Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Letter to a Student on Failure

In a recently Facebook post, I shared a letter I wrote to one of my Taekwondo students, a staunch perfectionist, after he and another classmate failed a tense and difficult promotion exam. The words resonated with readers. Some friends loved how I used my own failures to help teach the students that it was possible to recover from such a ghastly event. Others loved that my colleagues and I allowed these students to experience failure at all.

There’s a national debate these days about whether we coddle our kids too much. Buzz terms like “helicopter parent” describe moms and dads who try to protect their children from the harsh realities of life. I have no stake in the “how-to-better-parent” debate. I’m not a parent. I’m just a martial arts teacher. And an imperfect one at that. My concern is for one kid at a time. My concern today is for the young man standing before me with tears in his eyes and a broken heart—that he understand “this too shall pass.”

Here’s the letter:

Dear O.,

Son, I know how you felt on Saturday. I know how hard you worked, and I know how much you wanted to complete all portions of the test perfectly. It didn't turn out that way, and that reality stings. I’ve been where you were this weekend, and there's no flowery way to say it: It hurts.

When I flunked my first attempt at black belt, I did so in front of a roomful of teachers and peers. It was embarrassing. I was heartbroken. And I won’t lie to you and say that that kind of imperfection doesn’t still make me very angry with myself. Like you, I’m a perfectionist. I want to ALWAYS be perfect. And yet, I’m too often not. In fact, far from it.

I’m sending you the below blog post so that you might know that you’re not alone, and to warn you that the drive for perfection has a pretty sharp double-edged sword. I’m still working on not being perfect—on just trying my best. Sometimes I succeed. I’m getting better at accepting who I am—celebrating my strengths, accepting my weaknesses without such harsh judgment, and enjoying the journey of discovering what I’m good at, what I’m not, and deciding whether I want to work harder to improve the latter.

You’ve come a long way from the boy who cried when he didn’t win first place in end-of-class games at Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute. Remember that boy? You’re not that same boy. You’ve grown so much since then. And your weakest part of the test WASN’T board breaking! But I know: It’s just that days like Saturday make people like us think we haven’t moved an inch. That’s why we need mentors who tell us the truth. So I hope you get something out of reading my story. I hope to see you Tuesday.

And don’t forget one very important thing: I’LL BELIEVE IN YOU UNTIL YOU CAN BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.

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