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Work and Think Like a White Belt


We are continuously striving to accomplish our career goals. But as we become supervisors, managers, or C-level executives, how does it help to return to our entry level or ‘white belt’ roots? Today we share Cash Nickerson’s perspective.

Work and Think Like a White Belt

By Cash Nickerson

Everybody wants to know how long it takes to get a black belt. As my main hobby, I own a martial arts dojo and that is the most common question we get. “How long does it take to get a black belt?” In the workplace as well as in our personal lives, we are conditioned to “get ahead,” to “get to the top” and to otherwise “advance beyond others.” Consistent with those objectives, we often seek external symbols of the advancement and we display them. Our attitudes and behaviors change with our advancement.

Most martial arts, but not all, use a belt or ranking system to display progress. In the workplace we use titles, compensation and office and desk parameters to display progress. The desire to progress is an important human drive and reflects the competitive spirit upon which our free market system is based. It is a good thing to want to advance.

But in the race to advance, in the drive to progress, we sometimes leave behind what I think of as “the white belt attitude,” and losing this attitude is a step backwards, not forwards. What is a “white belt attitude?” This year I travelled to Japan to study a new martial art, Iaido. Iaido is the closest art you will find to the martial art of the Samurai. It involves swords known as Katana. This martial art is very different from any other martial arts I have ever seen or experienced and I started as a “white belt.” They call it “no kyu” in Japan.

It doesn’t matter what ranking you have in other arts. When you start a new martial art, you start as a white belt; no kyu. So how do we feel when we approach something new? How is our attitude, thinking and learning different? Here is what I noticed and documented from my recent “no kyu” experience. How to work and think like a white belt:

  1. We don’t assume we know anything. We are humble.
  2. Because we are humble and empty on the subject, we listen better and more carefully.
  3. We watch others intently, thereby listening in a broader sense and taking everything in more fully.
  4. Our advanced mimicking skills kick in and we work to mirror those who are more advanced.
  5. We ask questions, especially “dumb” ones. We are not afraid someone will question our status as a “black belt” at what we do.
  6. Because we are aware that no one expects much, we aren’t afraid to try and make mistakes.
  7. We take pride in our progress, although it is slow.
  8. We fluctuate in a healthy fashion from the frustration of not getting it right to getting little things right. We try over and over again.
  9. We get help from those around us who are happy to help as they watch us try and learn. Our humility makes us desirable and approachable.
  10. We focus on the basics and the little things, because that is what beginners do.

During a recent visit to the dojo I now call my martial arts home in Japan, I was able to graduate from “no kyu” to “3 kyu.” Although I now have a rank, I am still a beginner. I still feel like a “white belt.” I decided to bring my white belt mentality into my business life. As I stepped into my office last Monday, I took the list of white belt attitudes and put them next to my computer. Although I have been a lawyer and business executive for 33 years, I mentally put my white belt on and had one of the best and most productive weeks I can remember. I hope my list helps you find your white belt within. Set your black belt on the shelf for awhile. It will be there if you need it.

This article originally appeared here.

Published author, entrepreneur, lawyer, philanthropist and martial artist with diverse background in law, business development and finance with cross industry experience from entrepreneurial start up to large law firm to large public corporation. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or on Twitter.

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