Zanshin

I have written about 3 topics recently that all tie into the concept of improvement.

The dictionary definition of improvement is: 

“the act or process of improving (to enhance in value or quality : make better)”

Personally I believe that the ‘act’ of improvement comes from the ‘process’ of improving

And that’s because becoming the type of person you want to be – whatever that means for you – is about the daily process you follow and not the ultimate product you achieve.

It is the process and not the event (our goals and dreams) that ultimately shape who we are and what our life looks like. This is because what you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray.

This is a theme that runs through everything we teach within The Natural Edge Academy and our coaching group. And it is the common thread seen across top performers who achieve success, regardless of the medium (business, sport, the arts, etc.).

A term which highlights this is something I had not heard of until I came across an article by James Clear. Zanshin is a word used commonly throughout Japanese martial arts to refer to a state of relaxed alertness. Literally translated, zanshin means “the mind with no remainder.” In other words, the mind completely focused on action and fixated on the task at hand.

In the article the Japanese martial art of  Kyudo (archery) is used as an example: 

“Great archery masters often teach that “everything is aiming.” Where you place your feet, how you hold the bow, the way you breathe during the release of the arrow—it all determines the end result.

We live in a world obsessed with results. Like Herrigel, we have a tendency to put so much emphasis on whether or not the arrow hits the target. If, however, we put that intensity and focus and sincerity into the process—where we place our feet, how we hold the bow, how we breathe during the release of the arrow—then hitting the bullseye is simply a side effect.

The point is not to worry about hitting the target. The point is to fall in love with the boredom of doing the work and embrace each piece of the process. The point is to take that moment of zanshin, that moment of complete awareness and focus, and carry it with you everywhere in life.

It is not the target that matters. It is not the finish line that matters. It is the way we approach the goal that matters. Everything is aiming. Zanshin.”

Zanshin tells us that great results come when we concentrate on the here and now and focus on the task at hand. But for true improvement we must also understand and embrace failure and perseverance.

In an ideal world the attitude to failure is that it’s an absolutely integral and central part of any worthwhile endeavour and of breaking performance barriers in any area of life. It should be relished as a psychological tool to motivate, a practical source of essential feedback and even the motivation that makes eventual success feel so good when it finally comes.

Unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world and instead it has become the norm that failure is bad. If governments fail to meet targets, they are voted out. If managers fail to win games they are sacked. And if you mess up at work you are disciplined. 

However there is a missing detail: It’s fine to settle for nothing than personal success in the long run, but temporary failure is an essential part of improvement and of long term success. And if you really want to improve in something you have to actively seek out those situations that really expose you to your weakest, most amateur limitations. 

But it is crucial to do this gradually with small steps so that you don’t create such a traumatic experience that you never try it again! Pick times, places and situations where you can control the level of exposure to some extent.

The psychological aim of this is to let go of the fear of failure and win back the feeling of having nothing to lose. None of us are perfect, we all make mistakes and we all fall down. Through failure we can identify errors, receive reminders about them and eventually overcome them.

If you don’t do this you start sizing up challenges based on whether you will embarrass yourself rather than anything else. This results in an ever narrowing comfort zone that feels progressively more unpleasant to be outside as the feedback loop plays over time. 

When you’re a kid you are learning everything for the first time so it’s all you know. As soon as adults become masters (in their job, at driving, whatever) they like that feeling and settle into its comfort. And this is what makes learning new skills much more difficult.

As the great climber and world class alpinist Dave Mcleod once said:

“Failure to fail regularly is the ultimate failure to realise one’s potential” 

And the word ‘regularly’ is something which should be highlighted, because if you are not consistent you will not progress.

In their book Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland tell of a ceramics teacher who announced on the opening day of class that he was dividing the students into two groups. 

Half were told that they would be graded on quantity: On the final day of term, the teacher said he’d come to class with some scales and weigh the pots they had made. They would get an “A” for 50lb of pots, a “B” for 40lb, and so on. 

The other half would be graded on quality. They just had to bring along their one, pristine, perfectly designed pot.

The results were clear – the works of the highest quality, the most beautiful and creative designs, were all produced by the group graded for quantity. 

As Bayles and Orland put it: 

“It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the ‘quality’ group had sat theorising about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

It’s not the quest to achieve one perfect goal that makes you better, it’s the skills you develop from doing a volume of work.

The problem that most people experience when it comes to perseverance is knowing when to keep going and when to switch focus. Which is why it’s important to step back from time to time, take a tactical pause in the battle and ask whether there is a better area of performance in which to make significant progress. 

But at the same time not to down tools in one area just because the results seem frustratingly slow to come.

Research shows that most of us stick with one area we are most comfortable working in for way too long. And then on the rare occasions we do try something new or uncomfortable that we’ve been putting off the opposite problem occurs – we give up too soon. But not way too soon. 

If you are determined enough to try the new thing, it’s likely because you are genuinely determined to achieve a breakthrough. So you don’t give up easily and in fact stop just when the breakthrough is about to be made.

Being almost there is the most vulnerable place on any improvement curve. When you are deep in the symptoms of struggle, with the rapid gains of early sessions far behind you, it is really hard to sense the proximity of success. 

Measurable improvements come in months rather than weeks and it’s easy to feel like you are never going to crack it. And actually judging whether you are nearly there or whether you should switch your efforts is a hard skill to master.

The first step towards mastering this is to not let negative emotions (“I can’t take this anymore”) translate into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Instead try and take a more logical survey of how much improvement is still needed versus how far you’ve come. And remember that with many processes the most painful moment is just before the breakthrough.

Improvement, no matter what area it’s in is always a result of a process. One that requires a certain amount of failure and perseverance, and the more you want to improve the more you will require of each.

Work out what it is you want to improve and what the goal is but understand that this is just a single event in time — something that you can’t totally control or predict. 

Focus on the process, embrace failure and be consistent and the results will often surpass your original expectations.