Let's start with a sterotype. Like many Asian kids, I grew up taking martial arts: judo, shotokan karate, American kempo, taekwondo, Wing Chun, and jujutsu, to name a few.

Perhaps at the outset, my parents thought it was a good way for me to connect with my cultural heritage (or lack thereof). Or, more likely, as a "well-rounded" kid who was also simply "round," maybe my parents wanted me to be able to protect myself.

At the time, it all seemed pointless: the useless stretching, the weird "ai ya!" screams, rote memorization of movements that made no sense, and the mental torture of meditation. As the years went on, I began to realize the importance of the rituals of these arts that have existed for thousands of years, but nonetheless I moved on to other endeavors.

After a long hiatus, a few years ago I joined an awesome school here in San Francisco. At first, it was mainly for my son to learn self-discipline through martial arts, but I soon started taking classes myself. Within a few months, my instructor, who was half my age and a great practitioner, encouraged me to start to spar. Against the wishes of my wife and my own sensibilities of what a 40-year-old man shouldn't do, I cautiously agreed.

Every week I went to sparring class knowing I would lose. My instructor was better than me in every way: faster, fitter, stronger. I'd be lucky to get even a few punches or kicks in, while he tap-danced on my face.

So why take this abuse?


Go ask a startup entrepreneur why they take the abuse: long hours, rejection, no salary, eating ramen, etc. and you'll get the same answer.

There are several parallels between the martial arts and building a company that have made me a better entrepreneur. Four come to mind immediately.

1. Learning to embrace failure

Every week, I enter class knowing that I will fail. But diving into situations knowing that the odds are stacked against you builds a certain toughness of character. Nine out of 10 start-ups fail. The most successful startup entrepreneurs are ones who fall flat on their face nine times, learn why they failed, and keep going up against the odds to find just one idea that works. In sparring, when I fail, I literally get punched in the face. It sucks. When I fail as a startup entrepreneur, it sucks, but it certainly doesn't suck as much as getting punched in the face. I really used to fear failure. Now, I accept as just a necessary part of the road to success.

2, Learning to control emotions

The first time I sparred as a teenager, it was awful. More specifically, I was hit with a five-punch combination and took a side kick to my stomach that put me on the floor. I remember getting up, yelling several expletives, and going after my sparring partner with a highly unsuccessful "windmill" style of punching. When that didn't work, I tried to tackle him. That prompted another five-punch combination and side-kick from my sparring partner, which sent me sprawling.

When I got up from the floor I was in a rage and my sensei (teacher) moved in to break up the "fight"--quite honestly, to protect me from getting destroyed again. I remember him saying, "OK, Jeff. What did we learn from this?"

I responded, "We learned that [such-in-such] is an asshole!"

"No," my instructor calmly responded, "YOU are the asshole. When you lost control of your emotions, you turned into a horrible fighter.."

While I was incredibly pissed off, I must admit that it made perfect sense as I wiped away mucous and blood from my nose. "When you lose control of your emotions, you just lose. Period," the instructor explained.

I've found that getting out-of-control upset when things go wrong in the startup world just creates more problems. Sure, there are tons of disappointments, rejections, and professionally embarrassing episodes along the entrepreneurial path, but having emotional outbursts creates a bad culture and makes it tougher for everyone to pick up the pieces and start again.

3. Stress relief

Find a standalone punching bag and start firing away with your fists of fury when things go awry. Believe me, it's a great stress reliever! Startups are hard. You have investors, employees, customers, business partners, and vendors to whom you have to report. When things go wrong (which they always do), there is stress. The bigger the problem, the bigger the stress. Learning to find healthy ways to relieve that stress is a good thing, and sparring works for me.

4. Learning to learn

Once my ego gets out of the way about the importance of winning or being the better sparring partner, I'm receptive to learning where I can do better. Since I expect to lose, I want to learn why I lose. I ask for feedback.

In my startup, like performing a science project in grade school, we often have a hypothesis, a procedure to execute the experiment, and then record the results. Most of the time, it's a failure, the odds are against us. But understanding why it failed is incredibly valuable. Quantify the results. Question EVERYTHING.

So go out there, do a bit of research about which martial art works best for you, and go join a school. A little bit of "Kung Fu Fighting" just might make you a better entrepreneur.

Published on: Sep 9, 2014