The Most Important Discipline

Of the many “disciplines” I write about, there is one that I maintain is the most important of all. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was just one thing you had to do that would solve all the other puzzles? The answer is, yes, it would be. And, in a very real way, you get your wish.

Now, before I wrap this up in a bow, I have to point out that there are nine big pictures areas of mental discipline that I write about. I refer to these as The Nine Disciplines of Sustainable Growth, or sometimes just the Nine Disciplines. I’ll skip their definitions here because they are easily found on my website or in my book (Grow on Purpose: The Nine Disciplines of Sustainable Growth), but they are the Disciplines of Living, Learning, Planning, Practicing, Restoring, Attracting, Loving, Creating, and Centering.

Sometimes this whole big list of important subjects can seem to be intimidating. It doesn’t need to be a huge challenge to make sense of it all, but sometimes it helps to have a place to get started before digging into everything else.

So… Where to begin? What’s the most important thing on that list?

I’ll spare you the game of cat and mouse and skip the many reasons I could say that each of the Nine Disciplines is the most important. They’re all important in my view or I wouldn’t include them in the model at all. They all do something I think is vital to long term sustainable growth.

But the single most important of all Disciplines is the Discipline of Practicing. Why…? Because it provides a real starting point. It lets you dig into whatever you’re interested in or whatever your role is without feeling like you have to satisfy a bunch of other external requirements. If you just get started at doing what you’re passionate about in whatever way you’re able to, you’ll learn along the way and discover all the various puzzles you could encounter – AND, you’ll probably find solutions to those puzzles.

If a person got started in a profession with almost no preparatory training and sincerely intended to improve along the way, I believe he or she would probably discover all of the other disciplines along the way and figure out how to manage them. It might take longer than having these things spelled out early in the game. But puzzles would present themselves and a resourceful human being would seek out or develop solutions to those puzzles. It’s what we do.

But there is no substitute for getting started. You can make a lot of other mistakes and not scuttle your entire opportunity to succeed in a given role. But if you don’t get started and get busy with your craft, you’ll go nowhere. Time will pass and you’ll still be wondering how things might have worked out for you if only you would have… tried. Put in the effort. Given it a shot. Taken the risk. If only you had faced the task of beginning and then stayed with it.

I’ll give you one aspect of the Discipline of Practicing to add to this most basic and most important of all concepts. Here it is… Ready? Make consistent daily effort. Do something every day to chip away at your practice. If you believe it’s important, be all about it. If you want to be stronger, hit the weights, every day. Rest days are overrated. You can always vary your intensity and your routines. But until your practice is highly refined, you don’t need days off. You need practice.

Do you want to learn to play a musical instrument? Piano, maybe? Practice. Every single day. Open up the music book and put your fingers on the keys. Play a scale. Do it again. And, again. And, again. Until it’s easy. And, then practice more.

I’ve heard it said that amateurs practice until they can do it right. Professionals practice until they can’t do it wrong. I might take it a step further and say that virtuosos practice until they are beyond right or wrong, and whatever they’re doing is beautiful in its own way. How good do you want to be?

Do you want to make more sales? Talk to someone today. Do it again tomorrow. Take no days off. OK, maybe you feel like one day per week should be a family day. Fine. Give yourself ten minutes that day to review your product or service information to refresh your memory. Role play an interaction in your head. Touch that role every day.

Brain wiring is formed by frequency of repetition over time and emotional significance. If it matters to you, the brain wiring will be stronger. If you touch it daily, you’ll keep those perishable skills from falling away. Take days off and watch how hard it is to pick it back up again after a break. You’ll need a hammer and chisel to chip off the rust and then the rationalization and excuse making will kick in. It’s harder to start up again than it is to just keep doing the important thing every day. Don’t let society fool you into thinking you’re weak and that you’ll burn out. Just change your intensity or adjust your program here and there for variety’s sake, but touch this activity Every – Single – Day.

Just practice. Just train. Less talk. More action. Get after it.

Go.

On Fear vs Love: Choose your motivations wisely

In the martial arts world:

I generally see people moving in one of two directions. They’re either moving toward something they want – or away from something they want to avoid. You could say they’re either motivated by fear or desire, depending on which direction they’re moving. Another word for desire – a stronger word that puts the motivation on a higher emotional plane – is love.

I’m not talking about base level motivation; that natural or automatic driver of behavior. I’m saying we have the ability to choose our motivations and decide for ourselves which to pay attention to. Fear is the easy one. Desire is also pretty easy and automatic. But to choose a course of action out of love will require you to look more closely at what’s really driving your behavior.

Are you training (in martial arts) to avoid getting beaten in some scenario (neighborhood/community/competition, etc.)? That’s training driven by fear, which is a perfectly fine motivator, but it won’t take you as far as you can possibly go. Why not? Because eventually you’re going to figure out that your self-defense needs have been met or that you’re done with competition or that you’ve moved to a better neighborhood and the active threat is gone. Then what? Training loses its appeal and you’re done. Then you stagnate. Then you atrophy. Then you slide backwards into old age and decline. Eventually, you wish you would have kept training, but you know how hard that road is and you probably won’t pick it back up again…

Are you training because you want to be stronger? That’s desire. That might work for a good long time. The desire to be stronger can work as a vacuum to pull you forward into your training for a good long time. Until you age beyond the time when your body is willing to add muscle tissue and in fact starts to lose muscle mass no matter how hard you train or how much protein you consume. Eventually, age gets us all and we go into some level of lesser overall strength. Your original desire won’t carry you through your training forever.

Now, to elevate this to the level of being motivated by love, you need to look at WHY you want to be stronger. Maybe it was that you value health and longevity and that high value can be channeled into loving yourself. Maybe you value health and longevity (and you do need to survive in order to have both of those) IN ORDER TO be present for and with your family for as long as possible. Ah… That’s love. Maybe you have such affection and compassion for other people that you want to be able to step in to defend others should the need arise. That’s love. Maintaining your training and your skillsets can do those things for you – for a lifetime. And it is very hard to do this functionally out of any other motivation other than love of something or someone. It might be love of yourself and that’s highly functional and valid. It might also be love of something or someone outside of you.

In the business world:

Now, to apply this idea to other pursuits, like career or business activities outside of the training hall, we need to, again, give thought to our motivations.

Are you pursuing career or business growth simply to avoid having to live under a bridge someday? That’s fear. And, it may come as a surprise, but a very high percentage of successful people are driven by this very specific fear. That fear does drive them to become materially and financially successful, but at what cost? What relationships do they lose sight of along the way? What higher values do they forget about to avoid living under that bridge? Only they can know…

What about pursuing financial growth and gains in order to be able to buy nice things; the house, the car, maybe horses (horses are expensive in more ways than one.) That’s desire. And that might take you pretty far… Until you realize that having all the pretty things hasn’t bought you a LIFE. This is a fairly common starting point. But it’s not a motivation that leads to a fulfilled life or a real sense of enjoyment.

To take it a step further into being motivated by love, consider having a look at WHY you wanted to be able to afford the nice things in the first place. Was it because you just like nice things? OK, maybe you could focus that appreciation into a sense of gratitude for excellent design and become a patron of the arts. That’s love. Was it because you think nice things will attract a certain kind of mate? Maybe you could focus on having clarity about the kind of person you would prefer to be spending your life with – and what kind of person you need to be in order to attract your perfect mate. That’s love. And once you do that, you’ll still be able to fulfill on your intention of strong financial growth while also recognizing that the money isn’t the most important thing to you. You may see that your love is actually not the money and that the money is just a tool that can be used to support someone or something else that you actually do love.

Give thought to what’s driving your behavior. Fear is effective in the short term and it can get you started. Desire will take you pretty far as well, but will eventually fade. Love, on the other hand, turns out to be more powerful and longer lasting. It’s much more constructive and truly sustainable in the long run. This is worth as much meditation and focus as it takes to find a loving motivation for whatever you’re doing, and it’s a strong personal choice to decide to stop running away from things in life and discover for yourself who and what you love and choose those sources to inspire your decisions.

I consider this a step in the direction of sustainable growth and working with all the tools available to us as human beings.

On Learning Styles

While teaching a new student in a Tai Chi class recently, I noticed that he followed the movements of his hands with his eyes, especially when his hands were in a new or unusual position. While he was learning the movements we were working on, he almost HAD TO track his hands with his eyes. This is interesting and important given that the nature of Tai Chi and qigong breathing exercises is to pay attention to the internal aspects of the movements – the feeling of the movements, themselves – more than the appearance of the movements.

Natural Learning Style vs Developmental Goals of Training

What was happening for him was that his natural and preferred learning style was engaging, and that has to be recognized along the way. In the long run, in the practice of Tai Chi and qigong, the student is going to have to adjust away from looking at the positioning of the hands and move in the direction of feeling the overall position of the body, which is ultimately a key purpose of this kind of training. It’s a simple change – but not an easy one.

Others have different learning styles. Students with an auditory learning style may prefer to hear descriptions of the movements we’re doing in the class so they can process through what they hear and follow those verbal/auditory cues. Others may feel compelled to talk through the movements and describe what they’re doing. These two styles are similar, but they work in different directions. One prefers to hear what they’re supposed to do while the other is compelled to speak and express their understanding of what they’re supposed to do.

Variations

There are variations on these styles that can be based on other skills or talents a student may possess. A visual learner who has a strong background in drawing or sketching might benefit from drawing pictures of the movements or postures they’re learning. A verbal processor may benefit from writing in a journal about what is being taught. Some who feel compelled to verbally express what they’re doing need to also hear where they are accurate or inaccurate in what they have expressed; they need feedback. Another variation of the verbal processing style is that the student isn’t really interested in hearing where they’re on track or off; the point for this student is that they just need to talk while they move.

Some learn best while doing movements in coordination with others. This is a collaborative learning style. Others don’t need that as much and prefer to learn something (through whatever their learning style may be) and then work off to the side on their own without further collaboration.

There is also a kinesthetic learning style that simply prefers to move and be physically involved in learning. Not surprisingly, this style lends itself very well to learning martial arts, dance, and other sports. Any movement oriented activity is likely to land well with this individual. This learning style is an advantage at first, and it is a very natural style in a quiet practice like training in any type of kung fu, but all the learning styles can be put to good use over time.

Introversion vs Extroversion

But then there is still another aspect of how a person prefers to learn. It’s the orientation of whether the student’s preferred focus is internal or external. To put it in the language used by personality typing systems, it’s the question of whether the student is introverted or extroverted.

The introverted student is more likely to stay in his or her own mind and body while also using whichever learning style works best for him or her. The extroverted learner is likely to talk more or watch and/or interact with others more. To confuse this even further, there are some students who are what I would call social introverts, meaning that while they do prefer to focus inwardly, they also thrive on having some time to talk things through with other people. Learning styles are not always simple.

The Essential Nature of Tai Chi and Qigong

As it turns out, Tai Chi and Qigong are internal kinesthetic practices. That suggests that the introvert who is also kinesthetic in his or her learning style is most likely to go immediately into the aspects of the practice that are naturally emphasized. But all of the learning styles can be used along the way and it is very common for students to engage their preferred learning style when working with something new, but then go deeper into the internal practice as they become physically and mentally comfortable with what they’re doing. Once the movements have been memorized, it becomes easier for the visual learner, for example, to stop watching his or her own hands moving in the air. Then they can engage their physical senses to find the feeling of where they are in space. At that point, the practice is becoming more internal and less external, which is one of the main goals of the practice.

All of the learning styles are valid, especially in processing new information. The farther a student goes in this form of training, the more they are likely to develop a sense of connection with their bodies. But their original learning style is unlikely to change. The person doesn’t necessarily change. But they do develop a new ability to quickly sense where they are in space and understand what they’re doing physically.

In the long run, what matters most is the practice itself and how that triggers the evolution of the individual over time.

Phases of Training and When to Engage Different Learning Styles

All of this knowledge about learning styles suggests that there are some distinctions that need to be made in the various phases of training:

  1. Learning: absorbing NEW knowledge, movements, skills, techniques, etc. Of course, all of these phases involve “learning” but in the discussion of learning styles in the context of practicing something that inherently funnels a student into a practice mode that is different from his or her preferred learning style, it’s important to point out the differences and the right time to change methods. Consider making allowances for the student’s preferred learning style when teaching content that is new to the student.
  2. Practice: the ongoing repetition of something that has been “learned” in the past. The movements may not be new, but they have not been fully absorbed or internalized. Nor should a student ever assume the mindset or belief that they are done learning, regardless of experience level. During the practice phase, the student should attempt to emulate the internal method of focusing attention in an introverted manner and paying close attention to the kinesthetic feeling of the movements being performed. This will develop new brain wiring more effectively and help the student gain insights into the movements at the same time.
  3. Study: the student who is trying to deepen his or her understanding of a movement or combination of movements may isolate those movements and perform a large number of repetitions in order to focus on just those movements for a period of time. This might be done during a single practice session or over the course of a series of sessions to leverage the effect of that focus. The student’s preferred learning style should be employed during this phase when possible. For example, even though the practice of Tai Chi is generally carried out in silence to enable the internal focus, a collaborative learner with a preference for verbal learning would benefit from working with a partner or small group to repeat the movements while talking or take frequent breaks to discuss what is being practiced. The challenge in this idea is keeping a balance between moving and talking. It is easy for the talking to take over and the movement to take a backseat, which is not fully constructive, either. Balance is the key. It may also be very difficult for students with polar opposite learning styles to work together in this regard unless one or both of them is willing and able to flex into a different style for a period of time.
  4. Teaching: using discernment to determine which method to allow or encourage at any given time, depending on the students involved.

These concepts relating to learning styles are all being addressed in the context of studying Tai Chi and Qigong. But most of this material would transfer into other activities, as well, with the main differences being found in the essential nature of whatever the other activity might be.

What are you learning? And what’s your preferred style?

Pain is Temporary: On Mental Toughness and Focus

There is a story in today’s Washington Post that beautifully illuminates the role that can be played by mental discipline and focus. If it’s important to you to work or play at the highest levels, there will be times when it is necessary to keep moving through a tough stretch.

Here are the basics of the story…

Bill Hurley III just won the Quicken Loans National golf tournament at the Congressional Country Club, yesterday. This wasn’t just any old golf win. This was a story of composure and finesse under pressure throughout stresses that are much bigger than the game of golf.

Bill Hurley just won his first major golf tournament. He’s not a big name in golf. By appearances, he should have been elated at the victory. He should have been jumping for joy. But his story goes much farther…

He’s a former Navy Surface Warfare Officer who has been recognized at least twice for his ability to drive a 10,000 ton ship under challenging circumstances. He has also just gone through some major family stress. His father, a former police officer, had gone missing for nine days, last July. Hurley had done a press conference prior to the tournament to help get the word out to his father to please come home in case there was a chance his dad checked out the golf websites and happened to see the message. They made contact, but a few weeks later his father was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. This is a story about enduring a sadness that has never left the family throughout the last year as they try to understand an event that seemed so out of character for who they knew their father and grandfather to be.

Yesterday, on a golf course in Bethesda, Maryland, Bill Hurley III lived his values as a mentally disciplined, highly focused professional who is capable of staying on his game throughout a period of withering diversity.

He was partnered for that round with Ernie Els, a top player who is well regarded in the sport. It may have helped that Els is a class act who was encouraging and supportive throughout the day, but something tells me Hurley was rising to the occasion no matter how the game would have been played that day. Hurley also beat out Vijay Singh for the day, defeating another top name.

I looked it up. Ernie Els is ranked 238th in the world. Vijay Singh? Vijay lands at 119th. Bill Hurley…? His win yesterday moved him up in the rankings from 607th to 169th. Hurley credits his experiences as a Navy Officer with having helped him develop the mental toughness and focus that carried him through this period of his life and, ultimately, this victory on the golf course.

My bottom line on this story: There were literally hundreds of golfers on the PGA tour (at least 606 of them) who were ranked better than Bill Hurley III going into this tournament. There were at least a couple of guys there who were widely recognized “household names” in golf who didn’t play as well as Hurley, and many top names who didn’t show up to play that day. But the guy who won showed up with everything he had and kept his head in the game, regardless of whatever thoughts may have been chirping around in the back of his mind.

Well played, sir. I offer my condolences on your family’s loss; my congratulations on this win, and may there be many more to follow. May the pain of your family’s loss be temporary. May your pride in this accomplishment last forever…

(For the full article on Hurley’s win: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/golf/hurley-wins-quicken-loans-national-the-way-only-an-officer-and-a-gentleman-can/2016/06/26/d4d2dcae-3bae-11e6-80bc-d06711fd2125_story.html#comments )

On Showing Up

I consider myself a craftsman. Most people think of crafts like building, sculpting, painting, engraving, etc. The work that I do as an executive coach and as a kung fu teacher is all designed to build stronger people and stronger organizations. That’s the nature of my craft.

I’m writing this after finishing one of my kung fu classes. In an unusual turn of events, there was only one student who showed up for a group class. This happened to be one of the students who has been training with me the longest. I opened my kung fu school in 2010 and this is a student who has been training with me longer than five years. Not coincidentally, he has progressed to a level that has him preparing for his test for the black sash rank.

When others are “too busy” or “too tired,” the one who shows up is the one who is going to continue to advance.

This is true no matter what pursuit or craft we’re talking about. It doesn’t matter whether you’re building a financial services practice, running any kind of business, or trying to improve in a martial art or a sport of some kind. We all have to identify the fundamentals of whatever game we’re playing in the world and be about the business of showing up and doing those things. Some days it’s fun. Some days it’s not. Some days it feels good. Some days it’s tiring and painful. Other than to avoid damage or recover from injury, none of that really matters.

If you want to improve; if you want to advance; if you want to learn more, be more, or get more – you have to show up.

My hat is off to those who continue to show up for whatever it is they do, day in, day out. There is a certain kind of flow that comes from consistent effort and only those who show up every day to put in the effort will ever find it.

J-curve: The human dimension of change [VIDEO]

Have you ever tried something new – a software program, a diet, or perhaps a resolution to go to the gym – just to give it up a week or two later?

Have you ever felt that a change, however beneficial from the outside, was actually causing you do WORSE?

If so, I would like to introduce you to the J-curve. This is a fantastic tool for managing your mental game when things are a-changing. Enjoy!

The awake state

I am often working with students in the kung fu school on the state of being Awake. This is an internal skill that develops over time while the student is working on developing the external physical skills of whatever style they may be practicing.

The Awake state is probably somewhere between serenity, rage, and terror. If you were to draw it as a Venn Diagram with three overlapping circles representing those emotional states, you would want to be in the center. (A young Charles Xavier describes this very well to an also young Eric Magnus Lehnsherr, AKA Magneto, in X-Men: First Class and here’s a clip from YouTube… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7aEn7p4yhg )   Other emotions could be added to the diagram like Acceptance (of what is,) Curiosity, Willingness, Compassion, etc., but I think the essential point is that too calm is too calm.

Too angry is too angry. Too fearful is too fearful. Even too compassionate is too compassionate. We do need some edge, especially in the fighting disciplines. But I think this concept applies to any task requiring effort, particularly during critical moments. Clutch situations require us to access everything we know, everything we feel, and sometimes even things that we don’t know intellectually or feel emotionally or physically. In these cases, access to our intuition may make the difference between success or failure, life or death.  The clutch moment requires us to be fully awake; fully human.

On human potential

Today is Memorial Day. We remember those who have paid the ultimate price to secure our freedoms. One of the things I love about our system and the structure of rights and responsibilities it creates is the opportunity we are provided to grow into the best possible versions of ourselves. Not that it’s easy. Not that we are absolved of the need to work. In fact, quite the contrary. Today and every day, go out and live your life. Pursue your interests and your passions – not just to make money or to simply have fun, but because the drive to grow, achieve, and enjoy will provide you with the greatest crucible you could ever design. A few who have gone on before spent all of their potential to buy time for the many who remained and for all of us who came after them. If you’ve ever wanted to thank someone who has passed from this earth in your service, LIVE WELL. It is the greatest form of gratitude. If you’ve lost someone who was close to you, it is the best revenge. Live. Enjoy. Become. And today, remember.

The wisdom of telling time

What time is it now? Seems like a simple question, you might say as you glance at your watch, cell phone, or the clock on the wall. We all learned to tell time in kindergarten. How hard can it be?

The answer might surprise you. Telling time can be the hardest thing you do all day. When you watch your to-do list spin out of control, surf the Internet during the afternoon post-lunch coma, yawn through a long meeting, or look in despair at that pile of dishes in the kitchen sink, or at the pile of snow outside your front door, what you are really struggling with is telling what time it is.

Allow me to explain. Continue reading