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It's Not About the Goal

We live in a world obsessed with fast work and achieving results. What significance do weeks, months, and years have when the target keeps changing? In today's episode, we will examine what truly matters and determines our actions.

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Have you ever heard of Kyūdō - one of the oldest Japanese martial arts? Kyūdō, literally translated as "the way of the bow," has as its supreme goal the realization of the principle of Shin-Zen-Bi (Truth-Goodness-Beauty), which can be understood as the emergence of beauty through the correct (true) release of an arrow by an archer who is filled with positive attitudes towards oneself, the surroundings, and the target. In today's episode, we will consider how the implementation of this principle can benefit you in your everyday work.

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In the 1920s, German professor Eugen Herrigel moved to Japan to teach philosophy at the University of Tokyo, believing that it would allow him to gain a deeper understanding of mysticism. During his stay, he took archery lessons from the legendary master Awa Kenzō. Kenzo believed that beginners should master the basics of archery before attempting to shoot at a real target. For the first four years of his training, Herrigel could only shoot at a bundle of straw located just seven feet away. When Herrigel complained about the incredibly slow pace, his teacher responded, "The path to the target cannot be measured! What significance do weeks, months, or years have?"

The learning process was not without difficulties. Herrigel struggled with proper breathing, holding the bow, and drawing the bowstring "in a spiritual manner," with strength but without effort. According to Kenzō Awa, Herrigel's failures were due to an improper spiritual attitude. As he emphasized, archery is a matter of life and death. He also repeated one of his favorite sayings: "we masters of archery say: one shot - one life!"

During a particularly humiliating session, Herrigel concluded that his problem must be a poor target. However, Kenzō looked at his student and replied that it is not whether you aim, but how you approach the task that determines the result. Frustrated with this answer, Herrigel said, "Then you should be able to hit it with your eyes closed." Kenzo paused for a moment, then said, "Come to me tonight." After nightfall, the two men returned to the training ground, where the practice hall was located. Kenzo went to his usual shooting position, now with a target hidden in the darkness. The master archer went through his normal procedure, assumed the shooting position, drew the bowstring, and released the first arrow into the darkness. Recalling this event later, Herrigel wrote, "From the sound, I knew that he hit the target."

Kenzo hit the bullseye without being able to see the target. Great masters of archery often teach that "everything has its meaning." Where you place your feet, how you hold the bow, how you breathe while releasing the arrow - all of these determine the final outcome. In Awa Kenzo's case, the master archer was so aware of the process that led to a precise shot that he was able to replicate the exact sequence of internal movements even without seeing the external target. This full awareness of body and mind in relation to the target is known as zanshin.

Zanshin is a commonly used term in Japanese martial arts, referring to a state of relaxed vigilance. In literal translation, zanshin means "mind without residue." In other words, a mind completely focused on action and task. Zanshin is constantly aware of one's body, mind, and surroundings without stress. It is effortless vigilance.

However, in practice, zanshin has even deeper meaning. Zanshin chooses purposeful living and action, rather than mindlessly succumbing to everything that comes in your way.

The Enemy of Improvement

There is a famous Japanese proverb that says, "Tighten your helmet after winning a battle." In other words, a battle does not end with victory. The battle only truly ends when you become complacent, lose your sense of commitment, and stop paying attention. This too is zanshin: living with mindfulness, regardless of whether the goal has already been achieved.

  • The battle does not end with the publication of a book. It ends when you consider yourself a finished product, when you lose the vigilance needed for further perfecting your craft.
  • The battle does not end when you lose excess weight. It ends when you lose focus and skip workouts, or when you lose perspective and overtrain.
  • The battle does not end with a big sale. It ends when you become arrogant and complacent.

The enemy of perfection is neither failure nor success. The enemy of improvement is boredom, fatigue, and lack of concentration. The enemy of perfection is lack of engagement in the process, because the process is everything.

"To all actions and situations, one should approach with the same sincerity, intensity, and awareness as when holding a bow and arrow." - Kenneth Kushner

We live in a world obsessed with outcomes. Similar to Herrigel, we tend to put a lot of emphasis on whether the arrow hits the target or not. However, if we invest intensity, focus, and sincerity into the process - where we place our feet, how we hold the bow, how we breathe when releasing the arrow - hitting the bull's eye becomes simply a byproduct.

The key is not to worry about hitting the target. The key is to fall in love with the boredom of doing the work and embrace every element of the process. It's about taking that moment of zanshin, that moment of full awareness and concentration, and carrying it with us everywhere in life.

It's not the goal that matters. It's not the finish line that counts. What matters is the way we approach the goal.

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Leszek W. Król

Leszek W. Król

On a daily basis, I accompany companies and institutions in designing strategies and developing new products and services.

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