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Three Lessons Muay Thai Has Taught Me as a Product Manager

Moments before the first round at my fight in March of 2019
Moments before the first bell of my fight (March 2019).

Five years ago, I went backpacking in Thailand with a couple of girlfriends. It was during this trip that I first learned about Muay Thai, a martial art and the combat sport of Thailand. Muay Thai is also known as the “art of eight limbs” — a characterization of a fighter’s weapons: the sets of hands, elbows, knees and shins used in this martial art.

I took a class in Chiang Mai. It would end up being the first of many.

Once I got back home to New York City, I joined a local gym, and I fell in love with the art so much that it became an integral part of my daily routine. Soon enough, I found myself training in fight camps and facing serious fears, as I prepared to step into the ring and fight.

Muay Thai taught me discipline, it taught me perseverance, it gave me hours of pure meditative focus, it gave me a space to release, and most importantly, it humbled me.

As I started my journey with Muay Thai, I also learned the ropes in product management at a startup company. I became grateful for the myriad ways in which the lessons I learned in training transcend outside the ring, and into my personal and professional life.

I learned to disassociate not knowing from not being enough. I built my confidence on my growth rather than focusing on how much I had yet to learn.

After my first Muay Thai class in Chiang Mai — this would become the first of many.

While the list is never-ending, here are the top three lessons Muay Thai has taught me as a product manager:

  • Leave your ego at the door.
  • Have a beginner’s mind.
  • Test it out, so you can grow.

Leave your ego at the door

Enter a Muay Thai gym, and it doesn’t really matter what you look like, how much money you make or your social clout. Muay Thai will force you to leave all the identities you wear in the everyday world at the door. The most successful students are the ones who come in open-minded, curious, willing to learn and, most importantly, willing to do the work.

As a new practitioner, I remember admiring the fighters throwing their sets of combinations, blocking the kicks, closing the distance, seemingly unfazed by the punches that came their way. I remember wanting to get to that place quickly. I soon learned that, no matter how eager or talented an athlete you are upon walking in, it is only through years of the daily grind, constant testing, iterating and pushing your boundaries that you get to effortlessly throw punches and get hit back — and still have fun.

I learned to identify and familiarize myself with my ego. I learned to disassociate not knowing from not being enough. I built my confidence on my growth rather than focusing on how much I had yet to learn.

Similarly, the same lessons apply to me as a product manager. I may have the end vision of the product in sight, but it is through the daily grind of identifying the core issue, the willingness to pivot, doing the hard work of uncovering the edge cases, and conducting thorough validation that I can start to build truly impactful solutions.

Additionally, as a product manager, I will never know all the answers, and it may take me a bit more time to learn the technical details. But just like your teammates show up for you everyday in Muay Thai, product management requires a team of people who help refine your craft and help you grow. It is the teammates — the smart and curious designers, engineers and users — that allow you to build great solutions that are highly impactful and solve for the users’ needs.

With some of my teammates from Sitan.

Have a beginner’s mind

Another great lesson I learned from Muay Thai is to always remain curious, teachable and malleable.

No matter how many hours you may have spent training or the number of fights you have under your belt, there is always something new to learn. My trainer, Aziz, who has trained fighters for more than 30 years, still goes back to Thailand every year, because “the sport is constantly evolving, and there is something new to learn.”

Similarly, in product management, I have learned to remain open-minded, question all assumptions, and listen deeply. When I’m talking with users about problems we want to solve, I often have to dig deeper to uncover the things they are not saying, which may be part of the fundamental issue. I have to be intentional about identifying any biases I may be carrying, and to listen openly and with a beginner’s mind.

Again, another parallel between Muay Thai and product is that in both scenarios, in order to be fully successful, you have to rely on the greater team.

I have teammates and coaches who serve as the second set of eyes (no matter how hard I think I am turning that hip) when I can’t see how I’m missing the mark. They see my blind spots, and they help me to become a better athlete.

In product, I have skilled teammates who bring different perspectives of design, engineering and the business. It is only through our collaborative efforts that we build impactful solutions.

Stumbling and falling together with my opponent during our fight.

Test it out, so you can grow

Working on perfecting your technique, hitting the bag in the corner of the gym by yourself and watching a hundred videos will do you good — to an extent. Ultimately, you have to get in that ring. You have to test it out.

The amount of growth I experienced preparing for a fight vs. casually training is significant.

It was in the ring — getting punched in the face in front of hundreds of people, giving it all I had, learning to lose, learning to win — that I gained the type of lessons and growth that come from testing myself. You learn success comes from taking action — from trying it out. It’s through fight camps that I learned to embrace adversity and failure as a part of the curriculum for substantial growth.

Similarly, in product, while I can spend all my time refining, anticipating all the edge cases and making it perfect, the reality is, it is by shipping out a minimal viable product and getting real-time feedback, that I’ll get material in return I can build upon and iterate the product to fruition. So don’t be afraid to build out what you think may work, to put it out into the world to test, to gather feedback, to fail and to keep iterating on it.

At the end of the day, there is no end state, whether it be an athletic performance or product management. The lessons and the success are found in the constant evolution and iteration, itself.

And as we say getting into the ring after all that hard work: Go out there, and have some fun.

Celebrating our win with my trainers, Aziz and Joel.



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