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It’s Not About Breaking the Board: What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Martial Arts

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things you can learn from martial arts
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We’ve all seen the videos…a person wearing a white uniform and a black belt stares down their opponent; a stack of boards six inches high. They take a breath in, and — wham! — their bare hand whips down and breaks the stack cleanly in half. The broken boards tumble to the ground, and the breaker walks away triumphant.

I know what you’re thinking. “I’m not powerful enough to do that, forget it! I’ll just watch. Why would I need to break a board, anyway?” You want to laugh it off, to walk away. But have you thought about why you refuse so quickly? Do you ever feel that inkling feeling of curiosity? You know the, “could’ve, should’ve, would’ve” kind of feeling that you instantly shrug off? You’re afraid of pain. You’re worried that people will see you fail. You don’t want to try, because you believe in your heart that you can’t succeed.

That’s the stupidest excuse out there. Stop making excuses in your life! Let me tell you something — I don’t teach students how to break a “board” or “cement block”. I train students to focus beyond the board or block to a goal they want to achieve or a weakness they want to overcome. The board is just an obstacle between you and your goal. Your goal is BEYOND that obstacle.

However, sometimes, our biggest obstacle isn’t a tangible object like a board or block, but rather, it is our MIND that stops us from achieving our goals. Everyone has a “board” in life. It’s the business we want to launch, the career change we wish to explore, the self-expression we desperately want to pursue but haven’t. Pay attention to the negative inner dialogue that stops you from pursuing that goal, and you’ll probably find that it sounds a lot like the voice you hear when you see someone else breaking a physical board. 

“I can’t.” 

“I’m scared.”

“I’m not strong enough to do what they do.”

“Defeat is a state of mind; no one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as a reality.” – Bruce Lee

I’ve taught Jung SuWon for years now, practiced it for decades, and I’ve heard every excuse. But the truth is that physical training and career achievement are both more mental battles than physical ones. It’s not about breaking one board, or launching a business, or achieving some personal goal — it’s about being determined enough to face adversity head-on, overcome your inner doubts, and accomplish the impossible. It takes a laser focus to break through a stack of boards or cement blocks. Not everyone does it on the first or second try. It takes the same laser focus to start a company or change your career.

This is what I do with my students and people that I coach and mentor all around the world. When I give them a board to break, I always ask them to write their goals. This is important because again, it’s not about breaking the board, it’s about the entire process of channeling your energy with a laser beam focus by joining body, mind and spirit that will enable you to break the board. Know what you want to accomplish and learn to believe in it 110%. That’s the main focus not just breaking the physical board itself.

Instead of looking at the person breaking the board — or the business founders you admire — and saying, “No, I can’t,” you must think, “He Can Do, She Can Do, Why Not Me!”

I say this because I have experienced firsthand how life-changing this mantra can be. I grew up in a small village in South Korea where I was hated, cursed for being a girl in a culture that prized firstborn boys. Worse, I had no interest in the path that was laid out for me. I had no wish to learn to cook and sew or to get married and have twelve sons as tradition dictated.

I fell in love with martial arts, instead. I remember, as a child, peeking outside to see my uncles practicing in the morning fog, their movements graceful and mesmerizing. I wanted to learn — but they laughed in my face. I was a girl, they said, not allowed to learn such things.

And yet, I did. I insisted and begged until one uncle agreed to teach me. Then, I bore the abuse and blows that rained down on me for doing so. I endured my family’s abuse, my village’s hate. Eventually, I met a teacher who changed my life — a Buddhist monk who agreed to break 5000 years of tradition and teach me the skills I so desperately wanted. After years of dedication, I became the first female grandmaster in Korea’s history.

Since then, I have pursued my dreams wherever they have taken me, overcome poverty, discrimination, and nay-sayers. I moved to America, founded a tech company, and continued to teach martial arts.

All of this, I was able to do by following the teachings of Jung SuWon and this one mantra: “He Can Do, She Can Do, Why Not Me!” 

Here are a few martial arts tips that all entrepreneurs should embrace — even if they never plan to put on a martial art uniform:

1. Learn to Fall

There is no such thing as no-fail learning. Many martial arts disciplines begin with teaching students how to fall safely so that they could get up and start fighting again. I never see my mistakes as a negative. instead, I see them as a learning experience and use them to motivate me to be more creative and thoughtful in my approach.

2. Success is a Mental Battle, Not a Physical One

Stop focusing on what you can’t do. The moment you start believing in negative self-talk is the moment you ruin your chances for success. Like a martial arts student facing a wooden block, you need to think that you can do whatever you set your mind to — otherwise, you’ll only fail and hurt yourself. 

3. Don’t Mimic Someone Else’s Pattern

Excellent fighters adapt their knowledge of form to their needs. Your expression must be your own — you need to be responsive, to go according to your own direction, and not confine yourself to mirroring someone else’s movements or style. If I had remained in my village as my parents wanted, I would never have accomplished what I did. Similarly, if you follow the path someone else wants for you, you will never be able to achieve your potential.

4. Let Your Opponents Motivate You

Fear can be paralyzing. When you’re staring down an opponent, you fear the pain they could inflict upon you — but the only way to succeed in combat and avoid that pain is to confront it and win. In life, there will be countless people who try to put you down and tell you “NO.” When I established my first martial art studio, arsonists who hated me for my differences, burned it to the ground. I was afraid, but I refused to give in to that fear. Let your fear motivate you — use it as a device that allows you to prove every nay-sayer wrong.

You have the power to overcome every obstacle in your path. That power is already IN you. What you do in your life is your personal choice. Have you realized it yet? What are you waiting for? You, too, can break through to awesome, but you have to take action in your life.

Grandmaster Kim (Dr. Tae Yun Kim) is a martial arts grandmaster, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and inspirational figure who believes in the value of embracing one’s inner power. She is the author of Seven Steps to Inner Power, a book which draws teachings from Grandmaster Kim’s life and experience as a martial arts grandmaster to help readers realize their inner strength and achieve their goals. She is also the preceptor of Jung SuWon, a martial arts discipline that she currently teaches at an eponymous martial arts studio in California.

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