You Can’t Help the Poor By Becoming One of Them

I have learned that you can’t honestly give yourself to anyone unless your needs are met first. Initially it sounds selfish, but it’s a healthy kind of selfishness. In the safety briefing before a flight, the attendant reminds you to fasten your own oxygen mask before you help someone else. You will be in a much better position to help people in your black belt school if you are grossing $30,000 per month, because you are taking care of yourself first, rather than grossing $10,000 because you are “helping the children.”

The reason you sign the lease, risk your money, risk lawsuits, risk losing everything is not to help the children. The reason is to build wealth for your family.

This is a key mindset, and the top black belt school owners are crystal clear on it.

The purpose of your school is to build wealth for your family and to maintain a career in the martial arts. You accomplish this by becoming the best teacher in your town and having a strong business system to support your teaching, so that you can reach and help more people. You create wealth by helping people.

Imagine you are the owner of a television network. You don’t take a risk like that just to have shows that will help the children. You offer some educational programs in the public interest and others that are pure entertainment. But you bought the network to create wealth for your family. You do that by hiring the best talent, equipment, and programming possible.

This is especially true when you have a family. It’s simply not fair to drag your spouse and children through the life of a martial artist if you are not going to build a future for them.

The purpose of launching your martial arts business is to send your kids to good schools, to provide your spouse with a feeling of security and certainty that things are going to be OK financially and to give you the opportunity to retire in dignity. You accomplish this by being the best martial arts school owner and instructor in your town. Once you adopt this attitude, business becomes less stressful, because it’s easier to make decisions when you have Clarity of Purpose.

Chase your passion but don’t chase away profits or your families’ future doing so.

As Abraham Lincoln put it, “We can’t help the poor by becoming one of them.” I heard one of my mentors, a plastic surgeon, speak on the phone with a patient who asked for a discount or payment terms. He said, “Miss, this is how I earn my income. You can make payments and, when they are all done, we can do the surgery; otherwise, we’re going to have to wait until you can afford it.” That is Clarity of Purpose. Plastic surgery, like martial arts, is a choice.

Western society will never take martial arts seriously as a business, activity, or potential career if we all live hand to mouth. How can you teach the success life skills so popular today if you have never experienced success as a teacher? Would you want someone to teach you how to run a martial arts school who has never even owned a business, much less a martial arts school? I hope not.

Cardinal Rule –Never sacrifice the needs of your family for your students.

The most successful school owners are crystal clear that the purpose of their school is to build wealth for their families. Create profit – not poverty – from your passion.

Your Martial Arts Ensemble

I have written several articles about Finding Your Own Voice as a martial arts professional.  I’d like this article to focus on some typical martial artist characters. When you meet these guys you’ll know they have not yet found their own voice.

The Tough Guy

Once I saw the Tough Guy as a corner judge in a point match. He refused to move. When a fighter complained, this guy threatened to “pound him.” Martial arts has not made these guys better people, as much as it has given them additional weapons to bully and intimidate. They need to be extra tough and aggressive to make sure no one thinks they aren’t. This is someone my grandmother would call a very small man.

Travis Bickle

Travis is the character played by Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver. Bickle doesn’t do martial arts per se but transforms himself into a militant vigilante. His was the classic scene in front of the mirror as he pretends to confront someone with the line, “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then, who you talkin’ to?”

In high school, I wore karate pants, my karate school T-shirt, and wooden Japanese sandals. I was like Travis in adopting a new identity. I was “Karate Jock.” I grew out of it. Some guys never do.

Typically, these people are more fringe martial artists than hard core. They play-act like they are martial artists more than they actually engage in structured training. I knew one who seemed to learn everything from books. Somehow he got a black belt and taught students in his garage. His living room was a weight gym/dojo. Travis Bickles are fascinated by the martial arts but never seem to undergo extended training under one instructor or system. Mind you, that won’t stop them from getting a black belt.

At best, they are lifelong dabblers in the martial arts. At the worst, well, they may not be far off from Travis Bickle.

Mr. Negative

Mr. Negative has seen everything and tried everything, but nothing works for his school. He blames his area, his economy, the belt factory down the street, or the current president for his school’s struggles. He is critical of everyone and everybody. He starts sentences with, “The problem with ______ is . . .” Insert a name, style, system, idea, tournament, or business idea in the blank, and you have Mr. Negative. Not a fun guy.

Crusty the Clown

With the movement toward personal development in the classroom, some instructors work hard to look like perfect role models. They talk like a rehashed motivational speaker: “What are you passionate about now?” They try to come off as a hybrid Mr. Rogers and Robin Williams. Truthfully, they remind me more of a character from The Simpsons named Crusty the Clown.

Crusty is a favorite of the kids, who idolize him and watch every episode of his children’s TV show. But as soon as the camera is off, he pops a beer, lights a cigarette, and starts complaining about the kids. Watch out for Crusty the Clowns wearing black belts and making you laugh. Hold onto your wallet, and hide your female students.

The Enlightened One

Did you ever speak with a high ranking black belt who seemed to turn everything you say into a metaphor for nature or world peace? He doesn’t speak as much as give speeches.

Master Po

I know a guy who makes his wife call him Master. Another man calls himself Grand Master. That’s nothing new, but one day his non-martial arts wife said, “All these people call you Grand Master, what title can I have?” Not exactly what I’d call an authentic person.

The Retro-Warrior

Every conversation ends up a war story from the blood-and-guts days. This guy’s dream is for it to be 1975 again. When the only thing you have going for you currently is an event that happened decades ago, you have stopped trying. The Retro-Warrior peaked a long time ago and does his best to relive those times year after year, even as his school crumbles around him. These guys are fun to spend time with because they often have great stories. In fact, this reminds me of the time I was fighting in London and…

The Asian Wannabe

This is the freakiest of all martial arts characters. This is a Caucasian who is so enamored of the Asian roots of the martial arts and, even more so, of his Asian master that he actually begins to speak with an Asian accent. Some people call it pigeon talk. I call it weird.

The Martial Arts Millionaire

Conversations with this guy start as an interrogation about how many students you have and what you are grossing and end as a bragging session all about money, money, money. Boring, boring, boring.

If I ever do this to you, you have my permission to choke me out.

You Begin Teaching

If you are a martial arts instructor today, odds are that you began teaching classes for your instructor shortly before or after you earned your black belt. You became a good teacher, but you were still under the control of your instructor, and you loyally taught and followed his syllabus.

This is usually a great period in our lives. We can teach without risk but, more importantly, we have gained control of a very important part of our new life and are in a position of power. People bow to us and call us Mr. or Ms. or a title of some sort that we associate with prestige, such as “Sensei.” That’s a big turnaround for many of us. That is the beauty of the martial arts. The arts provide you with a healthy way of redefining yourself and your future.

I was an 18-year-old bus boy clearing tables in a restaurant during the day and Mr. Graden, black belt teacher, at night. My days were filled with, “Graden, clear off table six, fast!” My nights were, “Mr. Graden, would you please speak to my son? He’s having trouble in school, and he looks up to you so much . . .” Which do you think appealed to me and fueled my ambition?

If you started your training in the 1970s, or maybe even the 1980s, because of the Kung Fu TV show and the many Kung Fu movies, there was what I call an “implied wisdom” in earning a black belt. As a black belt, especially a “master,” you were perceived as somehow knowing more about life than the average person. This image of the martial arts master as being a master of life was reinforced by the martial arts movies, television shows, and magazines.

To this day, that prestige has tremendous pull and attraction for martial artists. Why do you think black belts seem in such a rush to call themselves Master, Grand Master, Senior Master, or Supreme Grand Master? In the real world we have master mechanics, master sergeants, chess masters, and even chess grandmasters, but only martial artists insist on actually being called “Master.”

On the popular TV show Seinfeld, a small-time conductor insisted everyone, including his girlfriend, call him “maestro.” I wonder if sometimes we don’t generate some laughs ourselves with these titles.

In moving from a martial arts student to a martial arts school owner, a few things may have happened to you as an assistant teacher. Your instructor may have been “overusing” you and taking advantage of your loyalty. This is never pleasant, because you have to face some cold, hard realities, and your relationship with your instructor begins to change. Your spouse, family, or friends may have suggested that you were being exploited. They may have urged you to open your own martial arts school. Perhaps even a student offered to back you financially.

Being loyal, you decided to be upfront with your instructor and tell him you were considering opening a school. What was his reaction? Either he went for your throat or insisted you pay him a percentage of your lifetime earnings.

Why did he react that way? Odds are, because he went through the same cycle of moving from no control to total control about a decade before you, and then you threatened that control. He had you, his golden child, teaching classes. You symbolized his success as an instructor, but now you were making the biggest decision in your martial arts life without his control? Not without a fight you weren’t.

This is often the beginning of the end of your relationship with your instructor. If he can’t control you, he may perceive you as disloyal. Does this sound familiar? “I taught you everything you know. You owe me! How dare you take what I taught you and use it against me?” Mind you, he will probably view anything less than totally capitulating to his demands as working against him.

Contrast this with a college professor. If you attend law school, your law professor wants nothing more than for you to go out and be successful using what he taught you. That is his reward. He doesn’t ask for a percentage of your revenue.

One school owner would bring each student into his office right before he tested for black belt. He pulled a .38 revolver out of his drawer, set it on the desk, and explained, “Just to be clear. You will never, ever open a martial arts school in my area. Understood?”

Where I Lost My Way

Know who you are, and why you are doing this. When I became a billing client of EFC, I attended one of their seminars in Atlanta. I was doing pretty good, but nothing like some of the EFC stars of the day. Still, it seemed the guys in Atlanta knew my name as a fighter, which was nice. As usual at these events, we shared information about student counts and, when I mentioned I had 245 students, they seemed impressed. They were even more impressed that my student body was mostly adults.

I didn’t know there had been a huge boom in the children’s market at the time due to The Karate Kid. The guys in Atlanta implied that I was missing half the market because I didn’t have a lot of child students. I listened, thought about it, and then made one of my worse decisions as a school owner. I started doing the things they did to attract and keep kids. I started the student creed, message of the week, and had kids screaming, “Yes, Sir!” on cue. In time, my school had totally changed from an adult school to a school full of kids or, as some like to call them, “a family school.” Mind you, this was more the influence of EFC clients than EFC itself.

My income increased. I paid off my house and socked the money away, but I hated it. I didn’t want to be at the school anymore. It was no fun explaining to a mom why her Miss Perfect daughter who gets straight As in school failed her blue belt exam. I had strayed big time from who I was as a martial artist and as a teacher.

Quality of life is a big issue with me and, for the first time in my martial arts career I had a job I didn’t like. Most of the kids were fine, and many were great. But some kids just drove me nuts mostly because of the control factor. Controlling kids and their parents is not a fun way for a control freak to spend time. A lot of instructors like to teach kids, but I don’t.

I had lost my way because I subscribed to someone else’s voice. But I learned something important. Since then, I’ve tried to make it clear that you need to know yourself and what you want to do. This is especially true today, when so many programs are available.

The Rainbow of Rank

As a kid, you can’t choose your school, your parents, your city, your neighborhood, or much of anything else about your environment. You have no control and, when the situation is negative and intimidating, that debilitating feeling can stick with you for life. Martial arts changes all that. The rank system provides a direct path to respect that you control by training hard, following the rules, and enduring.

With rank comes more control, to the point that people bow to you and call you Sir or Ma’am. Because you trained the hardest and absorbed the lifestyle without question, it’s usually not long before you are helping out in class and then actually leading classes. To a kid who was in an intimidating, powerless situation, this turnaround in control is like water to a plant: it gives new life. I know it did for me. Being a teacher of anything gives you a feeling of significance and self esteem.

I was in 8th grade when I earned my green belt. Green is a great belt color, because it’s a lot darker than orange or yellow. It looks like you’ve been around for a while and know something.

After I cleaned the martial arts school, Mr. Farrah said that now that I was a green belt, we were going to rank spar for three rounds. This, I discovered, was the instructor’s way of making sure you didn’t get too cocky with your new belt. For three rounds he pounded me into the ground.

Then Mr. Bone drove up. He said, “Hey, green belt. Let’s belt fight.” I said I had just rank sparred with Mr. Farrah. He laughed and said we were going to fight using our belts like nunchaku. The rule was no hitting to the face and, if your opponent grabbed your belt, you could punch and kick them until they let go.

I really had no choice, so I bowed in by snapping my belt between my hands with a hard yank. He did the same, and that’s when I noticed something. My snap sounded kind of soft. His sounded like a whip snapping, because his belt was one of the heavy Tokaido silk black belts, whereas mine was made of very soft, light cotton. I was in big trouble.

He hit me on the outside of the thigh so hard I almost flipped. My attempts to hit him fluttered into his blocks. He continued to hit me in the same spot over and over until the skin was broken and I was bleeding and limping while trying to fend him off. After we bowed out, I took my green belt class and staggered home. The next day on the school bus, every time we hit a bump, my eyes would water from the pain in my body, especially my thigh. As painful as that was, I knew it was a reward for moving up the ranks. I was moving closer to the inner circle, and it was worth it.

In my martial arts school, white belts were called “scummy white belts.” You didn’t have a name until you got up to at least blue or brown belt (oddly enough, you were given a key to the school when you made blue belt, so that you could practice). Until then, you were referred to by your rank, as in “Green belt, get over here.” In my case, since I cleaned the school for lessons, the instructors knew me well.

Despite the pain involved in this type of training, many of us took to it like a moth to light. Karate class was a haven to me. From my first day in class at age 13, I knew this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Since I had quit football, and karate required a 12-month contract for $25 per month, my parents wouldn’t pay for the classes, so I cleaned the school for lessons. I was the original “wax on. wax off” kid. The second day I was cleaning. Mr. Farrah snapped at me to finish my cleaning before I practiced. With a flashback of being yelled at by my parents and embarrassed in front of other kids, I almost quit that day.

I remember making the conscious decision not to fall back into the pattern of quitting if things got rough. The following week he punched me in the head with his bare fist. It was playful, not malicious, but it really hurt. I was getting his attention, so I took it.

Mr. Farrah was a great influence on me during my teen years. Mr. Farrah was a funny, charismatic guy who mentored me all the way to first-degree brown belt. He taught me a lot but there were clear rules and no doubt who the black belt was.