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Lessons From a 17th-Century Samurai

mentor motivation Sep 01, 2020


by Dave Kovar


Hagakure is a book written in the 17th century by a samurai named Tsunetomo Yamamoto. It’s claimed to be one of the first books to document the samurai lifestyle. Mikio Nishiuchi, my iaido teacher, required us to read it before a belt test a few years back. It was interesting, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

There was one thing Yamamoto wrote that really stuck with me. I didn’t fully understand it at first, but it felt profound. I’m now starting to grasp it, at least a little. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially Yamamoto says that a samurai is always aware, and in every situation, every encounter, there is a chance for growth and improvement if the person is paying attention.

I think about this often and try to find ways to apply the concept to my life. I travel frequently, and with travel comes inconvenience and unpredictability, so I try to think of my trips as chances to practice growth and improvement. Here are some of the ways I do this:

I try to view delayed or cancelled flights as an opportunity to practice patience and self-control. After all, in these instances, being upset doesn’t help a bit. I’m not always successful, but I’m getting better all the time.

I also use delayed flights as a chance to observe other people’s behavior. It’s amazing to see how many seemingly successful people cannot successfully control their emotions. When I see a well-dressed businessman verbally shredding the gate agent because a flight has been canceled due to weather, I’m reminded that I can do better.

When I’m taking the tram from one terminal to another, I avoid using handrails whenever possible. Instead, I try to practice my balance. I call this “tram surfing.” If it’s a slow tram, I will increase the degree of difficulty by standing on one foot (space permitting).

When given a choice, I always take the stairs. And if I have a layover, I try to spend at least 20 minutes walking up and down them. (Incidentally, the Dallas airport has great stairs, at least three stories high.)

When looking for a meal, instead of settling for close or convenient, I go on a scavenger hunt for the healthiest choices. It’s amazing what happens when I raise my standards. Every now and then, if my choices are extremely limited, I will go without a meal. It’s empowering to realize that you can skip a meal and still be fine.

When people-watching — C’mon, we all do it, don’t we? — I try to read strengths and weaknesses, both physical and emotional. I try to just observe, not judge. I’m not sure how accurate I am, but it keeps me aware of my surroundings.

If I’m seated at a gate, I try to position myself in a way that allows for maximum visibility. It’s not that I’m worried about someone attacking me as much as it’s a habit that I’ve developed over the years and that reminds me to be in the moment.

Finally, I try to look for small ways to positively impact people near me. This could be anything from helping someone put their suitcase in overhead storage to clearing off the table next to mine in the food court to bringing back a bottle of water for the person sitting next to me at the gate. There’s always something you can do when you’re looking.

Thank you, Tsunetomo Yamamoto, for the great advice. Continued growth and improvement are worthy goals, not just for a 17th-century samurai but for a 21st-century martial artist, as well.


To contact Dave Kovar, send an email to [email protected]


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