One Word (and Five Minutes)

Recently, I was invited to speak before a group of “Lead Learners” as part of their year end celebration. This invitation came with a catch:

guest speakers will elaborate upon the “one word” that best defines their practice, paradigm or philosophy.  The challenge is to tell the story behind the word in no more than five minutes (with or without the aid of pictures, photos, props or powerpoints).  

Always up for an adventure, I accepted the challenge. Of course, I accepted before I had any idea what my one word would be. And arriving at the one word was no easy task - I mean, there are so many words, and it had to be the right word, one that resonated on a personal level, a word that captured a certain essence about my beliefs, a word that captured a sort of personal philosophy about my work and my life and all sorts of meaningful things therein.

So I dug deep, and after discarding many very good words, I found it. But I am not sharing it quite yet.  You need the context first. Words can be funny like that.

When I was very young my parents put me in Judo lessons.  At first, I wasn’t sure about them.  The techniques were difficult, the sensei was harsh, and the push-ups were never-ending.  But as the years passed, I got better. Stronger. Faster. And Judo became a part of my life.

I received my Sho Dan, or first degree black belt, in my early twenties. And though I stopped competing in Judo tournaments years ago, I will say that no matter where I go or what I do in life, the principles of Judo apply more than ever.  

Which brings me, finally, to my word - a great Japanese word that all Judokas learn: Kuzushi.  Kuzushi is essential to all judo techniques, and like so many of the best foreign words, it is not so easily translated.

Kuzushi is often mistaken to mean “pushing or pulling.” And certainly there are times when it looks like this.   But in reality, kuzushi is much more complex. It refers to the art of unbalancing.

In Judo, if you can take your opponent from a standing position directly to his back, you score ippon, a technique so pure you get an automatic win. To throw another black belt like this requires great skill. It also requires great kuzushi.  Just how do you unbalance a skilled and fit competitor?

My trademark throw was something called soto makikome, and it took many years to master. To set it up properly I would push my opponent to make him step backward. If he pushed back or stepped forward, he was in trouble. When he did that, I would pull hard on his right sleeve in an upward direction, while turning quickly inside and wrapping my right arm over his shoulder and driving hard to the left in a downward circular motion. When it worked, it was a huge throw. But if my kuzushi was wrong, my opponent would counter with a technique of his own, and possibly cost me the match.

In judo, the image of the cherry blossom holds great significance.  The 8 points on the blossom represent the different directions we might break our opponents balance. To master kuzushi is to know exactly where and exactly when to apply force or pressure, (and for how long and in what direction and in what combinations – ie. push here while pulling there); it is also to master the art of knowing how to use little or no pressure. 

A skilled judoka will meet force not with force, but with a deceptive gentleness that turns his opponent’s momentum against him. Timing, speed, strength are factors.  But the art requires so much more.  Kuzushi is all about finesse. And its applications are vast.

I realize most of you will never step foot on a judo mat. This is of no consequence. Kuzushi applies to almost everything in life. If you have ever tried to convince a group or people, or sell an idea, or a product….if you have ever tried to teach a reluctant learner, or manage a classroom, or handle a difficult person…if you have ever been asked to steer a committee, or guide change, or lead transformation, you need the right kuzushi.

In other words, the world is your dojo.

Do me favour. Before undertaking any project, ask youself, where is the momentum? Do you want to allow the momentum to carry on? Or not? Where and when should you apply pressure? How should you apply it? Should you push or pull or should you just step back and get out of the way?

You already know that going forward quickly at the wrong time can be devastating. An entire project can collapse. Conversely, to sit back when a situation warrants quick and decisive action can be equally dangerous.

The truth is this word, kuzushi, applies to most of the actions you undertake - in work, in leisure, and yes even relationships. A bad date is usually a result of too much or too little kuzushi.  This guy here in the photo, clearly has bad kuzushi.

So, my challenge for you, next time you set about a task, is to think about the kind of kuzushi it requires.  The more time you spend mastering the nuances and subtleties of its application, the greater your chances of success.  When to push and when to pull? How hard and in what direction? And of course, applying kuzushi well requires that you know when to step back and when to harness the natural momentum.

And please, if my suggestion that every action you undertake involves kuzushi seems too far reaching, too grandiose, then at the very least you can take some comfort in knowing you learned a cool, new Japanese word.

******Special Thanks to Rose Pillay, Educational Consultant for Secondary Schools CISVA for organizing and hosting this event.  See more about the event here: One Word*****

Sean Nosek


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