White Belts, First Drafts, and Cutting Yourself Some Slack

The white belt (beginner stage) is hard to see, but it’s there on the left.

Karate belts are pretty handy. They keep your gi closed. They tell everyone where you fit in a school. When everyone’s lined up, they make a rainbow. They’re also a big fat metaphor.

Let’s set aside technical terminology (kyu/dan) for a moment. Say you start training when you’re twelve. You train hard, you sweat, you get knocked down, you get up, and you keep going. You wash your uniform. You don’t wash your belt, and it yellows. Two or three years later, you’ve grown a bit and need a new uniform. Your rank doesn’t change purely because you did. You still have the same belt – only now it’s starting to get moldy, and it goes green, or blue or purple. You grapple. Something spills. Before you know it, your belt is totally brown and you’re ready to train for black.

Your belt is a symbol of the time and effort you’ve put into your pursuit.

Last night, I watched my newest dojo-brother go through some basic drills. His instructors lectured him and picked apart the details of his technique. “Build good habits,” they said.

He’s generally a happy guy, but his smile was replaced by overwhelm, frustration and doubt.

His instructors spent a lot of time on the details of his punch, and that’s when it hit me. He wasn’t just learning how to punch. He had way more on his plate than that. He was learning footwork, movement, balance, coordination, torque and ambidexterity – and everywhere he looked, there was a mirror.

The white belt is your first draft.

You think you’re practicing a punch, but you’re really learning your own body. You think you’re writing a story, but you’re really learning your own style.

Your first draft is your sloppy, uncoordinated stage. The only thing you have to master at this juncture is your pace. How productive can you be, and still write regularly? How flexible are you? What’s easy and what’s challenging?

This stage is where, most of all, you learn how to cope with the stress and cut yourself some slack. Pace yourself. Avoid laziness, but never push yourself too hard. Your doubt, expectation, impatience and jealousy surround your writing as sure as mirrors surround you in the dojo. A crisis of confidence will lay you out as fast and painfully as a knee injury.

Building stamina is fine, burning out is not. Burning out stops you. Continuous progress leads to mastery.

If you’re a white belt at anything, don’t sweat the details. Don’t worry about what other people say in those early stages. You’re already surrounded by your own mirrors.

Embrace your white belt, and be patient with yourself. You’ll get there.

Combat discouragement with your desire to learn.”
― Phillip Toshio

While you are continuing this practice, week after week, year after year, your experience will become deeper and deeper, and your experience will cover everything you do in your everyday life… Do not think about anything. Just remain on your cushion without expecting anything. Then eventually you will resume your own true nature. That is to say, your own true nature resumes itself.”
― Shunryu Suzuki

**Update! The belt color story is apocryphal, according to the scholars over at Ikigai. I have decided to leave this post up, however, because I like the metaphor.

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3 thoughts on “White Belts, First Drafts, and Cutting Yourself Some Slack

    1. Setsu Post author

      You’re absolutely right. There’s a lot of variation since they started manufacturing colored belts. My first school had no blue or brown belts, but we had red and poom (black and red). I’ve been told that early Shotokan only had white, brown and black. Every school is a little different. Thank you for bringing that up!

      Reply

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