d’ere. Yah, he might be a little too proud of his kid, ya’ know?”

Life can be challenging, even brutal. Work demands, schedule pressures, financial challenges, family turmoil, injury, illness, death. Facing these things, we can get pretty stressed, negative, beat up, despairing. We can even lose faith of whatever sort we have. I know that I can get pretty focused on the negative and let challenges, or even worries, pretty easily overcome me. I also know that even when I am thinking most bleakly, seeing a picture of a friend’s new grandson can really lift me up and think about all of the positive, uplifting wonders in life.

In the midst of all this, I think we need to share and celebrate Joys. Faith traditions tell us we should celebrate our gifts, that we should find the hope in challenge and defeat, and that we are made to enjoy life and be happy. Secular authors have written words that ring true about gratitude, joy, and hope. Social media abounds with positive and supportive memes. In the midst of fog and dark, we are meant to shine light, both for ourselves and others. Perhaps while in fear and dark over a spouse’s cancer prognosis, one can find light in another’s joy. Perhaps it can become like passing on a candle flame. When we have a basket full of rotten, stinking apples, it’s OK if someone holds out to us one of their crisp Golden Delicious and lets us sample a bite or two, or maybe eat the whole thing.

If there is any fault in this sharing Joy business, perhaps it is in not asking others to share theirs. Before offering up your own latest-greatest, a good habit might be to ask others what good things are happening in their life (judiciously, maybe, depending on struggles they are facing). This habit can perhaps lead us to a larger orientation of listening, appreciating and understanding others. Share in their Joy and they will naturally want to share in yours.

What might it do to a congregation to share and celebrate all of the plusses in people’s lives? What can it mean to a family to readily see, share and affirm the positive in their experience together? What would it mean to a workplace where the focus is on uplifting people and encouraging them bring their good things to their common time together? Yes, support and care for each other as we face challenges, but show and share the light in the gloom. Light does overcome darkness.

Joys and Concerns? I do think those are listed in the right order. I think I’ve just got to read more carefully. And, believe it or not, I do have the right blood type: B-Positive!




With Apologies to Ronald McDonald

19 Jan

A larger 20-something, guy, lumbering stature. A 30-something  woman, tall, stereotypical Midwestern mom-like in appearance.  A man of about 50 years, short, with a ready smile and laugh, a feisty attitude. An 18 year old girl, thinner, quiet, pretty.

“Everyone take one quick step backwards and try to land in a good, balanced stance. Again. One more time. OK, now two steps back; remember, pay attention to your stepping, landing and balance.”

The Midwestern mom does rather well. The smaller, feisty guy not too bad. The girl is very tentative and her body stays rotated awkwardly. The lumbering guy steps and lands with his legs too twisted up, appearing uncomfortable, almost teetering on the edge.

This could be any taekwondo class. People come in with all variety of physical habits and capability. Our job is to overcome those, move things closer to a functional norm, and yet also realize that unique habits, differences and limitations always come out, sometime always stick around. A lifetime of habits and movement patterns become our status quo. It’s tough to change the status quo.

The situation I described above, however, is less typical than I implied. Those four participants, and others not mentioned, are all Continue reading

My (Leadership) Bads. And My Goods

1 Aug

Five things I believe about leadership, based on my experiences:

Good leadership ensures there is a clear, compelling vision/mission and communicates them frequently. People always know and understand The Why (and The What) and are reminded of them often.

Good leadership ensures people have the tools and support they need to succeed, on an ongoing and consistent basis. If people aren’t succeeding and thriving, look back to leadership.

Good leadership focuses on recognizing people doing things well and right. It praises in public but coaches in private. Particularly, it DOES praise in public — it knows and celebrates good work and successes — and DOES make sure that it coaches as necessary. It is knowledgeable and active in these respects.

Good leadership fosters an environment of trust and open, honest communication. If people aren’t talking openly, look back to leadership. If people aren’t coming forward for help with their needs and challenges/problems . . .it’s a big problem.

Good leadership results in excited, motivated, happy follower-ship. If people aren’t happy . . .you know where to look.

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