[one_half][I] am told that my sensei was one of the original Navy SEALs. A short, wiry man with graying curls, bright eyes and an angular face. He could not have weighed more than 130 lbs. But if I were unfortunate enough to get caught in his vise-like grip, I would soon receive just enough weight applied to my ribcage to feel as if I were being choked by a giant. This time, I was determined not to let that happen. Starting on the ground, I proceeded to attack, making repeated, futile attempts to turn him over from the tuck position. One mistake, and maybe 3 seconds after that, I found myself in the familiar position of tapping out.
Sensei stood up, straightened his gi, and looked me directly in the eye.
“I remember when you were weak. It used to be easy to move you around! Now?” He smiled, raising an index finger. “Not so easy.”
I was exhausted and soundly beaten. But all the same, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I had started practicing judo five months earlier. For the first 3 weeks, I could not get through the warmups without vomiting from exertion. Now I was stronger, faster, more physically intelligent, and better conditioned than I had been in my entire life.
As with many of my hobbies and obsessions, it was difficult to explain to people why I did it—why I kept going back to that dojo. I lived in New York and had a big job at a big bank, with the love of my life waiting for me at home. And yet I chose to spend 10 hours a week in a stuffy, windowless room, returning home with bruises, duct tape-wrapped toes, and a gym bag full of my own sweat.
To me, judo had nothing to do with wanting to fight, work out my aggression, or examine the state of my masculinity. What I valued about the experience was that it completely changed my perspective about what I was capable of doing.
If you are a grown man who is unathletic and cannot play basketball, you will likely not learn how to play during a pickup game in the South Bronx. You have to already know how to play. That, in a nutshell, was how I saw the world for nearly 30 years. I learned early on that I would be praised for the things I did well. Wanting approval, I pursued those things. And when I wasn’t sure whether I’d be good at something, I usually didn’t want to find out.
The revelation I experienced with judo was that, as a white belt, it did not matter whether you were a cop, wrestler, or out-of-shape equity derivatives trader. You were going to get your ass handed to you, respectfully, and effortlessly, by the black belts. There’s something liberating about everyone essentially starting from zero. And the entire dojo, from the yellow belts to the senseis, wanted us to learn.
Shortly after whipping myself into shape and purchasing a year-long membership to the dojo, I hyperextended my knee and never returned to the mat. I left as a white belt. But I also left knowing that I had transformed my body in ways that I had not thought possible. I entered the dojo detesting the idea of being a beginner at anything, because it meant that I could be dominated, shamed, or dismissed by others. I left embracing it.
A year later, I quit my job and went back to college. I volunteered in two labs and took undergraduate courses in math, chemistry and physics. I learned how to swim. I am now working on a PhD in biophysics. Someday, I may perhaps be convinced to sing.
As I see my daughter grow into her person, astounding as any parent imagines his child to be, I catch myself wanting to brag and outwardly gush over her achievements—exactly the behavior that I believe nurtured my fear of failure. I’m ultra-wary of raising a perfectionist, and I don’t want Esme to avoid new experiences the way I did. So I try to temper my praise and replace it with enthusiasm. But I think the best way that I can teach Esme to embrace being a beginner is to continue being one.
Over the past several months, I have put myself in the awkward position of being a beginner over and over again. I am exhausted and beaten. But I can now say that I’m a writer. Not a professional or seasoned one, but I write essays and tell stories, and I work at it every day. Similarly, I am now a relatively social person, connecting with people in ways that were inconceivable in my loneliest moments. I have also found that I am a beginning recipe developer, instructor, and producer/director of video.
And as of this past Thanksgiving weekend, I am proud to now call myself a baker. [/one_half]