I started doing Taekwondo as a teenager in 1997. I was overweight, lacked confidence and was in secondary (high) school at the time. This was not a particularly fun combination. Taekwondo offered a way to lose weight, meet new friends and build confidence.

I didn’t realise at the time but Taekwondo would also heavily influence my professional mindset, career aspirations and leadership style years later.

The Five Tenets of Taekwondo

Like any well-functioning, highly-distributed organisation, World Taekwondo (WT) has set out a simple list of tenets (principles) to prescribe what the organisations considers its core values.

Naming is hard – A quick aside: World Taekwondo (WT) was previously called World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), the reason for the name change should be obvious… LOL.

The five tenets of Taekwondo are:

  • Courtesy
  • Integrity
  • Perseverance
  • Self-control
  • Indomitable Spirit

Taekwondo is a martial art, that means it is a set of techniques that were designed as a last-resort for soldiers in battle who had fired their last bullet and blunted their last blade. As with anything in the military, discipline is central to it and the learning process. You learn by rote and then through application.

Discipline combined with routine is a superpower for improvement

When I became an instructor, I had a lot of “naughty” boys and girls join the club who thrived on the structure, order and discipline. Their parents were amazed at the change in their unruly offspring, but in reality it just showed their kids hadn’t been given the boundaries they so desired. Other “troublesome” kids join the Army Cadets or similar organisations, some just start going to the gym with their mates. Discipline and routine provide structure, meaning, purpose and help us grow as people.

You never stop learning

It is said that you don’t truly learn something until you’ve done it 10,000 times. I think that’s probably about right when it comes to the moves in a martial art, and that’s where perseverence comes in.

There is an element of instant gratification that comes from learning a new move but mastery takes a long time.

The hardest part of learning a martial art by far is doing the moves on your weak side.

Learning a move to mastery with your dominant leg/arm is one thing but training it on your weak side is about 5x as hard. Your balance is wrong, your muscles aren’t as strong, you are less flexible and your coordination is usually terrible. But that’s what you have to do. It’s hard but you can’t ask your mugger to only attack you from your right because that’s your strong leg!

Leaning into the discomfort results in two equally as potent legs for kicking, two arms for punching and blocking, and the muscle memory to defend against strikes, knives and even guns from either side of your body.

Visualise and Celebrate Progress

Expertise in Taekwondo is overtly shown through the colour of your belt. Different martial arts have different colours and there are several flavours of Taekwondo which use a range of colours, tags and stripes but the British Taekwondo standard is here. Going from one level to another is achieved by passing a ‘grading’, where you demonstrate what you know to a panel of judges. The criteria for moving up the levels is standardised worldwide. A red belt in Canberra and a red belt in Caernarfon know the same stuff.

Moving up a grade is ceremonialised with a handing over of the next belt to the student, they often receive a certificate and trophy from their instructor too in front of their class or group of schools.

This should be how it works in any organisation. Job Titles are important to many people because it shows a demonstrated level of expertise, which they correlate to value to the business. Other organisations use generic job titles and employees demonstrate expertise through badges, such as training certificates. The Scouts is a good example for this approach. Either way, there must be a standardised, unbiased and achievable way of meeting the next level, a visual way of identifying achievement and rank, and a celebration of moving up.

Progress should not be based on attrition of higher levels. In my world of software engineering, if a Senior is capable of being a Principal, then they should be allowed to demonstrate their competence and be appropriately titled / compensated for their skills and related value to the business.

I’m delighted about the rise of Staff+ engineer career paths in the industry, whereby highly competent individual contributors can rise to the ranks of Vice President and beyond without having to manage teams.

In Taekwondo there are 10 black belt levels (“Dan grades”). I’m disappointed to say that I only managed to get to 1st Dan before family life took over and I abandoned formal training (I still train regularly in the house, but it’s not the same).

Many people think a black belt means an expert but when you receive your 1st Dan black belt you are told that you are now “a student”. Coloured belts are “novice” grades, and it’s not until you get a black belt that you are really considered to be serious about learning the art. In my case, after 11 years, I received my (1st) black belt and was told that the learning starts now! Slightly bittersweet.

At 5th Dan, you become a “Master” and at 8th Dan you become a “Grand Master”.

When you achieve your 10th Dan black belt you only get to enjoy this rank for 10 years, after which you are given a white belt and you start your journey all over again.

Never. Give. Up.

Indomitable spirit” is the original “growth mindset“, a belief that your abilities are not static and can be improved. I lean on this tenet a lot when things becoming challenging, at work and in my personal life.

That ‘just keep swimming’ mindset from famous philosopher, Dory, is a perfect example of indomitable spirit.

Giving up is easy. Continuing on through adversity is what separates winners from losers.

When I did my 1st Dan (1st black belt) grading , the whole thing was 3-4 hours long. In front of British Taekwondo officials and a panel or some of the highest experts in Taekwondo in Europe, I demonstrated a strong understanding of each of the poomse (patterns, known as kata in other martial arts as well as in lean and agile methodologies!).

Next I sparred (controlled medium-contact one-on-one fighting) with a variety of people who were 3rd and 4th Dans, I scored some good points, I also suffered some hard hits and got knocked on my backside a few times.

But I always got back up and went straight back into a fighting stance. They weren’t going to get between me and the 1st Dan for which I’d worked so hard, and for so long.

Next came wood breaking. I was already exhausted but everyone had to break a 1/2″ wooden panel in a variety of ways to show control and power.

I volunteered to go first.

I opted for a reverse-turning kick, my favourite kick – powerful, looks good and I had practised and practised and practised. My technique was perfected (it’s not perfect now!). The judges’ helper held out the wood panel, I span my upper body around and locked eyes on the target, then, like a clockwork spring, my lower body span and caught up with my upper half, I stuck my leg out straight and – normally my heel would slice straight through the middle.

This time my heel hit, straight in the centre, but it didn’t break the board. My heel exploded with pain and I hopped around a moment. A judge asked if I was OK. “thanks, I’ll be OK,” I hopped, before composing myself (self-control) and dropping into a fighting stance again, steely determination on my face (indomitable spirit). Noticing that I was keeping the weight off my heel, a judge suggested a forward kick. I opted for a forward turning kick. Much more basic looking but also very technical to do correctly.

This time I eyeballed the wooden panel, shifted my weight forward, pivoted the foot that became the back foot 180 degrees to point behind me, pointed my hip at the target, and swung my foot hard at the wood, with my toes pulled back so that the ball of the foot hit first.

Again, I hit it in the centre but the only ‘crack’ was from my foot. I howled and hobbled away in pain.

After getting my composure back again, the panel suggested a punch. I dropped into fighting stance, lined up a punch and, with perfectly aligned hand/wrist/forearm, smashed the knuckles of my index finger and middle finger into the centre of the wood panel as hard as I could.

The technique was correct but I felt the knuckles separate and intense pain shoot up my whole arm. The wood stayed perfectly intact.

I’ll let you in on a secret. The wood you break is pre-cut and then glued together with wood glue. It should be relatively easy to break as long as you hit it in the right place, so I felt extremely embarrassed.

That was until the highest grade in the UK, a 7th Dan black belt, asked to inspect the board.

“This wood is damp! This is never going to break.” He demonstrated by bending the wood without it snapping.

It turned out that the instructor in charge of the wood panels had left them in his garage for several weeks and they had gotten wet in the process. The top judge thanked me for trying and abandoned any more wood breaking for that grading.

20 minutes later, with blood pouring from my knuckles and toes, and a huge bruise already starting to show on my swelling heel, I was invited up to accept my black belt.

Learn to Take a Hit

Life can be unfair. Sometimes life can be really, really unfair.

Despite doing everything right, making the correct decisions and working every minute you possibly can, sometimes the universe just eats you up and spits you out.

It’s relatively easy to learn a martial art – follow the instruction, put in the time and the energy, and you’ll get there. It is much, much harder to be on the receiving end of a martial artist attacking you.

In sparring, a mandatory part of the syllabus, we learn to defend, attack, spot gaps in our opponent’s defence, block, parry, use our opponent’s weight against them, balance speed and accuracy, and…. we learn to get beaten up.

Most sparring in class is done without body protection like you see in fight competitions and even in the Olympics.

We learn what it feels like to get knocked about and how to fall over in such a way that you don’t hurt yourself when you hit the ground. As one of the older members of my class I was often selected by the instructor to demonstrate things like choke holds, spear-fingers to the throat, knife defence techniques and how to take down a hostage-taker. This resulted in a lot of sore ribs, sore throats and an innumerable number of sore backsides, black eyes and sprained wrists.

All part of the fun. I knew what I signed up for.

When we moved up the grades we started to wear body pads. In training we’d take turns standing with our hands on our heads as our classmates formed a line and took turns doing double left-right kicks as hard as they could into our sides. When we sparred, we were allowed to kick full speed, full contact. While the pad absorbed a lot of the force, you’d often get winded or sent flying across the room.

Sometimes you’d get hit in your arm or hand by a well-formed foot flying at high speed, those hurt a lot, but they taught you to be better at blocking and moving to avoid the kicks.

The bruises and injuries this sport gives you in training is just a taster of what you might experience in the real world. If you get punched on the street or in a bar and just curl into a ball crying, you’re vulnerable to a second attack. But if you stand back up, wipe off the blood and drop into a fighting stance, your opponent will think twice about attacking you again.

I got into the habit of smiling at an opponent after they had landed a good kick or strike on me. It unnerved them. My instructor always said that people think twice about starting a fight with a crazy person. Weirdly, though, you get to enjoy it. The adrenaline rush and the endorphins become a little addictive. I think this is the same rush entrepreneurs feel as they ride the startup roller coaster, and why so many can’t help but build more and more new businesses.

The first time I was asked to spar with two people at once I got absolutely battered.

And then I was told the secret.

To secret to fighting two people at once is to fight one at a time. You do this by moving so that one of your opponents is between you and the 2nd opponent. So you end up fighting in a line. If the 2nd opponent moves left, you move left too, so that the opponent in the middle blocks their fellow attacker.

The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. The best way to fight two people is to fight one at a time. The best way to achieve big things is to achieve lots of small things.

Experience Breeds Cool Heads

So you’ll see that having a bruised heel, a bloodied knuckle and a sore toe at my Dan grading was nothing I hadn’t experienced before. You learn to pick yourself back up, put the past behind you and keep going. And if you can do that, you can tick exciting things off your bucket list or, in business, your product backlog or your career.

At one company I worked for, we had suffered a terrible few months. We lost several key clients to competitors, our new big flagship client was suing us for not delivering on time, and our financial runway was disappearing. One day, our Head of Product asked me, “how do you stay so calm?”

I thought about it for a moment and reflected why stress always makes me clear-headed and almost pathologically calm. After a few seconds I replied, “I suppose I’ve learned the hard way that panicking only slows you down and makes you make bad decisions. The team is working through their backlog the best they can and delivering great features, it will all come together soon.”

Sure enough, by focusing on doing the right things, piece by piece, a month later, we delivered what we said we would at a level of quality we were all happy with. The lawsuit was withdrawn and after going live with our new flagship client, our old clients contacted us asking to come back.

Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves

My dad

Taking damage while trying to do something important is normal. Learn to enjoy the struggle, persist, and keep the target in focus. Wear your war-wounds with pride as they show what you went through but carried on regardless.

And if all else fails, put on a big crazy smile and just keep swimming.