White Belt Attitude: The Forever Apprentice

“Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”
~ John Cotton Dana

The more I experience, the more I am sure there is so much to learn from those just beginning to learn.

And there is so much to learn from attaining and maintaining the attitude of that beginner.

As a parent or teacher or instructor or leader, it’s easy to slip into thinking you’re the smartest one in the room. Everything I’ve learned in the living room or the classroom or the dojo or the boardroom has taught me the imperative to not fall into the stagnant trap of that kind of thinking.

My position in the classroom has availed plentiful examples of why it is important to approach every person and every situation as a potential opportunity to learn something, either about them, what they know or what they can do, or about myself, in how I respond or react to the encounter.

When I’m teaching high school students narrative techniques, for example, it’s obvious and, in fact, important that I have mastered the bulk of the knowledge I’m presenting. I am also charged with being a professional, with differentiating my instruction so that all the various kinds of learners in the room can comprehend and assimilate the information and apply the skills.

And the students expect me to know more than they do. They expect me to “teach” them. If I’m good enough, though, there will be times–hopefully most of the times–that they will learn without experiencing actual “instruction,” meaning that I will have given them the tools to accrue and make their own the integral learning skills more than the simple information they need for a standardized test.

The way to do that is to develop a relationship with my students by which I understand that they own their own story, their own confusion, their own problems, their own innocence, their own questions, and their own perspective. As a teacher, I must learn my students to be a better teacher.

“Who is wise? He who learns from every person.”  ~ Pirkei Avot, 4:1

The only way to do that is to know that I’m not the smartest one in the room. Disciplined humility. I have professional responsibilities to instruct in such a way that I am learning so that they can learn, each and every one of them, on their own terms, adapting the skills in developing their own abilities toward various levels of achievement, depending on where each of them individually is starting from. The only way for that to work is for me to acknowledge that to be an effective teacher, I must also be an effective learner.

This is so in any endeavor. No matter what knowledge we come prepared with, we must be able to give in such a way that to receive is an integral aspect of the process.

This fluid mindset happens to be the kind of thinking a white belt must achieve before actual learning begins. In the Martial Arts, the white belt is the beginner. Once a student ties on a white belt, he has taken on the position of a lifelong learner, nothing more, nothing less. The white belt enters the academy and steps onto the mat with much to learn. His first lesson is that he knows nothing. Soon, he will learn to think that way permanently.

“To know is to know you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” ~ Socrates

On the mats training in Brazilian jiu jitsu, I more often than not face partners much more skilled than I am. When I first started training in BJJ almost 4 years ago, inevitably, my initial comment to a training partner was something like this, “I’ll try not to waste your time.”

And inevitably, the reply–from blue belts, purple belts, brown belts, and black belts–was something like this, “Brother, just do your best. Who knows what you’ll do? I try to learn from everyone.”

White belts are bound to try anything, especially since they don’t know anything. They are more likely to be unconventional. They are more likely to play. They are more likely to laugh. White belts have fun because getting better or bettering a highly skilled blue belt is so far out of reach that they’ve determined to make the best of the process. And the blue belt feels that way when grappling a brown belt. As long as the Martial Artist maintains that attitude, he can reach the coveted mindset of the forever apprentice, the lifelong learner, the humble servant to consistency, perseverance, and an inquisitive passion.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers… And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

This summer, my son Noah tied on a white belt and joined us on the mats.

That first day his face lit up from within with the lighthouse force of a 1000 watts.

He steps onto the mats and swivels a wide-eyed look around. No matter what I’ve shared with him, he does not yet fully comprehend what he just stepped into. It turns out that doesn’t matter.

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By the end of class, he’s wiped. His face is still alight, but shining red now, slick with an hour’s worth of hard earned sweat. On the way home and all the way until after midnight, he doesn’t stop talking about it, exclaiming how amazing the training was, how he wants to go again RIGHT NOW, that he can’t wait to train again. Asking about this position, or what to do when this or that happens. I give him vague answers, tell him he’ll learn by drilling and rolling and writing things down. But his enthusiasm is invigorating. His passion is inspiring.

A pure white belt with one class in a gi behind him, and he’s already teaching me. Innocence is beautiful. It would be easy to assume that it offers nothing because it doesn’t last. “Nothing gold can stay”?

Harumph! I love Frost, especially teaching him, but my son’s effect on me is proving the theory wrong. Because Noah’s excitement for training is catchy. I want to be infected by it. I am open to it. Despite having been away from the gym and training inconsistently for many, many months, I don’t have to let the malaise and dread of having lost stamina and game keep me from regaining consistency. Because Noah is right. This stuff is so cool and energizing and full of mental and physical and spiritual challenges. And I have so much left to learn. All I have to do is start asking again, asking with my body as I roll, asking with my mind even as I strive to empty it as a vessel for experiential lessons.

Asking without asking. Reacting into flow. Challenge the status quo. Play without fear. Tap out to be able to go again. The more you go, the more opportunities to learn again and again.

Having a white belt attitude teaches that we don’t lose, we learn.

 “A wise man sees other people’s weaknesses… it would be natural for him to regard those… with a condescending attitude. One who is truly wise, however, focuses his attention on the positive characteristics… for every man was created in the image of Gd, and thus possesses innate virtue. By opening himself to learn from the virtues of others, a wise man expands his horizons and enhances his own wisdom.” ~ The Lubavitcher Rebbe

A white belt must be humble and he must carry the humility ingrained during his time as a white belt with him onward on and off the mats.

A white belt approaches every person and every experience as potentially rife with lessons to be learned, and so he approaches every person and every experience with disciplined humility, an open-minded willingness for empathy, an open heart seeking nourishment in the form of new ideas, new feelings, and new perspectives.

Eventually, we get promoted. We tie on a new color. Every black belt is a white belt that never quit.

Those black belts that are still smiling, though, still having fun, still seeing new things, trying new passes or sweeps or submissions, those black belts who are the best teachers, they are the ones that have kept that white belt purity, that sense of mission, of being a forever apprentice to the Master, to the art, and to life itself.

Bring the white belt attitude to whatever you are trying to achieve and you’ll be forced to see things anew, to get creative, to push yourself to be open to the experience of the struggle.

And to see failure as an opportunity to learn, nothing more, nothing less.


Note: Thank you, Sam S. Yang of Must Triumph, for being part of the inspiration for me to write about this.  



Slightly altered image from Nathan Russel