DJ Waldow asked:

We talk/preach a ton about “advanced email marketing” yet so many folks are stuck on basics. Refocus conversation? Thoughts?

And Amber Naslund also commented:

I wonder how much of our quest for “what’s next” is really centered in our uncomfortable misunderstanding of the basics.

These are closely related. In the martial arts, the basics are so much more than just simile exercises. The Japanese word for basics is kihon, which means both basics and foundation, as in the foundation of a building. Starting martial arts practice with strong basics is like starting a building with two foot thick concrete and two inch thick rebar – a rock solid base on which to build. Skipping the basics or trying to hurry past them is like pouring the flimsiest foundation of cheap concrete. How large a house can you build on that?

Dayton Quest Center Hombu DojoWhere the martial arts (good ones, anyway) differ is the continued emphasis on the basics. We learn the basics but constantly revisit them to refine our understanding and improve them. As our basics get stronger, the “advanced” material (which is comprised of basics strategically arranged and put together) improve as well. Because advanced material relies on the basics, if we stop refining them, our advanced skills and techniques suffer as well.

Why don’t we like the basics? Why do we ignore them or skip past them? It’s human habit. We have a tendency to view knowledge as a discrete container. How to cook an egg? I know that. How to send an email campaign? I know that. Because of the way our education system works, we assume that once we know something, we possess that knowledge and don’t need to revisit it. Geometry? Learned that in 9th grade. Algebra? Learned that in 8th grade. As a result of this educational framework (which is learned), the habit of thinking that we’ve learned something persists into adulthood and our professional lives.

Think about it this way. You once learned how to cook scrambled eggs. Has it ever occurred to you to research that simple breakfast dish some more and see what other ways you can make them? For example, you can add a touch of milk or cream to slow down the protein setting, giving you more control over cooking time. You can use an immersion blender to aerate the mixture and make your eggs lighter and fluffier. You can add salt in advance to give a more even flavor, or a small dash of truffle oil before cooking to increase the umami flavor. Ask a thousand ordinary non-chef folks how often they go back and revisit their scrambled eggs and the number wil be a very small minority. Yet if you are constantly and consistently improving your basics, is breakfast at your house going to get better or worse?

Without rock solid, continuously refined basics, we won’t get the results we want. We’ll get folks stuck, as DJ says, or we’ll get folks who are discontent as Amber says.

So how do you improve and refine your basics, instead of getting frustrated repeating the same thing over and over again? Well, repetition is where you start. You watch a master teacher demonstrate the basics, and then you work for a really long time to get your basics to that level. Along the way, your teacher will probably show you variations on the basics to help you better understand their essence. A teacher might show you, for example, what an egg scrambled in a cast iron pan tastes like vs. a non-stick pan. Once you’ve mastered the basics and distilled down their essence by practicing many, many variations, you’ll understand that essential core of the basics and be able to translate it to other things. For example, once you truly and deeply understand the chemistry, physics, and culinary aspects of scrambled eggs, suddenly things like mayonnaise and Hollandaise sauce become simple to grasp and simpler to make.

What if you don’t have a teacher? Find one. Again, in the Japanese martial arts, the word for teacher is sensei, which literally means before born – someone who is farther down the path you’re on and can help you around all of the mistakes they’ve made blazing that trail. They’ll show you where they went wrong and if you’re a good student, you’ll make fewer of the mistakes than they did. They can help you recover from mistakes faster and with less harm than they incurred (which is why teachers are so respected – they’re saving you tremendous pain) than if you were flailing around blindly.

If you feel like the basics elude you or that you’re discontent with the basics, whether it’s marketing, cooking, or martial arts, go find a good teacher and learn from them. The path always gets easier and more fun when you’ve got a great guide.

If you’re in either the metro Boston or Dayton areas, be sure to check out my teachers, Sensei Mark Davis of the Boston Martial Arts Center and An-Shu Stephen K. Hayes of the Dayton Quest Center.

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