In addition to strength training, I've been exploring various styles of martial arts as a way to improve balance, coordination, and proprioception. I've focused primarily on cognitive skills over the years, and it's time to invest in developing motor skills.
Martial arts happen to be a time-tested and practical way of training these skills, which is why I decided to invest some time researching them.
"Come At Me, Bro"
You can't explore or practice martial arts for any length of time without running into debates about which martial art is "most effective," which makes researching various styles of martial arts extremely frustrating: there's a lot of BS to wade through. (I had my first such conversation about three weeks into training, with a gentleman who prefers practicing techniques useful in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competition.)
It's important to note that I'm not training in martial arts for self-defense purposes. The probability that I'll find myself in a situation where inflicting intentional damage on another individual is advisable is extremely small, and every martial art optimizes for certain artificial assumptions and environmental conditions, not for realistic encounters.
The most effective real-world offensive martial art is firearms training, and the most effective real-world defensive martial art is sprinting. I'm not training to fight: I'm training to control my body. Different goals require different methods.
In a similar vein, I also have no interest in competitive styles like MMA. Getting punched in the face is not my idea of a good time, and most modern striking and grappling styles emphasize various expressions of machismo that I find off-putting.
Rinkiohen ("Adaptation To Circumstances")
Instead, I'm exploring two different balance and movement-oriented arts, both of which are fascinating:
- Aikido - a modern Japanese martial art derived from traditional samurai training, which emphasizes precise movement, balance, and body control. Safe training also requires advanced skills in falling, rolling, and sensing changes in force and momentum. The primary techniques are defensive, with a focus on resolving attacks without injury to either party. Sometimes includes training in traditional weapons like bokken (wooden sword) and jo (short staff). Training takes place in a group setting via cooperative partner practice, not via competition. 1
- Bagua Zhang - the most recent of the traditional styles of internal Chinese martial arts. The primary training method is very unique: think Tai Chi without set forms, at a medium pace, with a lot of spiraling of legs/arms/torso, while walking in a circle. Strikes are intended to transfer momentum (impulse) vs. maximizing power. Training takes place primarily solo, via "circle walking" and "palm changes" that reverse the direction of the circle walk. 2
I'm an absolute beginner in both, and I have a long, long way to go before I'll be considered "good" at either of them. That's okay: the value is in the practice itself, the people I meet in learning them, and the skills I pick up along the way.
Masakatsu Agatsu ("The Only True Victory Is Victory Over Yourself")
There's also little in the way of ranking for each art, which I like.
Aikido has a simple ranking system similar to Go, with ranks ranging from 6 kyu to 6+ dan, and shodan being the equivalent of "first degree black belt." Rankings are conferred after formally testing your ability to remember and execute a sizable library of specific techniques under pressure. Every student wears a white belt until they rank shodan.
Achieving shodan takes years, so it's best not to think about it: the general advice is to focus on learning the next thing you need to learn, and ranking takes care of itself.
Bagua Zhang, like most traditional Chinese martial arts, has no formal ranking system. I like the way this practitioner puts it:
“If all you're training for is a piece of coloured fabric that can hold up your pants, maybe you should reconsider your reasons for picking up martial arts in the first place.”
Nanakorobi Yaoki ("Fall Seven Times, Rise Eight")
Training in martial arts is a direct way to improve skills that make me uncomfortable: I'm not the most coordinated person you'll ever meet, and I'm generally not very good at things that require complex footwork.
One of the best things I took away from writing The First 20 Hours is a gut-level understanding that these sorts of things are skills, not immutable personal characteristics. I'm not "naturally uncoordinated" – if I want to improve my ability, I can practice doing things that will help build skills in these areas.
It might not be easy, and it might be frustrating (particularly at the beginning), but if I keep investing time and effort, I'll get there eventually.
Bunbu Ryodo ("Sword And Pen Are Both Ways To Enlightenment")
Exploring martial arts has given me significant insight into my work, which is not at all what I expected.
One interesting way to think about training in martial arts is that you're trying to "groove" a particular pattern of balance and movement into your body until it becomes second-nature. Then, when you're in a situation where your skills are needed, your body knows exactly what to do, and does it automatically.
For example, many Aikido practitioners have stories of automatically recovering from slipping on ice or falling from a bike in a way that protected them from serious injury. By practicing falling and rolling over and over, your body learns to respond to similar situations in a useful way.
That's remarkably similar to the approach I advocate in The Personal MBA. Mental models are specific useful ways of thinking about business and related situations. Studying them over time is a practical way to "groove" that method of thinking into your psyche. Then, when you're in a situation where your skills are needed, your mind knows exactly what to do, and does it automatically.
I was first exposed to this way of thinking about skills by Michael "Valentine" Smith, who has been practicing Aikido for many years now. I didn't fully grok it at the time, but after a bit of experience, it's a perfect analogy for the general "fuzzy" thinking skills I often teach.
It also provides a useful way of thinking about techniques like spaced repetition, which is useful beyond rote memorization. Periodic repeated exposure to the same core ideas is useful because it's a way to impress the relevant concepts into your mind in a deeper and deeper way over time. Then, when you're in a situation that reminds you of a particular idea or technique, your mind automatically knows what to do.
As a result, I'm updating my beliefs on the value of spaced repetitive practice. I've always assigned some value to it, but that value has been lower than is probably accurate. That'll have a significant effect on how I write, how I produce courses, and how I practice skills in the future.
Keiko Shokon ("Think Deeply On The Old Ways To Understand The New")
There's one more idea worth mentioning in this context: if you want to get extraordinary results, it helps to be willing to do things that look and feel a little weird.
It's likely I'm going to spend a significant amount of my time in the future walking around and around in a circle, and being thrown around by college students half my size. An outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that's more than a little strange.
Still: they are ways to achieve something that I want to achieve. As long as the methods are effective in producing results, and are worth the investment of time and energy vs. competing priorities, it's useful to not care too much about what other people think.
There's a wealth of information about how to move your body in various forms of martial arts. I'm excited to see what they have to offer.
The best overall introduction to Bagua Zhang is Learning Bagua Zhang: The Martial Art of Change by Ted Mancuso, which also happens to be one of the best-written motor skill instructional texts I've ever read. The follow-up, The Eight Animals of Bagua Zhang, is also excellent. ↩