Client Corner: A Martial Artist’s Guide to Life

The following is a guest post from Don Manfredi, mentor-in-residence at University of Michigan, marketing professor, and a TSN Communications client.

I started martial arts in 2005 when I was 35 years old. Since that time, I have gone back and forth between wishing I had started when I was younger to absolutely knowing that I would not have stuck with it if I had.

Here are the top 10 lessons I learned from martial arts that apply to business and to life:

  1. Leave your ego at the door. I have heard martial arts described as the study that allows for the discovery and the destruction of the ego. It is probably the most important thing in the martial arts and in life. It is also one of the toughest lessons. You can only think about doing, moving forward, training, and giving sincere effort. Out of this sincere effort you will find enjoyment, growth and many friends — but only if you leave your ego at the door and detach from the outcomes of training and the western idea of winning and losing. The same is true in business. I often tell my students that you should have pride in your work but no ego attachment. With that attitude you will accept critiques for what they are; an attempt to help you.
  2. Control yourself. Martial arts are about controlling yourself, not about controlling others. Takashi Kushida-sensei taught me this. Keep control of your mind, your body, your ego, and make sure to give sincere effort to your partner, your study and your teachers. Self-control is all you really have in business and in life. How you respond to what happens in your day is everything. (Notice I said “respond” not “react.”)
  3. You will never regret a class you attend. There are times when you are tired or don’t want to train. Fight through it and go anyway. You can apply this to any study, whether it is yoga, meditation or exercise. Lean into the study and make it a habit. You will not regret it. This same idea can also be applied to experiences. Some say our life is made up of what we experience so it is better to do than to not do. I have also heard that it is better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t done.
  4. How you do one thing is how you do everything. I wish I had the discipline to always follow this idea, since it’s that good. I think about this teaching when I am raking the lawn, shoveling snow or other myriad tasks that life throws me. It helps me do the best job I can when I am mindful of this teaching. In business this is where care for your work and understanding your personal brand come in. Everything you do either makes the brand “you” stronger or weaker, which influences people’s perceptions of your capability and trustworthiness.
  5. Train by watching. You can learn a great deal watching. The Japanese call this study “mitori geiko,” or training by watching. You can learn a great deal by observing. You don’t always have to “do.” When I start a new role, I spend 30 days in an immersion period where I attend meetings and watch the room. I don’t participate much in these meetings; I just observe. This helps me learn a great deal about the people and the culture.
  6. Push yourself. My Aikido school was famous for doing large sets of “ukemi,” the study of falling safely when thrown. The first time I did 100 ukemi in a row, I thought I was going to pass out. After that set, I noticed the next time I did 50 breakfalls in a row, it was not as hard. Then I did 250, and 100 became easier. When I did 1,000 breakfalls in a row, then 500 was not so bad. Physical barriers are often created in our mind. Control yourself by controlling your mind. Do your best to push yourself as hard as you can (without causing harm), and detach from the outcome. Just enjoy the process. Anything you take on may be harder at first. Think about this idea when you start something like a new diet or exercise program. It will get easier.
  7. Everyone had to walk in the first time. Meet people where they are. The 4th degree black belt you meet when you start training is where they are in skill level and time dedicated to their study. You may watch how effortless everything is for them and wish you were that good. But they, too, were once a clumsy white belt. They got to where they are through persistence and hard training. You will look back in a few years and realize how far you have come in whatever journey your life takes. This connects well with the last item, especially when starting a new role or task. It is easy to look around and see how easy everyone in the office seems to be handling things and you don’t even know where the second restroom is. Trust that one year later a new person will watch how easy you handle your job with wide-eyed wonder.
  8. Martial arts are about service. The higher in rank you go, the more obligated you are to serve. This is true in management and servant leadership. Think about your fellow students and your instructors and how you can serve them better. The rewards will come back to you ten-fold. Your teachers are passing on a gift to you. Make sure they know that you appreciate it. Everything you do represents your school and your art, and that is a big responsibility. I believe this is true in business as well. Be a “helper” not a “helpee,” and understand that everything you do represents your personal brand and your company’s brand.
  9. There are always people better than you and worse than you. You can learn from and teach both. I have learned some important things from white belts. I have learned what not to do from black belts. The whole point of martial arts is to learn. When others get better, you get better. In business know that everyone has skill or they probably wouldn’t be employed. When you see real talent, it is better to enjoy it than to be jealous of it.
  10. Don’t get hit by the second arrow. Kushida-sensei used this idea to explain why it is not good to compound your mistakes. No one is perfect, and action can lead to mistakes. Don’t let your reaction to one mistake lead to other errors. We are all imperfect, and we train to do one thing perfectly one time. Through one thing, you can get a small glimpse of what mastery looks like. Mistakes are a chance for growth, but only if you don’t add to the mistake. I was once taught that doing a technique incorrectly with pure intention, all the way to the end, was a strong form of study and better than stopping and starting over. This idea is really critical. In basketball it is called a “shooter’s mentality” if a person can miss 20 straight and pull up for the 21st shot with no hesitation. Take in what happened, work to figure it out, learn, then let it go.

I have earned the rank of Shodan (or first degree black belt) and become a certified instructor in Yoshokai Aikido. I have earned a four-stripe purple belt in Jiu Jitsu. But those are just manmade rewards for years and year of practice. My 15 years on the mat has made me more complete, more focused, less afraid and a much stronger person I have discovered how to let go of attachment to outcomes and how to be grateful. For me, those are lessons worth working toward.