Success through failure
No matter what martial art you study or what your goals are in the arts, one thing is certain. In order to succeed you are going to have to go through a lot of failure. As always, this truism in the martial arts is also true for your everyday life. Want to be great? Then you have to have the courage to do poorly. There is actually a science to this and it is a very important aspect of proper practice. Let’s call it the 3F approach. The first F stands for “Fail”. This may still seem strange to you, the notion that in order to achieve you must have setbacks, but think about it. How did you learn to walk? By trying and failing hundreds of times. Over and over again you got all the way up to your feet (which was quite an accomplishment in itself) and you tried to take steps. Down you went. With each “failure” your body made adjustments. Your balance got a little better each time. Your legs got a little stronger. Your coordination improved. Time and time again you tried and failed, until all that failure turned you into a success. As difficult as it was then, you are now a grandmaster of the art of walking. You don’t have to think about it, you just do it. You can walk uphill and down stairs, through water and over rough terrain. If they gave out belts for walking you would have one of those old beat up black belts with a bunch of red stripes. What would have happened if your parents didn’t allow you to learn how to walk? What if they were afraid of seeing you try and fail, so decided to keep you from taking any steps until you were much older. They might have figured that since three year olds walk very well, they will just wait until you turn three and then let you start from there to avoid the mental anguish of failure. What would happen? You would have been stronger, but you would still have to go through that same process of trying and failing until you learned how to walk. You became very skillful because the unsuccessful attempts taught you what you needed to know in order to make the proper adjustments, not because of your maturity level. (It should be noted also that as a baby, the thought of giving up never entered your mind, as it was not a concept that you had learned yet.)
This goes for any endeavor you have mastered. For example, I have a few friends/students who spend much of their lives in wheel chairs. They cannot walk like most people, but they have gone through the same failure to success process in many areas. They learned to speak through making mistakes. They learned to write as we all do by making mistakes. No matter what you want to become good at, you have to try, learn from your errors, and improve. In martial arts, if you want to become a good fighter you are going to have to have things go wrong for you. Nobody just naturally has perfect technique and timing. It is developed through failure. In my JKD Unlimited classes we do a lot of sparring. It is done at various levels of intensity, depending upon the skill level, experience, and goals of the individual student, but most of the practice involves complete or isolated sparring. I emphasize that each time you get hit, kicked, taken down, or submitted you get better. So the idea is to do your best to help your partner improve! If you want to learn how to avoid takedowns, you need to know what it is like to really be taken down by someone who is skillful. Your body will make those adjustments if you drop the ego and get in there and train. We have to be smart about it, as we want to make sure that the failure we endure is beneficial. This brings us to the second F.
The second F stands for “forward”. This means that the setbacks are such that we actually gain something useful from them. Someone might say “Hey, I want to learn how to fly, so I am going to jump off a twenty story building without a parachute. If I keep doing it enough, I’ll learn what I need to know so that I can fly.” Pretty obvious that there is going to be one big failure, and the thing that this person learns (people can’t fly) is probably going to sink in as he is passing the tenth floor. A little late. In the fighting arts, you can also put yourself into a situation where the failure is detrimental. You could decide that you want to learn how to box, so the best way to do that is to find a boxing gym where up and coming pro fighters train. I have seen this many times in pro gyms. A new guy comes in. Many trainers are only interested in someone who is going to make them money in paid fights. The first thing they need to do is test the kid’s heart. Is he a quitter or will he take a beating and keep fighting back? They throw him in with a mean, experienced fighter and the kid takes a colossal beating. If he never quits and shows some promise, the trainer may take him in. If not, he is out the door with a bad head ache and a severely bruised sense of self-esteem. This can be a very bad type of failure, as it can psychologically damage the well-meaning student. We want to fail “forward”, not backward. If he goes into the boxing gym and gets to spar lightly, he will get hit and his body will start to adjust, instead of going into panic mode. He will get the feel for moving his head correctly and keeping his hands up. Over time he will become harder to hit, and will be able to look for openings to launch counter attacks. Eventually he may control the sparring sessions, setting up the opponent and scoring often. Even when he gets to this level, he will still get hit and will still be learning. All those little lessons he learned on the way up will be with him, but there is always more to learn.
The third F stands for “fast”. We want to get those failures out of the way as quickly as possible to make our improvement happen at a rapid pace. This may be a very Western idea, but we tend to view life as being short, and we want to get where we are going in the most efficient manner possible. This doesn’t mean sacrificing quality. We just want to enhance our qualities as efficiently as we can. Let’s say that you have been grappling for a while and set a goal of winning a particular grappling championship. What should you do? Wait for that tournament to come around? No. You should enter every competition that you can. This is how you are going to get experience (i.e. failures) so that you can improve your game and be in top form for the targeted competition. When tournament day comes, you will be much better prepared. Maybe you don’t know how to grapple at all and your goal is to become proficient on the ground. What should you do? Read about it for a few years before joining a school? Take one private lesson per month? No. You need to get in there and spend as many hours grappling as you can. You will make your mistakes and get them over with, instead of prolonging the process. Great grapplers have been arm barred, arm locked, and choked so many times that it is very difficult to fool them. They failed their way to success. Those who rose through the ranks quickly also paid close attention to their mistakes so that they didn’t repeat them over and over again. This is another way to speed up the process. Pay attention to the problems and work hard to fix them.
Want to become a success quickly in any area of life? Then you need to Fail Forward Fast. Get good training, and make your mistakes as soon as you can. Have a good coach who can help you avoid making the same mistakes, and will guide you away from others. There will be some pitfalls that you can avoid altogether by having a good coach. (My baseball coach at U.S.C. always said “Don’t make the same mistake once. Let someone else make it and learn from him.”) There are some things that are only learned from experience. Be smart about it and be sure that you can survive any mistakes you set yourself up for. Don’t bet your life savings on a football game. That is just foolish. Don’t be reckless, but please don’t be afraid of making mistakes. You can be sure that anyone who has achieved anything has made tons of mistakes along the way. Whether it is getting the proper timing to block a kick, or learning how to hire good people for your business, do your best and learn from the setbacks. Use the principle of Fail Forward Fast to improve quickly so that you can live the rest of your life as a success.
© Burton Richardson. Originally published in Inside Kung Fu Magazine May 2004
Founder of Jeet Kune Do Unlimited.
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