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July 2010

Wisdom from the principles of Budō: Lessons for work & life

Budo_book I have great respect for those who dedicate themselves to the study of the martial arts in Japan. Budō, or "the martial way," is a term which encompasses the martial arts here in Japan. Bu (武) conveys the meaning "to stop clashing weapons." Dō (道) is "the way" or "the path" to truth and liberation. There is much we can learn by examining the principles found in traditional disciplines, even though they may seemed quite removed from the daily experience of most people. At the risk of greatly over simplifying things, think of Budō practice as not only being about competition or fighting and technique, but also of being a mastery of self. In the book Budo Secrets: Teachings of the Martial Arts Masters by professor and Aikido instructor John Stevens, the author recounts the three rules of the Tanseki School of Swordsmanship. I list the "Three Rules" below and then comment specifically only on Vicissitude (one of The Three Joys). Following that we'll look at "The Ten Evils for a  Budo Practitioner" with the art of presentation delivery in mind.

Budo_wear Even though these first simple rules comprising "The Three Rules for Practice" are taken from a manual on swordsmanship from a time long ago, notice how you may use these rules in your own work, or life in general. You can see how these ideas apply to the practice of the Japanese martial arts, of course, but perhaps you can also apply the ideas to the activities of everyday living including delivering a presentation or speech, managing a project or leading a team, and other practical endeavors where excellence is required and self-mastery a must. Here are the three rules from the Tanseki School of Swordsmanship.
The Three Prohibitions
(1) To give up
(2) To misbehave
(3) To be clumsy

The Three Joys
(1) Vicissitude

(2) Honesty

(3) Skillfulness

The Three Evils
(1) Fear
(2) Doubt
(3) Confusion

The Joy of vicissitude
Judo Change is a part of life. Change — even sudden and painful change — is indeed about the only thing that is certain in life, yet often we deny it or run from it. Instead, learn to prepare for change, face change, and even embrace it. We must adapt to the vagaries and ceaseless changes of everyday life. Experience can be a good teacher for dealing with the vicissitudes of life and work. Perhaps this is why athletes, for example, improve through real-game experience due to all the challenges that one faces in a real game that can not be simulated well in practice. If you want to get better at something, you have to do it, make mistakes, make adjustments, and improve over time. Just as a martial artist has his training enhanced by widening his experience through confronting ceaseless changes, we too can broaden our skills by being open to change and developing our skills further through the experience of dealing with those changes.


Ten "evils" to overcome
Aikido These items below come from The Ten Evils for a  Budo Practitioner, a list from a Kashima Shin School scroll which appear in Budo Secrets. These ten (fear & doubt appear again) have to do with one's character as a martial artist, but as the author points out, these are aspects of ourselves that everyone needs to overcome. All of these are in us (we're just human after all) — the key is not to be defeated by them. Our enemy is not in the audience (or the competition, etc.). Usually, the biggest obstacle to success is not from without, but from within. I love these words by the late Aikido master Kensho Furuya: "You have the infinite capacity to do anything you want. You compare yourself to others—that's why you feel so limited." Here's the list from The Ten Evils for a  Budo Practitioner:
(1) Insolence
(2) Overconfidence
(3) Greed
(4) Anger
(5) Fear
(6) Doubt
(7) Distrust
(8) Hesitation
(9) Contempt
(10) Conceit

Budo_kanji I think you can see, for example, how none of these ten are helpful when making a presentation, performing a piece of music, teaching a class, and so on. All of the ten listed above can be destructive and hold us back, fear and doubt in particular. Fear holds a lot of us back. It is our fear of failure, our fear of what other people may think. We're afraid. We're not sure. So we hesitate...and we fail to act. Seth Godin calls this the Lizard Brain. Now, confidence is necessary and important, but overconfidence can sometimes be as destructive as fear and can also hold us back. Overconfidence, conceit, and contempt also prohibit us from seeing the lessons from those people and experiences around us. The old adage is "Once you think you have arrived, you have already failed." Humility, a virtue often gained through much practice, study, and experience, is key. Yet humility and great strength go hand in hand. However, a kind of projected modesty that is really a face over self-doubt and fear is not the same thing as humility. Genuine humility comes from a place of strength. It is the truly courageous who remain always humble.  


Be like the bamboo: 7 lessons from the Japanese forest

Bamboo_leaf The forests that surround our village here in Nara, Japan are filled with beautiful bamboo trees. In Japan, the symbolism of the bamboo plant runs deep and wide and offers practical lessons for life and for work. I summarized the lessons below with presentation and learning in mind, but as you read these seven lessons from bamboo, try think of practical implications for your own work.

(1) Bend but don't break. Be flexible yet firmly rooted
  Bamb007 One of the most impressive things about the bamboo in the forest is how they sway with even the slightest breeze. This gentle swaying movement with the wind is a symbol of humility. Their bodies are hard and firm and yet sway gently in the breeze while their trunks stay rooted firmly in the ground below. Their foundation is solid even though they move and sway harmoniously with the wind, never fighting against it. In time, even the strongest wind tires itself out, but the bamboo remains standing tall and still. A bend-but-don't-break or go-with-the-natural-flow attitude is one of the secrets for success whether we're talking about bamboo trees, answering tough questions in a Q&A session, or just dealing with the everyday vagaries of life.

(2) Remember: What looks weak is strong
Bambooi2The body of a single bamboo tree is not large by any means when compared to the other much larger trees in the forest. It may not look impressive at first sight at all. But the plants endure cold winters and extremely hot summers and are sometimes the only trees left standing in the aftermath of a typhoon. They may not reach the heights of the other trees, but they are strong and stand tall in extreme weather. Bamboo is not as fragile as it may appear, not by a long shot. Remember the words of a great Jedi Master: "Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size do you?" We must be careful not to underestimate others or ourselves based only on old notions of what is weak and what is strong. You may not be from the biggest company or the product of the most famous school, but like the bamboo, stand tall, believe in your own strengths, and know that you are as strong as you need to be.

(3) Be always ready
Bamboo_8Unlike other types of wood which take a good deal of processing and finishing, bamboo needs little of that. As the great Aikido master Kensho Furuya says in Kodo: Ancient Ways, "The warrior, like bamboo, is ever ready for action." In presentation or other professional activities too, through training and practice, we can develop in our own way a state of being ever ready.

(4) Unleash your power to spring back
Bamboo_snow Bamboo is a symbol of good luck and one of the symbols of the New Year celebrations in Japan. The important image of snow-covered bamboo represents the ability to spring back after experiencing adversity. In winter the heavy snow bends the bamboo back and back until one day the snow becomes too heavy, begins to fall, and the bamboo snaps back up tall again, brushing aside all the
snow. The bamboo endured the heavy burden of the snow, but in the end it had to power to spring back as if to say "I will not be defeated."

(5) Find wisdom in emptiness
Bamboo_empty It is said that in order to learn, the first step is to empty ourselves of our preconceived notions. One can not fill a cup which is already full. The hollow insides of the bamboo reminds us that we are often too full of ourselves and our own conclusions; we have no space for anything else. In order to receive knowledge and wisdom from both nature and people, we have to be open to that which is new and different. When you empty your mind of your prejudices and pride and fear, you become open to the possibilities.
(6) Commit to (continuous) growth
BambooiBamboo trees are among the fastest-growing plants in the world. It does not matter who you are — or where you are — today, you have amazing potential for growth. We usually speak of Kaizen or continuous improvement that is more steady and incremental, where big leaps and bounds are not necessary. Yet even with a commitment to continuous learning and improvement, our growth — like the growth of the bamboo — can be quite remarkable when we look back at what or where we used to be. Even though the bamboo that is outside my window grows quite rapidly, I do not notice its growth from day to day. We too, even when we are making progress, may not notice our own improvement. How fast or how slow is not our main concern, only that we're moving forward. The bamboo grows fastest around the rainy season. You too may have "seasons" where growth accelerates, but is slower at other times. Yet with sustained effort, you are always growing. Do not be discouraged by what you perceive as your lack of growth or improvement. If you have not given up, then you are growing, you just may not see it until much later.

(7) Express usefulness through simplicity

Bamboo1 Aikido master Kensho Furuya says that "The bamboo in its simplicity expresses its usefulness. Man should do the same." Indeed, we spend a lot of our time trying to show how smart we are, perhaps to convince others — and ourselves — that we are worthy of their attention and praise. Often we complicate the simple to impress and we fail to simplify the complex out of fear that others may know what we know. Life and work are complicated enough without our interjecting the superfluous. If we could lose our fear, perhaps we could be more creative and find simpler solutions to even complex problems that ultimately provide the greatest usefulness for our audiences, customers, patients, or students.

Inspiring, contagious presentation: Kiran Bir Sethi teaches kids to take charge

Kiran In my search for presentations with a strong message and delivered in the naked style (honest, transparent, engaging, inspiring, simple visuals and approach, etc.), I stumbled upon two TED talks from TEDIndia held last November. Both deal with transformations in education, a hot topic of great interest to all of us. The first one is by educator (and designer) Kiran Bir Sethi below. She is fabulous. She starts her talk by saying that contagious is a good word and reminds the audience that many good things in life, like a smile, passion, and inspiration, are contagious. And she indeed has an infectious (and contagious) smile and a passion that are a perfect fit for her inspiring, positive talk. One of Sethi's main points is "if education is embedded in a real world context — blurring the boundaries between school and life — then children go through a journey of Aware (where they can see the change), Enable (be changed), and Empower (lead the change)." It starts with believing in kids: "When adults believe in children and say 'you can!' then they will."  At the end I loved how she referenced Gandhi—one man's influence—in changing a nation by spreading a "we can" message. Who, then, will help spread the infection of "we can" from these 100,000 children to the other 200 million children in India, Sethi asks.

You may have noticed that Sethi used the cool tool called Prezi. Prezi can be used in many way; in this case Sethi used it smoothly in a linear fashion as text would enter in perfect sync with her narrative and videos played on cue. Note that she didn't stand behind a lectern, turn around or fumble around with the technology. The technology was there and it helped her talk, but it did not become a barrier. Her message and delivery were wonderful.

Shukla Bose: Teaching one child at a time
This is another inspiring talk below. Shukla Bose does not use slides except to bring in video clips from time to time; mainly it is her and her story, front and center and delivered with passion and an infectious optimism. She's doing such good, important work. It's important for leaders like this to be able to stand and tell their story, and she does it very well.

Giving a 10-minute presentation with a single slide: Steven Johnson on the Ghost Map

Steven-Johnson Having just returned from a trip to London, my interest in the story of Dr. John Snow and the terrible 1854 cholera outbreak in London was rekindled. It's an amazing story. (While in London I kicked around the same streets where the outbreak occurred some 156 years ago in Soho.) The presentation below is a good short talk by Steven Johnston who wrote an entire book on the case called Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. The case was explored well by Edward Tufte as well in his 1997 book Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative (pages 27-37) as a good example of how creating a statistical graph could reveal information in a way that leads to discovering the cause of an epidemic. The case is interesting to anyone, not merely epidemiologists, and among many other things, it underscores the usefulness of using visualization — in this case Snow's map — to both help one investigate the problem and show the problem and possible causes to others in a simple way. You can get a quick review and background information of the case here and here. Watch the video below.

Steven Johnson's telling of this story is illustrative and to the point. Yet, as far as the single slide goes, it would have been far more effective had it been larger. It is always such a shame when a presenter has to say something like "You can't really see it here, but if you look...." I like the idea of using just the famous map here as the only visual. But at that relatively small size, the impact of the map was reduced a bit. Always good advice: make your visuals big.


Each black bar represents a death at the residence; deaths cluster near the Broad Street pump. See larger map here in better resolution.

Hans Rosling redux: Mixing analog with digital visualization

You have probably heard Hans Rosling's presentations on world population using the cool Gapminder software before. In his latest presentation — his sixth for TED — he mixes in some analog technique as well. This new analog teaching technique he picked up from Ikea, he says. This presentation below is excellent and is a good example of mixing analog and digital visualization techniques that result in a memorable short-form presentation. Watch the video below.

At a glance

Let's look at a few stills from Hans Rosling's talk below.

One box represents one billion people. In 1960 there were one billion people in the industrialized world and two billion in the developing world. The gap on the table between the blue box and the yellow boxes represents the large socio-economic gap that existed in 1960.

In 1960 those in the developed world aspired to buy a car, those in the developing world aspired to buy shoes. What Hans wants to show is that in spite of some of the old "the West and the Rest" language that is still used today, the world has changed.

The world population has doubled since the early '60s.

Here you can see the gap between the poorest of the developing (yellow/green boxes) nations and the rich (blue box) nations is much larger. The two billion of the poorest nations are struggling almost as much as in 1960, Hans says. In between the poorest and the richest are the emerging economies, the bulk of the world population. Hans's point is that while there is a "continuous world" from the poorest to the richest and no longer just a simplistic "us and them" or "the West and the Rest," the troubling part is that the poor are still very poor.

For sure China is going to catch up by 2050 just like Japan did, Hans says, and if we invest well in green technology, etc. the emerging nations will move up right along the richest nations.

Now how about the poorest two billion, will they catch up? The problem here, as Hans explains, is one of population growth (note that the two boxes have become four). In the rich and emerging countries, population growth will have essentially stopped by 2050. However, in the poorest countries the population will double by 2050 as demonstrated above.

We've got to make a change so that people on this level are not stuck looking for food and shoes (i.e, move them away from poverty and its consequences), otherwise population growth will continue. However, if (and only if) they get out of poverty, get better health care, achieve high child-survival rates, etc. then the birth rate will stop increasing in 2050.

Above. Turning to the digital display to reinforce the point Hans shows how much of the world now has good child-survival rates and smaller families, but the two billion of the poorest still have a relatively large number of births per woman and poor child-survival rates. (Note how the analog box metaphor is also shown in the graph next to the population bubbles they represented earlier.)

The point is not to do it like Hans or even to use Gapminder software. The real point is for us to ask ourselves how we can incorporate digital and analog techniques into our presentations in a way that helps make the data come alive and illuminate the story in an honest and yet engaging and memorable way. There are many ways to do this; Hans Rosling's style is just one approach. But as Hans (and his team at Gapminder) has shown many times, data is not dull, in fact it tells a story.

Hans Rosling: the zen master of presenting data

Hans_Rosling_3 I have linked to Hans Rosling many times before, but I think he is great and a wonderful role-model for a new generation of presenters in science and in business. Hans Rosling is a wonderful example too of someone who "presents naked" with data and with the aid of technology. Below he offers hints for using the Gapminder free software for displaying data.

The five hints for presenting bubbles
A summary of Hans's five hints:

  1. Use full screen to maximize the view
  2. Explain *first* the vertical and horizontal axes as well as the meaning of the size and color or bubbles
  3. Mouse over a few of the bubbles that you want people to pay special attention to
  4. Set the optimum speed and tell the audience when you're going to start the animation
  5. Explain the meaning of the movement as it is happening

Example: Ageing and fertility rates
Let's look at a simple example.The issue here is declining birth rates and longer life expectancies. We could show the information using images and narration and interviews. This can be very effective. Watch the clips below to get a little background concerning the challenges faced when a country (like Japan or Italy) has both a high percentage of people over 65 and a shrinking fertility rate.

Age   Baby_boom
Click on photos above for short TV news video presentation on each topic.

Now notice, too, how essentially the same point (at least concerning Japan) is made below vividly in Hans Rosling's presentation using nothing but data, that is, his visualization of data.
We see very clearly that Japan, for example, has both an ageing population but also a shrinking birth rate (which raises various concerns such as who will pay the pensions and health care costs for those retired?). Also note how professor Rosling first explains the chart, points out what to look for, and then explains the meaning. The relatively quick rise in the life expectancy over the last thirty years in Japan is dramatically represented in the animated chart.

Some of the best presentations will have a good mix of effective quantitative displays and discussions of the data balanced with narration, relevant images, interviews, and stories or examples.

Jazz: the ultimate in naked communication

Cherry_jazz.001 Jazz is one of the purest forms of self-expression. We need more jazz in this world. Jazz is also the epitome of naked communication. The legendary jazz cornetist Don Cherry said that "music is one of the arts that make a person completely naked." The best music is indeed played naked, this is especially true for jazz. When I was in Paris last week (pics), I received a CD as a gift from Jeremy, a French entrepreneur who said my work had helped him; the CD was a token of his appreciation. I was touched. Then when I finally listened to the CD — "Lucky" by Molly Johnson — I was blown away by this amazing artist from Canada. I was not familiar with Johnson's work, but I sure am now. She is wonderful. (Her website.) Her interpretation — her presentation if you will — of the jazz standard "Summer time" is a lovely example of naked communication: honest, transparent, raw, visceral, emotional, beautifully simple and yet rich and meaningful. As you watch Molly below, try to imagine how you can fill more of your own work with such naked and true communication.

This piece above also features some really nice exchanges between the bass player and the drummer. Going naked also means being a good listener; notice how they play off each other. The very fact too that Molly uses only a bass and drums to back her up in this song is another good example of nakedness. She's up there without a pianist (or guitarist) which creates a kind of empty space for clarity and connection. The sound is full and fat, but it's all her. Remarkable.

Previous posts on issues related to presentation and what we can learn from jazz.
Moving to higher ground: Lessons from the art of jazz (part I)
Structure & spontaneity: Lessons from the art of jazz (part II)
Zen, jazz, & creativity: Lessons from the art of jazz (part III)
Jazz and the art of connecting
More lessons from jazz
Jazz and simplifying complication
Steve Jobs' presentation style...and all that jazz