Black Belt, White Belt

A Personal History

When I was five years old, my family moved to Des Moines and my parents signed me up for TaeKwonDo. They figured I was too small for team sports, and they were right, especially after I skipped a grade later that year. I stuck with TaeKwonDo until I entered college, practicing the martial art for 12 years. In that time, I earned the rank of Third Dan Black Belt. There is no "me" without TaeKwonDo; it has proven to be one of the most foundational aspects of my childhood.

In college, I practiced with friends as the facetiously named "Grinnell Fight Club," a mostly boxing-based organization. By my third year, this loose organization dissolved. Throughout college, also I have sought physical engagement outside of martial arts, taking up climbing and lifting.

This summer, I have been practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu three times a week. All of my prior experience is with striking martial arts. In sport TaeKwonDo, you seek to score points by landing kicks on your opponent's chest and head. In boxing, you want to punch the other guy harder than he punches you. Jiu Jitsu is a grappling martial art where you score points by gaining advantageous holds and positions and can win matches by submission, where your opponent taps out in a choke or joint lock.

The distance, pacing, and fundamental techniques of all three styles barely overlap. The environments are just as different, from a kid's class to a college gym to a tight community of adult practitioners. However, I have taken powerful lessons from the integral similarities between martial arts that this range of experience has revealed to me.

A Black Belt Mindset

When I was sixteen, I successfully tested for my Third Dan Black Belt. The four-hour physical test covered forms, board breaking, techniques, sparring, and physical fitness. Those of us who passed performed the traditional timed mile run afterwards. A black belt represents mastery of a complete body of knowledge, in this case World TaeKwonDo Federation standardized TaeKwonDo, and it was that mastery that we were required to demonstrate to advance in rank.

A black belt spends a lot of time working on details and specifics of their art. Even with a black belt, I knew that my kicks could always be faster, higher, harder, and more precise. I knew that I could have more perfect command of the two dozen forms that I knew. I certainly knew that I still lost a lot of sparring matches, especially against larger people. However, I had reached a point where, within TaeKwonDo, I knew the scope of what I did not know.

All of that said, I was a very competent martial artist, and I enjoyed teaching, so I did a decent amount of it. Being a black belt is all about teaching and bringing other people up to your level. As a black belt at my TaeKwonDo school, you have the opportunity and responsibility to help officiate and judge rank tests for lower colored belts, higher colored belts, and even other black belts. As a black belt, you pass on the investments that your teachers made in your success.

I do not yet have this kind of mastery in most domains of programming. However, in a few very narrow areas, I have had similar experiences, especially in working with code bases that I developed myself or in cooperation with a couple of other people. I would say that I have something like a black belt in, say, CRUD Django web applications with very specific architectural choices, or at least I will in due time. I certainly take a similar instructional role when developing in a platform that I am familiar with, for example when a school project ends up being an API written in, you guessed it, Django. When I am doing consulting and freelance writing, it is best to stay within my black belt areas to make sure that I can deliver consistent value to the client.

A White Belt Mindset

I don't remember being a white belt in TaeKwonDo, but I very clearly remember joining Jiu Jitsu a couple of months ago. Another intern invited me to come with him; it was his second class. The loaner uniform fit about the same as a TaeKwonDo uniform, but it was made of a much thicker material to withstand the grabs and throws that rely on pulling the gi. I could tie the belt the same way as a TaeKwonDo belt, though I later learned that doing so gave the opponent a really convenient place to hold and control my hips.

In most martial arts, you begin and end the class by "bowing in" while lined up by rank. It was an unfamiliar trek for me to the far end of the line where the newest white belt stands. Being completely new was incredibly liberating; I had the freedom to mess up. Constantly. I spent the first few classes working in a corner of the room with a series of helpful assistant instructors who drilled me and the other newest students on the fundamentals: falling over, standing up, various guards, and basic submissions. By now, I am able to complete the full class with the other students, including the sparring rounds, but I am still constantly surprised by the range of techniques used against me.

Being a white belt has a sense of rapid progress. I am still totally lost, but I know that I am going somewhere quickly. New ideas and techniques form islands and archipelagos of information, occasionally merging into larger understandings, but still far from a complete body of knowledge. As a white belt, I'm mostly just glad that they are still welcoming me onto the mat.

When I arrived for my first day of work at Markforged, I had a similar experience, though fortunately no joint locks were involved. I received a familiar Mac computer to use standard tools like GitHub, but the code that I was to work with was entirely coffeescript, a variant of JavaScript, and most notably a web app written in AngularJS and Express. I had some prior experience with vanilla JavaScript, but this was effectively a brand-new stack and a brand-new codebase.

So, I went in the corner and practiced the fundamentals. I got everything cloned and running and started to figure out how to write and verify code in this new environment. I made my first commit and finished my first ticket. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I completed a series of tickets while gaining familiarity with the systems and stack. I'm mostly just glad that they are still accepting my pull requests. Dedicated learning experiences like class and internships invite a white belt mindset.

A Yellow Belt Mindset

In TaeKwonDo, sometimes the instructors would sit all the kids down at the end of class for something called a "mat chat," where they would discuss the importance of various tenants of character. This is an important part of martial arts, as the lessons from class are supposed to guide you off of the mat as much as on it. My mother, perhaps less impressed by life advice from twenty-year-olds, lovingly referred to these as "puddle talks" after a time when one mat chat was an extended metaphor about choosing to walk around a puddle on the sidewalk instead of through it.

Anyway, I remember a puddle talk where the instructor asked the class "at what belt do you become a teacher?" The students volunteered answers, usually black belt, though there was some disagreement about what rank was sufficient. The instructor answered that you become a teacher at yellow belt, the second-lowest rank in TaeKwonDo. His argument was that as a yellow belt, you know more than a white belt, and so it is your responsibility to teach them even as you learn from more advanced students.

This argument pretty easily extends to "we are all students and teachers," which is true, but I find it a little too general to be useful. There are situations where we are students, and situations where we are teachers, and those situations require different approaches. I think that the yellow belt mindset is an appropriate way for me to understand which role I will play in any given situation.

For example, at work, another intern joined my team during my third week. He is a rising senior in high school and, by virtue of experience, I am able to help him with a lot of his questions and bugs. It is not uncommon for me to help him with a SQL query, and then turn around and ask a senior engineer for help with untangling a tricky race condition. In Jiu Jitsu, I might sometimes assist slightly newer students with techniques when we are practicing together, only to work next with a purple belt who helps me with issues in mine.

If I were to pick a belt from the rack on the wall at my old TaeKwonDo school to represent where I am in my career, I would pick a yellow belt. I would wear it proudly.

Endnote: The Black Belt Attitude

While mindset is situational, attitude isn't. My first experience with mastery in TaeKwonDo taught me what that level of skill means, and what it requires. While I am able to bring the flexibility and physical self-control from TaeKwonDo to Jiu Jitsu and the leadership experience to working with my friends in school, the most important thing that I have from TaeKwonDo is the black belt attitude: a focus on conscious learning, teaching, and practice. That is essential everywhere.