On Martial Arts and Business

I have three big passions in my life: family, martial arts and leading teams. While following each of those passions I learned that common principles apply and each of those have cross-pollinated the other areas heavily.

I’ve been doing martial arts for more than 25 years now. Here are some of my personal principles that came over from that area into my career toolbox. None of the following is breathtakingly net-new (yes, you can stop reading now if you were hoping for that) but it’s a framework that helps to remember some key principles.shutterstock_49282000

Do it or don’t do it but don’t do it half-hearted

Be in the moment

Being in the moment is a key principle in martial arts, Zen and meditation. It’s about focusing on the now and not getting distracted by what has been or what might be in the future.

This is extremely powerful for being effective in business as well. Focus on the task at hand and nothing else. Turn off notifications, put away your phone, and hide your email inbox. And come back to enjoy those distractions once you’ve accomplished your task.

It’s also super important as you interact with people. Listening skills are a high valued skill today mostly because many people cannot focus on what the person sitting in front of them is trying to tell them. Stop playing with your phone or thinking about your smart answer that you will provide in response. Just listen to the person and show her that you do. Your partnership will improve tremendously!

It’s all or nothing

In martial arts if you engage you engage. No matter what the consequences are, you already decided that it is critical to engage. And you will pull it through.

I’ve learned that in business we’re often too afraid of losing to really do what it takes to succeed. I was most successful when we had no kids, two incomes and I really didn’t care whether I would lose my job over bold decisions.

I love my job and want to keep it and I need to feed a family now but I do try to remind myself that you need to be willing to lose (everything) in order to make the bold decisions that are required to be successful.

If you think it is important enough to do it, do it all the way. My teacher used to say “there is no being half pregnant”.

Things change, don’t miss the opportunity

Stay flexible

Be smart though. Things will change as you move along. Your initial plan that you want to badly follow through might not be appropriate anymore. Keep your focus on the goal but don’t get stubborn on your execution plan.

In martial arts your partner seldom tends to react the way you think she should have reacted. Stay flexible, stay on your toes, and shift your execution as your parameters change.

Avoid blind spots

In order to stay flexible you need to first know what’s going on and recognize if situations change. In martial arts we talk a lot about tunnel vision, the effect where you focus so much on one partner that you don’t even see as the other one approaches you from behind.

Maintain 360 degree vision. Obviously you need to stay on top of what’s going on in your industry and area of expertise as well as the broader initiatives in your company.

But you should extend your 360 degree awareness beyond business opportunities to your relationship with people. Are you deeply tuned into how people interact with you and how they react to you? Are you making it a point to reflect on how you appear to people, what your behavior and your style projects? Do you observe how team members perceive your posture and even your dress style when they interact with you (ie do you send the signal that you value them as a partner and thus care about the impression you make on them)? Do you behave in employee 1:1s the way you would in an interview or a board meeting?

Keep it simple

In martial arts the final mastery is to leave out everything that is not necessary. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. If you leave everything out that is not necessary then the remaining is 100% effective (and yes, no one ever gets there).

In your work, simplify to be able to adapt faster. Process and complexity keep creeping up. Entropy will finally win (so much I remember from my physics master) but your job in life is to fight it.

Keep the mindset to constantly improve what’s needed but don’t be afraid to cut the rest. Focus on a few things and do them right (reminder: by definition focus does mean you can’t do everything).

It’s a journey, not a destination

Always remember that you’re in for the long run. You better make sure you make it all the way to the finish line and won’t drop out before. In martial arts if you make an impressive first move but then go down badly you won’t get many cheers (or feel great about it afterwards).

Be balanced

If you’re the world’s greatest jump kicker someday a fellow will come along and wrestle you to the mat. And if you never thought about wrestling before you will feel really miserable down there.

Keep up your motivation by following and nurturing your passions (and by making sure that you have more than one passion). Sometimes things will go awesome in one area but sometimes it might be bumpy – in those situations it’s great to have a second source to pull motivation and energy from. It’s bad if the only thing that defined you goes through a slow patch.

Don’t be a one trick pony, they get burned out quickly. Don’t neglect the things that are important to you. Balance your time across work, relationships and hobbies. Have all three of them!

A healthy mind in a healthy body

There is a Latin proverb for that. But I didn’t take Latin in school and better not pretend to have any such skills.

The concept is easy though: you kind of live in your body. Every day. That makes it your most important tool of all, please don’t break it.

Get the sleep you need (find out how much that is and then be religious about it). Do sports. You don’t have to run a marathon. Find out what works for you and build a habit around it.

And pace yourself! At times you have to outperform everyone else. And it feels great to do so! But then there needs to be time where you turn it down a notch and recharge your batteries. Pace yourself to be ready when ready is required. Don’t burn all your energy before the race actually starts. Take your long and short breaks.

Never stop being a student

In martial arts you never stop being a student. In fact once you stop learning you start losing. It should be just the same in life.

Be humble but aspirational and keep a learning mindset. Keep learning and keep stretching yourself, that’s actually the most fun part of life!

If you draw a short and a long line on the ground there are two ways to make the long line shorter. Most people try to wash some away from the long line, to erase it. That’s hard and messy and generally a lot of work which more often than not fails. A lot of competitive strategies work that way today where one competitor tries to throw rocks in the other ones way. A much easier way is actually to extent the short line. Invest in your abilities and leave the competition behind.

Final thought

In martial arts, once it’s done it’s done. You can learn from the many mistakes you just made but you can’t change any of them anymore – they’re out the door. You also don’t wallow in the past since it’s meaningless. With that final thought I’ll hit publish now instead of adding to this forever.

The Lifelong Apprentice Mindset

I was reading Mastery by Robert Green and one of the things that stuck out for me was how Robert stressed the importance of the ‘apprenticeship phase’ before creativity and mastery can be reached. It reminded me of key lessons I learned early (and unconsciously) through martial arts practice.

However reflecting a little more I would suggest the learning mindset should never change and what one should truly develop is a ‘lifelong apprentice mindset’.


Never stop learning new areas

Everyone talks about lifelong learning today. Most people think about deepening their subject area expertise when they do. I think there is a bigger opportunity hidden in expanding into completely new areas.

Robert Greene has some such examples in his book as well, as he discusses people who went through multiple different apprenticeships over the time of their life, finally merging those skills together to understand underlying principles better or to develop completely new areas.

The most compelling opportunity that learning new areas opens up is the fact that the spectrum of things you can do widens instead of shrinking. If your focus is on getting better and better at one single thing, you face a good chance of either that thing becoming obsolete in the future or someone else outcompeting you in that narrowly scoped area. If you learn to do many things well, then your horizon of opportunities keeps expanding through your life as you mix those abilities into new compelling portfolios.

I learned this in martial arts, studying diverse disciplines and with that enhancing my core style. Looking back it rubbed off on my approach to professional life as well, where over the years I pursued experiences in coding, marketing, business development, PR, product management and teaching.

Learn to love pain and frustration

Robert Greene mentions this as well: you must learn to embrace and seek learning experiences that are painful and frustrating. If you don’t focus on the things that are hardest for you (and thus most painful and frustrating), then you won’t learn the traits of your trade that you are deficient in and will never truly master the area.

It’s way too easy to focus on the easy wins and the things that you’re good at. I am guilty of that too. However only playing to your strengths will prevent you from expanding the scope of your abilities. While leading to quicker wins in the short time, it will limit your ability to master an area long term since you will never close those capability gaps.

Martial arts teaches through pain, sweat and tears. For good schools that’s figuratively rather than literally (maybe with the exception of the sweat part). However they make you constantly face your biggest challenges and learn to overcome them. I think the same is true for our professional development, only with the big difference that it’s usually up to you to push yourself beyond your limits. Business often offers you an easy way out until the day when it’s too late to change. You need to be pushing yourself.

The three takeaways

  • Never stop learning. Never think you ‘know it’.
  • When you feel like you’ve reached a comfortable level in mastering an area, then it’s time to disrupt yourself and move on to something entirely different.
  • Focus on learning the skills that are hard for you. You will learn the things that align with your strengths anyway. As to learning time, your knowledge gaps are what needs the most attention.

About Preservers and Creators

Over the years I learned to separate good martial arts practitioners into two categories: Preservers and Creators. Of course there are many more categories you could use to slice the population, but let’s stick with those two for now.

Hilmar Fuchs, the best example of a life-long creator that we were fortunate enough to train with.


The majority of practitioners – students and teacher alike – are what I call preservers. They study the arts with great passion and try to learn as many techniques and forms as possible. They strive to learn and copy those techniques (and often also their teacher’s quotes) as precisely and verbatim as humanly possible.

Most are really good with that and I kind of envy them, because my memory usually fails me when I try to learn things by heart.

Preservers are important to keep a style alive the way it was envisioned and practiced by his creator. They are the historians and librarians of martial arts and the styles. However they often run the risk of thinking that they practice the only correct and legitimate way.


Only a few martial arts practitioners go beyond the limits of what they were shown. They focus on the principles rather than the exact preservation of the movements. They eventually will push beyond what they learned from their teacher and style.

Very often creators will get inspirations from different arts and bring them back into their own art and style, making it richer and more diverse along the way. They will also go down a wrong path much more often than preservers, who stick to the known and tested. Rather than keeping the art precisely as it is, they will help develop it further with time.

Amongst their martial arts peers, creators are not always looked upon too nicely as they don’t stick to the official teachings. However, in the end only creators move the art ahead and keep it alive. If you look back, you will realize that every style and art started with a creator.

One of the trickiest parts about being a creator however is to keep the creator mindset alive. All too often creators become preservers once they found their style and from there on insist that everyone follows their rules to the detail.

Uli and I were fortunate to learn from two great creators and martial art pioneers, Hilmar Fuchs and Roland Habersetzer, right from the beginning. They did spoil us for other teachers though and set a pretty high bar for teachers that we would follow.

While both preservers and creators have their important role in keeping the arts alive, there are two more types that need to be called out. Please try to not be one of them.


I met a few over the years. Collectors have a goal to ‘master’ an art in a certain time. They collect forms, teachings and teachers with great passion and effort very quickly. They usually make progress very quickly but then drop off completely after a relatively short time.

While there is no harm in doing that, I feel sorry for the time they invest without following through and therefore missing the insights and benefits that can only come over time. They burn fast and hot, but not for a long time.

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. (Bruce Lee)


Randomizers do not spend enough effort and time to learn an art. They practice but their knowledge remains shallow because their heart and mind are not really at it. Usually they like to practice, like to sweat or just like the company, but they don’t care deeply enough about learning and thus don’t invest the time and effort to overcome the pain and frustration that true learning always entails.

Most of them do little harm but some become teachers due to tenure in a style rather than qualification. Learn to spot randomizers quickly and try to stay away from them, especially when they pretend to be teachers (you can often identify them by their dogmatic approach).

Don’t Break Your Knees!

Our knees are a critical link to make our movements connected and grounded. In martial arts we start movements from the hip, but actually if you think about it, the leg muscles are the ones that initiate that movement. And the leg muscles need the knees to transform power into kinetic energy. There is no proper martial arts movement that doesn’t start from the knees.

The knees are perfectly designed to flex and support your body weight dynamically for that motion. They are not designed for torque or tilt with only limited range for rotation.


And that’s where the problem begins for many martial arts practitioners and sports enthusiasts. I was one of them. I was doing a lot of athletics and running when I was 16. And my knees hurt almost every day. I was lucky that I met my Karate and Tai Chi teacher Hilmar Fuchs at the age of 20. He taught me how to use my knees properly and equally important, what movements to avoid. Today I’m way older (let’s not talk about that right now), I’m still practicing martial arts and running and I have no knees problems at all. I’m pretty sure without Hilmar’s intervention I would have had a knee surgery already.

That is precisely why Uli and I put so much emphasis on proper walking and knee utilization in our Tai Chi classes. The classical Tai Chi bow step teaches us many principles about how to use the knee and what to avoid. ‘Normal’ walking looks different, but the key principles still translate.


Here is my list of key principles for the bow step that we focus on in our classes:

  1. Knees point in the same direction as toes
  2. Push the knee no further than over your big toe
  3. Keep some flexibility, don’t lock your knees
  4. Feet are shoulder wide apart
  5. Pull weight off a foot before you turn it
  6. Hip initiates moves and turns, not the legs, feet or arms
  7. Keep your hip on the same level, don’t go up and down

The key goal of most of those is to avoid tilt or torque forces on the knee by avoiding to turn against resistance, over-extending or having unnatural angles between the toes and the knee direction. Some of the principles are also meant to most efficiently translate power into kinetic energy, starting a motion with strong but slow muscles and then engaging weaker but faster muscles. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

Pay attention to what you’re doing, you want to be able to practice for a lifetime without regular visits to your favorite surgeon.