Magazine article Risk Management

The Stonecutter

Magazine article Risk Management

The Stonecutter

Article excerpt

Some years ago, I studied the martial art of kendo, which one might be tempted to describe as "Japanese fencing." Way back when samurai warriors kept the peace in feudal Japan, there came a time when their services were no longer needed, so they turned their warrior skills into art forms that preserved much of the lessons they had learned on the battlefield. Instead of fighting with sharpened steel, kendo practitioners use bamboo rods called shinai. To prevent serious injury, one wears a suit of armor not that dissimilar from what samurai themselves wore so long ago.

Kendo is a very demanding martial art, both physically and mentally. You practice it in bare feet on a hardwood floor, walking back and forth, swinging your shinai hundreds of times in a rhythm of pain and concentration. Unless your footwork is perfect, you will torque your feet every time you swing, and eventually, you'll get a blister the size of a grape (or bigger) on the ball of your foot. And since you're pushing off the floor with your toes all of the time, chances are good that the skin where your toes meet your foot will split open too, revealing a stripe of vivid red flesh underneath. The remedy for all of this is to cut away the dead flesh where possible, apply pure iodine to the wound, and keep going.

Before you can begin to practice kendo in full armor, though, you must first develop proficiency in the basic techniques of the art. One of these is being able to swing the shinai a certain number of times without stopping. It sounds simple, and it is, but it is far from easy. Figuring out how to swing a shinai properly takes a lot of practice, and the worse you are at it, the more strength and stamina it requires. When you stink at kendo, your body lets you know about it. This is the sport's first true test, for to get better, you have to subject yourself to a whole lot of pain. Every time you count out how many strikes you have done, you ask yourself why you are doing this. Quitting becomes the easiest thing in the world to do, which is why so many stop kendo within a month of starting it.

Dejected at my inability to get even the most basic elements of kendo right, I expressed my frustration to my teacher, who told me an old story, of a stonecutter. One day, the stonecutter began chiseling at a huge rock, one strike at a time. For weeks he toiled ceaselessly and patiently at his seemingly endless task. …

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