Black Belt and Imposter Syndrome

Tonight during training, we were doing simple drills. Such simple, simple drills. Receive, deflect, attack. Receive, deflect, attack. What I meant to do, and how it actually looked, are two vastly different things. Now that I wear a black belt, those mistakes seem unforgivable.

This is probably one of the best books ever written, and she feels like an imposter? Tina Fey is my spirit guide.

This is probably one of the best books ever written, and she feels like an imposter? Tina Fey is my spirit guide.

That such simple things still flummox me reminds me of something that is increasingly popping up in my internet forays: the idea of imposter syndrome. The internet is full of quizzes and articles (you can try a quiz here) and there’s plenty of advice on how to deal with it. And everyone has it – Sheryl Sandberg, Tina Fey, Maya Angelou – people who are at the very top of their game and still think they’re frauds. That any minute now, everyone else will cotton on to the true inadequacy of the sufferer and out them.

It is also, it seems, a syndrome that is particularly prevalent in women:

Research that began in 1978 with the work of psychotherapists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes found that many women with notable achievements also had high levels of self-doubt. This deep lack of confidence–which couldn’t be equated with anxiety or other disorders–appeared to involve a deep sense of inauthenticity and an inability to internalize their successes. – Feeling Like a Fraud: Living With Imposter Syndrome

There are days when it feels like I stole my black belt, that it was given to me out of pity because I’ve been around so long and always help out, and not because I have any actual skill. I am pretty sure that pity gradings are a thing.  And yet in most things, there is nothing as clear-cut and neat as a black belt. It is physical, the whole bloody world recognises it as a certain standard, and twelve Senseis sat in a row and discussed it and thought “welp, she can have one, she makes the grade.” And I’m not even remotely in a McDojo organisation – there’s lineage and tradition and respect for the art (truly, KDISA is an excellent federation), so the belt means something. It’s just that it feels like I didn’t really earn it. After all, lots of people have black belts. It can’t be that hard to get one.

Admittedly, this spreads to most parts of my life (except running, because crossing a finish line and getting a medal is a really straightforward form of achievement) but it hits particularly hard in the dojo. Even tonight I thought “someday, Sensei is going to hand me a yellow belt and say ‘I think you dropped this'” and then I will put it on and I will feel like I deserved that. And no one is even trying to take away my accomplishment – most of my family seems to be proud of me, and my friends were excited for me when the grading weekend rolled around.

I think what makes it particularly hard for martial artists to make peace with sucking is because there is only one easy way to see progress, and that’s gradings. In between that, though…only I can truly measure my progress, and its so hard to see. It is ultimately a creative endeavour, and deeply subjective, and therefore difficult to measure and incredibly easy to feel embarrassed about. But as the wise Jesse (of Karate by Jesse fame) says:

But the moments of glory will be few and far between, compared to the daily grind of hard practice. Between the occasional moments of greatness, there will be longer moments of despair.

These periods of suckiness are NOT “optional”.


And the real problem is not that you will have ups and downs.

The problem is YOUR ATTITUDE about it.

How you handle it.

Because if you always walk around feeling bad about being bad, you will constantly have a hard time motivating yourself to keep improving!

Get it?

All I can really do is try not to obsess over failure. I do it with my writing (since my blog posts maybe get shared once or twice on Twitter, they must be shitty articles), I do it with my karate, with my work (every email or phone call from a store feels like an indictment of my work ethic) and pretty much most things. And despite the fact that I have the framed degrees (with distinction and full academic colours), that I have run a marathon, that I have placed nationally in creative writing competitions, that I have a black belt when so many have quit, that I still get things done, it is very difficult to shake off the feeling that its due to luck, or that a lobotomised sloth could do what I do.

To be fair, they are cute though.

To be fair, they are cute though.

In any case, I am pretty sure that I’m not the only martial artist out there that struggles with this, and that it probably feels more acute for new black belts. Apparently writing therapy is one way of dealing with it, and I do feel better having taken the time to sit and write this out. It seems like such a stupid thing on paper, but like most fears, it isn’t rational and nearly impossible to explain or wish away. It does get a bit easier every year, and I can only hope that one day I will truly run out of fucks to give and just get on with my life. Until then, well, there are always friends. And cake.

Further reading:

– The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention by Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes

How to banish imposter syndrome once and for all – The Telegraph 

Review of “Two Brothers” by Ben Elton

two-brothers-by-ben-eltonTwo Brothers by Ben Elton

I don’t usually dip into historical fiction, as the writers often hide poor character-building behind supposed historical accuracy instead. Often the books are unreadable due to their saturation of research and lack of coherent plot or technical ability. But Two Brothers is not ruined by either of these things: instead it manages to capture madness rather than shoving it in the face of the reader.

Undoubtedly, any story with Nazis in it treads a fine line between being comically grotesque or insultingly dramatic. While the Nazi regime was undoubtedly hideous, boundless in depravity and as insane as it was ruthless, it is still possible for an author to trip over this into ridiculous territory. Every sane person knows the Nazis were evil. But it takes a talented author to shade in the madness at all of its levels rather than creating a caricature that strips it of its terror. And, too often, books rely on ‘here’s a Nazi thing, so terrible so terrible’ without taking the time to put the horror in context and give it the appropriate death.

Two Brothers follows the story of a family from Berlin 1920 right through to 2006 (but without being one of those tedious ‘the story of three generations, family, love, wark wark’ efforts). When Frieda gives birth to twins and one dies, she immediately adopts another son whose mother dies in childbirth. That the child is German is unimportant to this Jewish mother, and the first quarter of the book is filled with the loveliest of stories of the boys Otto and Paulus, as well as the charming father Wolfgang and beautiful, kind mother Frieda. One becomes grateful for this time setting up the characters and their personalities, because by the end of it I truly cared for this family, ruined by the Nazis. (This isn’t really a spoiler – it is a book about a Jewish family in Nazi Berlin, after all.)

I enjoyed this book particularly because it combined outstanding research with several levels of human pain – from petty teenage fighting to full-scale war, from unrequited love to suicide to being rounded up and taken away. The insanity of the regime, often forgotten amongst the industrial scale of its cruelty, is looked at in the Nazi schooling, the petty laws (so similar to Apartheid) and in two key events in German history: The Night of the Long Knives and The Night of Broken Glass.

There are thousands of books about the Nazis, and about the lives they ruined. I have read a few, key of them being Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, Maus by Art Spiegelman and Night by Elie Wiesel. The good ones are the ones that balance horror with hope, which is hard to do with such heart-rending material. This book has stayed with me since I finished it, which doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should. I felt such anger towards the character of Dagmar, who is selfish and beautiful and doesn’t deserve the love of the wonderful Stengel twins. Poor Silke, who is kind and loyal and never gets rewarded for it. Frieda, the brave Jewish doctor who was filled with kindness and strength until the very end, and who I will remember through many books, and her musical, ruined husband Wolfgang, who goes through more than any one should have to endure. Through them, and those they meet, the true horror of the Nazi regime is delivered right into the reader’s heart. In the sixty-odd years since the Holocaust, that entire terrible time has become so caricatured, appropriated and simplified that sometimes we need a book that explains the extent of Nazi crime, the slow, fine grinding of Jewish lives into something approximating oblivion and the people caught up in it.

Read this because it is a wonderfully detailed, wide-ranging story of a family you will come to adore within an exquisitely, carefully detailed setting. It does not trivialise violence by putting it at the very front and centre, but keeps it constantly  menacingly in the background. I would give this to my children one day as part of their reading, to help them understand the nature of the Nazi regime, in all of its howling, murderous insanity.

Want to read what others think? Head on here:


Jenny Colgan at the

Elena Seymenliyska for The Telegraph

Liked this? Try these:

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Night by Elie Wiesel

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

Surviving the Angel of Death – Eva Mozes Kor and Lisa Rojany Buccieri

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis

If This is a Man by Primo Levi

JK Rowling, Pottermore and the Future

As far as moments in publishing go, the launch of Pottermore is massive. But what makes it momentous is that, for the first time in contemporary publishing, an author has dictated to the biggest names in book-retailing. To put not too fine a point on them, she has told Amazon, Apple and Barnes and Noble exactly where they can shove their DRM. That kind of authorial power is rare and truly magnificent in its scope.

The watermarking system of the Potter books is a much nicer approach to treating readers like trustworthy human beings rather than the Draconian (mm, puns) hammerlock of DRM. If the book is pirated, it can be traced. It’s probably more effort than its worth but at least Rowling is not treating her readers like criminals. I have discussed book piracy before, and my friends have offered superb links in the comments thread there, so this is an interesting and refreshing approach to DRM.

To be fair, there are maybe ten authors alive that could pull off something as big as this. My bet would be that if James Patterson, Danielle Steel, Jeff Kinney and that ilk decided to get their own online stores and sell their books directly, there’s not much outside a watertight publishing contact that could stop them. And big money means big lawyers to break those contracts. So where does that leave the humble bookseller? And publishers?

For booksellers, the doom and gloom is unnecessary. Most authors don’t have the wherewithal to be able to bypass the retail chain. Honestly, JK Rowling is a rock star amongst writers. The Telegraph shares these facts:

69 Different languages that the Harry Potter books have been published in.

400 million Copies estimated that the Potter books have sold worldwide. It is considered the fastest selling book of all time.

200 Countries in which the books have been published.

Her record-breaking sales and allure as an author gives her power that 99% of the world’s authors do not have. The reason self-publishing hasn’t been able to put a dent in the publishing world at large is because publishers still give authors a platform and help they would not have alone. (Selling your own books is much like door-to-door insurance selling. Thankless, tedious and with pitiful payoff.) Amanda Hocking and the untalented EL James of Fifty Shades notoriety are still the only examples of self-published authors gone big. Rowling had to start with a publisher. Now she has outpaced them and given something back to her incredibly loyal readers.

I like to see this momentous occasion as a wonderful snub to the big baddies in book retail. It is remarkable to see an author empowering her readers by treating them like people. The books are fairly priced at R90 and can be bought with South African credit cards. This is a great time for readers, and inspiring for other authors. No doubt, the publishing industry needs an overhaul. It still screws the authors, and the book retailers screw the buyers. This is a brave new world of author power; I can’t wait to see what happens from here.