6 Principles that 10 Years Of Kung Fu Taught Me About Business

Guest post courtesy of Nick Psaila

You know there are certain moments in life that change the coarse of it and generally they are one’s that come from places where you tell yourself “I just can’t go on like this I need to change” be it relationship breakups, financial loss, grief in death and so on. In my case it was dealing with a not so great ex flat-mate that was verbally and physically abusive that ended in a physical altercation between us.

So there I am walking up the wooden stairs of this inner city building to the sounds of loud shouting, clanking wood and the thuds of what I could only presume bodies hitting the floor, I began to experience the sense of what I can only describe as severe anxiety.

I had all the symptoms, the dry mouth, the racing heart and the slightly shaky hands. Only this time it was mixed with a kind of explosive energy of excitement.

The closer I got to the door the more I could smell the toughness and not to mention the sweat.

Fist From The Heart

There he was, mimicking the steel faced glazed over eyes that I had seen on the website, in the magazines and every photo that I gazed over in the research leading up to me stepping foot in the door. Sifu Rick Spain ( master of the arts and head of the school)

Over 6 ft tall and looking like a terminator, he comes over and ushers me 2 steps backwards and says “before you enter the mat you need to bow and connect your fist and palm together as if you are covering your fist and then say these words” ones which I will never forget “cun yaw sum fat” ( sorry about the incorrect spelling, it translates to “Fist from the heart”)

The creed that all Wing Chun students in the school describes

  • honor
  • respect
  • strength

Now I’m on the mat asked to be seated and just watch for a little while to get a feel for what’s going on. I’m feeling like a kid in a candy store, it was like a real life Bruce Lee movie unfolding in front of my eyes only I’m in the picture. Kicks , takedowns, punching , blocking and then the icing on top “forms” (patterns and sequences strung together to show skill and accuracy in the kungfu pattern set, in Karate they are called karta’s)

You’ve more than likely seen these in films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or any old martial arts B grade flick.

Instantly I’m in, hook line and sinker. There was something about the power, the accuracy and the flow of movement that made it look effortless, especially from Sifu Spain. You could tell he was hard as nails by the calluses on his knuckles and the speed and precision in every move he demonstrated.

Fast forward 10 years of 4 to 5 days a week of training , conditioning, sparing and grading, I feel I have only begun the journey that is the martial arts. I call it a journey because for any of you that have done the arts for a while understand that the attainment of the art itself takes years and years of practice and I can honestly say that the goal is always a moving target ( forgive the punt) When you think you have reached it you realize that there is always more, the slight adjustment , the fluency, the strike, the accuracy and a thousand other nuances that make up the art.

To those of you on the path I commend you!! To those beginning the journey good luck!!

So here are the 5 Principles:

          1) Incremental improvements add UP to a bigger picture

You’ve heard the saying, “practice makes perfect”?

I don’t necessarily agree that it’s entirely accurate.

“Good practice makes perfect”

Many business owners don’t necessarily get better at what they do, most just keep on doing the same thing and then hope for a different outcome. Let me explain:

Almost all the businesses I have worked with as a Holistic Business Coach have components in their business where there has been little or minimal improvement. Even though these tasks are practiced/performed on a regular daily or weekly basis the margin for error is still prominent. Often this stems from either poor knowledge or skill set, rare investigation of processes or systems or in most cases the simple lack of delegation to staff more suited to the task. The end result causing avoidable inefficiency.

In Kung Fu the lack of incremental improvement creates poor technique or form. The repetitiveness eventually transforms itself into habit. Hence the word “bad habits”. The lack of improvement also comes with a price, not many mistakes are forgiving especially those that involve “contact”. See make a mistake and you pay for it, sometimes with a bruised limb a bloody nose or worse a bruised ego.

In business however the effects can be much more costly. Fail to improve over time, the end result looks like a negative balance sheet, unsatisfied customers and unhappy staff that eventually lead to a failed business.

2) Experience is not about age its about commitment

What I love about the martial arts is that everyone is on an equal playing field. Gender, size, religious belief and age have nothing to do with commitment and or tonicity.

See in Kung fu age has really no barrier. The masters in the field can be young or old. Lets take Bruce lee as an example. He revolutionized the art of Kung fu “Wing chun” and created a style of his own called Jeet Kun Do at a tender young age.

In todays business environment it’s exactly the same. Some of the leading global Entrepreneurs such as Mark Zukerburg (Face book) or Vishan Lakhiani (Mind Valley) are under 30 and getting younger and younger. The point here is that “old school” thinking where you had to be senior in age and senior in experience are a thing of the past. Many kung fu black belts that I have trained with were much younger than I was.

Now I’m not saying that age doesn’t bring wisdom, it’s just that the game is changing.

I believe it’s the commitment that separates ordinary to extraordinary. Committing yourself to the achievement of your goals is the best experience you will ever gain. If you are committed regardless of what gets thrown at you you’re in for the haul you’re in to the end. Ask any martial artists and they swear by commitment, continuous training, through injury and excuse. Commitment automatically creates experience. It is the end result of the good and the bad days, the blood, sweat and tears in your personal and business life. The questions to ask your self are

How committed am I to achieving what I set out to achieve?

Am I making excuses, blaming or justifying my actions?

3) Be Aware of the Terrain Ahead

The challenge today with a continuous changing environment is to see what the road ahead holds. Till not that long ago business owners simply had to put a sign up and people came in, now it’s not this simple. One of reasons being is that the consumer dictates everything, the what, when and how your business operates, the product or service and so on.


So getting really good at reading what your clients needs are and then delivering that in a cost effect manor over and over at a high standard increases the possibility of success.

The same applies in Kung Fu only this way it’s predicting what your opponents next move is even before their thinking about it, by predicting what you would do in that scenario. I remember being in a sparing exercise (6 X 3 min fighting rounds at medium contact with different opponents to practice what it’s like in fight scenario’s) trading kicks and punches until I came across an opponent that was almost twice as big as me but was of lower experience levels. He had plenty of power in his kicks and punches suffered with execution. He repeated the same moves over and over and lacked the ability to read my next move or the terrain in front of him.

His mental focus was concentrated on defeating me through shear force. Being the more experienced I began moving around him quicker than he estimated, checking his range by parrying (light punches and kicks to check your distance is not too close or far from the opponent), looking for his patterns of attack (the terrain ahead) and importantly looking for the gaps to exploit. I could also see he began to tire from all the moving and become irritable with the volume of kicks and punches that actually made contact. So I waited until the right opportunity where his guard was open (hand posture to protect the vital organs) and then attacked swiftly, decisively and with good power. I remember a spinning back kick followed by a 3 punch combination. Down he went clutching his ribs and head. I read the terrain ahead perfectly and reacted pro actively towards the goal.

In business it’s important to read what’s coming, your client buying patterns, what’s going on outside of your 4 walls and prepare to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. It is a fine line between being in the zone versus just missing the boat. So pay attention and be present in your business, look and listen to what’s happening around you at all times.

4) Balance is the key when under pressure

Balance has many variants in Kung fu. Balance in your stance, in your kicking, punching and blocking, reacting and acting to the opposing force and so on. Balance in the arts goes far beyond the physical to balance of the mind. The mind must be calm when needed the most, in combat, which is counter intuitive to the normal untrained mind.

We all share an instinct – “the flight or fight response” that helps us react in dangerous situations. This is the internal alarm that heightens our senses and prepares us instantly for action.

In Kung fu this response was evoked over and over again to help train the mind and body with the ability to control the reaction and use it as an advantage. Rather than being controlled by the adrenalin serge we learn to channel the energy into the opponent. Bruce Lee put it elegantly

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

In business Balance also can have many faces. Take Work/life balance as an example. It seems to be an equation that is completely out of balance doesn’t it? You work 50 weeks to have a week or two off around Xmas if your lucky? So it’s really all work and no life…right?

Not taking time out to rebalance your life sooner or later comes with a price. You either burn out or even worse keep on trudging through your day like the walking dead.

The other side to balance in business, similar to Kung Fu is also balance of the mind. To be calm and level headed in times of pressure such as low sales, staff issues, economic challenges, product launches etc. but to also allow for your creative side to express itself as well.

Ask yourself how balanced am I?

How do I react in the face of challenge?

Am I in “Fight or flight” mode constantly or do I recover quickly?

           5) Success comes from Resilience

In Kung Fu like in all martial arts the aim of the game is to be the last one standing. That’s it in a nut shell. No it’s ok to give it 60% effort or even 80% it’s about 150% or nothing. See rewind the clock back a few hundred years and the outcome of a bout would be a winner (still alive) and a loser (dead). No I’m sorry but I had a bad day yesterday, your life depended on it.

I have the great privilege of being with thousands of businesses all over the country and I have to say that there will be only a small minority that plays the game of business at that level (like their life depended on it). Most just rock up, do their hours and that’s just about it. Now I need to be clear, doing long hours slaving away at your business is one thing, living breathing and completely immersing yourself into the business with the mindset of “failure is not an option” are two different things.

You may need to ask yourself these questions

  • “Am I running my business like my life depended on it?”
  • “Am I doing whatever it takes?”

See effort requires energy and importantly it requires resilience. To get knocked down and get back up over and over again until you’re the last person standing.

Resilience comes from training mind and body. The deeper into the art of Kung Fu I delve the more I start to realize that the physical training is mostly conditioning the mind to be resilient, to push through to the other side. Seth Godin’s book The Dip explains it perfectly, he goes on to explain that you need enough momentum and mental resilience to get out of what he calls the cul-de-sac. This is the place where many get stuck, it’s what I call the limbo stage of a business. Not knowing if you should continue or close down because you’re hanging on by a thread.

Any form of resilience is acquired through nothing more than tough training, adaptation and dealing with and overcoming constant challenge. This is the difference between a business owner who has resilience vs one without. As yourself the following

  • How do you deal with challenges?
  • How much mental, emotional and physical resilience do you have?
  • How easily do you give up at the first sign of pressure?
  • What's your resilience strategy?

          6) Learn to unlearn – empty the mind

Kung Fu is a journey not a destination. The different colour belts and grading’s simply tell you where you have been and what may lye ahead. As you develop the skill set needed to properly address any imminent situations you may face you also start to refine what you have learnt along the way to suit you.

Techniques and thoughts you held onto earlier in the training begin to shift, adapting them into the bigger picture.

In business everything is changing around you constantly, skill sets that you used 10 years ago are mainly obsolete by now. The customer needs and wants have changed and so to must you adapt to their way of thinking as explained earlier.

One of the foundational principles that I adhere to in life and business and that I discuss in depth in my upcoming book “UP-ology” is the “Constant Renewal”.

The principle is based on letting go mentally and emotionally of everything you have learnt and be open to the possibility of change. Now I’m not saying that you forget about how to run your business or who your partner of spouse is, I’m saying it’s about 2 things

  • Reflecting daily on what you have created in your life
  • Letting go to attachment based thinking i.e what you were is not what you can become

In business holding onto the past can be very destructive. Everyday comes with new possibilities and opportunities for growth. Learn to unlearn by emptying your mind is the path towards growth.

The true meaning of the Kung Fu journey is far from the art used for conflict but rather the strengthening of the mind, body and spirit. In order to avoid confrontation at all costs. Learnt to fight in order not to.

How does all this relate to business?

I believe owning a business is about the training, the resistance, the challenges, the growth and the victories you need in order to uncover the bigger picture. The more experience you gain the more you understand that one point or another business is not just about making money and collecting things it’s about letting go of the mental restrictions and the need to prove to ourselves we are worthy but rather it’s about contribution, helping others and uncovering whatever your true purpose is.


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