Sunday, May 3, 2009

You are your own best teacher, and your own worst critic.

I was teaching class last week with a dozen or so students, mostly adults, and a few little tykes. One of the elder Earthlings caught himself making a mistake and proceeded to admonish his inner adolescent while providing the room with a series of adult verbs and pronouns. Expletives. Colorful metaphors. Or as I quickly reminded the class, unusual Korean technical terms not generally shared with the Santa Claus crowd.

It is hard trying to learn something new, especially after you've left the universities and entered a work-world where so much rides on the successful delivery of goods and services; where errors are not easily tolerated, and failure is not an option. It is hard to be witness to your own fumblings, missteps, errors, mistakes, and outright forgetfulness.

I remember one class where we were practicing a simple round kick with the back leg. Turn and kick the pad. Turn and kick the pad. I couldn't hit the pad to save my life. It was almost an out of body experience - like watching some other dufus turn and miss the pad; turn and miss the pad. But even that is not as bad as knowing how and what to do, and just not doing it. Missing the pad was a foot/eye coordination thing. Turning left when you know to turn right is something else.

These feeling of utter bewilderment were recently reintroduced to me as I began taking piano lessons about three years ago. As the old joke goes, I've always want to play the piano in the worst way ... and now I do. After more than a year of practice and with a couple of cool songs under my belt, I had the opportunity to play one of my favorites for my adult daughter. I chose Oh Bla Dee, Oh Bla Da by the Beatles. This is a fairly simple arrangement which requires independent hand movements, the left playing a broken F minor chord, while the right plays the melody, single keys only.

At the time, I had been playing this song for three months - so while my piano skills were still in doubt, this particular song was solid. Solid as evaporating water moisture on a dry summer day. Solid as the surface of a swimming pool when approached by the cannon ball of self-imposed pressure. I wilted like lettuce in the microwave. It was not just that I miskeyed, struck wrong notes, or lost the tempo - I completely blanked. I had no re-callable memory of every having seen any of the 88 keys which taunted me to command them. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

My daughter was far more forgiving of me than was I. That, as it turns out, is the point of this post.

Everybody makes mistakes. We make them in public. We make them at the worst possible moments. You are not alone. You are not special in that you've screwed up and it mattered, everybody saw it, and you cannot hide. Mr. Rogers will still love you, but on this topic, you are not special.

I recently judged a karate tournament where I witnessed no less than three competitors forget their routines. Now keep in mind that these competitors have been rehearsing their hyung (forms, patterns, kata) for several months in preparation for this one event. In one case the martial artist was a Master (4th Degree), a certified instructor who has been awarded Grand Champion at least a dozen times. It happens.

In 1993, Warren Buffet, arguably one of the wealthiest men on the planet bought the Dexter Shoe Company for $433 million. It eventually turned out to be (his words) the worst mistake he ever made, costing $3.5 billion. How many mistakes have you made on that scale?

Martial artists have a particular conundrum to deal with relative to making mistakes. It seems that one of the causes of disappointment is a failure to achieve expectations. If we expect to achieve something, and we fail to do so, we tend to be disappointed. The higher the expectation, the greater the disappointment. But as humans, one thing we tend to get wrong a lot of the time is predicting success. In the book, "Why We Make Mistakes", Joseph Hallinin discloses the results of several studies where people were asked to predict the outcome of some action for which they had some control.

Professional golfers were asked to predict the percent of six foot putts they could make. Professional gamblers were asked to predict how many horse races they could pick. Business executives were asked to predict how decisions would pay off. In every case the percentage of success was tied to the participant's confidence in their own abilities. It seems humans are an overconfident bunch. For instance, most professional golfers believed that they would sink 70% of their six foot putts. One champion said that if you're not hitting at least 85% of these putts, you won't make any money. Of course the United States Golf Association keeps records on such things and the actual answer is that pro golfers only sink about 54.8% of putts at this distance.

One of the benefits or goals of martial arts training is an improvement in self confidence. So, as our confidence builds, so does our expectation of achievement. Make sense, doesn't it? So, when we fail to achieve, or more simply make mistakes, is it any wonder we tend to be disappointed. In fact, the case could be made that with heightened confidence (and therefore heightened expectations in ourselves), martial artists might actually feel more disappointment than non artists.

Well, I can't really say that we are more disappointed, I only know that we do make mistakes, and should be every bit as forgiving of ourselves as we would be of our classmates and partners.

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