The Only Strategy: Musashi Miyamoto's Legacy


In the early 1600s there weren’t many authors and there were fewer authors following nomadic samurai around Japan.  Musashi’s legendary greatness is a product of his own writing. He challenged the best of each fighting style he found. He sometimes fought to the death. In about 60 duels from ages 13 to 28 he is said to have never lost. Then he became a monk giving up fighting forever. 

The ability to always find a way to win. That is the one strategy worth spending a lifetime mastering. We have cliches like “Don’t be afraid of failure,” “Fail fast and fail often,” and “Fail forward.” I don't care how nice those things sound.  Failure sucks and winning feels great.  Musashi tears these ideas apart and I think the big winners of today would as well if we asked them to weigh in. Warren Buffett learned in business school from his favorite teacher Professor Graham, “There are only two rules you need to learn. Rule # 1: Never lose money. Rule # 2: Never forget Rule # 1."

Strategy is greater than technique.


Pursuing being the best swordsman showed Musashi that technique is always trumped by strategy. Technique is something with one or a few applications. It's a lesser thing. Strategy can be applied to everything. I see failure from a focus on technique over strategy on the sales floor.  A salesperson overreacts to a negative response to their offer and fails to sell the deal. Afterwards they wonder what they could have said differently. They focus on developing a new technique instead of thinking about the broader question of how being told, “No,” makes them respond.  Sometimes the words make the difference between a sale and a no sale, but the origin of what we say when it counts comes from our ability to think on our feet when the unexpected happens. Developing persistent calmness is the strategy worth studying to handle any objection. 

Be calm, but also be quick, strong, and decisive.

Finding himself in one-on-one combat frequently Musashi learned to see emotion as a weakness. He never wanted to appear over confident or enraged. He maintained his calm focused state. Not the kind of calm I feel when I sit on a beach staring into nothing.  The kind of calm that Wilt Chamberlin feels when he breaks 100 points in a professional basketball game breaking the record for the highest number of points by a single player in an NBA game.  The calm that comes with peak performance. The kind of calm that left him wondering three decades later how that level of focus was possible. This is the kind of calm focus that results in our highest performers producing almost double our lowest performers on a playing field that is as close to a meritocracy as possible.

All things have use. Be adaptable.

There is nothing that can’t be turned into an advantage. A broken sword, an enemy, an angry co-worker, or a fight with a loved one before heading to the office. All have a use and anything can be fuel for the fire. It is our duty to find that use and capitalize on it.  Complaints serve no use and no time should be spent on things that have no use.  People who win always win because they learn to turn everything around them to their advantage. When their master plan breaks down they make that break down part of their new plan.

Find the strategy that mastery of eliminates the need for all other things. 

Musashi chose the long sword to focus his life on because it was the most versatile and universally effective weapon of his time for one-on-one combat. He made that choice in a time when weapons changed technically over hundreds or thousands of years. We live in a time where mastery of strategy in war cannot be focused on one tool because of rapidly changing technology. This does not mean that there are no winning strategies left to master it just means mastery shouldn’t be centered around technologies. Mastery is focused more on mastery of self than ever before in history.

Practice constantly and endlessly.

Knowing is not doing and doing is not mastery. The only way to ensure winning is to reach a point of absolute mastery and mastery over all others can never be reached indefinitely. There is always someone who has figured out the same thing and is willing to out work the person currently on top.  The only way to ensure that you always win is to practice endlessly and constantly.  This is why on a good sales team the people who win are the ones focused on staying calm, adapting, and reaching mastery at all times not just one time. The secret to success today is a best practice being shared tomorrow and the best people don’t care. They learn to love the endless work because they love to win.

Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.

Front cover notes from my copy of "The Book of Five Rings."
Front cover notes from my copy of "The Book of Five Rings."

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