The Greatest Achievement of Them All

bryan & tiffany1

Art by the incredibly awesome Bryan Mok.

I’m about to sound like an overly confident egomaniac. Okay, here we go.

I’m one of those people who, in the past, hasn’t had to struggle very hard to pick up new things. I’ve been blessed with natural inclinations, both scholastically and physically. I’m one of those annoying straight-A students who only earned one B in her entire academic career (damn that college algebra class!). I started reading at age three, writing not long after, and today, I’m an internationally published short story author. I started dancing at age 10, and thereafter, anything with a mildly physical component—running 5Ks, pole dancing, yoga, cirque, ballroom dancing—came to me relatively easily. (Yep, I totally sound like I’m full of myself; I promise, humility is coming.)

And it’s not to say that I didn’t work hard to excel at these things. I did. I can’t tell you the number of hours I’ve spent in dance studios or gyms training hard, doused in sweat—or sitting in front of a computer feverishly typing and editing and editing again to compose the perfect sentence. But in each of these instances, I never started at zero. I’ve never pursued skill sets that I didn’t take to naturally. Because who likes the feeling of being a complete novice? Who enjoys that steep learning curve? You find things you’re already good at and those are the things you go after, right?

Because of this mindset and my past experiences, I will readily admit I’m a shit adult learner. I get frustrated if I don’t grasp concepts quickly. I crave instant gratification. I want to be awesome. All. The. Time. (Type A personality, anyone?) If something challenges me to a degree with which I’m uncomfortable (like learning how to play guitar), I’ll make excuses, quit, and fall back on the things I’m good at.

Then, along came Aikido. If you aren’t familiar with the Japanese martial art, Aikido is both an exacting and subtle practice. Essentially, it’s a nonviolent form of self-defense that also teaches patience, active relaxation, spiritual strength, and inner peace. It combines joint locks, throws, and pins, and emphasizes the practice of using your opponent’s energy to fuel your own movements. The ultimate goal of this martial art is to diffuse a situation in a way that communicates to an attacker, “Hey, I could hurt you, but I’m going to choose not to.”

It requires a serene mind, a relaxed body, incredibly precise movement, and a lot of patience (which is already asking a lot of a girl plagued with anxiety). When you start an Aikido practice, you progress at a snail’s pace. It’s not incredibly exciting at first. And you fail a lot before you can even begin to understand a particular technique.

Bottom line: There’s a lot to overcome. There’s a lot to learn. You generally progress slowly. And it’s so, so, so humbling.

For this reason, a lot of people don’t stick with Aikido. Folks will wander into a dojo and see black belts throwing each other around and say, “I want to do that!”—but then they get into class and realize how long it’ll be before they can execute that kind of movement. For some, it can take up to 20 years (and often, longer) of incredibly dedicated practice to become truly adept at Aikido.

I started practicing Aikido in December—and in February, I almost quit. I was overwhelmed. And defeated. And thought I’d never be good at this particular art.

In that pivotal moment, I had a choice. Quit or eat a piece of humble pie and choose to work my ass off at something that was going to challenge everything I’m made of.

Well, there’s a good ending to this story.

Hakama

On Thursday night, I passed my 6th Kyu test. I earned my very first rank in Aikido and my hakama, a piece of traditional Aikido dress that (for my dojo) represents a dedication to the practice and a basic grasp of its major concepts. And I had the most emotional reaction I’ve ever had in reaching a goal. As my senseis reviewed my performance with me, the feelings of accomplishment welled up in my chest. By the time I made it off the mat, I was all smiles and happy tears. My fiancé was there to give me the biggest hug, and a fellow Aikidoka made me a gin and tonic to celebrate.

Needless to say, I’ve been on Cloud 11 since Thursday.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s because this accomplishment is a little sweeter than all the rest. Because I overcame my own self-doubt to succeed. Because I stuck with something that was hard and humbling and, often, made me feel like an idiot. Because today, I’m a little stronger, a little more forgiving of myself, a little more open-minded to new challenges, and a little more hardworking than yesterday.

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Humble Pie

pie

I was terrified when I drove up to the Logan household on June 6th. No, there was no threat of confrontation. No zombies lurking in the alleyways. No plate of peas that someone would force me to eat. It was…deep breath…my first guitar lesson.

I know, I know, it seems harmless. And maybe I’m being a bit melodramatic. But it was a defining moment for me, and defining moments in life can be both liberating…and a little scary.  

You see, it’s been many, many years since I’ve had to start at square one with anything. I don’t do well with the term “beginner.” And in the past, if I haven’t been good at something, I’ve abandoned it for something else that comes naturally to me.

Cupcake baking, dancing, singing, writing – these are the things that I do pretty regularly and that people know me for – but they’re also things that fit neatly in my comfort zone. And up until now, I’ve been totally content to only do things I know I’m good at – or I know I will be good at in a relatively short period of time with minimal to medium effort.

Because like many people, I fear failure. I grew up the epitome of the only child perfectionist with a Type A personality. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve calmed down those tendencies and I’m pretty sure I have an A-/B+ personality, but I still have this crazy drive to succeed. Failure is not an option.

So, you can imagine how nervous I was holding an expensive and beautiful guitar, bracing myself for the inevitable reality that I was going to suck at playing it.

As Rabbi Jake Schram advised a young Jewish boy practicing recitation of the Torah for his impending bar mitzvah in Keeping the Faith, I had to embrace the suck. I had to “love that I suck.”

In essence, I had to feed myself a big dose of humble pie.

And it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Because I’m realizing that in becoming a student, I’m allowing myself to grow as a person. I’m letting go of my preconceived expectations and tapping into my own personal modesty. I’m letting someone else share their passion and knowledge with me. We’re forming a bond as student and teacher that is so incredibly cool, full of respect and mutual learning. I’m pushing myself to do something that I never really thought I could.

Lucille

And while it’s still early on and I admittedly have a lot of work to do, I’m progressing. Like daily. I might actually get this guitar playing thing down in time.

The fingers on my left hand have grown numb. They’re starting to callous. My hand strength and stretch have improved like crazy. I listen to music differently now, trying to identify the strum rhythm or whether an artist is bending their strings.

And this is the first thing in awhile that has inspired true discipline in me. I’ve promised myself I’m going to practice every day. And for the most part, I’ve been truly dedicated to that schedule.

Last week, I came to a really cool realization. Perhaps we can call it a Tiffany epiphany. Last year around this time, I was sitting pretty. I was deep in my talents, dancing up a storm, baking cupcakes, working on a new writing project. I was enjoying what I’m innately good at. This year, I’m craving something new. I’ll always dance and write and bake, but now I want new experiences. I’m changing my focus and making space for humility – and it’s a really cool place to be, because I’m progressing instead of staying stagnant.

Next year around this time, I hope to look back and savor the memory of my first taste of humble pie…and how truly good it was.