Be Hard On Yourself – The Zen of “How”

by Marc Winitz

If you are new to this blog please don’t think this post is about self-flagellation. Because it is not (yet). Sure, you come to this site, see the two ukes (dudes in the front of the blog header picture) training with a sensei standing menacingly in the background who is holding something that looks like it inflects a lot of pain. And the first part of the post title may start to make some sense.

I am often asked what is the most difficult part of martial arts training on the path to becoming a black belt. Defending against three person attacks? Nope. Performing a flying kick over someone else and breaking a board in the air? Not really. The hardest part is making yourself train when you don’t want to. The actual act of training is the metaphor for the process of living in a martial arts context as I have written about here. In a nutshell, if you want to become a black belt (in anything) it all boils down to this simple sentence.

Do what you need to do, when you don’t want to do it.

Stop and re-read that sentence. This is the Zen of “How”, digestible for Western meaning.

The Motivation “Pill”
Assuming you could turn the sentence above into a pill it would be the greatest selling “motivation” item of late night cable infomercials for all time. Hell, I’d buy it. Most people beat around the bush when it comes to understanding how to maintain sustained productive action. I am not talking about motivation. You can be highly motivated and still not do what you need to do all the time. I am also not saying it doesn’t help or doesn’t make the process of succeeding easier because motivation does do this. But motivation usually relates to a short term catalyst for the principle I am talking about: How to commit yourself to push through something when life presents a difficult obstacle to overcome. Interestingly on a personal development level the obstacles I am referring to  are mundane. They are not big or life changing. They are ever present and always around us. When you run into these situations your have your own “teachable moment” that is an opportunity which is waiting so you can make your self better.

I am waiting for all the arrows to come from success coaches, motivational speakers and personal development bloggers now (which I will gladly accept).

Why “Just Do It” Doesn’t Cut It
An old college friend and successful venture capitalist named Mark Suster writes a terrific blog on start-ups at Both Sides of the Table. One of his excellent posts deals with his belief that successful people (his audience is entrepreneurs) should “Just Do It”. However, Mark turns that acronym into JFDI. You can guess what emphasis the “F” provides. In a business sense Mark is a warrior. And his post gets the point across in the start-up context very candidly.

I contend that the phrase “Just Do It” really means:

“Just Do It Because “It” Is Really Hard, But If You Do Push Yourself

When You Don’t Want To You Will Succeed”.

Except that the marketing people at Nike realized that wasn’t so snappy even if the principle was sound. So they shortened it to the popular phrase that now dominates our lexicon. Unfortunately the part that got lost is the “how” in this process. Which leads me to the point of this post which is all about the how, not the why. There are too many people writing and advocating “Just Do It”. As a teacher I can’t help you any more than the billions of dollars Nike has spent telling you why. We are going to talk about the “how” part which is the 20 words following the three word slogan above.

How Pleasure Eliminates Pain (Not Really)
OK, now that I have everyone’s feathers ruffled a bit, let’s get into the core of this problem. There is a natural tendency to move from things that are painful to things that are of pleasure. Why not move to a place of pleasure? That’s what motivational speakers and advice givers tell us. Things are nice and easy in Pleasureville. We are told “this is where you should spend your time”. I am happy. I have a “passion”. I want to spend my time doing fun things.

You are probably saying to yourself “I just paid you a lot of money for your course or book on how to be successful and motivated and I want to feel good about that.” It’s a good thing menacing Karate teachers still exist well past the days of the Samurai – so go with me on this and read on.

Believe me when I say that a lot of motivational advice does a great job of not telling you what you don’t want to hear. So it’s time for the gloves to come off (figuratively). I am sorry to say that the pleasure principle, which is sold in droves, does nothing to enhance your ability to do what you must do. It doesn’t eliminate pain at all, it enhances it.

I’m No Snowflake – How Does Pain Avoidance Hurt Me?

It’s actually pretty simple. When you avoid doing things you don’t feel like doing you are moving from pain to pleasure. Or at least less pain. But that transition away causes mental weakness. By moving away from things that are difficult or even things you just don’t feel like doing you lose the opportunity to train yourself to follow through in virtually any circumstance. Once a year I would go to the snow in the middle of Winter and the desert in the dead heat of summer to train in extreme conditions. Hours on end punching and kicking among the swirl of the elements. It is in this moment that you learn how to become dedicated to something, one of the 6 Elements that I have discussed in previous posts. You don’t have to like something or have a passion for something to be dedicated to it. But when you can dedicate yourself to pushing through anything that is not easy (read hard, monotonous, boring, tenuous, painful physically or mentally) that is were the real progress is made. This is being a warrior.

There were many times during my pre-black belt days where I didn’t want to go to class. I trained hard the previous days before. My body was sore. I didn’t want to do more push-ups. My arms and legs hurt from throwing punches and executing blocks against kicks. Yet I trained anyways. I went to class. I taught others students. I was mentally tired but forced myself to be present. To focus and push on. It is in those moments when you learn (read internalize) the “how” of doing what you don’t want to do.

A Simple Exercise – The Zen of “How”
I am new to this form of blog (personal development) so the whole “7 Steps to Being More Motivated” is an approach I am not yet comfortable with. There is no 7 Step program for learning how to do what you need to do, when you don’t want to do it. However, you can put yourself in a similar process, without any martial arts training, to begin to understand how you can get to this state.

You’ll notice, I said “simple exercise” above. We are talking about doing something once a week for 3 weeks. “Weeks” you say? I don’t have weeks. I have blogs to write, tweets to send, whatever. 3 weeks is short time in comparison to the payoff you will get and believe me it took years for me to understand and internalize how to do this. I am talking about real personal development here that is action oriented in the simplest way possible that anyone can accomplish.

Step 1: Make a list of 10 activities you have been putting off that you know you need to do. You haven’t done them because they are painful so you have averted them in exchange for some form of pleasure.

Some examples are things like:

  • cleaning out your garage
  • hauling some stuff away from mom’s house she asked you to do six months ago
  • cleaning all the outside windows of your house
  • weeding the backyard (I despise weeding)
  • organizing your office or closet
  • clean up your bathroom completely (perfect if you have roommates)

You get the general idea here. The tasks should be something you can complete in one day in a period of 2 to 8 hours. Also, don’t pick some form of exercise instead. Or a hobby. Or something for your business. That actually defeats the purpose here. Do any of those things in addition to this. Nothing that you couldn’t easily blow off as soon as your best friend called and said “what’s you doing?” to which you reply “nothing, want to go out?”. You’ll be telling them “no thanks, we’ll have to schedule another time” while you curse my name under your breath.

You’ll notice that a lot of the suggested tasks involve some form of “cleaning”. That’s no accident. It’s called “soji” which is a process of cleaning a dojo that has many meanings. I’ll save this for another post in our digital dojo here (lucky you, more cleaning).

“But I work hard all week and want to enjoy the weekend” you are going to say to yourself. I know. And that is exactly the point of this. Why? Because that’s the attitude a black belt (or someone training hard to become one) takes when it comes to training and personal development. They never take the easy out. They do what they have to do when they don’t want to do it.

Step 2: Pick any 3 items and write them down on a list in the order you will do them. On the top of the list write in big letters “BBG” which is short for Black Belt Guide. That’s me and I’ll be your paper sensei for the next three weeks. Post the list somewhere prominent where you have to see it every day such as your office, kitchen, or bathroom (lucky you, I am in your bathroom).

Keep the list posted prominently in a public and NON-computerized setting. Why write it down versus put on your computer as a reminder? Because you can turn that off, delete it, cancel the reminder, etc…In short you can blow it off if you are not forced to look at it.

Step 3: You will do 1 item per week for three weeks. Again, each item should take 2 to 8 hours.

How Do I Read The Tea Leaves?
This is a real personal development exercise. You are putting yourself in a position where you are making yourself do something you don’t really want to do. Whether you accomplish some, all or none of the items the value to you is to examine why you are or are not following through. This exercise is not that different from standing in the middle of the snow and doing 1000 kicks and punches in terms of the outcome. It’s easy to give up in that situation. In this exercise it is relatively easy to accomplish as you get to set the goal, it’s not dictated to you.

A Final Thought
I am as into pleasure and avoidance of any kind of pain as the next person. And I value my time, as I am sure you do as well. You will reap great benefits from examining this underlying principle that black belts regularly train by. Once you have gone through this exercise you will have experienced the beginning seeds of an Indomitable Spirit, which is the development of your personal will, another one of the 6 Elements.

I am not a personal coach but if you would like some support in the process, feel free to send me an email (my address is the contact page for this site) and I’ll be glad to virtually support you. And the worst case out of this is that you’ll have a clean garage. Perhaps my first book should be  titled “Zen and the Art of Garage Cleaning”?

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