A punch to the face taught me to fight. Why a culture unafraid of failure always wins.

I was 16 and it was my first real sparring match.  Although I started karate when I was 13, I had braces.  For safety reasons, we weren’t allowed to spar with braces, so my training in sparring was delayed, significantly.  I was three years behind everyone else my age and I was TERRIFIED of being punched in the face.  Thinking back now, I’m not sure if I was more afraid of the pain or crying in front of everyone like a baby.  To make things worse – I’d always been afraid of ending up with a nose like my dad and knew having it broken in a fight would not help my situation.  This was the day I learned how to fight…not because of any tip, trick, move, or skill.  On this day, I was punched square in the nose, hard.  A loss I still reflect on often, this is the day, the pivotal moment, that led me to go onto become the #2 ranked female collegiate fighter in the nation just three years later.

Master Shojiro Koyama,  was very traditional.  He disagreed with the decision to let women compete years before I walked into his dojo and was known to pair up young, petite female students with much larger and stronger male students in sparring exercises.  We were encouraged to challenge one another physically, it was practice after all.  But, we were discouraged from striking with full physical strength.  I was competing by the time I started training with M. Koyama but only in kata.  In class he would coach me in sparring exercises, frustrated by my over-thinking and apparent lack of instinct.  “No thinking!” he shouted at me repeatedly one day, his way of trying to get me out of my own head.  Over and over he would tell me not to flinch and to counter immediately after blocking an attack.  But, all I could do was freeze and close my eyes.  I was scared.  I had never been hit in the face before and was paralyzed by fear at even the thought of it! So, the day I had my braces off I was filled with emotion.  I had braces for FOUR YEARS, so thoughts of eating corn on the cob or biting into the candy apples at the state fair later that year were really exciting.  Realizing I would now need to spar with others who appeared unafraid of a broken nose was terrifying.  I continued to struggle in practice but the true horror set in the day of my first competitive fight.  Her name was Samantha – and she was good.  I knew her from previous competitions and she was a much better and more confident fighter.  I was toast.  I remember the punch coming at my face and I closed my eyes, as I sadly had done EVERY time in practice.  Those I trained with were shouting from the sidelines as Master Koyama had shouted at me in practice, but I didn’t hear them.  All I could do was brace myself for the inevitable punch that was now too far along to block.  Boom!  I knew she hit me because when I opened my eyes, they were watering.  Oddly enough, all that I could think of was not to let the ref see my eyes watering or she, my opponent, would get a point!  Not sure why I thought the blatant strike went unseen by the ref who was just two or three feet away from us. I refused to blink in an effort to prevent the tears from streaming down my face.  But they weren’t tears from crying.  If you’ve ever hit your nose or been hit in the nose, you know what I’m talking about here.  Tears naturally well up in your eyes following such a hit, but there’s no sobbing or lip quivering like the tears that accompany emotional or physical pain.  The ring judge saw the hit and my opponent was awarded the point.  Naturally I lost the fight.  My biggest fear had come true and it wasn’t the life altering event I’d expected!  Although my teacher tried breaking my habit of flinching and freezing for years, my fear of pain and embarrassment was stronger.  And suddenly the fear was gone.  I’ve never flinched or frozen since.

Is this really such a unique story though?  Parents, teachers, co-workers, our friends, family, bosses – we get lots of advice from those around us.  But, how much of it do we take or even listen to?  I didn’t believe my mom about drinking….until I drank too much.  That friend that everyone cautioned me not to trust – I refused to believe it, until she betrayed me.  So many painful lessons that could’ve been prevented had I just listened to the advice I was given.  And I don’t think I’m the only one who has these stories.  So, why is advice only right in hindsight?  There is no better teacher than failure.  Athletes recall every shot they miss, poker players remember the turn that led to losing a hand.  And if you’re gritty, you walk away from that failure assessing and sometimes obsessing over what you need to do to prevent that mistake from happening ever again.  Isn’t this what innovation and improvement is all about?  How much would we achieve if we made failure acceptable?  What would you try today if you didn’t fear the shame of defeat?  According to Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership and Management, Dr. Amy Edmonson, a lot.  Dr. Edmonson has spent decades studying what makes some teams effective and high-performing and others, not.  Ultimately, she discovered better teams actually are more accepting of mistakes.  In 1999 she coined the term psychological safety – the belief that you won’t be punished or judged for making a mistake.  Without this fear of shame, embarrassment, or judgment, people are more comfortable asking questions, open to learning, speaking up, taking risks, and as result, perform better.

It’s counter intuitive and scary, but failure and success are not mutually exclusive.  Part of learning to walk is falling.  We learn the value of money when we are without it.    For individuals and teams, failure can make or break us.  In 1999 I attended a national competition in Denver, Colorado.  I was competing for first place against a woman I’d competed against before.  She grew up training in karate as her father was a well-respected instructor.  She fractured my nose and I quickly countered with a punch to her ribs.  She won the point, taking first place.  I walked away for the second and final time with a loss and a bloody nose.  These are the two fights I still think of more than 20 years later despite sparring hundreds of times in practice and competition.  They’re not memories of regret, they’re not memories of sadness…..I remember them as lessons in the journey of my success.

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https://cultureengineered.com/2019/11/winning_culture/
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