The Price of Excellence

I met Donovan Waite when he was in his mid-30’s

Donovan was single and supported himself by giving Aikido classes to other students. He lived in the “dojo” where he paid rent for a tiny, spartan-like room yet with with no real privacy.

His back story was that he had achieved the level of black belt by age 14 and spent the next ten years mastering his craft before moving to the New York Aikido dojo.  He then spent 5 to 7 hours per day training at his craft. Aikido is hard, arduous and time consuming. Injuries are common. Bones are broken, knees are decimated and backs are wrenched yet over a 25 year period he never missed one day of practice.

He would show up before practice began and stretch for thirty minutes then stay after practice to do the same. I know this first hand because I used to copy his stretching routine.

He was a paradox: violent yet humble. If pushed, he could be violent. Yet he always adjusted his training to meet his partner’s ability so as not to harm them .

On one occasion, a former student came in and was bragging that he had recently completed Navy Seal training and how hard it was. Donovan walked up to him gently and asked if he could use him in the next class to demonstrate a few techniques. Donovan moved to the front of the class, affording him use of the entire length of the dojo. Within minutes,  he began throwing the Navy Seal from one side of the room to the other!   He repeatedly “launched” the seal over 10 yards in the air until the Seal was spent.

The point had been made. Stay humble.

He and I weren’t friends; but, by watching and training with him I learned more about personal excellence than anyone else I’ve ever met.  Never have I met any as proficient in their field of endeavor as Donovan was in Aikido. I have read books on Warren Buffet and the single minded vision that he had. But for me, Donovan was a  something first hand experience that exemplified a focused and unwavering commitment to a goal. He sacrificed his youth, finances, family, personal health and well being for one goal: to master aikido.  And while I practiced aikido for many years, and was good, I was never jealous of Donovan’s ability. He made sacrifices I was simply unwilling to make.

Interestingly, in aikido these is no end. For Buffett, the tangible gain of his massive effort was wealth. Donovan would never get to experience that. There are no riches on the other side of the  aikido rainbow. There is no payday when he could expect reward. Donovan pursued excellence pure and simple. Nothing more.  In fact, I’d be surprised if he ever made more than $1,000 a month during the 10 years he spent at the dojo.  Today he travels the world and runs his own dojo. I’ve heard that, with age, he now occasionally takes a day off. But, even as he ages, his Aikido techniques are a thing of power and beauty.

I am happy to have trained with him. I took with me 10 things I learned from Donovan Waite:

  • Practice Every Day.
    • Not only did he practice every day, he worked out for multiple hours at a time.  He showed what it means to be a professional.
  • Stretch every day.
    • His stretching sessions were lengthy. He stretched to take care of his body so that it would not get hurt. That preparation made him stronger and more flexible…able to affect throws that most men would never attempt.
  • Push yourself every day.
    • He was forever challenging himself. He would work out with men much bigger and stronger to refine his technique. Alternatively, his practice was slow and deliberate as he tried to break down every part of the move so he could later put it back together…at twice the speed.
  • Teach every day.
    • Donovan took many classes during the day, but he always taught. The teaching helped him become a better student and he used teaching to help him better understand the intricacies of techniques.
  • Clean every day
    • Every day the students in the dojo had to wash the mats. It was a ritual and never missed. A messy and sloppy environment was not conducive to training or excellence!
  • Adjust your technique every day
    • He knew Aikido so well that each and every move had a different and varied adjustment he was able to make. Never satisfied, he was forever experimenting, tinkering and playing with technique.
  • Be a good Ukemi.
    • Ukemi is the art of being a good partner. In boxing, they are called sparing partners. To learn a technique requires someone to receive and take your blows so that you can see if your strikes are effective. In Aikido being a good ukemi is also meant to help you protect yourself from other combatants.
  • Be relentless
    • He never quit. He always showed up and was always on time. He was was always “here.” He was fully present for the task at hand. Some people can do something hard for a few months or even a year. Donovan trained hours, every day, for years.. If he was hurt, he would work on techniques to protect himself or train very softly, but he always trained.
  • Never give up.
    • By the time he was thirty, Donovan was already one of the greatest Aikido practitioners in the world with hardly a peer. He could easily have gone off on his own. But he continued to push to bring his skill set to a place unseen before in Aikido
  • Be willing to sacrifice everything for greatness
    • He gave up everything for mastery. All of his time and all of his resources were spent on one thing: to be great at Aikido. By the time I met him, he was already great; but, he kept on pursuing.

If you are ever in New York City,  try and visit one of his classes because they are truly inspiring. A small part of you will be forever uplifted by seeing something so graceful yet powerful.

Excellence crosses all disciplines. It’s attainment and ultimate achievement require the same steps regardless of the goal. I  strive to apply what I’ve learned to many aspects of my life, not just Aikido.

For this priceless wisdom I am forever grateful to Donovan Waite.

 

Steve Clark

sleeclark@gmail.com

 

Is It Safe?

In my “former life” I was a bond trader and salesman. A common question I received from my clients when taking about an investment was ” Is it safe?”  I was always thought it was an odd question, especially given the financial acumen of the people with whom I was dealing with. The reality is that nothing in finance, as in life, is truly safe. There is risk everywhere.

Expert

The best investors in the world achieve their great returns by avoiding risk at all costs.The famed investor Warren Buffett only buys things with what he calls a “margin of safety.” Buffet hates risk so much that in his early part of his career he would only buy things that were below their break up value. So, for example, when he bought a stock at $80, he knew that if the company fell apart he could easily take over the company and sell its assets for more than the $80 dollar a share price.

Buffett understood the world is filled with risk; it is unavoidable. For example I use to be responsible for trading a portfolio of bonds for the bank and it was not uncommon for me to have defaulted bonds on my ledger that I was responsible for managing. I never intended to have them on my books, but during the course of a year it was only natural that some bonds on my blotter would go bust.

In order to mitigate some of this risk,the bond houses relies on ratings agencies to help them gauge the level of risk of companies. Moodys and Fitch are two ratings agencies that ascertain the risks of companies. They have analysts that go in and analyze and research companies to find out the probability of repayment The demand is so great for companies and people to be told that something is safe that these two companies make millions of dollars a year for their financial assessments.

Moody’s and Fitch’s rating are so well respected an “A” rating or higher is usually enough validation for a fund manager to buy the asset. Many mutual fund and pension by-laws have clauses in them that will not allow the fund manager to buy assets below this “A” level rating.

In essence many fund managers and companies outsource their “risks” tolerance to Moody’s and Fitch,so if there is a problem the fund managers can always point the blame to someone else. However, in the financial crisis of 2008, many of the funds and instruments that Moody’s and Fitch recommended went under causing massive devastation in the financial community. A hard lesson was learned by all, you can never outsource or assign risk to someone else.

This belief that “others” have more knowledge than “us” and can guide us is a fallacy sold by the elites and the master marketers. Having sat on many risk meetings on Wall Street, I know first hand how this game works.

The “Trust Us”-We are expert crowd lives in the media. The media is well aware of their ability to influence and move policy, because of their expert status, that their reporting at times can be labeled as criminal. During the Vietnam war one of the most pivotal moments was the 1968 battled named the”Tet Offensive.” It  was a large military invasion by the communist in the North attacking the U.S allied South Vietnamese army. The result was a crushing defeat for the North that many felt would end the war. Oddly enough the American media claimed the North had won the battle. The reporter, Walter Cronkite, with no military training whatsoever, declared and reported to the American public that it had been a humiliating defeat for the U.S forces.

Many historians attribute not the battle of Tet as the turning point in the war but rather the erroneous report by Walter Cronkite. Since Walter Cronkite was an expert in the journalism field, the American public believed him. Once the public lost the conviction in the war (because of Cronkite’s influence), the government followed. Vietnam was eventually overrun by the North and became a communist country and in the process many innocent lives were lost.

Given what I now know,I treat all experts with a healthy amount if skepticism. This has helped both professionally as well as personally.

A few years ago one of my daughters was quite ill and I spent the night with her at the hospital. During that time I researched her condition and came to understand what was happening to her. The next day, the Doctor  prescribed her a treatment which I felt was contrary to the research I had read. After a brief discussion of the facts the Doctor  altered my daughters treatment which helped her.

By no means did I think I was smarter or more knowledgable than the Doctor in her own profession. But I do know that Doctors are overworked and makes mistakes like all of us. Like any profession, being a Doctor requires constant study and reflection just to stay current, and not all Doctors can stay abreast of all the developments in the medical field. In the end my daughter was cured and I was thankful for having such a thoughtful Doctor to care for my daughter.

Life is a constant battle to grow and develop or to wither away and die. I know if I don’t continue to work on myself and on my skills, my talents will die. I know the dangers of trusting experts and I believe that there is something in the human condition that tends to look for answers from those that supposedly know more than us.But this is dangerous. Life is inherently risky and its better to embrace that risk rather than give our power away to somebody else.

Steve

sleeclark@gmail.com