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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The problem with swinging for the fences

MASFAA Closing Ceremonies at Fenway Park

Here are two conflicting sets of perspectives.

On the one hand, there’s an argument to be made for self actualization.

On the other hand, there’s an argument to be made that the “bugger it all, I’m swinging for the fences” is dangerously unrealistic.

Believe it or not, these two extremes are not mutually exclusive. How do you reconcile them? I take inspiration from one of my teachers, Ken Savage, who says frequently to us in the martial arts: don’t reach for what isn’t there.

When I was testing for my brown belt long ago, I thought I was a lot better than I actually was. That overconfidence got me injured fairly badly, and it took me two more tries to pass that test, once to overcome fear of re-injury, and one last time to break my beliefs about my abilities in order for me to clearly see what I could and could not do. In order to train for that final (passing) test, one of the senior black belts, Jon Merz, spent 6 weeks applying percussive education to me until those delusions were broken and I could see myself for what I was, not what I wanted to be.

When one of your teachers is barreling towards you, slinging knockout punches and kicks, it’s foolhardy to do anything except rely on what you actually know and can do to protect yourself until you find a moment of advantage. You don’t get cute or try to be clever, you just focus on not getting your head taken off. Eventually, you know what you are actually capable of, and you make improvements.

That’s the danger of a lot of the “self-actualization” advice being given. It’s conceptually reasonable advice – shoot for your dreams – but the uncomfortable truth is that many of us, myself included, don’t always have a realistic perception of where we actually are with our skills, with our capabilities, with our resources. We can believe we have abilities or resources we don’t actually have, and when we try to make our leap, we fall far short of where we believe we should be.

The higher the risk, the more sure you need to be when you make a jump. If you can jump three feet, you can confidently do a one foot jump under adverse conditions. If you can jump three feet, you can reach for three feet, one inch under safe conditions to see what you can and can’t reach. The danger is when you reach for something that isn’t there under adverse conditions and it forces you to lose focus on the things that you have a solid foundation in – and the “quit it all and do it” is the most adverse of conditions imaginable.

So how do you benchmark yourself? You put yourself in adverse conditions that are reasonably safe and you work on breaking your delusions until you know where you are. The easiest way to do that is to try with a reasonably low risk project that forces you to put all your skills to the test. Volunteer for something, or promote your own stuff if you’ve got a regular job, but set a goal for yourself and force yourself to hit it until you know what you can and can’t do. When you’re 6 weeks into a 90 day project and you’re not at all on track for your numbers, you’ll know what areas you still need to skill up on. You’ll know what is and isn’t there, and when you face a higher pressure, higher risk situation, you’ll know what you can and can’t reach for in order for you to achieve what you want to achieve.

Once you hit that point, the idealist self-actualization perspective won’t seem like a moonshot. “Quit your day job and break through” will seem like a natural, logical next step and not a pie in the sky dream. It will take time – perhaps years or even decades – to reach that point, but when you do, it won’t surprise you. In fact, it may even happen without your notice.


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