Saturday, May 22, 2021

Zanshin: Learning the Art of Attention and Focus From a Legendary Samurai Archer

Sharing a brilliant article from the bestselling author James Clear on focus and attention.

In the 1920s, a German professor named Eugen Herrigel moved to Japan. He came to teach philosophy at a university a few hours northeast of Tokyo, in a city called Sendai.

To deepen his understanding of Japanese culture, Herrigel began training in Kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery. He was taught by a legendary archer named Awa Kenzo. Kenzo was convinced that beginners should master the fundamentals of archery before attempting to shoot at a real target, and he took this method to the extreme. For the first four years of his training, Herrigel was only allowed to shoot at a roll of straw just seven feet away.

When Herrigel complained of the incredibly slow pace, his teacher replied “The way to the goal is not to be measured! Of what importance are weeks, months, years?”

When he was finally permitted to shoot at more distant targets, Herrigel’s performance was dismal. The arrows flew off course and he became more discouraged with each wayward shot. During a particularly humbling session, Herrigel stated that his problem must be poor aim.

Kenzo, however, looked at his student and replied that it was not whether one aimed, but how one approached the task that determined the outcome. Frustrated with this reply, Herrigel blurted out, “Then you ought to be able to hit it blindfolded.” Kenzo paused for a moment and then said, “Come to see me this evening.”

Archery in the Dark

After night had fallen, the two men returned to the courtyard where the practice hall was located. Kenzo walked to his usual shooting location, now with the target hidden in the dark. The archery master proceeded through his normal routine, settled into his firing stance, drew the bow string tight, and released the first arrow into the darkness.

Recalling the event later, Herrigel wrote, “I knew from the sound that it had hit the target.”

Immediately, Kenzo drew a second arrow and again fired into the night.

Herrigel jumped up and ran across the courtyard to inspect the target. In his book, Zen in the Art of Archery, he wrote, “When I switched on the light over the target stand, I discovered to my amazement that the first arrow was lodged full in the middle of the black, while the second arrow had splintered the butt of the first and ploughed through the shaft before embedding itself beside it.”

Kenzo had hit a double bullseye without being able to see the target.

Everything Is Aiming

Great archery masters often teach that “everything is aiming.” Where you place your feet, how you hold the bow, the way you breathe during the release of the arrow—it all determines the end result.

In the case of Awa Kenzo, the master archer was so mindful of the process that led to an accurate shot that he was able to replicate the exact series of internal movements even without seeing the external target. This complete awareness of the body and mind in relation to the goal is known as zanshin.

Zanshin is a word used commonly throughout Japanese martial arts to refer to a state of relaxed alertness. Literally translated, zanshin means “the mind with no remainder.” In other words, the mind completely focused on action and fixated on the task at hand. Zanshin is being constantly aware of your body, mind, and surroundings without stressing yourself. It is an effortless vigilance.

In practice, though, zanshin has an even deeper meaning. Zanshin is choosing to live your life intentionally and acting with purpose rather than mindlessly falling victim to whatever comes your way.

The Enemy of Improvement

There is a famous Japanese proverb that says, “After winning the battle, tighten your helmet.”

In other words, the battle does not end when you win. The battle only ends when you get lazy, when you lose your sense of commitment, and when you stop paying attention. This is zanshin as well: the act of living with alertness regardless of whether the goal has already been achieved.

We can carry this philosophy into many areas of life.

·         Writing: The battle does not end when you publish a book. It ends when you consider yourself a finished product, when you lose the vigilance needed to continue improving your craft.

·         Fitness: The battle does not end when you hit a PR. It ends when you lose concentration and skip workouts or when you lose perspective and overtrain.

·         Entrepreneurship: The battle does not end when you make a big sale. It ends when you get cocky and complacent.

The enemy of improvement is neither failure nor success. The enemy of improvement is boredom, fatigue, and lack of concentration. The enemy of improvement is a lack of commitment to the process because the process is everything. 

The Art of Zanshin in Everday Life

We live in a world obsessed with results. Like Herrigel, we have a tendency to put so much emphasis on whether or not the arrow hits the target. If, however, we put that intensity and focus and sincerity into the process—where we place our feet, how we hold the bow, how we breathe during the release of the arrow—then hitting the bullseye is simply a side effect.

The point is not to worry about hitting the target. The point is to fall in love with the boredom of doing the work and embrace each piece of the process. The point is to take that moment of zanshin, that moment of complete awareness and focus, and carry it with you everywhere in life.

It is not the target that matters. It is not the finish line that matters. It is the way we approach the goal that matters. Everything is aiming. Zanshin.


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Saturday, May 8, 2021

Sports Psychology for Top Performers

Sharing an interesting article this week on peak performance, the link for the full article is at the end of the mail.

There are many lessons that entrepreneurs can learn from athletes, and vice versa. Sports psychology, and ideas like mental imagery, performance routines, and focus, for example, can transfer over perfectly to business.

If you’re an entrepreneur, a peak performer, a businessman, or someone interested in becoming one, you will most likely be familiar with a certain phenomenon that is popular in the business world: the connection between business, sports, and war.

The works from Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, Napoleon, etc. are discussed in the business world. Quotes from Mike Tyson, Mohamed Ali, Rafael Nadal, Pele, etc. are often used as motivation. Strategies used in the business world by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Amancio Ortega, etc. end with the total destruction of rivals…

There are many connections, similarities, and common underlying principles between sports, war, and business. More than we could ever write in one single essay.

The main connection between the three is that they represent instances of peak human competition and rivalry. And when there is competition, there are winners and losers.

One of the key aspects that differentiate winners from losers, and one we can learn from, is mentality and psychology. Specifically, to how peak performers across different fields learn from each other and apply mental models from each field to their skill stack.

However, athletes are some of the greatest peak performers in the world, and they are both alive and have made many mistakes we can learn from. They have many more opportunities for iteration and feedback loops than the rest, which is why sports psychology is highly interesting.

The main lesson we can gain from them and that we can emulate is their mentality and psychology, which is what this essay will expand on.

According to Foster, there are five major skills related to sport psychology that transfer from sport to business. Some of these sport psychology principles and techniques can be applied in a large variety of business settings, leadership, and teamwork. These skills she identified in regards to mental training are:

  1. Mental imagery
  2. Performance routines
  3. Positive self-talk
  4. Activation control strategies
  5. Focus and sustaining attention

Mental Imagery in Sports Psychology

Athletes are not only physical beings, half of their work is mental. Mental imagery, also known as visualization, is mental rehearse of practice routines or different scenarios one can be subject to during the competition.

The greatest of athletes all have experiences with mental imagery as a key part of their mental training. In fact, visualization and mental imagery have their scientific explanation as to why they work and why we should incorporate them into our skill stack as athletes do.

The purposeful practice and rehearsal of different mental situations applied in sports and in learning skills transfer perfectly well into the business world and entrepreneurial settings.

Instead of rehearsing for your pre-game walk-through, you rehearse your meetings with VCs for potential funding. Instead of mentally going through different scenarios of the game, you go through different scenarios for your business and team.

The fact is, visualizing the process (not the result) in our minds helps fire the neurons that are fired when actually engaging in the process. The possibilities of rehearsing and practicing mentally, every day, should be part of the self-mastered individual’s skill stack.

Performance Routines

A key mental aspect that athletes engage in that entrepreneurs can learn is related to performance and pre-performance routines. Pre-performance routines consist of personal routines that serve the purpose to optimize preparation for performance.

Performance routines shouldn’t be confused with superstitions, like entering the football field and touching the goal post for better luck. But they can include exactly that: entering the field and touching the goal post.

The main point behind performance routines is to add familiarity and a sense of control before engaging in the event. The sequence of steps and actions followed to allow for the athlete to enter the right mindset and focus on the activity at hand, something that is key in regards to sports psychology.

For the entrepreneur, entering a football field and touching the goal post doesn’t apply. However, the entrepreneurs and peak performers can have a checklist to go over before starting work, or mental rehearsing and breathing, or whatever personalized routine which works for them to add familiarity and focus.

Positive Self-talk

Positive self-talk is a tricky subject to write about, mainly due to how easy it is to go off-topic and ignore reality. Correctly seeing the reality of a situation and being slight “irrationally confident” with yourself is a hard balance to strike.

Athletes’ self-talk is powerful. The conversation and dialogue that you have with yourself greatly determine your chances of success. In regards to sports psychology, any athlete that creates pre-emptive excuses about why they won’t make their shot successfully will most likely not make the shot correctly.

Listen to an interview by successful athletes and they all are confident in themselves, their skill, and their preparation. And they are confident precisely because of their preparation and their will to succeed, which allows them to train hard, smart, and pursue smart goals.

In fact, their self-belief and self-talk are so overly confident that it borders irrationality. They all have stories of many who doubted them while they were training, only to be finally redeemed once they win.

However, we all know of people who are extremely confident and have positive self-talk that has no tie to reality and is based on nothing, just delusion. The athlete is confident due to the training and preparation. Without it, their belief is not true to anything real or tangible.

For the entrepreneur, positive self-talk and self-belief need to be similar to athletes’ self-talk: based on preparation, talent, skill, and determination. The entrepreneur who believes in himself has to work hard to make the rest of the world believe in him just as much as he does.

When we adopt positive self-talk, we can properly start to set the systems in place to achieve all the goals we desire. For the athlete, the positive self-talk leads to training, because the athlete believes that he or she can achieve success, setting the systems needed to achieve said success.

For the entrepreneur, positive self-talk leads to trying things out, setting up a business, to learning new skills, etc. This positive self-talk and self-belief lead to the creation of various systems and routines, which can lead to eventual success.

Activation Control Strategies In Sports Psychology

As mentioned above, one of the core benefits of visualization or mental imagery is related to performance readiness plans.

Performance readiness plans consist of planning for various different scenarios that can occur during a match, performance, duel, competition, etc. of an athlete. To quote Mike Tyson, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” (didn’t we mention above that athlete were being quoted in many different settings?).

Athletes who have mastered sports psychology prepare for many different scenarios because nothing ever goes to plan. Whoever plans and trains for the scenario that ends up happening on the playing field has a higher chance at success than who doesn’t.

For the athlete, this means to train for in situations of disadvantage, to plan for offensive and defensive strategies, to study the rival or the competition and create counter plans, etc. For the entrepreneur, performance readiness plans can be applied to a wide array of situations.

Entrepreneurs do not have the luxury of playing a game with defined rules and a closed environment like athletes do, which means their performance readiness plans cannot be as detailed or specific.

No one can have a plan for every value the stock market will have, nor a plan for every price of every component of your business, etc.

While we cannot have a plan for every price of the stock market, we can have a plan or two of worst-case scenarios of the economy. Or a plan for when a pandemic occurs and we have to be locked inside for a few months. We can even also have a plan for when things do not go according to plan…

The point is, the entrepreneur does not have a set of rules for the game, but the entrepreneur can plan, get ready, and prepare for different scenarios as the athlete does. If for the athlete almost nothing ever goes to plan, why should it be different for the entrepreneur?

Focus & Sustaining Attention

Athletes are masters of focus and sustaining attention, as well as achieving long-term goals. How they approach every training session determines how they will perform on the day of competition. How they maintain the discipline to not miss a day of training, to not miss a day of proper diet, or to not miss a night or enough sleep and recovery are examples of the sacrifices they make to achieve their goals.

Motivation is not something that lasts for long. Discipline does. For athletes to keep sight and not lose focus on their long-term goals they need discipline and systems. For the entrepreneur, it is no different.

An entrepreneur needs just as much discipline and focuses as the athlete, if not even more. Way too many projects end up in failures due to lack of focus. Way too many talented people end up wasting their potential due to lack of focus and direction.

There are many lessons that entrepreneurs can learn from athletes, and vice versa. Being some of the top peak performers in the world, athletes train both their body and mind to excel and perform at the highest level for long periods of time.

For entrepreneurs, every slight edge over the competition can become crucial at the later stages of the game. Applying mental models and systems from athletes can be just that difference that makes or breaks a business.

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