Maybe it’s cheesy to use martial arts life lessons in a blog like this, but the comparison is actually quite relevant for graduate school/academia and life as a scientist in general. Probably the most relevant parts are the lessons you get on how to take hits and to keep on going, especially relevant when you feel like you’re constantly getting your ass kicked in the lab (metaphorically speaking, of course). Looking back on earning my black belt vs earning my PhD, a lot of the best lessons learned from martial arts and academia are applicable for both parts of life, and the first of these that I’ll talk about is failure.
I recently tested for my blue belt in tae kwon do through my new school here in Liverpool. I already held a black belt from my original school in the USA where I started practicing during high school. With different schools having different standards and licensing groups, my USA black belt was ‘non-transferrable’ here in the UK (something about having done the forms on the wrong side of the road). Either way, I was happy with the chance to get back into training this past year, especially after nearly a 10-year hiatus while I was busy in undergrad and grad school, and the chance to work on my skills even when I was again starting from scratch as a white belt.
Tae kwon do belt gradings are not to be taken lightly. The high-ranking belts that are there in front judging you are there for a reason: because they’ve worked hard to get to where they are, they strive for excellence in everything they do, and they expect that someone looking to get to the same level as them meet those high standards. It’s an intense event, doing your forms and sparring with these high-ranking eyes watching you the whole time, yes sirs/ma’ams every time you’re asked to do something, the ever-present pressure to perform your best while at the same time you’re so nervous and tense as to not make any misstep. It was a strange thing to be back again on the floor 10 years after testing for my black belt, this time in a new country and new instructor and with a PhD under my belt (no pun intended). Getting ready for this testing and trying to focus all my nervous energy into something positive, I found myself reflecting back on previous belt testings from high school and how this one might differ now that I’d also gone through the rigors of grad school.
Flash back to February 2005 when I was at my first black belt pre-testing. Anyone going for a black belt had to go through a pre-test before the actual test, in case one testing wasn’t enough. I had been studying tae kwon do for 3 years at that point and had been a brown belt for quite some time. I was flexible and strong and always gave every move 100%. Previous testings had all gone well for me, with decent scores and the instructors recognizing my skills, my energy, and my intensity. Except for one thing: I was terrible at breaking boards.
In reality, I wasn’t terrible, I COULD break the boards but I was generally nervous about the whole ordeal. I would easily become frustrated in class when we had to do them because it wasn’t coming as easy as the rest of what we did in class. It was about precision, timing, hip movement, etc, but most importantly it was about not being afraid of the board. Any hesitation, any thought that you’d hurt yourself, if you tensed up instead of being relaxed, meant the board didn’t break. And as with any failure, each board that didn’t break seemed to make the next one look even harder to break. During the lower belt testings this wasn’t a problem, because you always had multiple chances if you didn’t break the board on the first go, you or your instructor could give you a mini pep talk and you could get through it. Now that buffer was gone: going from brown belt to black, you had one shot per board, and four of them to go through.
So there I was, at my first black belt pre-testing, terrified out of my mind. I knew I had to break boards that night, in addition to all of the other forms, my current brown belt pattern and all those from previous belts, sparring, knowing facts about which Korean philosophers and historical figures that the forms were named after. My nervousness about the boards permeated in the rest of my testing. I wasn’t the confident girl who had impressed everyone with her intensity and strength, I was tense, frightened, and waiting in nervous anticipation for the time when I had to break boards. And what I was afraid of most was failure.
After a nervous pre-testing session, I failed at the first board. Right elbow strike. It hurt more than the sore elbow. I went back home and back to training, tried new break techniques for the hand strikes. I was still nervous though. Another failed pre-testing and I think that was the point when I and my instructor realized I wasn’t ready yet.
In between the failed pre-testings I graduated high school and had that blissful summer between being a kid and being an adult. I had failed in my goal of getting my black belt before graduation, but I realized I hadn’t failed at getting my black belt. I just hadn’t gotten it yet. The start of college was an exciting time, new friends and a newfound confidence. I enjoyed the freedom of picking my own classes, felt like I was on the right path in my life in terms of my program in environmental science, and I was resolved overall to succeed at the life I had set out for. Pre-testing came again and this time I felt different-I had failed twice, I had practiced new breaks, and I changed my pre-game approach: instead of being afraid to fail, I envisioned success, knowing that I had a hurdle to pass over but that I could do it, I had broken boards in class, and now I just had to do it in front of a live audience.
If a failed broken board makes the next one seem harder, the 4 successfully broken boards at pre-testing made the real ones at testing seem like paper. I went to the testing blasting pump-up jams on my car stereo (most likely Eye of the Tiger, the classic and stereotypical martial arts pump-up jam), I went through all the requirements for forms and sparring with a fellow brown belt. When it came to boards I remember that first one breaking, and all the other ones just falling apart once that first one went. Apparently at the last board I let out some sort of victory war cry (I don’t even remember that), the rest of testing and that whole day was more or less blur. Whatever else I did that day, I had finally not failed, and it felt amazing.
Knowing how much you have to fail before you get things right is perhaps the hardest part about science, and it is a fact of being a scientist that no one tells you in lectures or lab courses during your undergraduate studies. Being on the cutting edge of knowledge means that no one’s done what you need to do already. The scientists whose work and whose lives have lasting legacies didn’t always get it right the first time. The key with success is not in not failing, but in continuing to try even when you fail along the way, in continually recognizing that you didn’t fail completely, you just didn’t succeed yet. And maybe this is the hard part, where we all hit a wall: that first PCR you run where no bands come up on the gel, the code that constantly gives an error message you can’t figure out, or the time you almost set your lab on fire when a chemical reaction went for too long. All these things feel like boards we couldn’t break, and if you can’t break it once what makes you think it will break a second time?
The key with failure is not letting it get to you. To learn what you can from when you fail and not be afraid to fail again, and again, and again, until you get it right. My first PhD advisor said it best as I was nervous about trying a new protocol. His sage, Virginian advice was “Just try it!” and even if it didn’t work the first time, at least you learned something. The best part of it all is once you get past the hurdle, once you keep trying until you get it right, then the boards just shatter in front of you. Progress comes not from doing things right the first time but from learning how to get it right the next time, or at least the next time, or maybe the time after that, and to keep going until you get there.
Back at my recent UK blue belt testing, I put this philosophy back into action, 10 years post-tae kwon do hiatus. I was certainly nervous, not only to perform well, but to make a good impression on a room full of kids and instructors I had never seen before. I told myself that if I failed I was still me, that I had worked hard to get to this point, and I would still have a chance to learn from it and try again. It’s the same speech I give myself before presentations, conference calls, PhD defenses, oral exams, the results of a gel, anything in science where you get judged and scored. No matter what happens you give it all you got, learn something when you can, and remember that you come out the other side the same person as when you went in—all that’s required of you is that you gain something from each experience. I’m thankful that this time around I earned my 4th Kup blue belt, while at the same testing I learned that I hold my guard hand too high while punching. And that’s also part of the lesson for when we don’t fail: there is always room for improvement and things to learn, even when we succeed. Come on, don’t we ever get a break??