Flickr photo by Xzvier Pomar

Many of the most important things I’ve learned about life come from studying Kung Fu. Fighting, or training to fight, is a beautiful metaphor for a lot of things in life. It’s also a harsh and unforgiving reality check.

One of the things studying Kung Fu has taught me is how to redefine winning and losing on my own terms, rather than letting my sense of success, my sense of self-worth and achievement, be driven by circumstances beyond my control.

When I first started studying martial arts, I wanted to be the best. Invincible. Super Kung Fu Girl. A total bad-ass who no one would ever suspect was a bad ass until it was too late. Deep down, I believed I would be good enough at Kung Fu, and have a right to say I “knew” Kung Fu, when I could consistently “win.”

Of course, by “win,” I meant beat up all the boys. Toss them around and never get taken down to the ground myself. Land hits, and never feel like I was getting hit or losing control of the interaction.

In order to feel validated, I had to have some external measure of validation based on this arbitrary notion of “beating” an opponent.

Surprise, surprise, for a 5’2”, hundred and…let’s say fifteen…pound girl, that mindset led to a lot of frustration. I worked as hard as anyone there, took training more seriously than was probably healthy or normal. But I still knew that almost all of the guys in class could kick my ass if it came to a real fight. A lesson I learned the hard way when I was stupid enough to get myself in a real fight. And it drove me crazy. After all these years of studying, I should be better, I thought. I should be able to win.

It took me a very long time to accept the fact that there are some things you can never control.

Just because I’d been training for years, why should I think I could “take down” someone nearly twice my weight? Especially when it’s someone who has also been training for years and is at a similar skill level. Or even not at a similar skill level, just a lot bigger and stronger than me. Why should I think that the laws of physics would somehow be bent for me?

I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of ways to learn to use someone’s strength and muscle against them. But it’s incredibly hard to do. And before you learn how to do it, you have to get knocked around a lot, give it your all, fail, end up on the ground, then get up and try again. All I’d really done was try live in a fantasy world where I already had it all figured out, then get pissy and frustrated when it didn’t work.

I finally came to understand that it’s the process that matters. You can’t directly control the outcome, in kung fu or in life. You set up the conditions, you give it your full attention and effort, you make adjustments as you go. If the outcome isn’t what you want—getting punched in the face, say—then you shrug it off as a lesson learned, and next time you try something slightly different.

It’s only failure if you define it that way.

It’s only losing if you believe it is.

No one learns without being willing to take some punches. No one grows by holding back out of fear of getting beaten. If you think you have to wait for some external measure of success in order to say “I’m good enough,” then you’ll always feel you’re just short of the mark. And if your focus is on controlling the ultimate outcome, rather than on the process you’re taking to get there, you’re always going to be frustrated.

In martial arts, there’s always going to be someone who can beat you. No matter what level you’re at. You can take that as a loss, a blow to your ego, or you can take that as simply a chance to learn and hone what you’re doing. And there are going to be times when life starts throwing sucker punches at you. Sometimes, no matter how careful or well-prepared you are, you aren’t able to block or duck them all. That’s life. And that’s Kung Fu: believing in yourself, believing you’re good enough, even when you’re on your back bleeding.

It’s only losing if you choose to define it that way.