An interesting bit of Twitter conversation fleshed out.

chrisbrogan: 10,000 hours of practice: the magic number of skill mastery. – Gladwell.
cspenn: Gladwell failed to answer how to overcome advantages that other outliers have. Only major flaw in that book.
chrisbrogan: meaning, in a pool of many 10k folks, what causes one person to rise?
cspenn: more like his hockey example – if you were NOT born in the 3 golden months, how can you still excel?
chrisbrogan: I thought he posited that you can’t.

You can.

The art of the ninja is more about perseverance and psychology than throwing stars and swords. Ultimately, the ninja faced Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers to an opposite extreme: they were outnumbered, outfunded, outgunned, and outdone in nearly every way. They faced an unforgiving wilderness, a hostile government, treachery at every turn, and no room for error. By any rational standards, they should have been instantly wiped out, quickly condemned to the dustbin of history as a mere footnote.

Yet amidst all this, they still had to win, against impossible odds. How do you win against the outliers, against people who have all the advantages of resources, time, energy, manpower, and culture?

One of the “hidden secrets” of ninja sword fighting that we’ve been exploring recently in the Boston Martial Arts Friday black belt classes is that the outcome of certain sword kata (patterns) is more dependent on mastery of yourself and your emotions than on what your attacker does. Certainly, you don’t take lightly someone in front of you with a four foot razor blade. You pay attention to them. You guard against them. But your success doesn’t hinge on just them.

The “secret” to “winning” in these routines is more about finding the weaknesses inside of yourself that are holding you back or causing you to make stupid mistakes, and minimizing their impact. I can’t speak for my classmates, but overcoming the desire to “win” (even though it’s just a practice exercise with nothing to “win”, not even a cookie) is one of my biggest weaknesses that I’m working on. If I can get past that, if I can just be there without trying to force an outcome, if I can get out of my own way, I am successful more often than not.

Sun Tzu, the war strategist, is often quoted:

One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be in danger in a hundred battles.
One who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes win, sometimes lose.
One who does not know the enemy and does not know himself will be in danger in every battle.

Most people, most businesses, most everyone falls in the third category. We don’t really know ourselves. We don’t really know what we’re up against, and frankly, it’s amazing we succeed at all. Make inroads even just a little at knowing yourself or knowing what you’re up against, and your chances of success go up.

The ninja won against all odds because they didn’t face perfect opponents. Certainly, they faced incredible odds, but by dedicating enormous time and energy towards knowing themselves and their own weaknesses, and doing their best to mitigate those weaknesses, they were able to win against enemies who statistically should have beaten them to a pulp 100% of the time – but didn’t.

Here’s the second-greatest “secret” of all: it’s easier to know yourself than it is to know the unknown future ahead of you. If you’re going to invest a ton of time and energy trying to even the odds, your best bet is to start with yourself. Yourself, your team, your organization or company, the things that you have control over and that you can study in great depth.

How do you do that? I leave that to my seniors, my betters, and recommend you pick up a copy of How To Own The World, by Stephen K. Hayes. An-Shu Hayes does a far better job laying out a practical means of figuring out what’s holding you back than I ever could. If you want to win more, go grab his book, read it, and practice the lessons in it.

(yes, there is a greatest secret of all, too. not for now.)

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