The True Meaning of a Black Belt

Jim Collins and Jerry Porres' book, "Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies" tells a fable about a martial arts student. The story is of a martial artist who has completed his tasks for a black belt and is kneeling before his master. The student had trained rigorously for countless years and had finally reached the peak of his potential. The fable begins as the master converses with the student before conferring the black belt.

"Before granting the belt, you must pass one more test," says the sensei.  "I am ready," responds the student, expecting perhaps one final round of sparring.

"You must answer the essential question: What is the true meaning of the black belt?"

"The end of my journey,” replies the student.  "A well-deserved reward for all my hard work."

The sensei waits for more.  Clearly, he is not satisfied.  Finally, the sensei speaks.  "You are not yet ready for the black belt.  Return in one year."

A year later, the student kneels again in front of the sensei.  "What is the true meaning of the black belt? " asks the sensei.

"A symbol of distinction and the highest achievement in our art,” says the student.  The sensei says nothing for many minutes, waiting.  Clearly, he is not satisfied.  Finally, he speaks.  "You are still not ready for the black belt. Return in one year."

A year later, the student kneels once again in front of the sensei.  And again the sensei asks: "What is the true meaning of the black belt?"

"The black belt represents the beginning - the start of a never-ending journey of discipline, work, and the pursuit of an ever-higher standard,” says the student.

"Yes.  You are now ready to receive the black belt and begin your work."

The Black Belt represents a beginning, not the end.  People of true excellence begin b y laying down a strong foundation for future studies.  The most important lesson is learning how to return to our foundation.  In other words, we must become lifelong learners.  The wisest people are those who learn how to learn.

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