Tao of the Zentropist

May 4, 2009

Finding Center

In the traditional Asian martial arts, there is often quite a bit of emphasis on “finding one’s center” and learning to move from the center, which the Chinese refer to as the dan tien. As esoteric as this may seem upon first impression, it actually makes a great deal of sense once properly understood, and the lessons are as applicable in business as in the practice of martial arts. In fact, “finding center” shares a great deal in common with the Hedgehog Concept advanced by Jim Collins in his deservedly well-regarded business book, “Good to Great.”

One key theme that emerges from the work of Mr. Collins is the “Hedgehog Concept,” which in turn is credited to the work of Isaiah Berlin in his book “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” When traced back to antiquity, this stems from a Greek parable which posits that the world is divided into “hedgehogs,” or people that define the world through a single defining idea, and “foxes,” or people that view the world through multiple experiences. In other words, hedgehogs know one thing very well while foxes know many things, but not necessarily in any real depth.

The Hedgehog Concept boils down to the need for a company (or arguably, an individual) to define itself by what it can be the best at. This forced examination of strengths and weaknesses, which requires an honest assessment of not only one’s own capabilities but the competition and operating environment, is arrived at by envisioning three circles and finding the intersection where all three overlap:

  1. What you can be the best in the world at. For some individuals and companies, this is potentially a painful realization. You may or may not be currently on the right path, because as case studies have found, being “competent” or even “good” in the face of global completion is not sustainable. Your product or service must be world class, or at the very least perceived by your customers as being so, if you are to thrive and become “great.”
  2. What drives your economic engine. At the end of the day, a business must earn more money than it spends. It’s as simple as that. Without profits, you cannot survive, and profits are arrived at by maximizing revenues and containing costs. Understanding how to do this, and arriving at a business model that is sustainable and scalable, and aligned with your product(s) / service(s), is one of the greatest challenges that you can face.
  3. What you are deeply passionate about. If an individual (or business) does not truly enjoy the work that it performs, no matter how much it attempts to fake it or muster false enthusiasm, this eventually comes out in the work. False passion cannot be manufactured indefinitely; it must be an outgrowth out of genuine enjoyment and satisfaction in engaging in the process of Mastery, and to be the best in the world at something, you must walk the Path of Mastery.

If you take the time to diagram the approach above, you will discover that in creating the three overlapping circles, you are in effect “centering” by finding the point where these all come together. And make no mistake, this exercise is not an easy one in practice, as simple as it is in theory, because we live in a world of illusion.

Many traditions hold that what we perceive as “reality” is simply illusion, and that the physical world is subject to varying interpretations and perceptions based on the frame of reference of the individual / organization. As individuals we both consciously and subconsciously create illusions, either because of a desire to portray ourselves in a favorable light (yielding to the ego), or because we filter the information that our senses deliver and interpret it based on biases or assumptions that we may not even be aware of.

Not only must we contend with self-manufactured illusions, but we must also deal with the illusions cast forth by others, which all feed upon each other and perpetuate uncertainty, unclear intent and lead us astray from our chosen path. This can be the root cause of a great deal of unhappiness, misunderstanding and suffering.

Even without delving into the spiritual aspect, or discounting it entirely, finding one’s center has both a physical and psychological dimension. In the physical expression of many martial arts and other physical endeavors, one seeks to create a grounded connection with the earth, often manifested in the manner in which weight is distributed and the body’s center of gravity is rooted. While some pundits have observed that the successful use of force is the imposition of one’s will on another, I would argue that an alternative explanation is the imposition of one’s center on another. Since two objects cannot occupy the same physical space, the object whose center is most rooted and connected with the universal energy at the moment the paths intersect is the one that will prevail. Perhaps this interpretation seems rather metaphysical and/or mystical to some, but physics seems to bear this out.

Psychologically, finding one’s center implies achieving balance, and “balance” is often an adjective used to express how a healthy psyche is described in layman’s terms. We all instinctively understand that when something, or someone, is unbalanced that there is danger of a loss of control, often with unfortunate consequences.

The inescapable conclusion is that our success as individuals (no matter how we personally define “success”) and in turn, the success of organizations, is dependent upon the ability to “find center” and maintain this no matter what obstacles appear in the path. In a world of illusion and obfuscation, deliberate and consequential, being rooted in one’s center is the only way to live one’s purpose and find contentment. It’s a challenge to be sure, but it is part of the journey that we all must undertake…

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