Looking back at these pictures I realized that some of my earliest memories are in this dojo pictured above. I would take 2–3 karate classes a week, go to gradings to work for higher belts, do in-house competitions (eventually winning some of them), and stay the night for annual sleepovers. Growing up I never once had the ambition of becoming a karate master or being the next Jackie Chan, but for me, karate was a place that I felt grounded and where I could make new friends.
So here I am, writing about my experience with karate and trying to reflect on how it shaped my life, and how it’s made me unique as a designer. In truth, I can never pin down an exact turning point where my life drastically improved, but karate did bring me a confidence that I never would have grown on my own. As someone who has had a lot of self-esteem issues growing up karate was my escape, where none of my outside problems existed and I could just be 100% authentically me.
In case you were wondering “Okay Izzy, but how can karate make you a better designer?”. Well, let me take you through what I learned.
Fail hard, but fail fast
In fights, we rely on our reflexes to block advances from our attackers, but (unless you’re Neo from the Matrix) you can’t possibly avoid EVERY punch and kick. The most useful lesson we learn in sparring is how to breathe when we're hit by an attacker, and that we need to keep fighting even when it feels impossible to match our opponents strength. No one can ever truly prepare themselves for the first hard kick to the stomach, but over time you just get better at feeling that pain, and picking yourself back up again.
In design we can approach our difficulties with the exact same philosophy, for example; what do we do when confronted with a new limitation? What happens when we test our product and we get horrible feedback from our users? It can be really disheartening when we spend time working on a solution that ends up getting scrapped, but the true test of any designer is how you respond to that failure, how do you get up and keep moving forward? How do you keep fighting despite feeling like all the odds are against you? Falling down is no excuse to quit fighting, so when faced with failure it’s important to try something new, maybe go back a few steps, or look critically at yourself to understand what caused you to fail in the first place.
Improvement always comes with practice
I’m sure you’ve seen those videos of karate students punching through multiple wooden boards using nothing but their bare fists and sheer strength. It’s really cool to watch, and it’s even more powerful to watch in-person. But see, I’m going to let you in on a secret… they don’t start with breaking wooden boards… Do you want to guess what I started with?
A singular sheet of paper. Ripped right out of a Yellow Pages book.
I really thought my teacher was joking when he brought over a ripped up book and started instructing kids to punch through thin and flimsy pieces of paper. I remember feeling like he was drastically underestimating our strength, but to my surprise, many people didn’t even break the page on their first try. When you first throw punches, the first step you need to learn before strength is precision. Many people missed the sheet of paper, or they hit it along the edge and failed to rip the page in half.
First, we punched and kicked through 1 sheet of paper, then 2 sheets, then 5 sheets, and 10 sheets (which was getting surprisingly hard), and then we graduated to plastic boards, each varying in density of the plastic, and thickness of the board itself. There was white, yellow, orange, red, and finally black. I didn’t have the strength to break the black plastic board until I reached my purple belt, but God, did it feel good when it snapped in half.
Martial arts teaches us that continuous self-improvement is the key to making ourselves stronger, and better than the day before. As a designer, I try to approach building my design skills in the same way that I approached breaking boards in karate. I’ve learned that being bad at something shouldn't discourage you from still trying to do your best, and the only way that we can get better is through practice and determination. Setting unrealistic standards and goals can be a huge source of burnout. No one can be the master at everything so when we come across a big challenge we should view our failures not as failures, but instead as opportunities to grow and learn!
Internal strength over physical strength
Tai Chi short for T’ai chi ch’üan or Tàijí quán, is an internal Chinese martial art practiced for defense training, health benefits, and meditation. When completing a sequence for tai chi it's usually done a lot slower than normal karate. Every time my Sensei would begin a tai chi class he would lower the lights, turn on relaxing music, and instruct us to focus on our breathing. This was probably my first experience with meditation, and as an 8-year-old you can probably tell I took it very seriously.
It can seem really strange at first to be in a karate class where the lights are off and everyone is basically moving in slo-mo. In a place where you’re supposed to learn fast, deliberate, and powerful movements, instead, you end up staring at yourself in a mirror and moving in the same spot for 15 minutes. As you (the reader) can probably already tell, this experience is not entirely about the movements, but it’s instead about how we focus on our physical bodies and the space in which we occupy.
Self-reflection and meditation is essential to improvement as a designer. Although it’s important to make things, grow your skills, go to events, and train to be better, it’s also important to reflect on your growth and do things for yourself too. Sometimes we can get so caught up in trying to continuously improve that we forget to acknowledge our accomplishments. I’m still trying to learn that balance in my professional career to better understand my limits, especially in an online working environment.
Although I haven’t been able to get back into karate because of the COVID pandemic, many of the skills and values I gained have stuck with me for many years in both my personal life and my career. Karate has always been a place where I can be myself, and it’s taught me that I can accomplish a lot of things on my own.