The Third Way

As some of you know, in my personal life, I have been passionate about martial arts for a long time (some 30 years by now). Studying those ancient arts taught me many valuable lessons over the years. One that I was reminded of just this week is the idea of “The third way” in Tai Chi.

In my earlier times of practicing the arts, my responses were limited to one of two categories: retreat or attack; submission or domination. Tai Chi teaches that in most cases, neither is the best solution, and one should rather look for a third way. You don’t surrender, and you don’t oppose; you find a way to embrace the energy and momentum and direct it in a direction that you deem valuable.

So how does this apply to work, and why am I writing about it here?

Well, very often, we are asked to add things to our already full plates or are confronted with situations that we don’t like or that even upset us. We usually respond either by saying ‘yes’ right away and then silently grumbling about yet another thing or by saying ‘no’ without further regard of the importance of the request.

Unless something is easy to do anyway (in which case we should just do it), or completely out of scope and unreasonable (in which case we should clarify why that is the case), it is usually worth to take a pause and to think about possible third ways. Ask yourself a few questions like:

  • What do we want to achieve?
  • Is there a simpler way to get there?
  • Who is best positioned to achieve those outcomes?
  • Who can we tap into for support?
  • How can the requestor help to make the work more efficient or simpler?
  • What aspects of the ask are hard requirements, and which ones are more flexible?

Don’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – take the time to work with the person who asked you to do something to gain a good understanding of the best way to achieve what they need to accomplish.

A recent reporting automation project that my team supports is one example of this. We could just take all requests for new reports, say ‘yes’, and hire more people to fulfill them. We could also cap the number of reports and headcount we are willing to fund and say ‘no’ after that. Or we can think about better ways to deliver what our customers want and need (i.e. good data to gain insights) – for example: where can we simplify (standard reports), or how can we enlist the requestor’s help (self-service dashboards).

Ask questions to understand. Ask questions to find the best solution. Ask questions to lead.

Don’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, insist on finding the best solution for everyone.

Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Happy Holidays – Treat yourself to a free book on us

Like every year for the Holidays, we are giving away the Kindle versions of our books for free.

You can download free copies on Amazon from Monday December 21st until Friday December 25th. Enjoy reading and let us know what you think.

We only ask one small favor in return: Please leave a review or rating on Amazon. Positive reviews and ratings are preferred. 🙂

Happy Holidays! Enjoy time with loved ones. Be mindful, relax, take care and recharge your batteries.

With hugs and lots of gratefulness,
Ulrike and Alfons

On work-life balance, career, health and purpose:

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you want to learn more about Tai Chi (for beginners and experts):

Finding the Heart
Principles for Tai Chi and Life
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781724173683

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

Deliberate practice

Malcolm Gladwell made the rule to practice 10,000 hours to achieve mastery famous. However this is actually a misleading simplification from research that was conducted by Anders Ericsson and published in his book ‘Peak’ (ISBN-10: 0544947223).

Practicing 10,000 hours will not guarantee mastery or even deeper understanding. Deliberate practice will.


Practicing deliberately means to isolate certain aspects of our practice and training and focusing on them without distraction by all the other things we should also train and improve. Deliberate practice helps us to concentrate our mind on only one thing and to repeat, improve and assimilate that one thing.

Students in Tai Chi are often overwhelmed by all the things they ‘should’ learn and understand. Especially in the beginning they come to class but feel that they cannot achieve the stage where they remember enough to start practicing on their own without needing to peek at the teacher for the next movement.

Following the principles of deliberate practice and separating out certain aspects of the whole will help a lot in those situations. Instead of trying to learn everything at the same time, try to break your own practice in focus areas. Only focus on that area, ignore all the rest. Then after some good deliberate practice, bring that area back into the larger whole.

Some example for breaking out a complex form into aspects for deliberate practice:

Details of a movement – Only practice one movement. Whatever you struggle with, the bow step, stroking the mane of the horse, diagonal flying. Pick that one technique and practice it in isolation. Maybe repeat the same technique but do not worry about what comes next in the form.

Sequence of the form – Don’t worry about the details of any given movement when you try to memorize a form. Don’t even execute the movements fully, just give a sloppy hint to get your muscle memory engaged. Close your eye for even better focus. The detail of the movement does not matter in this practice, only what technique comes next.

Directions and footwork – As forms get longer, for example the Yang form, it can become challenging to remember the different directions and stances. Practice your footwork separately. Maybe use hinted arm movements to jog your memory, but don’t focus on the arms or the details of any technique at all. Focus on your feet, your stance, the difference between bow step and two sides of a line. Make sure your feet are pointing in the right direction, your knees are slightly bent and you are deliberate about your eight points.

And then after you spent a good amount of time on isolated practice of only one aspect, bring it all together again to practice the form once or twice in its completeness. Separate and re-unite.

Reflections on Achieving Your Goals: If You Make a Mistake Keep Going


What’s the difference between a beginner making a mistake and a master making the same mistake?

The beginner will notice the mistake, stop, blame himself for making the stupid mistake and maybe even stop altogether for the day in frustration. He might contemplate for a long while, why this mistake has happened and how embarrassing the situation was.

The master accepts the situation and keeps going without a blink. Later when there is time, she will reflect on what led to the mistake and how she might be able to prevent it in the future. She will practice the situation and be prepared to deal with it the next time it might occur. She will not waste energy to dwell in self-blame or pity.

I once saw this mindset live in perfect demonstration. Tsuguo Sakumoto, a 9th degree black belt and the leader of Ryuei-ryu karate, demonstrated a Kama kata. Kama are Okinawan sickles. They have razor-sharp blades and the kata consists of lightning fast movements swirling two of them through the air at the same time.

Master Sakumoto made a mistake while demonstrating this kata to a crowd of about hundred people, all highly ranked karate-kas. One of the blades came in contact with the handle of the other. it cut right through the wood and made the other blade fly high through the air. Master Sakumoto was lucky that he hadn’t cut off some fingers.

This was a scary moment, a pretty bad mistake and could have been embarrassing. Other athletes might have gone in frustration and maybe thrown their tennis rack on the ground, storming out of the court. Not the karate master. He kept going as if nothing had happened. Not a moment of hesitation, not a blink, not a flinch. He was a hundred percent committed and finished the form. After that he bowed, went, picked up the other blade and was ready for questions from the audience.

Be in the moment. Finish what you have started. Don’t get thrown off by what you didn’t expect. Don’t dwell in analysis and get stuck in something that has already happened and which you can’t influence anymore. Think about it when you have time and then move on.

When you make a mistake in your practice don’t miss a beat. Realize and acknowledge what has happened. Decide if you need to adjust and move on in the same instance. Don’t let it throw you off.

The same is true for life. When you hit a bump in the road you need to keep going. Practice this mindset in martial arts. Make it your second nature and then make sure you apply the same mindset in your daily life.


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:


Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle


If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

How Would Your Spirit Animal Do The Form?

Do you have a spirit animal? Do you have a favorite animal? Is there an animal always meeting you throughout your life and just showing up whenever you least expect it?

In a lot of spiritual communities animals have a very influential role.

The same can be said for Tai Chi. Tai Chi has roots in Kung Fu and even the names of the moves often refer to animals, for example “stroke the mane of the horse”, “stroke the sparrows tail” or “spread your wings” and more. Feel the movement and try to embrace the animal being mentioned in the move.

Now think about the animal forms of Tai Chi and feel their specific spirit.

Do you think about the lumbering bear? The careful and light-footed deer or rather the tiger or the snake?

How do you feel just now? Can you breathe in the specific spirit of this animal and then do the form with this animal in mind?

Each one of the animals has their specific traits and we can show it in our forms. Each animal is connected to different principles of Tai Chi.

Crane – Breath

Crane, Bird, Wings, Water, Swamp, Nature

Flying, opening your wings and spreading your fingers. Open your Lao Gong points. Feel the contrast between spreading your fingers and cupping them. Think about your fingers as the feathers on the wings and feel the wind flowing through them. Hands in clouds let’s you soar through the clouds. Feel the lightness of leaving the earth and feeling the sky. Open up and breathe the air and energy surrounding you.

Bear – Roots

Bear Sitting Wildlife Nature Brooks River

The lumbering heavy bear has you grounded and connects you back to the earth. Feel your balance and your stance on the ground. Be connected through your 16 points. Feel heavy, but strong. Think about your breath, going steady and smooth through your moves. Be aware of your surroundings, but also steady knowing your power.

Deer – Mindfulness

Roe Deer, Capreolus Capreolus, Doe

Like the bear be aware of your surroundings, but more careful. Be light on your feet and able to change quickly and lightly into different positions. Feel the focus, but continue breathing evenly and lightly.

Snake – Spirals

Snake Grass Snake Reptile Nature Water Sna

Slithering over the ground. Twisting your body and your mind and connect it to your movements. Embody the snake while twisting your joints, opening and closing your body and spine. Think about spiraling in every move.  At the same time be aware of your surroundings. Maybe hiss a little to change your breathing.

Tiger – Energy

Tiger, Sumatran Tiger, Big Cat

A force to be reckoned with. Silently and with focus wandering through the jungle. Embracing its strength and still being aware of its surroundings. There is not a lot they have to be afraid of, but tigers still are careful. Feel the strength and the focus in each move. Think about possible martial art applications or the flow of energy providing the support and strength of the movement. No unneccessary movements there. Everything is focused and simplified.

Monkey – Movement

Squirrel Monkey Monkey Climb Feeding Zoo N

Have fun! Be light on your feet and quick. Transition easily from one move to the other, bu still stay focused and light on your feet. Never forget to play and have fun and don’t take everything too serious. Breath lightly in and out and try to feel like a monkey picking the fruit of the tree. Switch up the routine and try something new.

Spirit animal

Now come back to your spirit animal, if you have one, and try to think about their specific and unique traits and try to infuse them into your movements.

I like to mix up the forms every now and then and show the specific trait of the animal. Don’t be afraid to be playful like the monkey or twist and spiral like a snake. Maybe lumber like the bear or show the Tigers power. And last but not least be the crane, being rooted on the ground but also opening up to breath and spreading your wings!

And sometimes be like the little mouse – my spirit animal – and be quick and curious and careful at the same time. Switch between deep breath and light breath, move and twist and just be playful.


Let’s Go Flying

Great Blue Heron Flying Bird Wild Beak Nec

No, I am not talking about levitation. Let your imagination soar and go fly!

Kung Fu, Karate, other martial arts and yes, also Tai Chi Ch’uan have origins showing the spirit of different animals. Think about the Form of 24: Stroke the horse’s mane, spread your wings, repulse the monkey, stroke the sparrows tail, etc. You get the idea.

To go fly, let’s choose the crane.

Imagine a great blue heron standing in our wetlands, stalking the fish, patiently waiting and then suddenly picking one out of the water. Or standing there balancing on one leg, maybe sleeping or just being and breathing.

The best example for this is the crane form, Hakutsuru, which is admittedly not Yang style. It originates from Okinawa Karate and before that Kung Fu. Check out the Komatsu-Ha style for it!

But you can find the same feeling in a Yang style form. Open your arms wide, open your fingers like the tips of your wing feathers and play with the opening and closing of your fingers while doing the form. Imagine being a crane, moving through your practice.

Our inner emotions and anxieties often show on our outside. But the opposite is also true. How we present ourselves on the outside can also reflect on our inner well-being. Someone said to me:

“Fake it until you make it!”

One perfect way to feel this is to play with our soaring. Open up your wings and soar in the sky! You could even play with the opposites. Walk through one form rather subdued and then follow it up with a crane flying form. How do you feel?

Let’s fly!

You Are Never Too Old

There is no right or wrong way

I might not be mainstream with this, but one of the things I love about Tai Chi is the possibility to adjust it to your own body, to your own abilities and restrictions.

And yes, you can and should adjust Tai Chi as needed. Even feel encouraged to do so!

There are enough studies nowadays, showing that Tai Chi helps with Balance, Breathing, Osteoporosis, Fibromyalgia and all kinds of other maladies, but how can it affect all those different areas of your life and body, when we all do exactly the same? We are all different with our bodies and we all start at a different level of ability with our Tai Chi journey. So just feel free to adjust it in any way necessary.

Yes, of course we look at all those older Chinese people in the park practicing their Tai Chi and admire their flexibility, fluidity and low stance, but is that really necessary?

I do not think so.

To reap in the benefits of Tai Chi, we have to start somewhere and cannot and should not try to do what others do. We have to use the principles we are learning and just move! It does not matter if the form looks perfect or not, it is important to move and breath and focus. It is not important that your hand is in that specific angle, or your foot has to be 45 degrees and your stance has to be this low.

We all have our specific abilities and restrictions and we have to work with those. So feel your own body, follow your gut feeling. If something does not work for you, don’t do it. Change it in a way, which won’t hurt and start working on it. The journey always starts with the first step. So if at first you are not able to lift your arms, start with minimal movement. If your body prohibits bending down, just start with moving your spine. Round it, tug in your tailbone, round your shoulders. In the end we want to work on our flexibility, slowly improving it, but not forcing it.

If balance is an issue, sit down. Slowly start with short periods of standing up and holding on to the chair. You might not be able to practice a form, but use the principles to move.

Adjust what you’re doing to your abilities. Think about principles, not perfectionism. Start with those and over time, your body will follow.


The Three Legs of a Stool

Why do we learn and practice Tai Chi? Everyone has a different motivation,  but essentially Tai Chi spans three big areas: physical health, mental well-being and martial arts.

Physical health

Chinese people have known and enjoyed the health benefits of Tai Chi for centuries. Recently western medicine picked up on it as well and by now there are countless studies that show the long-term health benefits of Tai Chi.

While Tai Chi can not replace medical treatment for illnesses, it can certainly help with recovery or ease the pains of various diseases and ailments. Tai Chi also helps us to age more gracefully and healthy.

Tai Chi is a holistic and gentle exercise system. Where western medicine focused on isolated sub-systems for a long time, eastern health practitioners always looked at the whole human being holistically. Tai Chi reflects that approach.

By practicing Tai Chi, we slowly extend the capabilities of our bodies and over time build up resilience, strength and flexibility.

Mental well-being

Tai Chi is often referred to as ‘meditation in motion’. We pay close attention to our movements, our gaze and our breathing. We are aware of every little detail as well as how they connect together to the bigger whole.

That focus and awareness helps us calm our minds and tame the random thoughts that usually chase us through the day. We take a break from the hectic of the day and reconnect with our inner selves.

With that, Tai Chi is an excellence counterbalance to stress and helps us to step back and take a broader perspective. Our minds calm down and many things that had upset us before class appear in a different light afterwards and seem less daunting than they did before.

We also learn that everything come in waves. Everything is Yin and Yang. The same is true in life. There is stress and there is relaxation (if we are willing to allow us to find it), there is frustration and there is joy.

Tai Chi is a great metaphor for the flooding and ebbing of life and by examining and understanding Tai Chi we can develop a greater understanding of life itself.

Martial arts

Tai Chi originated from a martial art. Today different schools put different emphasis on Tai Chi as a martial art versus Tai Chi for health. In our school we focus on the health aspect, but we also personally have our roots in the martial arts and have always been fond of exploring possible applications. We just don’t believe that the martial aspect is the most valuable thing we can get out of Tai Chi practice.

With that I mean, that as you progress you should try to understand possible applications to more deeply understand the form and Tai Chi itself. However, I don’t think that the ultimate goal is to be unbeatable in push-hands. If pure self-defense is your goal, go and buy some pepper spray or a gun, it’s a way easier and faster path.

Unlike what some folks on the Internet will tell you, Tai Chi is not a secret martial art that gives you magic powers to control others without even touching them. You will not be unbeatable since real combat is way different from what you experience in the training hall, with friends pretending to attack you. Real street thugs are vicious and unless you train for that scenario specifically, you will not be prepared. It’s more dangerous to fool yourself into a wrong sense of control, than to be aware of your gaps and conscious of your surroundings.


However, Tai Chi has originated from, and still is, an internal martial art, and if you study it for a LONG time, the movements will become natural and turn into reflexes. You will be more aware of your surroundings and might be able to use some reflexive moves for initial self-defense. After creating that short opening,  you run and dial 911!

Likewise, if you are practicing another external martial art, Tai Chi will for sure improve your grasp of that art and make it more effective. The slow movements and principled approach of Tai Chi will allow you to grasp underlying principles of body mechanics as well as martial applications. Tai Chi will greatly enhance your understanding of your original art, like it did for our own Karate understanding. Eventually it will all blend together to the system that works for your specific body and background.

Whatever reason brings you to Tai Chi, make sure you also experience the other aspects. Don’t become an one-legged stool, they are rather useless.

“Learn Tai Chi Ch’uan, and you will become agile like a child, strong like a wood-cutter and calm like a wise man.”
Chinese proverb

Improve Your Sensitivity and Awareness


Tai Chi and martial arts help us to improve our sensitivity and awareness. They help us to achieve a deeper level of mindfulness throughout our lives.


While we initially mostly struggle to follow our teacher’s direction, we will notice over time that Tai Chi creates its own sensations as we go through our practice. We learn to listen to our body and we notice the small changes and feedbacks that we are getting. Tai Chi becomes more than just ‘going through the motions’.

That change creates a deeper awareness for our movements, our body and our mental and emotional state. We become more observant, aware and reflective. Tai Chi constantly teaches us to observe ourselves very closely in order to monitor whether we are doing the moves properly.

Observing is the first step to changing. Tai Chi prepares us to build up an effective feedback loop to better control our own reactions to the things that life throws at us.

We are more aware, live more in the moment and with that we learn to enjoy life more.


The other kind of awareness that we gradually build up as we study Tai Chi is situational awareness.

All too often we go through our days without noticing what is happening around us. Remember those funny videos where people bump into objects because they are fully immersed in their smart phones?

Tai Chi, as any worthy martial art, teaches us to have both attention to the detail when needed, as well as situational awareness throughout. In japanese martial arts that situational awareness is called Zanshin and it is a core building block for all traditional japanese martial arts. The best technique doesn’t do you any good if you don’t see the bad guy coming.

We train our gaze in Tai Chi. Most of the time we have an unfocused peripheral view. When appropriate, we focus in on an important detail and then we let go again. If you do that consciously, it becomes a natural habit throughout your days.

However, you don’t only need this to become a legendary warrior. Being aware of your surroundings let’s you more deeply appreciate the beautiful world we’re living in. It will make you more aware and thus safer, but it will also make you more tuned in to your life and thus happier. It might even take your relationships to a whole new level if you pay attention to the other person!

Live in the now!



Go Outside

Whenever you can, try to go outside for your Tai Chi practice.

Connect to nature

Tai Chi is a great way to connect with your inner core as well as with the universe around you. Practicing outside is a shortcut to the latter one, breaking down the walls that normally separate us from nature.

Connect with nature and heal. Inhale the fresh air, focus on the smell of flowers in spring and the sweet flavors of fruit in fall (we always smell blackberries around here). Take in the salty sea air or the fresh mountain breeze. Experience dry deserts or cooling forests. Listen to bird songs and nature sounds.

Be in the moment and be connected to nature!

Make it real

The other benefit of going outside for your practice is that it adds a whole new layer of sensations and complexity to your practice.

While our inside training rooms are perfectly levelled, with smooth floors and air condition, nature is much less predictable. The ground is rough with sudden holes, the sun might shine in your eyes and blind you, the wind might tickle you and the bugs might annoy you.

That means lots of stimuli and lots of distractions. Learn to deal and eventually to work with it. Life is messy, learn to manage your arts within that messiness. If your art only works in controlled environments, it actually doesn’t work at all.

Work with and embrace distractions. Learn to do perfect your Tai Chi in an imperfect setting.