In The Book of Five Rings, legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi uses the martial arts and swordsmanship as metaphors to illustrate how the larger concept of strategy can be applied to everyday life. He was a swordsman, a samurai and combat was his profession since childhood. The sword was intertwined with his life, it’s what he knew best and it would be only natural for him to write from such a perspective.
Throughout the book Musashi eludes to the idea that this paradigm he called ‘Strategy’ has a much broader application than combat or military purpose alone. Further, it was rare for samurai to write their philosophy or teachings so his work, by default, has become a cultural icon in Japan. It’s influence can been still seen today in economics, politics, education and more.
For many in the West, however, it can be difficult to find practical value in Eastern writing like The Book of Five Rings. For some, it comes across as esoteric poetry. Still others assess it as the ravings of a senile and violent madman. Ideas also get lost in translation as Japanese, like many Eastern languages, is complex. Separating the principles from the context can significantly alter their meaning, potentially diluting their value. In this case, the writing is three & a half centuries old and written in the context of feudal Japan. How is it possibly relevant in 21st Century Western society? In addition, both martial artists and non-martial artists often see his work as a mere text on combat or sword fighting and miss the depth of the Strategy.
It’s impossible to know what Miyamoto Musashi was thinking when he wrote The Book of Five Rings. It’s also impossible to know what he would say about the world today, had he been here. What follows, however, is at least a plausible interpretation of Musashi’s Nine Rules as they apply to the Digital Age.
Musashi’s Nine Rules
“Think of that which does not deviate from the way”
Translation = Cultivate an everyday mindset through self-discipline and focus
This refers to developing an everyday mindset of strategy and applying it universally, to everything you do. It is the very act of mapping out your career path, for example; the, “where would you like to be in five years” question. Subsequently keeping your mind focused on the daily actions that move you forward toward those ends.
“Train in the way”
Translation = Develop the skillsets necessary to move you forward in accordance to the strategy, practice daily with purpose.
This refers to developing the skillsets required to move forward on that map. It’s the daily disciplines, the incremental improvements repeated over and over. It’s the 10,000 hours spent practicing a new skill that makes the difference. True skill and knowledge cannot be learned in “10 Easy Lessons”.
Weight loss is a good example to illustrate this. People spend tons of money, go on expensive diets for 30-60days, lose some weight and by the end of the year are right back where they started. Or, they make new years resolutions to ‘get in shape’, work out like crazy the first few months, then are burnt out by mid-year. No one gets ‘out of shape’ in 30-60 days and no one gets ‘in shape’ that way either. Only through incremental discipline does lasting impact take shape.
“Take an interest in all the arts”
Translation = Step outside of your comfort zone, engage in creative learning
The digital age has brought so much focus on what can be called Left Brain activities; CORE curriculum education, Big Data and analytics in business, a ‘quantified self’ in professional development, efficiencies, process improvement, robots and other technological obsessions. There is of course nothing wrong with all of these, except when it becomes too much of a good thing. Right brain, creative activities including simple play allows for free thinking, new ideas and imaginative exploration. Without the balance of liberal arts and education, innovation suffers. As the saying goes, “All work and no play, makes one dull”.
“Know the way of all professions”
Translation = Learn the value of transferable skills and other career paths.
If you take time to study other professions, you might make two potentially life changing discoveries; First, you may discover a latent interest that may result in you wanting to make a significant career course adjustment (Example: An associate of mine spent over twenty years with a successful career in the military. At some point, his travels brought him to Egypt where he was exposed to archeology. It sparked such an interest in him that at age 42, he went on to earn his PhD and become a full-time archeologist).
Second, you will discover a set of professional skills that are, at some level, transferable to every profession. It’s always amusing to hear professionals say, “I’m just not a sales person”. I then ask them what they do. Subsequently diving into the particulars of their job, there’s always a sales related component. After all, as author Daniel Pink states in his book, “To Sell Is Human”.
“Know how to appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of each thing”
Translation = Moderation, temperance and balance. Too much of a good thing can be bad.
The technology of the digital age provides a great example of this. People across the globe, are connected in ways never imagined a century ago. At the same time, people have become more disconnected than ever. Regardless of generation, people now struggle to have face-to-face conversations with friends, family and professional colleagues without pausing to look at the latest update on their cell phone. Walk through any airport, on any given day, you will see the majority of people buried in some type of screen. Understanding the limits of tools and technologies, knowing when to ‘say when’ or step away from the phone, the tablet, the PC. It can have a balancing effect and be very advantageous.
“Learn to judge the quality of each thing”
Translation = Develop reasoning, critical thinking and sound judgement skills
Today, we joke by saying, “it must be true because I read it on Facebook”. Generations before the Internet, a similar saying stated; “Don’t believe everything you read and only half of what you see.” The Internet is a marvelous tool that has brought information, learning and connection across the globe like never before.
Technological advances, however, can be easily manipulated for less than noble purpose. Information, “Big Data”, advertising, your cell phone, etc. can all be used as tools to sway public and your personal opinions. Very little replaces objective, logical reasoning skills and the ability to question validity. Unfortunately, today there is more hype than substance and the ability to separate the two is becoming an increasingly valued commodity.
“Perceive and understand that which is not visible from the outside”
Translation = Cultivating awareness, fine tuning the senses and the power of introspection.
We live in an age of workplace violence, one in four car crashes involving distracted drivers, obsession with multi-tasking and life in sound bites of two minutes or less. Now more than ever, the ability to pick up on details and subtleties of situations is an invaluable skill. What is often referred to as, “reading between the lines” and “thinking two steps ahead”. Very little time is spent today on developing the senses in concert with what can be called a ‘sixth sense’, meaning the ability to utilize intuition. Science has begun to establish significant evidence that multi-tasking actually dulls the senses and makes one really good at doing a bunch of things poorly.
“Be attentive even to minimal things”
Translation = Pay attention to the details
Can you shut out all the noise and pick up on details? Do you listen for understanding or simply to respond? Picking up on details is a skill that anyone can develop, but it takes time and practice. The ability to listen for understanding is not taught in school, we must develop it on our own. Few invest the time and effort to get good at it, that’s what makes it a rare and valuable skill.
“Do not perform useless acts”
Translation = Time Management
It has been estimated that by some counts, people in developed countries now spend on average, up to seven hours per day on digital media of some sort. This includes email as well as social media, gaming, video, etc. That’s almost an entire workday! The ability to cut all of that off and refocus has become a major challenge of the digital age. The idea here is that there will always be distractions willing to lead you away from the personal and professional course you’ve charted. Part of Strategy is in developing that daily discipline and focus to avoid getting sucked in.