Business Lessons I Have Learned From Chinese Martial Arts

I spent a good portion of my 20s training and teaching Chinese Martial Arts under Shifu Nick Scrima of the Chinese Martial Arts Center in Clearwater, Florida. Shifu Scrima is a well-respected master instructor and promoter of International Chinese Martial Arts Championships, so, he is pretty legit. By extension, for a brief shining period, I had a small claim to a portion of that legitimacy and awesomeness, but now I am just another out of shape client service guy. The extent of my training currently is watching Donnie Yen movies on NetFlix and getting angry at myself that I can’t touch my toes.

Over the years as I have drifted away from regular training and practice and focused more on the career stuff one thing has remained constant — the lessons I learned from Chinese Martial Arts under Shifu still impact how I deal with the world.

Learning a traditional Martial Art well is like learning a new language, it is broad and deep and has wide impact on the way your brain interacts with the world. Beyond wanting to sit at the corner table with your back to the wall at Chili’s, martial arts also impacts how you approach people, how you handle pressure, how you respond to difficult personalities, situations and more.

And this is equally true in relation to business.

To start off (and let me be clear here, these are my takeaways from my years as a teaching and training martial artist, this is in no way martial arts canon) there are three kinds of mind frames that need to be understood in order for everything else to sink in and make sense. This happens over time and generally in the following order:


Don’t forget to breathe. Think actively about breathing. In a fight, or any intense endeavor it is easy to forget to breathe. How many times at work or at the movies have you realized that you had been holding your breath in anticipation of something, without realizing it? The less oxygen you have coming in, the easier it is for your brain to get cluttered or distracted. Remember to breathe. Don’t forget to breathe.

Be like water.

Bruce Lee didn't make that up, it has been a long standing metaphor in martial arts, going back to Sun Tzu. The original quote is: “Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.” Be adaptable to the situation. Not every victory requires a battle. Not every fight is a fight. Not every business competitor is necessarily a competitor. Not every negative is a bad thing. Assess and change, don’t let a block stop you in your place, go around and find the best solution based on the circumstances. Don’t force a solution if it doesn't fit.

Learn stillness.

It is a common impression that in a fight you have to keep moving, but the truth is in a fight you need to know when to move, and when to be still. And being still is the harder skill to master. Being still allows your brain time to access the situation and build a three dimensional image of everything that is going on. Those moments when you are still are the moments when you choose to be in charge of yourself. It is you subduing the “Fight or Flight” instinct and making a choice. Whenever you are jumpy inside, or anxious, or unsure of your next move, just be still. For just a moment. Look around and see where you fit into the situation and realize that you still have control of yourself. Center your attention and find your balance.

Now that we have that as our foundation, let’s go over some of the main lessons I have learned in Chinese Martial Arts and how they apply to Business:

There is no magic key.

Kung Fu (the common name for Chinese Martial Arts) literally translates as “hard work” or “skillful effort”. You have to put in the work to get the benefit out the other side. I have known so many people that were looking for that secret formula. The easy way to easy street. Minimal effort, maximum return. They would all inevitably give up when they saw what it took. Success only comes from effort. You can’t sell without asking for the sale. You can’t build something without actually building something. Put in the work and you will find success. Maybe not in the way you expected, but that is okay.

Build muscle memory early.

It’s all in the reflexes. And those reflexes all start from developing a strong foundation and good fundamentals. You gotta know how your business works, what are those things that are important. Where is the margin, where are the hard costs, etc. You need to know that stuff so that you don’t have to spend a bunch of time later trying to figure it out when you don’t have the time to figure it out. Don’t waste time. Start learning as soon as possible. Be starving for knowledge, skills and experience. That makes it all that much simpler.

Form work (process) is important.

As stated earlier, you have to be fluid and willing to adjust as the situation dictates. Form work or kata should be looked at as the process that allows you to accomplish that. It is integral to getting things done when there are moving parts and more than one person involved. But it is a means to the end and not the end itself. Once you have a good grasp of the process, that is when you are free to innovate. Just remember, though, that creating things out of thin air with no real foundation rarely works, and when it does, it is because you are not recognizing the foundation that was already in place. Know process, but also know its place.

Wear shoes when training.

In traditional Chinese Martial Arts you train in shoes, or rather you train in the equipment that you will be wearing when you fight. Because in a real fight, there isn't going to be time to take them off first. Plus, ain't nobody wanting to see your bare feet at the office. Just, please always wear shoes in a business environment, if not for you, then for all the rest of us. Thank you.

Go high, go low.

Don’t be repetitive, don’t do the expected thing. You gotta change up your approach. Using the same script or elevator pitch will not work forever. Punch high, kick low. Don’t rely on the same combination over and over again. People are watching you, give them something to watch. Kick high, punch low. Step left, press down. Be solid, be consistent, be aggressive, be respectful, but don’t be predictable.

Know your tools.

Fist, foot, hip, head, sword, staff. It doesn’t do any good to have a whole bunch of options if you don’t know how they are used. Take the time to be familiar with your white papers, marketing brochures, websites, training material, sales support team, demand generation resources, clients’ backgrounds, competitors’ strengths and weaknesses, and more. As GI Joe was fond of saying, “Knowing is half the battle”. So, get some “know” under your belt and stop being worried about being prepared by just being prepared.

Get used to getting hit.

Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it — there is nothing quite as mind clearing as taking a solid shot to the head. But be sure not to make it a habit, because then you are just getting beat up. And just getting beat up is bad. Very bad. And not the goal. The goal is always to come out further ahead than where you started. Know and remember what struggle and failure feels like and then work hard to overcome it.

Protect your center.

Keep your core stable and protected. In business this refers to who you are deep down. Hopefully you are an ethical, hard working individual and this is what you protect and maintain. Goals are important, but ideals are what move the world. Protect that and all will be well in the long run.

The years I spent as a Martial Artist, both practitioner and teacher, under my Shifu were great years. And the lessons I have learned turned out to be more valuable than being ready for a bar fight (never had one), or defending myself against muggers (hasn’t been an issue yet). The important thing that it gave me was a type of language and philosophy that allowed me to confidently engage the world, and that has served me well in my business life as well as everything else. And that is pretty cool.

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