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karate

If you’ve ever taken a look at my photo, you might be surprised to discover that I’m a killing machine.

That’s right. Green belt black tip in the deadly art of karate, courtesy of three years of classes at my local YWCA.

This is a few years back.

I’d like to pretend that my martial arts training took place in a remote, forbidding mountain palace, or at the very least at a YMCA. But appearances can be deceiving. My sensei was one tough cookie, and I learned some valuable lessons from her, although I can’t say the karate part really stuck with me.

What Sensei really taught me was how to set a goal and achieve it. Luckily, doing a jump kick through a wooden board has never been one of my goals.

Finding Yourself in a Tight Spot

Sensei was a determined, powerful woman with close-cropped hair, glasses, and a big, hairy mole. She was utterly no-nonsense, and when she dipped into judo she’d have us jump in there and start throwing each around regardless of size or age. (I still remember being absolutely unable to pin a girl about half my size, and half my age. That would have made her about seven.) Sensei would often share stories of self-defense and survival, and one in particular still stands out in my memory.

Sensei was in the subway. This was back in the late eighties, when the New York City subway system was even less user-friendly than it is today. No air-conditioning, graffiti everywhere, no good signage, and dead ends waiting to trap the unwary.

In a NYC commuter’s worst nightmare, Sensei went through a turnstile only to discover that the station entrance was closed. This was before 24-hour turnstiles, too. It was a one-way street. Sensei was trapped.

Listening to the story, it was hard to imagine Sensei helpless. But even she couldn’t bend steel bars.

To Shatter a Great Obstacle, Think Small

Naturally, she called for help from the commuters rushing by on their way to work. One after the other, they ignored her.

That’s when her karate training kicked in. She picked a single person out of the crowd.

“You,” she said. “Yes, you in the brown coat. Stop. I need your help.” Singled out, the guy came over and agreed to find the station manager.

By directing her energy at a focal point instead of scattering it, she got herself out of a tight jam, fast. Same principle she applied to wooden boards, made suddenly practical.

Are there any obstaces in your life that seem immovable? Focus your energy on the tiniest part you can pinpoint. Even slight movement of a seemingly intractable problem can set off a chain of events leading to a resolution.

As Archimedes said of the lever, “Give me a place to stand on, and I can move the earth.”

(All this is not to imply that I gave up on the martial arts. I went on to study the streetfighting art of zujitsu, where one of the mottos is “whatever works!” That’s another post all by itself.)

Photo by totoro!

7 Comments

  • LoveandSalt

    gravatarFeb 29, 2008
    3:32 am

    Absolutely great post. This is a spot-on example of the kind of advice I’m always looking for: it’s specific, surprising, and metaphorical at once. That is, you can use it as it’s offered and also generalize back into the principle that forms it. This is one I’ll return to. Thank you! (But why do you call her “nutty”? She sounds practical and tough! And a good teacher, to tell you that story.

  • David Moldawer

    gravatarFeb 29, 2008
    9:03 am

    LoveandSalt–well, the big hairy mole was a clue, but I’ve got another very story about her that better demonstrates the nuttiness. I just can’t think of how to tie it into productivity yet. More to come. Glad you liked the post.

  • Kevin Xu

    gravatarFeb 29, 2008
    5:20 pm

    Very good read there! Perfect post for productivity with one specific example. Along with thinking fast, your karate teacher truly understands the idea of “focus” and that is the key to many aspects in life!

    I’ll be sticking around to read more, great job on this blog!

  • Randy Place

    gravatarMar 3, 2008
    8:53 am

    The good advice you received from the Karate Sensi wit the molereminded me of the days I studied Aikido, also in New York. I also lealrned how to pick a spot and work with it. As a beginning student during a practice session, my Aikido partner had me pinned to the floor.

    I felt helpless. Couldn’t do a thing. Then the instructor came over and told me to move what I could — a finger. Then she told me to wiggle my hand, now move my arm, and before I knew it, I was able to slither out from under the opponent.

    Thanks for reminding me of this experience that I used to share a lot, then forget about.

    There is always a way out, isn’t there?

  • Sangrail

    gravatarMar 12, 2008
    1:44 am

    If you’re interested, that’s a good example of ‘the bystander effect’ (the finding from psychological studies that you’ll often get less help from a crowd of people than you would from an individual), and how you overcome it (single someone out).

  • The Arts Of Fight

    gravatarAug 17, 2008
    4:42 am

    Karate is the one of best martial arts in this world.

  • Katana Dave

    gravatarNov 6, 2008
    9:47 am

    Thanks for sharing that meaningful story about your Sensei. It surely made a point and proved that in times of trouble or difficult situations, it is better to be calm and stay focused on the problem, trying to find every single possible way to wiggle out of the situation using whatever resources are in front of us at that time rather than focusing our energy on hopelessness and possible defeat. This goal-oriented way of thinking and sense of alertness is one of the most essential aspects of martial arts training which I believe is a lot more important than perfecting the fighting techniques. So I guess your nutty sensei really made a lot of sense and is not at all nutty, agree? :)