Forget the board-breaks, spinning kicks, and the dizzying array of techniques unleashed in sparring. Those mean nothing.
No, it’s the Monday nights – those nights after a long day’s work when all you want to do is curl up on the couch and read a book under a blanket. It’s those nights when you bundle up in every layer you own and brace yourself against the frigid Chicago wind. It’s those nights you wait in the dark for the bus to take you to the dojang.
And you arrive. And you practice. And you go home.
That’s what makes a martial artist.
I often pay attention to the bold and the spectacular events of life: the chances to serve in a big way or do something unique and exciting. But though I give these occasions great significance, they are not everything.
Each day we face a thousand choices. We choose to practice. Or we don’t. We choose to build up relationships. Or we don’t. We choose to maintain our discipline. Or we don’t. We choose to create. Or we don’t. We choose to serve. Or we don’t.
These choices are what make you an artist.
It’s doing the dishes after a tiring day because you know your wife is just as tired and doesn’t want to do them either.
It’s going over to the guy asking for money and saying hello even though you think the conversation will be uncomfortable.
It’s taking the time to meditate despite feeling restless and distracted.
It’s being present with your friend who needs someone to talk to when you have ten other important activities to do.
It’s forgiving the man on the highway who cut you off, although you want to hold on to your anger.
It’s asking for clarification when someone offends you with what they said instead of assuming that they meant to cause you harm.
It’s stopping to help a stranger jump-start her car’s dead battery when you’re in a hurry to get to your destination.
It’s pausing long enough to learn the name of the cashier at the store instead of fiddling with your phone.
Failing to act in such moments may not make much difference by itself. To the man asking for money, you may be just another face in the crowd. Your friend may understand that you’re busy with something else. And no one will notice if you skip one day of meditation.
But that doesn’t mean these decisions are unimportant. What we choose in these moments reveals our character.
The ability to make the right choice isn’t a talent we’re born with, but is a skill we can practice. With time and effort, we can learn improve our ability to respond to these everyday moments of choice.
Pick one area to focus on at a time. I’ve learned that if I try to make too many changes at once, I’ll succeed in none of them. You can work on the others later.
Cultivate awareness. The tricky part is we don’t always recognize the moments when they’re happening. They slip by without notice. Look for signs of discomfort. Look for the desire to pull away, hide, or do nothing. You can use such feelings as a reminder to pay attention.
Give yourself lots of grace. Even if you fail to act as you would like, the fact that you are aware is valuable. It puts you in a position to ask questions and explore what went wrong. It makes you an observer to your behavior.
Decide what success looks like in advance. Make sure it’s a low enough target not to be overwhelming. For example, when I approach someone asking for money, I often commit to saying hello, smiling, and wishing them a nice day. Further conversation is good, but it’s a bonus. Over time you can raise your standards.
Set up time to reflect. Evaluate the progress you’ve made. This helps you identify areas of weakness to keep working on. But just as important, it offers a chance to celebrate. Find encouragement in seeing the results of your efforts.
The impact of small choices compounds over time. When I started practicing Taekwondo, my stances were weak and my movements were awkward. This year, I may test for my black belt.