You have to prioritize!

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If you want to have the most impact you have to prioritize! But how? Based on what criteria?

Do a little of everything? Pick what’s top of your list and work your way down? Do whatever comes to mind and grabs your interest at the moment? Don’t know, so rather stall and don’t do anything at all?

Well, the above approaches don’t seem like great strategies, so let’s take a more structured approach instead.

At Amazon there are limitless opportunities – always – and as a result, we constantly need to prioritize and make trade-offs. Actually, when candidates ask me in interviews what the hardest part of working at Amazon is, I tell them “it’s to decide what not to do”.

There is often quite some ambiguity on how one should make such decisions. I see this across individuals and organizations, way more often than I would have expected. Most people have a good grasp of how they should prioritize, but then they mix and muddy things as they get into the details.

Prioritization is about discipline – both in thinking, as well as in execution.

The operational discipline is something you need to develop for yourself. The mental model is easier to share though. Here is a prioritization framework that works in most cases.

How to prioritize

  1. P0: Things that HAVE to be done to support a strategic goal or prevent a strategic risk. Those are typically set top-down as company or organizational goals. If things MUST be done to support those organizational priorities, they need to be treated as non-negotiable (P0s). The important thing though is that this only applies to blockers (!) for such goals; it doesn’t include all of the nice-to-have things one could do for that space. Nice to have work must stand on its own cost-benefit analysis. It’s not a P0 if it’s not a blocker without a feasible workaround!
  2. P1-3: Things that provide the highest ROI (return of investment) / best cost-benefit ratio in sorted order. Everything else you do need to be evaluated under the criteria of ‘most bang for the buck’. Don’t spend energy on something that will be useful in the future (hopefully), but not just yet. If it will yield a higher return than what you’re doing right now, stop doing what you do and switch over; if it doesn’t, then double down and finish what you started. Sort the things that you need to do by ROI, nothing else.
  3. Exceptions from the rule. There are some reasons why you might have to invest in some projects with lower ROI. The clearest is if you hit a scaling limit by putting more people on a problem. If adding more people to a project doesn’t scale your delivery pace (close to) linearly, you should deploy them somewhere else. Similarly, if you need to make investments to lower your operational cost or substantially increase future delivery speed (e.g. re-architecture), you need to prioritize those accordingly. However, I might argue that those effects can and should also be quantified and expressed in an ROI decision. The other reason to keep some capacity for work that is not ROI-prioritized is to diversify your opportunities and/or make room for experiments to explore new areas. Be very conscious though, as to how much time and energy you want to devote to such activities.

Pitfalls to avoid

Don’t mix criteria. If you make ROI decisions, make ROI decisions. Don’t mix ROI and opportunity or something else.

If you go to a supermarket and shop for oranges, all other things equal, you will pick the ones at the lowest price. You will not pick a bunch of the lowest priced ones and another bunch of the expensive ones, just because they are there. ROI is your metric, stick to it. Opportunity only tells you that you can buy oranges, it doesn’t tell you that the price is right.

Side note: ROI doesn’t need to mean dollars – it means the impact (return) of your resources (investment) on the metric you care about most (e.g. cost, speed, quality, precision, satisfaction).

Don’t take previous decisions as gospel. Don’t block yourself by perceived constraints or previous decisions. As you get more data and understanding, challenge previous assumptions! For example, a goal is not a value in itself, it might have been set based on an incomplete understanding of the total opportunity. As you understand the opportunity space better, re-examine previous goals – if they no longer express the most important thing to do, make a pitch to change the goal!

Elephants get chained when they are young and too weak to break those chains. They learn that chains define their limits. As they get older, they don’t even try to break those chains anymore, even though they easily could. Don’t be chained by previous assumptions, re-evaluate what you know and question what you believe as you learn more!

Invest the intellectual energy to set strong and data-driven priorities. Exercise the operational discipline to focus on those goals without distraction. Nurture the curiosity, flexibility, and courage to revisit those decisions and underlying data to verify that you are still pursuing the right goals.

 


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.

The Fallacy of Measuring Everything

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I wrote many times that you cannot manage what you don’t measure. While I still agree with that principle for most of the things we do, especially those we need to drive towards a certain goal, I will make a counterpoint in this post today.

The counterpoint is that we are overdoing measuring ourselves and pushing ourselves towards goals in today’s culture. We’re mechanizing every single part of our lives.

As always, the magic lies in the balance, and balance is what we are often losing sight of.

We push and measure ourselves at work. We track every single minute, make ROI (Return of Investment) decisions for everything we do and don’t allow any slack or waste (i.e. idle time or downtime).

Then we come home from work and do the same all over again. We track the time we spend on different activities, run through our task and priority lists, make sure every evening for the kids is booked and planned with some enrichment activity, and even when we go for a walk in nature we’re tracking our steps, distance, and how we rank against our buddies.

We deprive ourselves of downtime, time to go with the flow, time to think and let our thoughts go free, time to recharge and recover.

Everything must be in balance to thrive. Respect that balance.

Let go, as much and as often as you push and focus.

Contrary to previous posts and recommendations, I’ve lately stopped tracking my steps and recreational activities. I’m not measuring ‘fun’, ‘recovery’, and ‘relaxation’ anymore, as I realized that measuring those and pushing myself to do more and better, only turns it into another chore. ‘Recovery’ becomes another drain instead of something that recharges us.

I’m still pushing hard against goals at work, and I have a list of things I need to do in my private life. I still have clear goals and outcomes I want to achieve. However, I am now also clearly identifying areas, where none of those measurements matter, and I can just go with whatever happens at the moment.

I have a general framework of how I want to spend my time (family, mindfulness, sports, and nature), but I won’t sweat or be mad at myself if I didn’t do all of them every week. I also don’t worry anymore if I spent 5mins on a walk with my dog or 30mins. It’s the quality that counts, and how much it helped me unwind and recharge.

I have very clear goals and metrics for work, however, I also identified areas, especially in my personal life, where I only go with loose frameworks and personal values.

It is liberating, and it gives me more focus and energy to measure and manage the things that need to be managed.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Make sure ‘measurement’ and ‘achievement’ is not the only tool you have in your toolbox.

 


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.

Once You Stop Growing You Start Declining

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Never stop learning and growing!

Once you stop growing you start declining.

Never stop observing, learning, tweaking, optimizing and improving yourself and how you live your life.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s the path we take and the choices we make that count, not any singular goal that we are heading out for.

In the end what matters are not the possessions that your accumulated, but the learnings you had and the person you became. It’s about how you improved yourself and what you left behind.

Never think that you are too old for something new. Never think that you are ‘there’. Once you stop learning, growing and pushing you start declining. You start to crumble and die.

There is not much steady state in life. It’s either up or down. There is also no rule in life or the universe that says you cannot go up and grow until the very end. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what Chinese medicine and Tai Chi try to achieve: live healthy as long as you can and grow until the end. Set your sights high up all the way through.

Back in Germany I all too often saw successful people retire at age 60, stop doing anything and then rapidly falling apart. Don’t do that to yourself – at any age. Keep the learner’s mindset, be a lifelong apprentice.

No matter where you are, what your circumstances are and where you will go next, you can always make yourself just a little bit better. You can always make your life a little more balanced and meaningful. You can always strive to become a even better person.

The path is the reward, not the destination.

 


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.

Engineer Your Happiness, Count Your Blessings Every Day

How you perceive your world and look at opportunities is much more influenced by your mindset than by your circumstances. External events will influence your happiness in the moment, but after a short time you will bounce back to your ‘natural’ level.

The good news is that we can train our mental frameworks and over time change our perspective on the things we encounter in daily life. We can make ourselves happier and more positive human beings. And by making ourselves more positive we will encounter more encouraging situations and as a result follow more fulfilling opportunities.

Worst day of my life

Every night at the dinner table we do a little round robin where everyone talks about the experiences of the day. It took our kids a while to get there, but now they love it and can’t wait to tell their story.

For a while our 7 year old son had phase where he always started with “worst day of my life”. For some reason he thought it was cool, but we could see how it always dragged him down emotionally.

We can observe the same in us. As grownups we often look back at how hard a day was, all the things that went wrong, all the annoying interactions.

With that we train our brain to pattern match. If we pay attention to something, our brain will look for more of the same and proudly present it to us. When you think about buying a new car, you will all of a sudden see that model everywhere.

Indulging on the things that were bad or went wrong will train your brain to only see things going wrong. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Change your mental frameworks

Instead of thinking back to what went wrong in your day, spend time every day to reflect on what was great, fun or just positively memorable. You can do this throughout the day or in the evening before you go to bed. But do it every day!

Reflect on the positive things that happened every day. Write them down.

Focusing on the positive things will train your brain to pattern match for those. It will help you see the good more easily and more often. It will help you see opportunity to get more of those positive interactions. It will make you happier and more successful.

I bought a little notebook for myself in which I write down 3 positive things that happened to me every day. It’s a great exercise to reflect and boosts your happiness.

We also changed our dinner routine and added the question “What were your 3 most positive things today?” Question before we get into talking about our days. Our kids are fighting for who can share those first and usually end up with more than 3.

I also haven’t heard the “worst day of my life” sentence anymore.

Being happy is in your control. So is being unhappy. You decide.

 


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.

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

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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.

Reflections on Achieving Your Goals: Where My Martial Arts and My Business Self Meets

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I have three big passions in my life: family, martial arts and growning people and 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 over 25 years now. Here are some of my personal principles that came over from that area into my leadership 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 makes it easier for me to remember the key learnings.

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.

 


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.

Reflections on Achieving Your Goals: The Importance of Presentation and Attention to Details

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Presentation and attention to details is about making your ideas and content more impactful after you have covered all the bases. It’s an ‘and’ not an ‘either/or’. It’s about ‘Insisting on highest standards’ all the way through.

Not form over function but form and function.

Design matters and attention to details matters

Steve Jobs famously turned around Apple by obsessing on details – even those that aren’t visible to customers, like the visual clarity of the physical layout of the components in an iPhone, or the visual design and cleanliness of Apple’s factory floors.

Should that matter? Why isn’t function the only thing we should care about? Do we really need to refine the presentation of our content once the facts are there? YES!

Details matter. Presentation matters. Fit and finish matters.

Think about your own experiences. You (probably) like Apple products. Why? You could use any other computer/phone and would be able to do the same things: write documents, make calls, catch up on stuff. But you don’t, you find pleasure in things that are well crafted and where attention to details has been amply paid.

You likely had much more fun with your phone when it was new and without scratches. Why? It still fulfills the same functionality. Why should you care about it no longer being flawless in every aspect of its appearance?

How would you think if someone scratched your new car? It still drives just the same. Will it matter to you?

How about a precious gift for your loved ones? Would you wrap it in ugly, crappy and crumbled paper?

Everything is a sell. Everything is a presentation

Ok, here is where I’m going with this:

Everything is a sell, even if you sell primarily through data (function), you still have to sell.

All too often I see people spending a lot of time in thinking through problems, collecting data, working hard on the details – and then dropping the ball on presentation.

Supposedly small things destroy the overall impression that your content makes: hastily copy-pasted emails that are painful to read, documents where formatting of lists, paragraph alignment or spacing changes from paragraph to paragraph, inconsistent bolding, Xs and Ys that are forgotten in the text (do a simple search!), appendices that were not updated, supporting data that doesn’t pass a simple sniff-test…

If you don’t give your content that last final touch, you give away a significant part of the impact that your hard work could have. Doing a final check on ‘design’ and ‘details’ is probably the best bang for the buck you can get on any document that you have worked on for several hours. Invest that time!

Word has grammar checkers, go to full-page view to check alignments, search for Xs and Ys, check every appendix and make sure it received some love. Read your document or presentation one more time as if you didn’t know it. Better even, ask someone else to read it – not for the content but the presentation.

Don’t undersell your work. It’s not only the data, but also the presentation. Even if people tell you that it doesn’t matter, subconsciously it makes a huge difference. Would you rather get the scratched phone handed down or the same model that’s sparkly new?

Make it readable, engaging and make it look like you care. What you do matters, make it count! Have pride in your work and show that pride!

Obsession for detail differentiates Great from just Ok.

Last not least you are also sending a message to the reviewer: “This is good enough for you, I don’t care enough to make it nicer/clearer.” Sometimes you might do that consciously and strategically, but I assume in most cases you didn’t have that intention.

Bring your work over the finish line and make it matter!

 


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.

Reflections from Tai Chi Class Today

I usually don’t share discussions and lessons from class here, but today we talked about one that I think is worth sharing outside of our little Tai Chi family.

Pushing hands – Like water, like wind

We did quite a bit of pushing hands in class today. We don’t do it very often in our regular Tai Chi classes, but when we do, it’s a great way to feel, practice and guide our energy, face external obstacles and get direct feedback on our own actions.

It helps us understand the form on a deeper level, and it also presents broader lessons that apply to all areas of life.

Here’s the key point:

Don’t have a preconceived plan. Listen and react to the situation. Feel the energy and respond to it.

Our as our teacher, Hilmar Fuchs, likes to say:

Keep your mind open for opportunities. When they present themselves, go for it.

With that, we learn to ‘listen’ in push hands, to ‘keep our eyes open’ for challenges (attacks) and opportunities (openings).

Some of the principles we study in pushing hands:

  1. Have your mind on the end goal, on what you want to achieve. Don’t hold yourself back by overthinking the challenges in front of you, or thinking they are unsurmountable.
  2. Don’t try to force your way because you had a certain plan and want to stick to it.
  3. Don’t miss opportunities because you weren’t ready yet, or because they don’t fit in your plan and timeline.
  4. Be frugal, only move when you need to. Only react when you get energy. Don’t be mechanical, if there is no signal, there is no need for response.
  5. Don’t be stiff either, be flexible. The tree bends to the wind, the water flows around the rock, the wind reaches into every corner. On the other hand, the frozen branch breaks upon resistance.

When you get the principles right, you don’t need force

When we need to apply force, speed or trickery to overcome our partner (or obstacle), then we got the timing and the principles wrong. When we can be soft and calm, and still achieve our goals, then we did the right thing at the right time.

Strive to be soft (flexible) and calm, while maintaining course towards your goal.

When there is an opening, allow your energy to flow into it. When you pull a bolder out of the stream, the water will fill the void without hesitation.

When there is resistance, go around it. Every hard spot has a corresponding soft spot that is presented to you as a gift.

And in ‘real’ life?

After class we talked a little about the application of these principles to life and business.

It’s the same thing.

You want to have a general sense of where you want to go (we call it strategy), you want to simulate a few things that could happen to train your sensitivity (often referred to as business plan). But after that, you need to look and listen carefully to what is happening.

Keep your goal in mind, but lock your plan away where you can’t see it. Sense, listen, and react (we often call this experimentation and learning, or ‘little bets’). If an opening (an unexpected opportunity) presents itself, then go for it, whether the time is right or not (it usually never is). The goalpost is durable, the actual path to get there usually is unexpected.

Opportunities you didn’t predict will present themselves (openings), challenges you did’t anticipate will get in your way (resistance). Stay sensitive, flexible, and oriented towards forward momentum (project your energy to your goal, not to the obstacle in your way).

In the military they say:

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Be attentive, be flexible, be nimble, and be open for the unexpected.

Strategy gradually evolves – tactics pivot on a dime.

Reflections on Achieving Your Goals: Minimalism – Simplify Your Life

2017-05-09-ikebana-001

I guess this is one of the basic principles in my life so far. Be it my choices in sports: Karate, Tai Chi, other Martial Arts or in arts: Ikebana, Sumi Painting, Photography or woodworking.

Yes, Minimalism or Simplifying your life is a modern trend, but looking back it has been part of my life all the time.

Sports and Minimalism

Following a totally random choice of starting Karate (Shotokan) at the University Sports Club at Ludwig- Maximilian University (LMU) in Munich, Germany, while pursuing some extracurricular education in Sports Medicine, I not only found my passion for Martial Arts, but for the simpler things in life. The less embellishments, the more straight forward your move is, the more powerful it will be. No extras added. If you take a closer look at the Karate you see in competitions or movies, you might think those fancy jumps or moves look cool. But in the end, the guy who studies his opponent, finds the opening and delivers the final blow, is the one who will be successful. No fancy, good-looking cinematic stuff required.

Trying to remember the name of one movie, I think it was “The Seven Samurai” (Akirao Kurosawa), where there is one Samurai being attacked by a group of Ninja’s. He is calmly waiting inside a house and suddenly starts moving. Every single stroke of his sword hit’s the intended target.

I remember one of the first books I read in connection to Martial Arts was Jon Hyam’s “Zen in the Martial Arts” (“Der Weg der leeren Hand” in German). I have re-read it several times since then. Empty your bowl, if you want to learn new things. His stories still inspire me and help me reflect.

The same fits for Tai Chi. Flowing movements, but also straight forward and no extras. Focus on breathing and meditation more than the movements themselves. Meditation in motion does not really need fancy forms, but being present in that moment and not thinking of other things. Those thoughts are not important right at this moment. Put them on a shelf and unpack them if needed afterwards when you are ready to focus on a new task.

I did Yoga for a couple of years and it feels as if it is the same. Moving from one pose to the next offers you the time to focus and reflect. Be it reflection on your current physical condition or the things which concern you right now. And whichever Yoga teaching you are following, it often is the reduction of movements which brings your life back into focus. I was lucky enough to find an amazing teacher right here in our backyards and am truly sorry that I am not continuing with this right now. Maybe I will get back to it when the time is right.

Any of the martial arts I tried so far have that major commonality (Gemeinsamkeit (D)), be it Aikido, SMR (Shinto Muso Ryu) or Kobudo. No embellishments, focus on the one practise, focus on the moment.

Art and Minimalism

Ikebana (Japanese Flower arrangement) teaches you the art to embrace spaces. To not only see the flowers, but emphasize their beauty by reducing it to the basic components. Sometimes the empty spaces are the most important ones. The hardest part at the beginning of my  learning voyage was to be brave enough to cut off petals or leafs or even branches. Sometimes you feel so sorry and afraid to do it, just to realize that after you did it, it enhanced the beauty of your arrangement. It still is sometimes hard.

2017-05-09 Ikebana 001

If you know Sumi-e or Sumi Painting, you also realize the focus on the simplification. Ink is your medium and even if you add some color here or there, it still is the reduction of strokes, which shows the essence of the painting.

If you look at the best pictures of well-known photographers, they most often focus on one thing. I am thinking of those pictures on National Geographic, where you see the one polar bear trotting over ice, the one wave crashing on top of you or the one little bright-colored frog in the rainforest. I know someone who makes awesome Macro Photos, just depicting a raindrop on an insect or a leaf on the ground. Focus on the reduction of visual deterrents and reduce the stress in which we are surrounded every day.

Even though I’ll never be (nor want to be) Mary Kondo, the author of “The Art of Tidying up”, I still strive to simplify and reduce. I need space surrounding me. Clutter at home or in my surrounding really drains my energy. No, I am anything but perfect in this realm, but I am definitely working on it. Two major learnings here: everything has its space, and one thing in, at least one thing out!

And never forget to breathe!

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.