Monday, March 09, 2015

More Business Stuff

The last post hit some people a little hard. Got some conversations going in my e-mail and on facebook. So a little more thinking out loud here.

It offends me that there are some extraordinary martial arts masters (and master is a word I do not use lightly) who, in their old age, are living in poverty or on the edge. Pioneers in bringing thriving traditional systems to the states or Europe, people who started the entire Reality-Based Self defense movement. And they're living in shitholes, not even surviving on a pension because they were too busy following their passion to create a pension in the first place. It offends me. Maybe you know some of the people I'm talking about, maybe you don't, and maybe you know a few I've never met. But whether you know it or not, no matter what your lineage is, there is probably someone living in a crappy trailer park that you owe a huge debt to.

Part of what bothers me is that in many cases, it was preventable. It shouldn't have happened. A tragedy is when the flaws in the hero of a story spawn an inevitable demise. So it is here, and in almost all cases, the flaw was pride. And I'm subject to it just as much and in exactly the same way.

If you came up through the traditional Japanese arts as I did, you were probably pounded with the antipathy between the samurai class and the merchant class. Are you from that culture or that era? Hell no. But you probably absorbed the ethic that "fighters are above money." It will be compounded if you were raised poor in America, since one of the mechanisms society applies to keep people poor and powerless is to tell them the lies that only bad people make money and that power corrupts. (What better way to keep good people powerless than to tell them that gaining power will turn them into bad people?)

Caught in this belief, many of the best fighters and teachers deliberately work to be failures at the business side to preserve an ethic designed to keep them weak. In doing so, they serve their own enemies and ensure their own defeat.

Fighters are one thing. When you are ready to become a teacher you should be at least a step beyond that. You must be, at minimum, a strategist. Would any good strategist deliberately refuse to learn the way a new battlefield works? Would a good swordsman faced with guns not learn about guns? He would only refuse if he was stupid, or too proud.

And that's the first reframe, and probably the most critical. Use the pride: If the merchants are a lower class, are you going to lose at their game? Hell no. But in order to win, you have to learn the new rules. So what are you? A mere fighter who can't see beyond a single opponent? Or a true strategist?


shugyosha said...

I decided not to pursue MA professionally in the 90s, leaving my teens. The best instructors I could see where barely making a living (those instructors either got better and kept in their bare bones or whored themselves; and that _does_ condition my thinking _hard_).

These days I think I see ways to start a career from the ground up, but I'm not sure (and I think I'm about 15 years too old; we'll see if some offshots of that idea work). As a general rule, I see few ways to make a decent, both in bucks and morals, living from MA, in Spain. Now, maybe (just maybe) it's possible do make a decent living at it _from_ Spain.

But, yes, I know that part.

Take care.

Kamil said...

I couldn't agree more. In our world if you provide something of value, you get compensated. One way or another. To say that you shouldn't or wouldn't get compensated is exactly the same as saying that you didn't provide something of value. If we stopped compensating people for providing value, a lot of important and sublime things probably wouldn't happen at all.

To my mind, martial arts are about finding ways to win, especially when the odds are against you. If you know how to prevail against an burly armed opponent but your business is failing, all the lessons you learned about facing fear, covering your vulnerabilities, studying obstacles and striking at the right moment are only half-understood.

Anonymous said...

I've seen this myself. Actual, genuine "Grand Master" head-of-family types, in established lineages, who have spent a lifetime learning their art and now are trying to get paid to teach it in seminars and whatnot, and can't draw more than 20 people at $50 each for an 8 hour seminar, and most of them are students of the family who are more or less obligated.

These are the same masters who have deliberately kept themselves and their art on the down-low, not giving anything away to anyone who hasn't earned the privilege of learning it through work and dedication. They're almost surprised when nobody has heard of them, and isn't willing to pay to learn from them.

Anonymous said...

There's something else here embedded in what you said. "But whether you know it or not, no matter what your lineage is, there is probably someone living in a crappy trailer park that you owe a huge debt to."
Some may feel they 'owe a huge debt', because they greatly value the learning they've acquired from their teachers. Perhaps you feel that way too. I don't feel that way. I've paid money to learn much of what I know. Also, if you're a good teacher, you've learned just as much from your students.
If you're poor/broke and have a huge amount of expertise in something, either the world doesn't want to buy it, or you simply gave it away. If you just gave it away it's time to re-examine your own philosophy, because you've turned yourself into an altruist.
I have students who are heavily involved in the wilderness survival scene. They always want to teach it 'for free'. I tell them that's fine if it really is a labor of love and they have good/steady income somewhere else. If they don't, we have a talk about being chronically poor, and how they should consider changing their perspective on what money is.

Charles James said...

I count my blessings for I was able to learn, train, practice and teach without the baggage of commercialism in any form. My Sensei taught me as a Marine. We taught for many years under the framework of the military. I continued for a period as a civil servant under the umbrella of the Navy and finally I was allowed to teach, train and practice with a somewhat commercial guy for a year in mid-2000's. I am still very lucky to have the ability to continue studies along with training and practicing solo. This has spanned over thirty-eight years. I thank many who inspired me but especially my good friend Dean Henry, my karate sensei. So, I am very lucky and blessed while

Charles James said...

as you can tell from Mr. Miller's post, many are not so blessed and/or lucky.

Maija said...

I suspect there is more here, past pride and strategy ...
'Worth' perhaps, 'Need','Purpose', 'Success'.
How do you define them?
Are you strategizing for a game that does not actually exist ...?

Anonymous said...

I remember an essay by Jet Li (yes, the movie star) in which he wrote about his Wushu martial arts. One of the very interesting parts he raised was that, while he never had need of his martial arts to defend himself physically it allowed him to earn a good living and enjoy a good lifestyle.

The point he made was that this was self defence. Being able to live in safety, to raise a family, being free to go where you please and live the life you choose, being fit and healthy and active is the highest expression of self defence. Looking at martial arts as just a way to beat other people is missing out on a lot of what the martial arts have to offer.

I can't find the essay now, it was on his old site which seems to be gone but it struck me as a very interesting point at the time.

Jim said...

"Commercialism" is a complicated issue.

One one front, if you're going to put an emphasis on making money, at some point you have to cater to a market. If you don't -- you won't have a market. There are degrees of doing this. How much is the question... I think that the day-care martial arts industry pretty much defines one extent; the other extent is probably the koryu Japanese arts or many other arts that have chosen to stay very small and very non-commercial. There's a middle ground, and where a particular instructor or program falls in that range is a personal decision.

Another front is that, in the US, we have a strong tendency to measure somethings worth by the cost. So, you have "name" instructors who can charge thousands for a "weekend" seminar that consists of 4 or maybe 8 hours of instruction between a Friday night check-in and Sunday afternoon departure. And you have others, with valuable, solid, proven material who can't get 10 people to show up for a free seminar with 16 or more hours of training. Again, I think there's reasonable middle ground where you can charge you're worth without overcharging...

The whole "above being commercial" is another front. How do you define "commercial?" Is it making your living by teaching? What if you're a police academy instructor or military trainer? Or merely a personal trainer with the martial arts/self defense as a sideline? I think Rory hit that point really well: if you really are "better" than the crass commercialists, why can't you learn the rules and beat them at their game? Is there something wrong with making a decent, fair living based on the hours and hours of practice and dedicated training?

Tiff said...

To an extent, I disagree.

As a student, I have learned so much from my teachers, many of whom taught me things for free. (We can argue that nothing is truly "free" later, but go with me on this one.) Yes, a few of these teachers just wanted their ego stroked via the status one gains when he/she adopts a prodigy or pupil - and the sense of betrayal and manipulation in those instances was a lesson into itself.

But there are so many good people who taught me without asking for a single dime. There was even the awkward attempts to pay them, which were only sometimes successful. These people gave me the gift of their knowledge, a gift that is truly priceless. Rory's seminars can be costly, but it's what I find reading between the lines in his writings that I hold most dear. To put a price on something like that is like charging money for the air we breathe, the joy we feel or tragedies we ensure to become stronger. These things cannot be bought. And to expect that they come with a price tag is not only foolish (like trying to hold the wind in your fingers) but disrespectful. The money is a formality for the time and liability - not the lessons - they are a gift. Cherish them and the teacher who bestows them. In truth, the teacher is paid when the student blossoms; the garden itself is the gardener's reward. I think the greatest of teachers (though they would never accept such a mantle) know this secret.

An afterthought: the difference between a teacher and a trainer. The teacher shows you the doors, while the trainer (or instructor) shows you how to open them.

shugyosha said...


"To put a price on something like that is like charging money for the air we breathe [...]"

Yes. I assume you're familiar with the "tragedy of the commons" idea?

Take care.

Mac said...

Both making money and gaining the skills to teach martial arts are full-time endeavors. One can either make their business martial arts or make martial arts their business. A very lucky few (right place, right time, right chance encouinter) can do both. But most can do only one or the other.

Nick said...

The "embodied leadership" crowd, Richard Strozzi Heckler for example, sure know how to charge for teachings based on aikido. They appeal to corporate sorts looking for the edge,who are willing to pay top dollar. The "samurai ethic" as they perceive it seems to really grab their attention.

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

One can pass on quality and one can make money... The issue is doing both with the same "product"

shugyosha said...


I absolutely love the outskirts of what you say. The part just around your direct meaning.

Love it.

Take care.

Unknown said...

My first real teacher in meditation and so on, from a very hardcore Hindu lineage said the same about the folks who brought that stuff to the West - virtually all now in poverty, or died in poverty. Said it damn well wasn't going to happen to him.

That said, he did do a lot of free teaching, he just decided to make $$ other ways. I do some free teaching now, but I'm tending towards a rule where I'll teach the truly poor for free, but people with money should pay.

Part of it is for them, oddly enough, some people think anything is only worth what they pay for it, and if you don't charge they don't take it seriously. (Though I also winnow by if people do the work. If I'm teaching you for free, you better be practicing, and I can tell. Even paid students only get so much slack on this, though to be fair, if they aren't it may be my fault as a teacher, but even then the ethical thing is to get them to go find someone who is a better fit, or even suggest someone.)