My Old Master: On Optimism

The “My Old Master” posts are non technical posts in reference to my karate (shaolin kempo) teacher, and the things he taught my friends and I over a decade to be martial artists (peaceful warriors), instructors, and better human beings.

I’ve been in a funk for a few weeks – ever since the time change.

Several things have aligned just so to make things particularly shitty, such as the children being sick, them not sleeping, our son transitioning to preschool, holiday and other responsibilities eating up the almost non existent free time, and perhaps most of all, me missing/skipping my weekly exercise routine.

I’m starting to recover (sleep and exercise have been helping a lot) but in doing so, I’m reminded of some things “my old master” told me on the topic of optimism, that I think are worth sharing.

As time passes, I see more and more about how the most successful people use “brain hacks” to help them ensure success. It’s weird to think of your brain and your instincts as tools to leverage to your advantage but they totally are.

As a quick example, if you are aiming to eat fewer sweets, making sure you don’t have any around the house is a great first step to achieving your goal.

Ages and ages of evolution of our species have hard wired us to go after those calories so you don’t starve. It’s very very difficult (read: impossible) to combat that. The best thing to do is to not even have the option.

This is a hack to help you succeed in your goal.

Optimism, But Not Blind Optimism

Just like in the sweets example, optimism can be a great tool for achieving your goals, but as we all know, blind optimism is foolish and can definitely negatively impact your goals.

To reconcile these two things, we should “Expect the best, but plan for the worst”.

This makes us optimistic, but if things go wrong, we aren’t completely blindsided and unprepared.

Why should we be optimistic to begin with though?

Because: “You get what you expect”

Imagine your neighbors dog is consistently pooping near your house and the owner is not cleaning it up. You decide it’s time to confront them about it and go knock on their door.

There’s two ways you might go into this situation.

The first way might be, you are pissed, and you expect a fight. They open the door, see you angry, immediately their “guard goes up” and there’s little chance the outcome will be anything other than an awful experience for one or both of you. The person may even make it a point to have their dog poop on your lawn and not clean it up.

The second way might be that you realize you’ve seen your neighbor playing with their kids, being a good parent, and that in general they seem like a good natured person and a good neighbor except for this one issue. Because of this, you figure the conversation will be completely peaceful, it will be totally fine, and your neighbor will “get it”. They open the door, see you smiling and hear you using a friendly respectful tone, and they respond similarly. Perhaps they are embarrassed about it even, and profusely apologize.

It’s definitely true that neither of these situations are guaranteed to play out like this, but the odds are improved that they will.

Improving the odds for getting what you want is a good thing. If you don’t go into it blindly (prepare for the worst), you are also in a reasonable position if things don’t go like you want them to.

Finding The Positive

There are negatives and positives to every situation. Whichever you focus on is up to you.

Imagine yourself in a dark room where there is sewage in one corner and a pile of shiny gold in the other. You have a flash light. Which are you going to look at?

Whatever you choose to focus on will rattle around in your head and become amplified. This is the story about there being two wolves in us, and whichever we feed is the one that gets stronger.

You may notice this in yourself in fact. Have you ever dwelled on something negative only to have it get worse and worse in your mind, til it was unbearable and causes you to do something? Perhaps quiting a job, telling someone off, or similar? Maybe you have some of this going on right now somewhere in your life?

Recognizing and disrupting those patterns can help you keep from over-reacting or incorrectly reacting to situations, both of which are inappropriate because of the fact (and identified by the fact…) that they actually set you back towards achieving your goals.

Taking this mental life hack a bit further, there are concepts to help you visualize your goals, how you are going to achieve those goals, and constantly remind you of these things.

A vision board is one such example. You find imagery that speaks to you and reminds you of what you want, and how you are going to get there, and you put it somewhere highly visible to you that you see every day.

Seeing this stuff daily ingrains in your mind what it is you want to do and how you are going to do it. Any opportunities that come up that help you get closer will more easily be identified and you’ll be in a better position to take them. “Luck is where opportunity meets preparedness”.

For me, this blog is in many ways similar to a vision board. Besides being external memory (for me to re-learn things) and a resume helper, it also helps me remember that I am experienced, skilled and decently talented – or at least persistent enough to achieve meaningful things.

We humans sometime look at how others see us to get an idea of ourselves and base our self worth on that. That is a pretty awful idea though, as other people don’t know always what we are capable of, and frankly probably don’t even care, as they have their own agenda and goals.

Whatever you can do to help you visualize your goals and how you are going to achieve them is going to help you succeed.

If you ever find yourself in a funk, I highly recommend these three things:

  • Make sure you are getting enough sleep
  • Make sure you are getting some exercise (an hour martial arts class a week is enough for me to feel the benefits!)
  • Look to see if you are having any cyclical negative thoughts. If so, see if you can break out of them by turning your flashlight onto the gold, instead of the poop. Possibly using something like a vision board, or whatever works for you.

Thanks for reading!

My Old Master: How to Correct as a Mentor or a Teacher

Preface: I studied martial arts for a little over a decade (shaolin kempo at USSD) and learned a lot while I was there. Our teacher was a great guy who genuinely cared about his students, and in particular, taught my friends and I some really interesting things when we became instructors. I’d like to share some of that information with you in the “My Old Master” posts category. As cliched as it is, many things he taught us apply to all aspects of life, not just martial arts and I’d like other people to benefit from them.

My old master used to say…

“Praise, Correct, Praise. Even if you have to make something up, you need to say something positive.”

Let’s say that I’m teaching you how to punch and you aren’t quite doing it right.

Here are two things I might say to try and correct it:

  1. “Keep your wrist straight when you are punching so you don’t hurt your hand” or…
  2. “I really love how you are keeping your left hand up while you punch with your right. It’s doing a great job of protecting your head against your opponent hitting you back. Now try keeping your wrist straight when you punch so that you don’t hurt your hand.” Then I watch you try again and I say “Great, just like that, keep it up!”

Think about how those two responses make you feel for a second.

The first one likely makes you feel like you are messing up and need to fix it (a negative thing), while the second makes you feel like you were doing well and are now are doing even better.

What’s the difference? Well, like the opening quote says, I praised, corrected, and then praised. First I found something you were doing well, complimented you on it, gave a suggestion for improvement, and then praised you on doing (or attempting!) the correction.

This can be a great way to give people feedback, in a way that makes them feel better about themselves, and feel better about the feedback you are giving them. Instead of being a negative thing, it becomes a positive thing.

Pretty simple stuff, and if you practice this technique it starts to become second nature.

The quote says that if you can’t find anything positive to say, you should make it up. It shouldn’t be your first choice to make something up, because the more genuine you are about the praise, the better it will be. However, if you really can’t find anything nice to say, yes, you should make something up.

A person’s ego and self worth is a measurable quantity that is increased with praise and decreased with corrections or negative feedback (aka “you suck!”). When this tank of self worth gets too low, your student or mentee will feel worthless, get frustrated and/or start to get resentful at you.

This technique is useful because it allows you to give a correction while minimizing hit to the person’s self worth. In the end allows you to give MORE correction and help them more in the long run, just by phrasing your corrections differently. Another term for this is “complement sandwich” which you may have heard of before.

Another thing to be mindful of however is that you can only give so much feedback at any one time. The ego/self worth tank needs to refill after it’s diminished, and frankly, the person needs to absorb and internalize what you’ve taught them before they are ready for more.

Our teacher would say “it’s better having a mediocre black belt, than having a stellar white belt who quits out of frustration” and that’s very true. It’s better for them since a mediocre black belt is FAR SUPERIOR to a stellar white belt and much better able to protect themselves and their loved ones, but also better for the organization, since we are often teaching or mentoring in a “for profit” situation where the person we are trying to help is either a customer or a co-worker which the company is interested in keeping around.

Before wrapping it up, I heard a funny story regarding this topic about a special needs child and his or her parents. Just like everyone else, this child has a concept of self worth, however being disabled makes it very easy to feel depressed when you realize there are so many things you can’t do that other people can do. It’s difficult too for the parents to help the child feel better about themselves if they really can’t find an area he shines in. One day the parents noticed he loved to use tools and it clicked. They started loosening screws in the house and asking him to tighten them for him. “Jimmy, can you come tighten this screw up for us? You are so good at it!”.

I think that’s a cute story but really shows how we work as humans. Your job as (an effective) teacher, mentor, parent, boss or leader, is to teach whatever you need to teach, correct whatever you need to correct, but also to make sure you do so in a way that is least damaging to the person’s ego and self worth. They feel better about themselves, but you are also more effective at getting the job done. It matters!

So go out there and serve some compliment sandwiches, making sure to be as genuine as possible with your praise!

P.S. Yes people can have over inflated egos and feeding them more is only going to make things worse. That’s the topic of another post (;