This month marks my 40th year as a martial artist. (I know. I don’t look that old). Of the many lessons I have learned as a martial artist, I keep two uppermost in my mind. One is the meaning of the title of teacher. In Japan and Okinawa, a teacher is called Sensei, in Korea, Sa Bum Nim, and in China, Sifu. But eastern countries translate those titles beyond simply meaning “learned one.” The actual translation of the title of teacher is one who is born before. It is understood that anyone who is born before you has wisdom that a newer student should respect and seek to gain. In fact, older, higher ranking students in martial arts schools are not awarded belts, sashes, or degrees because of their advanced technique. They are awarded rank based on how well they pass along what they have learned to the next generation.
Being born before does not only refer to age. If a younger person began studying at a school before an older person joined, the younger person was born before in that particular discipline. As someone who has trained in several schools over the years, I have had to line up behind people who were both younger than myself, and who had less overall experience in the martial arts than me, but they were born before me at that school, and as such deserved my respect.
Another lesson was called, one thousand punches a day. When I first started training, my sensei, Kiyohisa Okamura, told me I should practice one thousand punches every day. I couldn’t understand this. The straight punch is the easiest technique in the book. Why should I spend so much time on it when there were other, more difficult techniques to learn? (Plus, the punch is kind of boring.). He said, “If you ever need to use your training to defend yourself, you aren’t going to do any of that fancy stuff you see in the movies. You will use a straight punch or a simple kick. Also, in real life you don’t get to square off against your opponent, like they do in the movies. Everything happens so fast it is over before you know it. When you are in the moment, your training will take over without you thinking. If you have practiced one thousand punches a day, your punch will be there when you need it. If you haven’t, you will have to think about what you are doing, and you will fail.”
Okamura finished with, “This is the same philosophy as the Chinese lesson of, chop wood, carry water. An old Zen saying is, Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. This reminds us if we only focus on the end result, we forget to do the things that move us forward every day. This follows the philosophy that the way a person does one thing, is the way they do everything. Approach every day by doing the simple tasks that will eventually lead you to where you want to go. Don’t focus too much on the end result, or it will never arrive.” I saw Okamura put this into practice one day when a new student asked to join the class. The man asked, “How long will it take me to get a black belt?” Okamura said, “If you train three times a week, probably about four or five years.” The man asked, “What if I train five times a week?” Okamura said, “Then it will take at least eight years.” Confused, the man asked, “What if I train every single day?” Okamura replied, “Ten years.” “I don’t understand,” the man said. “If I train harder and harder, why would it take longer to get a black belt?” Okamura said, “Because the more you focus on an end goal, the more elusive it becomes. And once you achieve it, it is meaningless. If you just train, with no thought of reward or rank, you will learn something more valuable than what you tie around your waist.”
So what does all this have to do with business? A lot. I didn’t think of writing these stories because of my 40th anniversary in the martial arts. I thought of them because of the trend our country has taken in its attitudes in the workplace and beyond. I see disrespect for age simply because an older person isn’t dialed into the most recent technology; forgetting that one who was born before has much to offer, even if they aren’t on Facebook or Snapchat. The flattening of corporate hierarchy is a good thing if the days of kissing the feet of the boss are gone. It is not a good thing if newer employees forget that some people have spent years at the company perfecting their skills.
I also lament the culture we have created where people get a medal just for showing up. I was working the registration desk at a youth event where competitors vied for trophies. In order to make sure no child felt bad, the organizers added a trophy for fourth place. And every child get a ribbon with a medal just for attending. As parents registered their children, the kids asked, “Where is my medal?” I responded, “You haven’t done anything, yet.” One parent didn’t like my comment and said, “Half of success is just showing up,” (misquoting Woody Allen’s “Showing up is 80 percent of life.”). I looked at her and said, “Yes, but the other half is doing something when you get there.” We are raising a generation that believes a room full of awards means something, even if they were bought and paid for.
We wonder why our employees have a hard time accepting criticism, or being passed over for a promotion, when they haven’t even done the job they were hired for. It is because we have forgotten to teach them that they must practice the one thousand punches a day that lead to growth and learning. One thousand punches a day means that sales professionals make phone calls every single day, instead of sending out an e-mail blast and waiting for the phone to ring. Doctors and nurses make rounds. Customer service reps listen to the same issue every day. Managers mentor employees face-to-face instead of by text. Business leaders sit down with clients instead of handing the job to a subordinate. To skip one day of practice punches is to focus only on the goal, and not the process.
How do managers and business leaders re-instill respect for those in the company who were born before? How do we get employees back to the discipline of practicing one thousand punches a day? First, make both expectations clear from day one. Too many leaders expect that, because they were raised that way, it is part of everyone’s workplace DNA. It isn’t. Second, reward those who are part of the process, not just those who cross the finish line. Don’t forget that the person who won the race had a lot of punchers pushing from behind.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.