Musashi’s “9”in the Digital Age

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.

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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”.

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“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.

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“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.

Drucker, Musashi & The 21st Century

“In a few hundred years when the history of our time is written from a long term perspective, it is likely that the most important event those historians will see is not technology, not the internet, not e-commerce, it is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time, literally substantial and rapid growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time they will have to manage themselves and society is totally unprepared for it.”

-Peter Drucker


In 1645 legendary Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, wrote that everything you need to manage yourself and excel in business as well as life lies within you. What’s critical is that you have an exacting strategy, a map that includes where you are, where you want to go and what to do once you get there. Then execute on that strategy every day.


The graces of the experts, for a small fee…




Somewhere between 29-19BCE, the Greek poet and philosopher Virgil is said to have written his finest work the Aeneid. In it comes the first reference to the famous cautionary phrase based upon the Trojan War described in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad;

“Beware of the Greeks, even when they bring gifts.”


Then, during the second half of the 1st century CE (though historical estimates range from around 33AD – up past 150AD) the Apostle Matthew is said to have written the Gospel According to Matthew. In chapter 15, he expands upon this theme with verse 7 where he warns that one should be weary of anyone too eager to give you the right answers or lead you down the path to excellence. Well ok, it was actually the path of spirituality but I think you know where I’m going with this.

“Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, for inside they are hungry wolves.”


Much later in the early 1500’s, the use of the phrase, “Caveat Emptor” (Latin for; “Buyer Beware”) began to be used in the formation of common law and would continue to this day. Webster’s Dictionary defines the phrase as;

“A principle of commerce; that in the absence of warranty the buyer assumes the risk of purchase. The buyer is responsible for making sure that the goods and services are legitimate and of good quality.”


A little over a century later (around 1645AD) in feudal Japan, legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi suggested that you don’t need gurus to guide you or the latest gadgets to help you find excellence. He wrote that the formula for mastery of any kind, whether specific skills or total self-mastery was intrinsic, not extrinsic.

So in today’s search for the formula for sustaining excellence, there is certainly no shortage of; prophets of professional success willing to guide you, gurus of self-help willing to lead you, products and gadgets willing to tell you what to eat and when to exercise, academic institutions willing to ‘certify’ your knowledge and experience as legitimate. All you need do is provide them with your credit card number…

But do you really need any of that? Do you really believe that excellence, of any kind, is something that you can buy or complete in ’10 easy lessons’? Do you really believe that you can lose 30lbs. in 30 days and keep it off for the next 3 years? Do you really believe that real education is found in a piece of paper you buy for $60k from your local university, because they tell you it is?

  • There is nothing wrong with finding inspiration in the work of others
  • Mastering new skills, does in fact, often require the instruction of a master teacher
  • New tools and technology can be great assets when used properly
  • Time and relentless action, with purpose, will in fact yield results
  • There is true benefit in periodic reminders of time-tested wisdom
  • Higher education certainly does open up whole new worlds of opportunity

The good news is that the map for sustaining excellence does not end, but begins in the mirror. You need only look, decide, act, repeat.

Seth Godin’s Blog: It’s called self esteem

Seth’s Blog: It’s called self esteem.

Well said…No matter who you are, how great your deeds, there will always be critics and those who challenge what you stand for. There is no controlling what the critic says and does, only how you respond and your opinion of yourself. Often, that is a more powerful weapon than we even realize.

A Story of Mastery

Martial arts folklore is filled with stories on the origins of the Black Belt  and because many martial traditions were passed down orally, written evidence  is sketchy at best. There is little doubt, however,  that colored belt ranking systems became popular with the rise of martial arts in the United States and continues to this day. Further, belts and clothing have evolved differently  over time, within the geographies of Asia. A sash differs from a belt in both form and function and is worn predominantly in Chinese martial arts. So it’s safe to say that the iconic “Black Belt” probably has its origins in Japan, with the formalization of sport and academic martial arts programs, during or after the Meiji Restoration. Regardless of its origin, the Black Belt has become a worldwide symbol for excellence and a metaphor for achieving a state of spontaneous right action, aka Mastery. The wearer literally sees the belt transform over time with their experience. As one moves  from  mental and physical states of unconscious incompetence to that of; the conscious incompetent , then the conscious competent, the belt  physically changes in a congruent fashion. Both belt and wearer come full circle as the student achieves unconscious competence and a “beginners mind”, while the belt physically returns to the purity of a white belt. The interesting thing is that this metaphor can be applied to any process of skills development and is not historically restricted  to Eastern culture. The Western process of going from “apprentice” to “journeyman” to the master craftsman is very similar,  just no tattered black belt to carry around.

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The popular Black Belt Story goes like this…..On the first day of training, the eager young student is given a uniform and the white belt from the Master Instructor. The uniform must always be kept clean, folded a certain way and there is even a specific method to pack it up for transportation. The white belt, however, must never be washed. First, in the modern era of dryers it will shrink up like a bow tie and will never fit again. More importantly, that belt becomes the visible symbol of the young student’s hard work and accomplishments which cannot, which must not be washed away. With training, sacrifice and the development of personal discipline the eager student develops a solid understanding of the fundamentals and the belt shows visible signs of this experience. It begins to yellow, then turn shades of green or brown depending on the geography of the training. It will even pick up occasional blood stains from intense moments and take on the shades of red. After years of study and thousands of repetitions of basics, the belt begins to gray….and eventually turn black. After decades the belt begins to wear and fray along the edges. The stitching comes loose and the white interior becomes exposed. The combination of the white and the black material, the old frayed edges and the fresh, newly exposed interior of the belt become the symbol of the now experienced and mature student. A student of both mastery of the fundamentals and newly discovered wisdom and maturity that always existed within and are now surfacing. It also represents the cyclical and circular path of mastery.

Contrary to how it is viewed in the Western World, earning a black belt represents only a first step towards mastery.

After a lifetime of the pursuit of excellence, the outer surface of the belt has all but worn away. Sometimes it’s almost completely shredded with very little sign of the original texture….and now it’s white again. The belt is no longer the same piece of fabric it once was, it has at the same time transformed to something new yet returned to its humble beginnings as a white belt. It has become the symbol of the lifelong experiences of the now Master. It is interesting to note how today’s culture has begun to identify the Black Belt as having already mastered a set of skills. Even the martial arts world has become confused on what it signifies; some schools insisting that earning a black means the absolute success in the ability to defend one’s self. Still others have rejected the Black Belt all together as some archaic, artsy tradition with no practical value. The commercialization of martial arts schools hasn’t helped the cause either. Some cultivate the atmosphere that every student is a champion, all the time and brings home a trophy, which is of course unrealistic. The wisdom gained from the experience of adversity and failure is almost a taboo subject. It has almost rendered the black belt story inert and the belt itself simply a piece of ceremonial jewelry. This loss of meaning has  moved people away from the tradition of self-mastery and the life learning cycle. Further,  the business world has adopted the Black Belt as a title to put on a business card after nine months of training on post WWII process improvement. It’s frustrating to hear  the terms Black Belt and Master Black Belt associated with Six Sigma and Lean Logic training. Granted there is great value in the principles that evolved from the teachings of Dr. Edwards Deming. It would not be appropriate however , at least to the academic community, to award a Master’s Degree, a Doctorate or a PhD in such short-lived training. Neither would  it make sense in the military to promote a soldier to Captain right after they have completed basic training. It just isn’t done. In Japan and Okinawa, it was generally accepted that there was an average time frame of 3-5 years to “apprenticeship” or to the promotion to 1st Degree of Black Belt. This new Black Belt would be considered equivalent to the “rookie” in a police department after completing academy training. What would follow are the nine levels of development to 10th Degree Black Belt, with each level requiring a minimum of years of study, associated with that rank(i.e. two years for 2nd, three years for 3rd, etc.








As mentioned, the experience timeline is similar to the medieval tradition of the apprentice, to journeyman, to craftsman, to master craftsman or in modern academics of Bachelors, to Masters, to PhD. The uniqueness being that the development of the Black Belt combines both the physical development of the craftsman, the mental development of the academic with the character development found in both disciplines.  It’s the development of the practical with the theoretical. Ultimately, one can ask how or why modern culture has departed from these traditions but it  may be more significant to ask, where to now? Where will the focus be throughout this decade? The fact remains, students graduate from college with a Bachelor’s degree and a sense of entitlement. Often they have the perspective that their education has completed instead of just begun. Master craftsmanship has been more about technology  and gadgets; less about skills, artistry and experience. Dedicated, long-term study has been replaced by instant information, instant gratification and technology addiction. Is it then possible to weave the Black Belt Story into this global economic, information age?

The concept of the “perfect circle” or Enso in Japanese

There is no going back to yesterday, but some principles remain time-tested and timeless. They can be adopted to any culture, any social, educational or business model at any time period. The true tradition of Black Belt Mastery is more relevant and necessary today than ever.