Are you willing to wear your white belt?

As a practising martial artist, I couldn’t help but love this story that Tim Ferriss put out recently. It’s from George Leonard’s book, Mastery, a must-read if the subject interests you. More so if you’re a professional coach or a martial arts practitioner.

When Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, was quite old and close to death, the story goes, he called his students around him and told them he wanted to be buried in his white belt. What a touching story; how humble of the world’s highest-ranking judoist in his last days to ask for the emblem of the beginner!

But Kano’s request, I eventually realized, was less humility than realism. At the moment of death, the ultimate transformation, we are all white belts. And if death makes beginners of us, so does life—again and again. In the master’s secret mirror, even at the moment of highest renown and accomplishment, there is an image of the newest student in class, eager for knowledge, willing to play the fool.

And for all who walk the path of mastery, however far that journey has progressed, Kano’s request becomes a lingering question, an ever-new challenge:

Are you willing to wear your white belt?

The Master & The Fool – Tim Ferriss

People obsess about belts as if that’s everything. If you tell anyone that you’re a martial arts practitioner, they will immediately ask if you’re a “black belt.” Practitioners of other arts might even look down upon lower-ranked belts (white or blue) when there’s no correlation to the skill levels. 

For example, an Aikido black belt has a very different set of skills from a Muay Thai practitioner. If either one had to switch their arts for a brief while, they would have to start from the bottom, the white belt. And if they’re not open to that idea, they will not survive. 

Being a white belt is all about emptying your cup while embracing the obstacles, the knowledge, and the wisdom that comes with the journey of being a student to becoming a master. And the irony is that most masters think of themselves as students because they never want to stop learning. 

Also, you will be a black belt for longer than you will be a white belt. Becoming a black belt is the beginning of a lifelong journey. Sure their belts might go from black to red, symbolizing their commitment to the arts, but deep down in their hearts, they remain a white belt because they know that’s the only way they will keep learning. 

The achievements matter far less than your decision to show up and soak up as much wisdom as you can as a student. That’s what being a white belt is all about. 

P.S. The post goes in-depth to explore what it takes to be a learner through two powerful stories, one of which you just read above. 

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