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Six Start-up Lessons from Martial Arts

Twenty-eight years ago, I won the world judo championships. Unlike almost everyone else who accomplishes that feat, I did NOT go into running a judo school, selling martial arts supplies, or, more recently, mixed martial arts.

armbar at practicePhoto courtesy of Hans Gutknecht of the Los Angeles Daily News

On the contrary, I immediately went into a doctoral program at the University of California, where I specialized in Applied Statistics and Psychometrics. After several years as a professor, I went into the consulting business full-time.

So, was that 14 years of competing and training a waste, as far as my career is concerned? I would say no. Thinking about it lately, I see some important lessons I learned from martial arts.

1. To succeed, you don’t need to be like the other successful people. No one is a less unlikely world judo champion than me. I wasn’t Japanese, I had no money, and oh, yes, I wasn’t male. The first women’s world championships were still eight years in the future when I started judo. Japan has the largest number of international medalists, followed by France and the former Soviet Union, I never even had an instructor from any of those countries.

Of course, this has been an extraordinarily useful lesson since being female, over 50 and Hispanic and not only not dropped out of Ivy League schools but having actually graduated with a Ph.D., no one looks less like Silicon Valley than me.

2. To succeed you don’t need to be in “the right place” or with “the right people”. It is NOT all who you know.  I started at Alton YMCA in middle of nowhere Illinois, and trained there my first few years. While many people travel to Japan or Europe to train 20 or 30 times, I went to Japan once, for my junior year abroad, because it was all I could afford. While I was there, Margot Sathay taught me. She was, at the time, the highest ranking non-Asian woman in the world. No one else wanted to bother with me.

This is, of course, a good thing, because I am not in Silicon Valley, Boston or New York City. I’m in Los Angeles and don’t intend to move because I like my life.

3. Success requires effort. Amazing success requires amazing effort. I work 7 days a week. My “off-days” I only work six hours or so. Other days, I usually work from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. with an hour or so break for lunch or dinner.

4. Working hard doesn’t mean not enjoying life. Just like when I was competing in judo, I am enjoying what I am doing very much, so it is not all that difficult. One side benefit from all of those years of training – I never got into the habit of watching TV. I watch maybe 4 hours of TV a week – frees up a whole lot of time compared to the typical American’s schedule. Half the time I’m watching TV I’m probably riding the exercise bike in the living room at the same time.

5. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. I tore my ligaments and cartilage in my right knee in an accident when I was 17 years old. Knee replacements and even orthoscopic surgery were years in the future. Any reasonable person would have quit competing. Instead, I focused on being best in the world at matwork and won international tournaments on four continents. I couldn’t train with top athletes twice a day because I had a job as an industrial engineer. I couldn’t quit my job because I was a divorced mom with a baby that needed stuff. So, I got up every morning, ran or lifted weights, went out on my lunch hour and ran or lifted weights and then did judo after work every night.

I have a lot of advantages right now. We have every possible piece of hardware and software for development and testing. After years in business, we have a stable customer base and a sizable 401k. I can afford to invest a lot of my unpaid time and company funds in design and development. Yes, some of those customers mean I can’t always spend as much time on development as I want. On the flip side, that gives us money and stuff. We’re not part of any incubator, accelerator or co-working arrangement, but The Rocket Scientist, the person who, when we were dating, my research assistants referred to as “Computer God”, is right upstairs.

6. Persistence is probably the biggest lesson I learned from martial arts. When I was 12 years old, there were thousands of kids in this country as good at judo as me, if not much better. When I was 16 years old, there were probably hundreds of kids in this country as good as me, if not better. When I was 21 years old, there were certainly less than 100 people in this country as good at judo as me. When I was 26 years old, I was the best in the world. The biggest difference between me and the thousands of other kids is that I just kept at it.

The first draft of the game was pretty ragged – just like my technique when I started judo. BUT – it gave our team something to work with. For the last few weeks, we have all been working on fixing every part of it,changing the intro, making all the graphics the same size, creating a theme for the web pages,  adding levels to the 3-D portion, adding a sound track – adding, changing, fixing.

It did not look very good at all when we began, but I have learned that how you look at the beginning, or even in the middle, is not the important part. It’s how you end up.

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  1. I second #6 … Although I always put it as “A black belt is a white belt who didn’t quit.”

  2. Your article is an encouragement for people who thinks they cannot learn martial arts. You didn’t have the proper training, but now there are plenty of martial arts classes. Learning some kind of martial arts is beneficial for everyone; mental & physical benefits.

  3. Very motivational article for martial art students. #3 “Success requires effort”. If you think joining a martial will make you expert in martial art then you are wrong, its hard work and dedication that counts.

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