Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Staying on the Path. "Mastery" by George Leonard

Mastery is a funny thing.. we usually use the word when we consider someone to do something effortlessly --like playing the Piano, speaking a foreign language--especially when someone is able to be creative and playful with a particular skill. We think, 'he's so comfortable, he's such a master in the kitchen, he was able to come up with his own recipe for this delicious Tomato Sauce!' And of course, we'd all love to get to that stage, in our jobs, in our hobbies, and in our relationships.

George Leonard started off in the US Army, becoming a 'master' of flying bombers/jets and became a teacher in that field. After the Second World War, he stumbled upon Aikido, and soon fell in love with the martial arts. He has long since achieved several levels of black belt and started his own Aikido academy. The path of Mastery he describes is based on his own endless journey towards 'Mastery' of Aikido. Towards, not to.

Is this book about Martial Arts, or landing Fighter Jets? Of course not. This book is for anyone that ever picked up a tennis racquet, tried to learn a new business, learn a language, monetize their hobby, or get serious about their fitness. Pretty much anything you do, can be taken to the level of 'zen-like' practice. This word practice is very important. We're not talking about 'practicing free throws' or 'practicing Calligraphy', but practice as in, 'he's been practicing Medicine for 20 years in that same small town.' The word, not surprisingly, conjures images of wise old masters from the Shinto age, in deep states meditation.

And why would you want to treat your Golf swing like an Ancient Monk would?

Because that's the only way you'll enjoy it. And that's when you'll really get good at it.

Leonard describes how most people pick up a new hobby or sport (eg. Rollerblading, Cross Country Running, etc) and how people find various ways to get frustrated/bored in the very early stages, and give up. Mastery should then be redefined not as 'being perfect at something', but 'staying on the path' not just for a while, not just for a few years, but for the rest of your life. Leonard himself can be considered an Aikido master, but he doesn't think so. He still sees ways to improve, ways to be more focused, ways to be more in the moment.

He mentions the tireless dedication of NBA legend Larry Bird in his own 'practicing.' Often showing up to the gym 2 hours before anyone else, not just practicing shooting, but pushing the limits of what would be possible, even practicing lobbing shots in from the 5th row. Countless excercises--dribbling, shooting, passing--thousands and thousands of shots that no NBA fan would ever see. What could possibly push an athlete to do this? Fame? Respect? Money? Not likely, fame and respect were already achieved in college. Money as a motivator probably would have put Larry Bird in Law School, not the basketball court. At any rate, he had that a couple years into his career, and still outworked everyone on the court late in his career.

The truth is simple: Larry Bird (and Jordan, and Magic Johnson, and Kareem) wasn't motivated by external things. He really loved to practice. His excellence on the court was just a consequence of his pure joy during practice time.

Our obsession with results is the number one thing ruining our pursuits, and standing in the way of Larry Bird-esque results. So where does it come from? Turn on a television and you'll get a hint: as Leonard describes, our modern consumerist culture, as portrayed on TV, is a series of... ahem... 30 second climaxes (whereby a product solves all your problems in a moment of pure ecstacy), interrupted by 30 minute stories, easily solved by happenstance or dumb luck. Life is so easy. The message: 'If you can't figure something out in 30 minutes, it's probably impossible. And not worth it anyway.'

If you hate to learn, try new things, make mistakes, you will drop out as soon as you possibly can, or keep going for a long time with mediocre results. Consider this book the guide to cultivating a love and joy of practice, and that is the true key to excellence.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Update: now up and running.

Over the weekend I moved 21tiger over to its own domain. Got a new email address too.

I've also revise the tags system on the right hand side. Post should correllate to one or a few of nine main topics. Of course, it will still be framed with ideas on Asian Culture, Business, and Language, as that's a big part of my life these days. I promise it will start to make sense over time. ;)

Personal Development


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Tokyo Underworld: Fast times and Hard life of an American Gangster in Japan" by Robert Whiting

I've spent time in a few countries around Asia, but never Japan. In my life I've probably met less than 5 Japanese friends, so studying the language didn't really appeal to me. I studied Mandarin early on and ended up working in China, and I've always been clueless about the combination of classic and quirky in the Land of Rising Sun.

So the first Japan book is all about the Yakuza, rather than Hello Kitty.

Okay, okay, let me be clear, I'm not going to make any generalizations based on a book about crimelords. This is a really fun interesting book, not gruesome or overly violent as you might expect (seedy at times, devoid of morality, perhaps), and just a fun way to get into a totally foreign culture (apart from Sushi, Slam Dunk comics, and the Karate Kid movies).

At the outset of the book, I was pretty excited to learn of Japanese History right after the Second World War. What followed WW2 remains the most amazing Economic turnaround in history.

How long did it take the Mob to recover? It turns out that within 3 days of the American Treaty, the Gangsters were already in action in the Shinjuku, Tokyo and what follows is 300 pages of a crude, crass, corrupt and cold blooded account of those who survived and thrived there.

The book follows an American GI with balls of steel ( tough talkin' Italian New Yorker named Nick Zappetti) who gets in early for the booming Japanese recovery, builds an Italian restaurant Empire and has to fend off would be conquerers.

The whole story is about, brace yourself, bribes. Bribes, bribes and more bribes (in that sense it was very educational!). Everything good that happens in this account is a long chain of payouts under the table, and of course, the anti-Americanism builds throughout the book as the Japanese economy roars back to life (with confidence, the locals grow weary of the Westerners).

We follow a cast of gangsters, grifters, wannabes, and of course, hookers. But while almost everyone in the book is what you might call 'a bad seed' the inner working of business (which goes all the way up to the Japanese political structure and American espionage) are amazing. Much of it was reminiscent of Perkins "Economic Hit Men" but with all the delicacy and stubbornness of Japanese 'Wa' (meant to maintain harmony amongst all things). Ultimately that was the most provocative part of the book: not the hellish violence, or immature cavorting of multimillionaires, but the way Japanese maintained 'face' and their own sense of Japanese integrity, amidst a modernizing and ever more international environment.

The book closes wistfully as we say goodbye to the great Nick Zappetti, a foreigner who's seen the best and the worst Japan has to offer.