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.

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