“Lord, give me patience, and give it to me now!” I’m willing to bet most of of us have heard that joke (or some variant) at some point in our lives, but it underscores a serious question: how does one go about learning to exercise patience?
I’m no guru or saint, so I can’t answer the question for you, but for me it turns out the answer comes from a combination of two life experiences: my six and a half years at 3Sharp, and the nearly two years I’ve been studying karate. At 3Sharp, I learned how to do a lot of things that were beyond my initial comfort zone, developing deep technical presentations (and delivering them to large audiences), scoping and producing large technical projects such as books and whitepapers, and doing a large variety of work from hands-on consulting to research projects.
I’ve talked in previous posts about the physical benefits I’ve seen from karate. However, two weeks ago I tested for my 5th kyu belt (the second of my three green belts) and that experience made me aware of some deep changes in my personality and character. The step from 6th kyu to 5th kyu was particularly hard for me, and it took some time to sort out the two reasons why.
The obvious cause was schedule. I took two months off of karate at the beginning of the year, due to a combination of factors. That’s a hard gap to come back from; I had problems after the three week hiatus I took because of the MCM class. After two months, I just didn’t feel that my presence in class was doing any good until I had the privilege of watching two of my friends from the Mukilteo dojo earn their black belts one Saturday morning in February. I walked away from that experience feeling a new level of commitment to karate. After all, I told myself at that point, if I study hard, I’ll get to 5th kyu sooner or later, and that’s half-way to black belt!
The other cause was technical. The test kata for 5th kyu (Pinan Shodan) is the karateka’s first introduction to a well-known and complicated set of katas, and while most of it seems to be straightforward, there’s a lot boiling up from underneath the surface. Carlos Sensei began introducing us to a series of drills based around Pinan Shodan that unpack a lot of useful theory and practice from the first eight moves of the kata. There’s this very difficult pivot/kick/double punch move right in there (I dub it UberHardMove) that is a key element of the kata, and I was having a hard time getting the pivot, kick, and punches all coordinated together and working the right way without falling on my ass. In fact, I had such a difficult time with it that I can remember sometime around the end of December thinking that maybe I’d found the wall beyond which my lack of coordination was not going to let me pass. In addition, there’s some pretty gnarly tuite that goes along with all of this and I found that I felt horribly weak on my tuite all around, let alone with the techniques I was supposed to able to demonstrate some proficiency at.
What ended up happening, though, was that the two-month time-out did me unexpected good. I didn’t go to class during that period, but I kept practicing karate around the house. (Just ask Steph and the kids; they’ll tell you that it can be difficult to get me to knock it off and stop interfering with whatever they’re trying to do.) And what I did during that time was to take UberHardMove and break it down into components, the way I had previously been shown as a blue belt. I combined that with specific suggestions given to me by both Carlos Sensei and Liam Sensei and picked UberHardMove down to bare bones.
When I finally came back to class, I came back finally believing that the whole concept of me one day earning my black belt wasn’t the world’s best joke. I came back believing that I’d already invested nearly two years and I was willing to invest even more. I didn’t have to be perfect; I gave myself permission to suck. I knew that I was going to make stupid mistakes that I wouldn’t make (like mixing up techniques in lower level katas) if I’d been in class the whole time. I knew that my endurance was going to be awful. I knew that there was a lot of rust to scrub off and deal with and that it wasn’t going to happen immediately. I knew that I needed to let my instructors know that I desperately needed help with my tuite techniques. I knew that I was going to have to have them explain the same things about UberHardMove multiple times until I finally grokked it. In short, I accepted failure without accepting being a failure.
That was March. I tested near the end of May. Somewhere in there, I became proficient with my tuite. I learned a measure of peace with UberHardMove; I’m still not great at it, but I mastered it enough to move on to the next lessons. Perfection is in fact is a bad word in our household. We think the concept of perfection is one of the worst lies that the Adversary ever got humans to accept.
When you stop trying to be perfect – when you give yourself permission to have flaws and failings and determine to be honest about them and learn from them rather than try to cover them up – something amazing tends to happen. You accept “doing your best” instead of “doing it better than everyone else.” You accept “that’s enough for now” instead of “that’s not good enough yet.” You develop a sense of faith that over time, your progress will trend upwards. With that faith, you can draw valuable lessons from your mistakes and missteps. You stop fighting the basic physical and neurological limits of how your body and mind acquire new proficiencies and start working within your limits to expand them instead of struggling against them to tear them down with brute force. You acquire patience – new and fledgling, but the seed of something that starts to affect how you deal with all of your life.
I’m no paragon of patience, but I can see clear changes. For example, I’ve been spending far less time playing Call of Duty on the Xbox in the last month or so. I have a better understanding of how that experience has been frustrating instead of fun and relaxing and I’m less willing to give in to that anymore.
I don’t know where this will go ultimately or at what pace. I can honestly say, though, that I’m okay with that. Will I get my black belt? I don’t know; there are many circumstances that could prevent or delay that. However, I certainly want to, and I finally know I’m capable of doing it, so I wouldn’t bet against me. But I also know that’s just another waypoint on the journey. It’s not an end. It’s a marker where I can say, “See what I’ve done so far? That’s pretty cool. Now I’ve learned enough that I can get serious about learning this stuff and helping pass it on to others.”
Two months ago, I’d have said I couldn’t wait for that day. You know what? That’s not true. I can wait. I will wait. And I will do so profitably.
 In our style, at least. There are other styles that place another Pinan kata before Pinan Shodan.
 In a nice twist of synchronicity, the person who showed me was at the time was a helpful brown belt from Mukilteo who ended up being one of the two black belts I got to watch test. He has continued to be an amazing source of inspiration for me through what is now a large number of discouraging situations. Hi, Max!
 It’s not going away; I still practice it, and I know that it will get better as I learn more. In fact, those final four moves in Pinan Nidan where I’m in a cat stance might be helpful here, hmmm…