We all have those classes or experiences that leave a lasting impression on us. For me, that was Judo. I was 21 years old, 60 pounds overweight, and had never really done a sport before. But, I had always wanted to do martial arts, and I had a burning desire to finally get in shape, so I signed up for a class.
I hesitantly entered a steamy, non-air conditioned wrestling gym on the 3rd floor of my university's athletic facility, not knowing what to expect. But after the first class, I was hooked.
I ended up joining the team, training 3-4 times a week, shedding 30 pounds, and competing across the state. I even won the state heavyweight championship, defeating a seasoned black belt (in hindsight, it was mostly nerves and sheer dumb luck, but I'll take it).
What surprised me though is how much the lessons I learned have stuck with me, a full two decades later. It heavily influences my personal and professional approach and has become a core philosophy for me. Here are the key lessons I learned thanks to Judo.
I was not a self-assured kid. I struggled greatly with self esteem, as many angst-ridden teenagers do, and it infected and overwhelmed my daily mental track. I wasn't good looking. I was fat. I couldn't find a girlfriend. I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. My self worth was pretty low.
Today, it's quite the opposite. I have confidence (hopefully understated) , a positive self image, and a healthy respect for my strengths and weaknesses. I have Judo to thank for that. It was the turning point that set me on the path. It taught me to embrace the things I can control, such as my health and movement, apply leverage in the areas I can influence (e.g. someone else's movement while grappling), and most importantly - to let go of the many things in life that I cannot control or influence.
Most importantly, Judo taught me to have confidence. It showed me I could take on a tough challenge in an area that I never thought I would be good at and still be successful. All I had to do was to try, to take that first step.
Similar to self esteem, Judo taught me that I could grow, that my fate was not sealed. This seems like an obvious, almost trite, statement, but it's shocking how many people believe that their talents are locked. "I'm not good at math." "I wish I were creative." "I could never do X."
No such fixed mindset exists in Judo. I was regularly toppled by people half my size. I was beaten up by a 5'2" Brazilian woman (and feel no shame in that). But I progressed, I got better, through a combination of growth mindset and diligent practice.
Incremental growth is what separates those that ultimately succeed with those that get stuck in place. I've carried that philosophy into my career, and it has made all the difference. Slow and steady truly does win the race.
A Calm Mind
Judo is not just a sport but a true martial art. It is built upon Buddhist teaching, and a key tenet is settling the mind. Mindfulness, meditation, breathing - these are the building blocks of a restful mind.
Judo gave me the opportunity to explore mindfulness before it was ever popular or trendy to do so. I still practice meditation today, and I find that when I do so, everything happens with better clarity and balance. I perform better at work and make healthier choices. When I fall off the wagon, I find myself getting wrapped up in counterproductive self-talk and unimportant minutia. It is a stark difference.
It All Starts with Passion
I had tried and failed to get in shape for years before starting Judo. Nothing stuck. As soon as I'd hit a wall, usually within the first few weeks, I'd lose motivation and quit. So what was different here?
Passion. I loved the sport. I got hooked immediately. It drove me to spend the next three years getting in shape, enduring pain, bruises, blackouts, broken toes, and more. But I kept coming back, day after day, week after week.
This has helped me carve a path professionally and personally. I gravitate toward things that I enjoy doing, knowing that will fuel my motivation. When I take on projects I'm not as passionate about, I inevitably burn out and abandon them.
What I don't believe is the notion of "following your passion" in career choice. The reality is that a career these days is incredibly complex and multi-faceted. Rather, find the passion in the aspects of any job that you can embrace, and focus more energy on those. That motivation will carry you far, regardless of profession.
Maximum Efficiency with Minimum Effort
This maxim of Judo influences every project I tackle. How can I get better leverage? How can I truly work smarter, not harder?
It wasn't always that way for me. I used to be a workaholic, turning in 60+ hours a week and humble-bragging about it to whoever would listen. Then, we had our first child. And I quickly learned the hard way that this was no way to raise a family or spend a life.
I then remembered my experience with Judo. Expending wasteful energy is trained out of us. We focus on purposeful, decisive movements, using the opponent's own weight and balance against them. It's not brute force but skillful technique that wins matches.
Today, I work a balanced number of hours. I lean on others, rely on a team, and delegate where appropriate. I constantly look for ways to streamline, to ensure I'm working on the right things (effectiveness) and approaching them smartly (efficiency). And I focus on outcomes, not effort.
Leave it on the Mat
We have a saying in Judo: "Leave it on the mat". No matter how aggressive we would get during practice or a competition, no matter how high passions would run, at the end we bow, shake hands, step off the mat, and go grab a beer.
This one has been key for my technology career, where where egos and passions often run high. Yes, I've actually had to break up a fight before it came to punches. Twice.
We all have tension at our workplace. Different personalities and work styles. Conflicting priorities. Mandates from bosses. We can only control so much, and we can influence even less. We must learn to let things go and be able to have a relationship with those we may disagree with.
Mentally compartmentalizing the space where we compete from the space where we live is necessary to have a healthy relationship with those we work with. And after all, we spend a full third of our life with these people. Our lives are much better and easier if we can get along with them.
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I happened to gravitate to Judo, but we all (hopefully) have something like this: a pivotal experience early in our career that helps shape our mindset. A martial art is a great framework for a healthy, balanced, productive life. If you're looking for an activity to get your kids into, I strongly encourage you to consider one of the many disciplines. You and your child won't be disappointed.
The Way of Kusan: A Philosophy on Judo and Daily Life by Tenkai Miki
I've distilled over 20 years of lessons into bite-sized actionable articles for you.