About 4 years ago, my sister told me we should take up taekwondo. Her 2 oldest kids were taking classes, and she wanted to join too, but didn’t want to be on her own in the adult class. Her and I were both trying to lose weight, and I’d always wanted to learn a martial art, so I went to a trial class. My wardrobe was mostly ill-fitting t-shirts and yoga pants anyway (because I’d outgrown all of my “real” clothes and didn’t want to replace them with even larger ones) so I threw on some dumpy faux-activewear outfit and lined up at the back of the room, behind every one of the adults in crisp white doboks with their belts ranging from white to black. They were mostly a mix of older teenaged black belts who had grown out of the children’s program or people like my sister: parents who saw their kids thriving in the program and wanted to be part of the community. I didn’t really see that at the time. I just saw a room of people who scared the crap out of me.

The instructor of my first class was the founder of the school, a Taekwondo Grand Master who is at once extremely intimidating and enormously kind and patient. He had us do “wheelbarrow pushups”, an exercise so ludicrously challenging I never would’ve imagined that it existed until I was in a room where everyone seemed to be capable of it except me. I awkwardly assumed the position: just like a push-up, except my sister was holding both of my feet well off the ground, at her sides. I tried to lower myself down, as one does before pushing oneself up…and I simply collapsed on my face. Repeatedly. I was 5’2”, 210 lbs, and had the upper body strength of a kitten. It was bad. I was bad. I was really bad.

I’m not a person who has ever been good at being bad at things. I’m smart and I’m lazy. Most of my early schooling was being told how bright and talented I was. Then it turned into “you have so much potential, if you would apply yourself.” It became a point of pride to ace my tests without studying or doing homework. Then it stopped working and the work got too hard and I couldn’t coast anymore, so I started cutting class more, paying attention less, and generally checked out completely, eventually just coasting into high school graduation and never going further. I stayed on at the same company I worked for in high school for the next decade, moving up and becoming the most experienced employee there, and just generally being great at my job. I’m naturally good at a lot of things, but even then it’s rare I put in the effort to be more than a promising beginner (see: half a dozen musical instruments). If it doesn’t come easily to me, I’m not interested.

So my weaknesses stay my weaknesses. I avoid things that I’m bad at, or things I suspect I might be bad at, so that in my head I can tell myself that I would maybe be awesome at it, if I tried, but I won’t. It’s a bad pattern, and when I finally recognized it in myself, I hated it. Now that I’m a parent, I’m terrified of it. I assume, of course, that my daughter will be a magical talented unicorn genius. But will she have the ability to work hard to meet a goal? If she doesn’t, will anything else even matter?

I don’t know why exactly it was that October, when I was 25, that something started to shift in me. I suppose I’d hit a bit of a tipping point in my life where I was no longer happy with the status quo. Maybe it was just peer pressure: my sister was improving herself, and I didn’t want to get left behind. I bought my crisp white dobok with its basic white belt, an ensemble that made me look like the Michelin Man. I signed up for classes. And they gave us each a pamphlet titled “BLACK BELT PROGRAM” that explained everything about the program and the school and the rules. We laughed at the title. Thinking of ourselves, with our stiff, brand new white belts, as being in the “black belt program” was crazy. Then I realized why it seemed so crazy: because I had signed up expecting to fail. Expecting to quit. Assuming this was a silly whim, destined to end as quickly as it began. And that actually made me kind of angry. My sister said “we are doing this until we get our black belts”, and I agreed.

michelin man

Self Portrait, 2011

I don’t have one yet. The ending isn’t that easy. I’m close, but I still have to get through to actual black belt test. I’m writing this because I’m very much in the thick of it, and it’s on my mind. I’ve been so frustrated, so many times. Every time I show up to class is a victory over my own worst impulses. But I’m very aware of the lessons the past 4 years of training have taught me. I learned skills I will never (hopefully) use out of the dojang: how to defend myself, how to hurt someone quickly and effectively, how to do a 360 hook kick and a flying side kick. But mostly I’ve learned how to do something poorly, and keep doing it anyway. I’ve learned how to be the slowest person in the class, who just isn’t grasping what the others picked up right away. I’ve learned to fight hard to learn something new, and then help those who are still struggling to learn the same thing. I’ve learned to bow to teenagers that I don’t know, in all sincerity, because they have already worked hard and accomplished what I haven’t. And most importantly, I’ve learned to take my struggles head on, admit that I’m having problems, and gracefully accept help from whoever can give it.

Somehow, a seemingly trivial hobby that I took on in my late 20s ended up teaching me character that none of my prior school or work experience had. While there’s definitely something to be said for following your natural aptitude, I realize now there’s also a great deal to be learned from doing something you’re terrible at. And when you learn how to master both the things that come easily and the things that come harder, you realize you can do anything.

And that’s pretty damn awesome.