The World According to a Hammer

22 11 2013


Back when I was still running a martial arts school, I heard a highly regarded martial art instructor talk about how to “be the local expert.” His idea was simple; be the most well informed, well educated, and thus most qualified fitness/self defense expert in the area, and be recognized as such. The advantages of being the most qualified expert in one’s field should be a no-brainer. Wouldn’t everybody want to train with the best? As in any highly competitive market, the real challenge lies in being distinguished as the top dog.

Here comes the snake oil salesmen

Enter the world of marketing. As anybody who’s ever run their own business will tell you, marketing is almost as important as the product being offered. In my opinion, it is also the most difficult part of being an entrepreneur. Advertising, i.e. Yellow pages, television, radio, mass-mailing, is extremely expensive. Other methods can be less expensive, but more time consuming, taking one away from their area of expertise. For the small operator, the efficacy of where to invest a marketing budget can be a make-or-break proposition.

Another factor in marketing for the martial arts, and I suspect for many businesses, is the waning effectiveness of traditional methods. With all the competition using the same tactics in the same mediums, things like the Yellow Pages, flyers, etc. just quit working. When everyone is offering the same services, with the same prices, and claiming the same level of superiority, how does one stand out from the crowd and sell their goods?

This is where the genius of his idea lie. It went something like this….

Get involved with the local media whenever the opportunity arrises. Write op-ed pieces on your area of expertise. Become the go-to expert in fitness & self defense, whenever a news agency is doing a piece on those topics. Reporters are always looking for engaging sources, and the more accessible the better. If you’re really good, you could work yourself into this niche. Every time there’s a story on fitness, you’d be the name quoted in the paper. Each segment on crime prevention or self defense would include your face, along with your expert advice. You would have the most powerful advertising available, with the implicit endorsement of every news agency you were featured in, and it’s free! For a small business owner struggling to maintain a reliable flow of customers, this is gold.

Indeed this strategy has been taken up by more than just your local mom & pop karate school. Anybody with something to sell, wether a product or an ideology, a candidate or some piece of legislation, can utilize this same method to get their message out. And everybody is getting on board. As much of a boon as this plan may be from a business perspective, however, this arrangement between “the news” and marketing has some serious problems.

What you don’t know won’t hurt you.

Take the martial arts “expert,” for example. For the record, there are absolutely no governing bodies nor regulatory agencies that oversee/verify any martial art school/instructor. Anybody, regardless of qualifications, can hang the proverbial shingle on the wall and state that they are the nth degree grand master of their system. Any certifications an instructor may have are on the honor system at best, and many require nothing more than paying a fee. Some systems may have stringent standards, but there are no third-party agencies to verify any of their claims. That expert from local dojo X, presenting his opinion on your local news, may very well be an expert. Whether that expertise is on the subject in question or in bullshit isn’t clear, however, without serious research into their actual qualifications beyond being  a self-proclaimed “master.”

The recent revelation in September that “Dr.” Elizabeth O’Bagy isn’t really a doctor of anything (she lied about having a PhD), makes my point, When being an expert has market value, there exists the motivation for individuals to exaggerate how qualified they may actually be. It is a bit scary that she was offering up expert advice on the turmoil in the Middle East, and our potential involvement in Syria. It’s even scarier to consider she was being taken seriously by policy makers.

The tail is wagging the dog

Even though spending a few hours watching the news would leave you believing our world is becoming ever more violent, this simply isn’t the case. The frequency of these stories feeds our cognitive biases and leaves us with an inaccurate perception of reality. (see this earlier post) Violent crime in the U.S. has been decreasing for the past 20 years, and that includes the recent upswing the past two years. The media focuses on the extreme stories, however, because this kind of drama is what get’s viewers’ attention.

Martial arts instructors play upon our fears of violence, just as the media does. Self defense is what they’re selling, and if consumers didn’t see a threat, they’d be out of business. Even though it is statistically un-likey that most martial arts students will ever be in a violent situation, martial arts schools continue to sign up people who worry about defending themselves. (this statistical reality is also why the plethora of unqualified martial art instructors go largely unnoticed as the frauds they are – their students never actually have to use their skills)

Who else might be in a line of work that is dependent upon our fear, and uses the media to feed it? O’Bagy is a prime example, but she is just the tip of the iceberg. Many of the “think tanks” we hear about so often are really just advertising agencies in disguise. They are presenting research to support their agendas, expressing opinions as supposed “experts,” when in reality they are often simply pitchmen. Our 24-hour news has been turned into their personal 24 hour info-mercial. The problem is, they’re selling more than a better detergent or the latest workout craze.

In his article The sham “terrorist expert” industry, Glenn Greenwald  discusses “sham experts,” “who have built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism,” and who “can stay relevant only if that threat does.”

These “terrorism experts” form an incredibly incestuous, mutually admiring little clique in and around Washington. They’re employed at think tanks, academic institutions, and media outlets. They can and do have mildly different political ideologies — some are more Republican, some are more Democratic — but, as usual for D.C. cliques, ostensible differences in political views are totally inconsequential when placed next to their common group identity and career interest: namely, sustaining the myth of the Grave Threat of Islamic Terror in order to justify their fear-based careers, the relevance of their circle, and their alleged “expertise.” Like all adolescent, insular cliques, they defend one another reflexively whenever a fellow member is attacked, closing ranks with astonishing speed and loyalty; they take substantive criticisms very personally as attacks on their “friends,” because a criticism of the genre and any member in good standing of this fiefdom is a threat to their collective interests.

Let the buyer beware.

We view advertisements with a lot of skepticism, knowing that the advertiser has financial incentive to “stretch the truth,” as they tell us how much better our life will be when we own their product. We don’t apply this same level of doubt to the statements of an expert in a news interview, but we should. What if they have a financial stake in the message they’re delivering? If they’ve got financial incentive to influence your opinion, how is their testimony any different than a spokesperson from brand z telling you theirs is the best? Again, if the reporters were doing any in-depth, investigative journalism, they should be pointing out these potential conflicts-of-interest, and if egregious, completely dismissing the credibility of said expert before, if ever, giving them access to their pulpit.

The risks from getting advice or instruction from a less-than-qualified martial artist are, for the most part, benign. You may not achieve the fitness levels you’d hoped for, or your child may learn some cheesy techniques that lose them a trophy at the local tournament. Higher up the spectrum, perhaps you get injured doing inappropriate exercises. Worst-case, you find yourself using bogus techniques to unsuccessfully protect yourself in a violent attack.

The stakes for society at large are much more serious when the experts being touted on CNN, FOX and MSNBC are proponents of, say, bombing another country.  Picture the fictional gazillion-aire industrialist Tony Stark (pre-moral paradigm shift) publicly pushing an aggressive military policy. Would we be willing to accept his “expert” advice to go to war, knowing he’s the guy getting rich off of the deal? If comic-book fiction isn’t you’re thing, how about this. Back in September, about the same time Ms. O’Bagy was coming clean, Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, was making the argument for U.S. military involvement in Syria on CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. According to a report by the  Public Accountability Initiative,

“In each case, Hadley’s audience was not informed that he serves as a director of Raytheon, the weapons manufacturer that makes the Tomahawk cruise missiles that were widely cited as a weapon of choice in a potential strike against Syria. Hadley earns $128,500 in annual cash compensation from the company and chairs its public affairs committee. He also owns 11,477 shares of Raytheon stock, which traded at all-time highs during the Syria debate ($77.65 on August 23, making Hadley’s share’s worth $891,189). Despite this financial stake, Hadley was presented to his audience as an experienced, independent national security expert.”

Mr. Hadley wasn’t alone.

To a hammer, everything’s a nail.

Karate, Taekwondo, Kung fu, Muay Thai, and Jiu Jitsu are just a few of a long list of martial arts available to the consumer. Each style will present a different set of skills and methodology. For the devoted practitioner, training in the arts can become a lifestyle, in which hours a day are devoted to the mat, and the ideas & principles from training become infused with the rest of their daily lives outside the gym. The time spent with teammates, together with the common experiences “on the mat” build a strong camaraderie. Students come to identify with their fellow training partners; there are those who train, and those who don’t, their school and other schools, their style and other styles.

All of this makes the students natural marketers. “Do you want to lose weight? You should try our style,” or ” Do you want to get stronger? Come try our classes.”  The martial arts will cure pretty much whatever ails you, especially according to a believer. The passion with which they believe combined with the growing number of believers just makes their story that much more compelling. Their belief becomes sold as fact irrespective of it’s actual validity. Add this bias together with the profit motive of an entrepreneur and you’ve got someone who’s hammer is the answer to all your problems.

Now extend that same mentality to a group of like minded people who make their living off of the nation’s fear of terrorism. Mind you, it’s the perceived threat that we’re fearful of, because the average joe has absolutely no way of knowing what the actual threat is. Also keep in mind that our perception comes from none other than those that stand to profit the most from it’s existence. Can anyone say “conflict of interest?” Whether they come to believe their own hype or if they see it for what it is, the fact remains that it is in their interest to pitch whatever they’re selling as much as they can.

The harm that may befall us individually from believing some less-than-qualified martial arts instructor pales in comparison to the global impact of our decisions in the ballot box. We, as the voting public of the most powerful nation on the planet, have a moral duty to make informed decisions. As Thomas Jefferson stated,

“Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

The problem is, we’re relying, in large part, on a rigged system to provide us with the information we need to make those decisions. As compelling as the story may seem on CNN, FOX, or MSNBC, we need to remain cynically skeptical. The very nature of that medium (entertainment & sales) makes everything they say suspect, and the added testimony of supposed experts is no help, as there’s a good chance they’re just trying to sell us a hammer.

Constant and never-ending improvement

5 11 2012

With fall here, I’ve been getting caught up on a number of projects, in preparation for all that comes with the change of seasons: fall pruning, garden winterizing, gutter cleaning, and halloween decorating.  Thus the last few weeks of missing blog posts.

In addition, we brought a new member into our family last week.  We adopted an australian shepherd from the Australian Shepherd and Border Collie Rescue of Northern Nevada.  A big THANK YOU  goes out to Kathy Givens of ABC rescue, and Kathy & Rick (Montana’s foster parents) for all of their efforts in caring for all these animals in need!

Montana is a handsome “tri” and is settling nicely into our busy routine around here.  I’m sure I’ll be posting more on him in the future.

I find myself reflecting, as I do with every transformation of the seasons, on the change that is constant in our lives.  Spring to summer, summer to fall, and so forth, cycling back around to start all over again.  This circular perspective can feed into the misconception that we, too are just running in circles.

It’s really more of a spiral, isn’t it?

For me, the question becomes this: are we spiraling upward or downward, forward or backward?

Over the past 26 years of teaching & coaching, my purpose for teaching hasn’t changed very much.  My goals for my students have always been based on my goals as a martial artist, and as an idealist.    My perspective, however, certainly has changed, as I’ve morphed from a young single college grad into a much older husband, and father.  This additional perspective has only served to validate and reinforce my ideals and goals.

Simply stated, and on a grand scale, my purpose is to make the world a better place.  I’ve always been an idealist, and I believe each and every one of us has the opportunity to leave our mark, whether small or large.  Each of us will impact the world we live in, and our legacy is for the future of all mankind, for better or worse.  Like a pebble thrown into a pond, our actions cause ripples with unknown and far-reaching possibilities.   Isn’t it our moral responsibility to make our contribution as positive as possible?

The martial arts have provided me an avenue to teach the things that I believe are key to helping positively effect powerful change in the lives of the students.  By extension, they can help lead others to accomplish the same.

The martial art philosophies of courtesy and respect, self-discipline and humility, patience and commitment, are all vital tools for life.  Perhaps the most important skill, and the one I believe binds all other ideals together is embodied in C.A.N.I., a term coined by Tony RobbinsConstant And Never-ending Improvement should be ingrained in our lifestyle, physically, spiritually, and intellectually.  It is a mistake to think that at some point in our lives we get to coast.  Only if we are continually striving to be the best person we can, will we ever experience our true potential.

Since becoming a parent, my goals have become even more crystalized in my mind.  Now all of this pertains not only to the students and friends I may wish to influence in a positive way, but to those dearest to my heart; my three daughters.  Just as I would imagine all parents feel, my hope is that my children grow up to be an improvement.  I want them to be better people than I am, and to have a better life than I have.

The only way we, as parents, can accomplish this, is to strive for the same ourselves.  We must lead our children by example.  If we want them to be well prepared, we must be well prepared.  If we want them to achieve their full potential, then we must be striving to achieve our own.  We must constantly and continually be learning and growing, thereby improving ourselves in mind, body, and soul.  Only in this way can we lead our children, so that they, too, can be the best that they can be.

Excuses, excuses…

29 08 2012

Livin’ the life in the Bozone.

We were on vacation in Montana earlier this month, and while visiting my favorite coffee shop up there, I acquired the latest copy of Outside Bozeman.  It’s a great little magazine that helps keep me in touch of much of what I love about that area.  As it’s title implies, it covers all of the great outdoor activities that the Bozone has to offer, from hiking, biking, skiing, and running, to hunting, fishing, and snowmobiling.  It also plays on the local/native/tourist genre, as various authors make jokes or commentary about all the tourists and “newbies” from the perspective of a local.  The nature of this banter  is not lost on this fourth generation “native,” and I find the irony of such thinking highly amusing.

One of the articles in particular hit upon a subject close to my athletic and coaching-minded heart.  “Born to (Eventually) Run”, by Jeff Wozer, had me laughing to tears – and verifying the condition of my internal organs.  In it he logs his “training” as he prepares for an upcoming race.

In addition to being funny as hell, his was a great expose’ on the human condition.  I suppose that is, in part, why it was so funny.  All too often, we sabotage our ability to be the best that we could be by making excuses as to why we can’t do the very thing we know we should.  We see what we want to accomplish, and understand the steps we have to take in order to do so, but then we “excuse” ourselves right out of ever getting it done.

Here’s one of my personal favorites.

When I still owned a martial arts school, I would often hear from former students who wanted to get back into training.  Of course, I was always very supportive of such a goal, and would do what I could to help them initiate said change, from giving them a current class schedule to offering them private lessons to help with the transition back.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Yeah, I’d love to, but I’ve got to get in shape first.”

I just love that logic: I’d love to get in shape, but I’ve got to get in shape first.  Let me see if I understand that correctly.  You can’t begin to do something until you do it first.  Now THAT makes perfect sense.

“I’m not smart enough to go back to school.”

“I’m too overweight to lose weight.”

The fact that these statements defy logic doesn’t really matter, however.  I realize that these excuses are just the cover story, beneath the surface of which lie the true, but unspoken reasons.

“I’m afraid.”

“I’d be embarrassed.”

“I’m just too busy.”

“I don’t know how.”

“It’s too far.”

“I can’t afford it.”

Here’s the logic that matters most: in the end it is OUR choice that decides, not anything else.  We can focus on all of the excuses for not doing something, or we can focus on the reasons for doing something, but in the end it’s still OUR choice.  Instead of making a long list of excuses why we can’t do something, we need to get in the habit of making a  list of reasons why we should, and then get busy.


16 08 2012

Who am I? Why are we all here? What’s my purpose? Ahh, yes, the big questions in life. Here’s another; Why are you even reading this? Let’s face it, Across the vast expanses of the world wide web, this insignificant blog entry is but a tiny speck.  I’m sure you could find something else to kill time while you’re sitting at your computer.  If you are reading this, (guess that’s already been established) it’s probably because you’re working out with me; otherwise you wouldn’t even know this page exists.  I imagine you’re hoping to get at least a bit of entertainment, or even a tid-bit that may help you with your fitness goals.  All right then, here it goes…

I got into the whole martial arts teaching gig because of my ideals.  I wanted to change the world. I wanted make it a better place.  Now, obviously This is no simple task; we human beings have been struggling for thousands of years on this and still haven’t gotten it right.  (Always being focused on “what’s in it for me right now” tends to distract the individual from any higher purpose.)  I realized that to accomplish such a task would require generations of individuals working in the same direction.  Conclusion? The education of our future generations is the key to really having any lasting impact, and what better place to do it than in an environment where self-reflection, self-evaluation, continual growth, and constant improvement are the goals, while ideals like courtesy, compassion, integrity, and self-discipline, are the guiding principles?

You would think our public school system would be up to the task, but having worked in that environment, I found that it, too, tends to be focused on the same “what’s in it for me, right now” mentality.  Religion provides us with another opportunity to learn & grow (making the world a better place by guiding us to be better people), but obviously we have managed to drop the ball in the name of religion more than a few times in our history.

In the end, I opted to follow the martial art route.  It proved to be a relatively successful path.  It took me from Montana to Korea, and eventually landed me here in California.  I’ve personally learned more than I can even begin to describe about myself and the people around me.  I’ve met many individuals who were also striving to make the world a better place, while helping others improve their lives.  Our school here in Roseville was a huge success in creating a positive environment where a lot of great families were able to grow as individuals and as a community.

However, as with all human endeavors, even the martial arts world is plagued by individuals suffering from the same human weaknesses that infect our public schools and religious institutions.  The competition of the market place pays little heed to how you do business, so long as your bottom-line is in the black, and I found myself in competition with people who, for lack of a better term, may have been “morally challenged,” or who found a way to change the very nature of what it is we martial artists do in order to make it more palatable to the consumer.  Unfortunately many of them also had a business acumen that is top notch.  to be competitive in this market place I continually found myself engaged in activities that, although not illegal, were at least bordering on being contradictory to the ideals I espoused.  I decided it was time to get out, as I couldn’t play that game and maintain my Integrity.  I had to come up with a new plan; a different business model that represented the ideals I chose, as opposed to those dictated by the market place.

integrity |inˈtegritē|noun
1 the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness
2 the state of being whole and undivided
• the condition of being unified,unimpaired, or sound in construction
• internal consistency or lack of corruption in electronic data

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Don’t SAY things. What you ARE stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.”  Although not as eloquent, my take on this is simple: If you want to be truly satisfied with your life, whether in your fitness, in your work, or as a parent, you’ve got to have Integrity.  your words and your actions must be congruent.  When what we say, how we act, and how we think aren’t congruent, we have created a reality that will eventually bite us in the ass. (ouch!)

Now I spend most of my time just trying to raise my daughters to the best of my ability.

Suffice it to say, I’m still working on that plan.  I’m still teaching, a bit, reading as much as possible, and training every day.  The new plan is a work in progress, albeit slow progress, as I’m too busy living life.  Raising three children seems to take up most of my time these days, and it is time well spent.  They are three amazing little girls who are learning all about living with courtesy, compassion, integrity, and self-discipline.  Perhaps we’ll change this world yet.


Learning to tackle and grapple.

Werneck Family Jiu Jitsu

World Class Training in a Family Environment


Musings of an aspiring martial artist and father