OK. So here’s a deep, dark secret.
I failed my first black belt grading.
I was 20.
I’d been training for months and was incredibly fit.
I knew the syllabus inside out, and had even been helping take the class when my instructor wasn’t able to.
So I was ready.
The grading took place down in Cardiff and the dojo was packed.
It was four and a half hours long.
We went through every technique, every strike, kick and block. Every kata.
We did all the stamina excercises, the jumps, press ups, sit ups. And the fighting.
By the end I was exhausted.
But pleased it was over.
And pleased with my performance.
However, despite all the hard work, I still failed.
Coincidentally, so did the guy on my left.
And the guy on my right.
And the girl in front of me.
And the bloke behind me.
And the guy beside him.
In fact everyone in the whole dojo, about 30 students, all failed to get their shodan grade that day.
Grading us was Shihan Steve Arneil (since promoted to the title Hanshi), the president of the organisation. He was, and still is, the most senior person outside of Japan in my style of karate, Kyokushinkai.
As we stood there sweating and spent, he explained why we'd all failed.
“There was no spirit here.” he told us.
An important part of karate is something called the kiai. Shouting, basically. Shouting at the point of impact tenses every muscle in the body helping release an explosive amount of power. It also forces air out of the lungs in turn forcing you to breath correctly during intensive training.
Importantly, a deafening kiai in the room proves that the students really mean what they’re doing.
What happened in that grading all those years ago was simple.
One person stopped kiai-ing.
He influenced those around him, who felt unsure of whether they should be too.
And so on.
And as the sound disappeared, so did the energy.
Until the room was just going through the motions. Without really meaning it.
We all influenced each other. For the worse.
It was a crushing disappointment and took a while to get over.
But it was actually one of the best things that ever happened to me.
It taught me something that would profoundly affect everything I did from that moment on:
Don’t allow yourself to be influenced by those around you.
That doesn’t mean arrogantly ignore everyone presuming you know better than them. There’s loads of great things and people out there we need to be open to and learn from.
It means, once you’ve figured out what you yourself believe to be right, set yourself going and don’t waver. For anything.
Once you’ve explored and learned and worked out precisely what you need to do...
Don’t check what everyone else is doing to fit in with the throng.
Plough your own furrow.
What I learned that day has helped me since then in my personal as well as my professional life.
In both, there are challenges and temptations thrown in one’s direction that a clear vision of where you want to get to can help you circumvent.
When I tried again for my black belt grading a few years later things were different.
I had tunnel vision.
I knew exactly what I needed to do.
And I did it.
All the while, shouting so loud I couldn’t speak the following day.
People around me may well have thought I was bonkers.
If they did, I certainly didn’t notice.