On choosing mentors and teachers

Finding mentors and teachers today is both easier and harder than ever. It is easier because the digital age permits us nearly unlimited access to information and people. Paradoxically, it is also much harder for this very reason – finding the correct teacher is incredibly difficult amidst much noise.

11 years on the path

One of the most important aspects of finding mentors and teachers is knowing what you need. Often, this can conflict with what we want. We may want cheery motivation and gentle support, but what we really need is a solid boot in the butt to get us moving. Or, we may think we needs to go through a hard-core boot camp or “man up”, but what we really need is to take it slowly so as to reacclimatize ourselves to difficult working circumstances and adversity, whether at the gym or at work. I’ve been in both situations!

How do you know the difference between what you want and what you need? Chances are, you know the difference deep down inside, if you are truly honest with yourself. It is the nagging voice in your head that says, you really should do this. You really ought to do that. It is the voice that says, this isn’t the healthiest or smartest choice, or the voice that says, that’s not going to be comfortable, let’s just put that off until tomorrow. The hard part is accepting the honesty you have inside yourself.

Once you know what you need, look for mentors or teachers who are living the results you want to achieve. It’s that simple (but not easy). Look at their lives and see what results they’re getting. If their life looks like what you want your life to look like, then ask to study with them. Be sure, however, to look at the big picture! Someone may be an incredible martial artist but the rest of their life may be a disaster. Someone may be a phenomenal marketer but they may have a miserable family life. Do unrelated things matter, if they’re achieving the goals you want? Absolutely, because their perspective on life will tend to infiltrate yours, and so will their bad habits. Look at the big picture and make your choices from that.

Choose your teachers wisely!


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Leave no fear unanswered

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Over the weekend, I did one of my least favorite seasonal things: climbing up onto the roof of the house and cleaning out the gutters. The reason why this task is among my least favorite isn’t because it’s cleaning (which is admittedly boring most of the time), but because it requires me to face one of the fears I’ve had since I was a child, a fear of heights.

My earliest memory of this fear was when I was 5 or 6 years old, visiting a local amusement park. I climbed up a set of cargo nets at the park, and got high enough that I was probably 30 feet off the ground when I slipped. Being cargo nets, I got tangled up almost immediately and didn’t even truly fall, but that was enough to make a negative impression on me about heights.

During my brown belt test in 1999, I took a different kind of fall, dislocating a shoulder on a rock from leaping over a practice sword. After 7 weeks in a sling and another 8 weeks of rehabilitation, I was physically back to normal, but mentally I wasn’t. I had grown fearful of the set of techniques needed to successfully handle that part of the test, and I failed the second time around on that test for that very reason.

One of my instructors, Ken Savage, took me aside and said that unless I answered that fear, unless I tackled it head on, it would continue to grow on me and gain power. So for the next 3 months, I subjected myself to all manner of dive rolling and other sword evasions until that fear lost its grip over me. Before my next test, I drove out to the woods where I took my first brown belt test with a shovel and dug the rock out of the ground, then brought it with me to my third and successful brown belt test.

That technique – the technique of challenging and answering your fears – is one of the greatest benefits I’ve gained from martial arts training over the years. It’s little more than putting yourself willingly against your fears, defeating them over and over again, until the grip they hold lessens. They never go away, but they do lose their power and don’t regain it as long as you choose to not allow them to. That’s one of the greatest secrets of success I’ve ever received: leave no fear unanswered.

That’s why every spring and fall, I’m up on a ladder and clambering across the rooftop, scraping out the leaves. It’s not fun, and my fear of heights speaks loudly to me when I’m up there, but I answer that fear with quiet defiance, one handful of soggy leaves at a time. When I set foot on the ground after I’m done, I stand over my fears once more.


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Perceive and capture

At a recent seminar at the Boston Martial Arts Center, my teacher Mark Davis was talking about one of the oldest and most valuable skills that the ninja had, the ability to perceive and capture information rapidly and accurately.

Boston Martial Arts class

Contrary to popular belief, the ninja were not assassins so much as information gatherers. Much more of their job revolved around getting information that could be useful to avert danger and prevent problems, rather than tactics like assassination which tried to solve problem after it had occurred.

Old though it may be, the problem of information gathering is one that we still face in today’s society and is arguably more valuable than ever. We have, in some ways, become so over reliant on technology that our skills for perceiving and capturing information have atrophied significantly.

Think about how many people you know who have said, “I don’t need to remember that, I’ll just Google it”… and then never do, asking you what they said a minute, an hour, or a day later.

Thanks to digital and social media, people have become accustomed to (over)sharing information liberally, which means that more information is available than ever before for you to perceive and capture. Everything from competitive information, to industry trends, to important points during a conference keynote, to snippets of information overheard are floating around and could make a huge difference in your business. Even just perceiving and capturing your own information has value – how many times have you had a great idea for a blog post or a project at work and forgotten it moments later, instead of capturing it and reaping its value?

The good news is that perceive and capture is a trainable skill, something that you can teach yourself to do, rather than something you’re born with or raised with. The way you learn how to proceed and capture is fairly straightforward: do it a lot, do it as often as you can. Get in the habit of practicing remembering things:

  • Memorize license plates on the fly and try to write them down an hour later.
  • Go to a relatively unfamiliar place like a restaurant and look for the restroom, then try to navigate there as best as you can without using your eyes, relying on your memory. (to avoid looking like you’re crazy, just hold your phone very close to your face and you’ll appear just as another device addict)
  • Set a timer on your mobile phone for 3 minutes and then watch a lecture on YouTube; when the timer goes off, memorize every word the speaker is saying for the next 5, 30, or 60 seconds, then wait for 10 minutes and see how well you recall it.
  • Visit a coworker’s desk, take a mental snapshot, then go back to your desk and see how many of the items on the surface of their desk you can remember.

Perceive and capture is something you can practice, and depending on your line of work, could add significant value to your career. Train yourself to observe with exercises like the ones above, then practice, practice, practice!


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