Are you uncomfortable yet? Normalising discomfort to build our leadership capacity

Aikido is a highly technical martial art that, unlike other martial arts, seeks to restore harmony in the world. When your attacker pushes, you pull. When your attacker pulls, you push. Your ability to blend your energy with that of your attacker both almost instantly, effortlessly and completely without a reliance on strength is where the true skill and mastery lies.

The variety of techniques to learn and apply seems almost limitless especially when you factor in weapons techniques covering the staff (Jo), the sword (Bokken) and the short sword (Tanto).I took up Aikido at the age of 53 just before the end of last year for several reasons. First, I wanted to invest in getting fitter and stronger so that I can live the rest of my days in robust and rude health. Secondly, I believe the philosophy is a paradigm shift that could, if applied beyond the mat, could change the world; much as Aikido’s founder, Sensei Morihei Ueshiba envisaged. Lastly, I wanted to challenge myself to complete my Shodan (1st Dan, Black Belt) test well before I am 60.

If you’ve not come across it before, you can find out a little more about Yoshinkan Aikido check out the short video at the top of the page. 

Since December of 2017, I have fallen head over heels in love with my thrice weekly training sessions. I get a tremendous buzz from watching the more experienced students perform a smörgasbord of techniques ranging from the simple to the jaw-droppingly impressive. I marvel at our team of Sensei who have immense patience, drive and enthusiasm to help everyone progress to the next level and beyond. Perhaps most importantly, I seem to be able to regress to being 25 years of age again in a mixed class where ages range from 16 to 70 and feel totally alive and present in each moment of practice irrespective of who I practice with. It is ridiculous fun and, whilst at the same time, it is an extremely serious and potentially lethal endeavour.

Arguably it’s the best personal development course I’ve ever done or taught (and I’ve done lots of both) and I highly recommend it. It will definitely test you mentally, physically and spiritually. I know it tests me every time I step onto the mat but the rewards are, for me at least, beyond measure.

Perhaps the most surprising outcome of all this is my own acceptance of a new norm of discomfort as wrists, knees and shoulders continue to ‘bark’ for a day or so after the end of each session. This is a good sign and there’s nothing a little bit of ice or heat usually can’t take care of. I know that if I ache then two things are true. First, I have done the work needed with enough of a ‘martial’ conviction that pushes me to meet and make friends with my fears on the mat and play full out. [I’ll come back to the idea of ‘martial’ thinking in later posts because it’s an important leadership concept]. Secondly, I know am growing well beyond my comfort zone as I learn to embody the technique, attitude and emptiness of mind required to blend with an attacker effortlessly and restore balance.

Can I do it well yet? No. However, each time I step on the mat, I am no longer the person I was previously. I am one step closer to the outcome I am aiming to achieve; the ability to trust myself and let Aikido flow through me without thought.

The aches and pains I experience result from my inaccuracies in technique and the inexperience of a beginner learning to crawl before he can walk. It’s ironic therefore that the pain I experience is of my own making rather than something someone else does to me. It makes for and provides an interesting twist on receiving feedback for your own performance!

Yet this normalisation of discomfort is something that is a necessary right of passage to self-mastery. The path to Shodanand beyond requires a precision, posture and flow found in either ballroom dancing or music performance to be able to execute techniques with effortless power and motion that can only be described as poetry in motion. I know there will be plenty of bumps and scrapes along the way as my comfort zone is stretched to its new completely unrecognisable shape. Knowing this only makes me hungry to learn more.

And so it is with all roads that lead to mastery. Whatever your chosen path, to excel there is a need to normalise discomfort that comes with the practice of that activity.

What this statement of the blindingly obvious hides is three important lessons which I thought were worth sharing.

First, there needs to be an emotional reason to engage in the pursuit of a specific outcome in any activity that contains challenge. As anyone who has completed Navy Seals ‘Hell Week’ will tell you, having a goal to survive the week is not enough, there needs to be an emotional investment in the reason for wanting to complete the test.

Secondly, the pursuit of a specific goal is better expressed as an intention that has a forward trajectory and an acceptance that the path to mastery is neither linear nor is it rooted in SMART goal principles. If you doubt that, how many people do you know who have capitulated on their well-intended new year’s resolutions?

Lastly, having a love for what you do is absolutely what gets you through, what pushes you on (when you’d rather not go on), what gets you in flow and helps you push through the discomfort that leads to growth.

So, tell us, how are you normalising discomfort?

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