007 Pursuit of Excellence Mindset

Today I am going to discuss the Pursuing Excellence Mindset – how I perceive this and how it has influenced and directed my life and the practise of my craft -Traditional Karate Do.

So how should one approach this – how will you know what Excellence to be Pursuing?

If you want to become successful at anything in life, it is important to study successful people in that field and to observe the factors that made them successful – the internal factors, which they can control or manage and of course, the external factors, the opportunities they grasped and obstacles they faced and overcame to become successful. 

Very early in my life, in fact I was 14 years old and had just started doing Karate, I read an article on an interview with the most successful, self-made, South African businessman in the post-World War Two era, and obviously one of the questions by the journalist was ‘what contributed or what did you do differently to become successful’?. 

One of the first sentences in his reply, was Attention to Detail

Subsequently I studied – and am I still doing to this day – successful persons from all spheres of life – pioneers, explorers, sportspersons, empire builders, military commanders, unique business persons, artists, musicians, company founders and CEO’s and this factor of ‘attention to detail’, usually appears in some form or another somewhere in most of their biographies. 

Later, in my military career – I spent 33 years altogether in the military – originally for compulsory national service where I served in a field artillery regiment – and later in the permanent or regular force as a staff officer for physical training and sport, the factor of attention to detail was, of course, prevalent in all aspects when you prepare and plan to win a battle – from team to personal planning such as cleaning your boots, taking care of your health, making sure your weaponry is always clean and ready to use and most important – that your mind was kept healthy, alert and focused!

Back to Karate – in previous podcasts describing my training experience in Japan, I mentioned the free or self-training in the evenings after formal classes, which could continue usually to about 10:00 o’clock, after which the few seniors, would go for a beer and something to eat before I would take the train journey back to the apartment where I stayed.   

Sometimes, usually on a Friday or Saturday evening when there was no training the next morning, or relax Sunday the next day, the beer and something to eat, could run into extra overtime and I would make the last train home of the evening! Taxis were expensive!

The last train in the evening, especially on Fridays and Saturdays would usually have a couple – ranging from slightly too heavily intoxicated, people on board and because it was the last train, it was usually pretty crowded!   The station platforms and dustbins would be the prime targets for vomiting and spitting!  

But the next morning, that station platform and dustbins would be spotless again!

One Saturday morning, I had to catch an early train for some reason or other. The neighborhood station where I lived, was relatively small and from there I would transfer to the main lines. 

As I was waiting for the train to arrive, I noticed the person cleaning the dustbins.  

It struck me that he had three different brushes and four different rags for cleaning the dustbin!  He would start off on a very dirty, messy dustbin with a brush or scraper, then change to another brush and then to a finer brush. After that, he would start with his rags – wiping, cleaning and polishing that dustbin until it was shining like a mirror. And it all happened at a very past tempo!

Even at the age of 23, it impressed me tremendously that someone would take so much pride in what he was doing and his focus on the details of his job, probably regarded as an obscure job in most societies! 

So in pursuing excellence, firstly, your mindset needs to be aware, alert and open to observe all the detail of your craft which you would need to advance, and take your personal ability in your craft to the highest possible level of excellence!

To support this, you need a set of values and qualities upon which your approach is based.  

We are all familiar with the Dojo Kun which is displayed in our Dojos, usually framed and artistically displayed against the Dojo wall and in some Dojos recited after training. 

The Dojo Kun is pretty worthless if only displayed and recited without it becoming an integral part of one’s own way of life!  The talk needs to be walked for it to be more than just a display or a recital!  

The Dojo Kun should not stop the moment you leave the Dojo!

A tall order by any standard and that’s why I used the phrase pursuing excellence – emphasis on the word pursuing

Higaonna Sensei’s Mokuteki, or Teaching Purpose is developing the body and mind through Karate Do to cultivate an indomitable spirit with a continuous strive for self-improvement of character and body through diligent training and his underlying core values are Honesty, Loyalty, Respect – unilaterally from top down and bottom up and laterally to your colleagues.

Saturdays and Sundays   were off days at the Dojo with only the one class late afternoon on Saturday, so opportunity for self-training. 

One would usually just find one or two students there at various times through the morning and early afternoon. One Sunday, I went for some self-training and only Higaonna Sensei was in the Dojo at the time doing self-training and I watched him perform the same sequence of three movements from one of our senior Kata – Superinpei – nonstop for an hour and 40 minutes with varying speed and power!

So, the pursuing excellence mindset is to continue to strive for perfection in one’s craft. But because we are practicing an art – a martial art – we are also aware that in an art you can never reach perfection, but the strife to perfection is the fulfillment!  To use the popular cliche – it’s not the destination, it’s the journey and another popular cliche if you focus on one tree, you will miss the whole forest! 

I often make the statement in class or during seminars that I teach, that one is as good as one’s last training session! 

The motivation for pursuing excellence in a martial art is to develop and strengthen the qualities needed for survival in combat. 

The first priority is to clear your mind of all previous knowledge, inhibitions, pre-conceived and conditioned ideas (we always did it like that …)!  Start off from the understanding that you know nothing and that anything is possible and – maybe more important – never to consider yourself better or cleverer than anyone else or your craft superior to any other!  

The biggest danger to yourself is yourself thinking that you know!

In a conversation once with Don Draeger a slightly derogatory, jokingly remark was made concerning another system. Don Draeger smiled and use the well-known martial arts cliche ‘Remember, a broken-down Clock is still correct twice a day!’

The number one quality needed to succeed in combat is Discipline and the most important discipline is Self-discipline. Self-discipline starts by living the Dojo Kun! 

More qualities are Tenacity and Anticipation – 

Tenacity is to never give up, mostly referred to in a physical sense but more important your Mind. But at the same time, never bite off more than you can chew. I cannot fight five persons armed with submachine guns, so another important quality appears – Anticipation – never be in a situation to be facing five persons armed with submachine guns!  

For me personally, the most important quality in pursuing excellence is Passion!  You need passion for your craft and then will follow Commitment!  Commitment as opposed to involvement! And the most superior form of commitment is GIVING! 

It is the custom in many martial arts schools by the Master to withhold information from his students, which is understandable because he is giving them information and techniques with which they can kill him. 

And it is understandable when the student is at junior level and the Master not yet sure of trust and commitment. So out comes the popular cliche ‘one day you will understand!’  There is also the well-known Kung Fu expression ‘I have taught you everything you know but I have not taught you everything I know yet! ‘

I should share with you an incident which happened in my Dojo one time after a question from one of my students, when I made the statement ‘just keep training and one day you will understand!’ Another student raised his hand and said ‘Sensei you don’t understand – we are getting attacked in the streets now, not one day – we need knowledge now to survive!   I laughed at this, but it also made me think! 

I personally don’t hold back on information or techniques to my students – depending on their level of course! 

I regard the fact that I give them my knowledge unreservedly when they are ready for it, to be a great motivation to myself. The harder the push is from below me, the higher the desire becomes to drive myself harder to improve – to really continue pursuing excellence! 

Still the principle mentioned in a previous podcast remains however: ‘Teach students what they Need to know, not what they Want to know!’

So to conclude, Pursuing Excellence in my craft of traditional Karate has two dimensions:

A Physical Dimension – to train your body and reflexes sensibly to reach and maintain the highest possible standards of your Karate Skills

And a Mind Set dimension – the desire to be the best you can be at what you are doing by setting very high but realistic goals for yourself and continuously striving to improve yourself by improving your mental strength. Paying attention to detail will help you focus on the correct priorities!

Enhance a ‘Never Give Up’ attitude but maintain a completely open and flexible mind to evaluate present and possible future situations objectively and to be able to accept, decide and adapt to new ‘better’ ideas when required for survival.  

I finish with Higaonna Sensei’s statement that ‘Every day you need to Challenge Yourself!

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