The Path to Mastery: How to Become a Kensei (剣聖)
Before Elon Musk, David Goggins, and Steph Curry there was Miyamoto Musashi
There was a time I wondered: “What do I ultimately want to do with my life?”
Does having an easy job, a nice family, and a big house define a life well lived? Is that success?
There was a time when two roads diverged in my career, and I considered: “Should I choose the path of difficulty or comfort.”
Many of you may be making a similar decision in your own life. Should you work just hard enough, train just hard enough, or be just good enough so you can spend time doing the other things you actually enjoy?
Or do you choose the more difficult path?
Do you want to work with passion, intensity, and with extreme dedication so that you can become the absolute best at your craft? As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits, is your work “have to” or “get to”?
This choice is the path to mastery.
You must train constantly. You must train repetitively. Learn this. Train well.
- Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings
Miyamoto Musashi was possibly the greatest Japanese swordsman, with an undefeated record in 61 duels. He was not only a master swordsman but also a master philosopher who shared his philosophies in writing The Book of Five Rings.
Many consider Musashi the epitome of a Kensei, or “sword saint.” Kensei is a Japanese honorary title given to warriors with masterful swordsmanship skills.
Today, we have several modern-day examples of those who, like Musashi, became masters of their craft.
From my observation of many of these modern-day Kensei, through reading their works and listening to many interviews with them, I’ve noticed very similar traits amongst them:
Work Ethic: Incredibly hard work ethic
Passion: Passion and high emotion for their craft
Details: Attention to detail
Practicality: Focus on practicality over formal customs
Discipline: Highly disciplined
Determined Optimism: Masters believe, despite low odds, they will prevail
Let’s explore each of these traits in turn.
Bill Walsh is arguably the greatest football coach of all time. He was known as a perfectionist and workaholic. He would continuously think about football and ways to improve the teams he coached.
Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement
- Bill Walsh, The Score Takes Care of Itself.
All Kensei understand the criticality of an incredible work ethic.
Kobe Bryant, another master, was famous for having an insane work ethic which he discusses in this video below:
Most professional athletes have an incredible work ethic, but the great ones go even further than their peers:
Elon Musk, who has created the most significant companies of our time and potentially ever in history, states an obvious but often overlooked point:
There are easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours per week.
Famed football coach Chip Kelly puts it this way:
Last time I checked, there is no ‘Hall of Average.’
There will always be people who question the path of difficulty. The drumbeat toward working less, focusing on enjoyment rather than meaning, and forcing their own "work-life balance" choices have never been louder.
Today, it’s even gotten to the point where many people will try to ram their own choices down other people’s throats. The head of HR at another game company told me recently: “You must adopt work-life balance at your company.”
Never let people who choose the path of least resistance steer you away from your chosen path of most resistance.
- David Goggins
Kensei are passionate; they care deeply about their work and craft. These deep emotions drive them to become the best.
See the musician Keshi’s reaction to his fans’ appreciation of his work:
Elon Musk is a man on a mission to save humanity. You better believe he holds powerful emotions about his mission, his work, and his craft:
In the book The Score Takes Care of Itself, San Francisco 49ers assistant coach Mike White described Bill Walsh’s passion and “obsession” with improvement:
Bill forced us to think at a higher level, which was the starting point for getting players to play at a higher level and the organization to operate at a higher level. That was his total focus, like an obsession. All he talked about was improvement.
Kensei focus on details.
Pay attention even to trifles.
- Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings
Note both the attention to detail and the emotion Matt Damon exhibits in trying to create a commercial with another actor:
The OG of details is Steve Jobs. Jobs was famous for perfection and making sure everything in his products delivered an incredible user experience.
Kensei are practical and focus on effectiveness over formality and avoid just the perception of doing things in the right way. Musashi wrote: “Do nothing which is of no use.”
In his battle with Ganryu Sasaki Kojiro known to be one of the best swordsmen of the time, Musashi chose to battle with a boat oar. Scholars have debated this point over the years; however, the swordmaster Hirayama Shiryu-gyozo wrote in his book Discourse on Swordsmanship:
Ganryu Sasaki Kojiro used a sword whose blade measured ninety centimeters in length. It was nicknamed "the clothes-drying pole." Judging that it would be to his disadvantage to use two swords, both of which were shorter than that of his opponent, Musashi asked the boatman to give him an oar, from which he made a large wooden sword. With that he could kill his adversary by smashing his skull. Musashi's talent was this ability to change his means as appropriate for a given adversary.
Kensei focus on practicality, not common wisdom or traditional customs.
Elon Musk suggests likewise using common sense as a guide:
In general, always pick common sense as your guide. If following a ‘company rule’ is obviously ridiculous in a particular situation, such that it would make for a great Dilbert cartoon, then the rule should change.
Finally, Jeff Bezos shares a similar message he wrote in an Amazon shareholder letter. Despite their differences, both Musk and Bezos agree on this philosophy of practicality:
Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you‘re doing the process right. Gulp.
It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing.
It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us?
Mastery is created over a career, not overnight.
As Muhammed Ali once stated:
The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.
As game developers, too many people don't realize that the battle isn't won or lost during the global game launch. Instead, it's won in the years of development leading up to the launch: Every day, every long night, every weekend, every sacrifice made, putting blood, sweat, and tears into the product during development.
As Vince Lombardi suggests:
Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all the time thing. You don’t do things right once in a while…you do them right all the time.
Further, as the master of being badass, David Goggins, once posted on Instagram:
True self-discipline is not for the weak-minded!
In life we make too many excuses- I don’t live near a gym, don’t have the money for a trainer, my hours at work are crazy, I’m traveling too much, the kids schedules are too hectic, etc. The list is endless! Rather than giving yourself a way out, find a way to make “it” happen. There are 24 hours in the day. I can guarantee you that if you were to go through your schedule, you will find time where you can be more efficient and productive. For example, if you are watching tv, during every commercial break, do something! No one cares if you succeed or fail, it’s truly up to you. There are no tricks or shortcuts to any of this, it all comes down to self-discipline. It’s you against your mind. Your mind will always tell you that you don’t have the time. The one thing that we forget is that we are in charge of what we tell our minds, not the other way around!
Kensei believe they will prevail. They believe in a way I call “determined optimism.” This differs from “blind optimism,” in which people hope for the best but without actually doing anything to increase the odds of a successful outcome.
Elon Musk rationally understood that both Tesla and SpaceX likely only had a less than 10% chance of success, yet he bet everything on those companies anyway. Ultimately, he believed in his ability to achieve the results he needed to win.
In his 2008 Wired magazine interview, Musk put it this way, just after 3 failed launches for SpaceX and only having enough money for one more launch:
Wired.com: How do you maintain your optimism?
Musk: Do I sound optimistic?
Wired.com: Yeah, you always do.
Musk: Optimism, pessimism, fuck that; we're going to make it happen. As God as my bloody witness, I'm hell-bent on making it work.
The Modern-day Fantasy
How many today believe they are on a path to mastery yet don’t have the traits I have described?
Today, we live in a world with dreamers who believe that ordinary effort can produce extraordinary mastery and outcomes.
Our society has been teaching a completely twisted fantasy:
“You can be anything you want to be.”
“You will be somebody great; you just need to believe.”
In addition, many push a narrative of somehow achieving greatness without effort:
“People work better and more effectively with work-life balance.”
“You just need to work smart, not hard.”
Is there anyone out there who believes Steph Curry or anyone could do the following practicing 9-to-5?
I’m sure Steph practiced smart, but you better believe he also practiced extremely hard.
Becoming a Kensei
In our world today, the voices advocating for mediocrity scream louder than ever. People live a fantasy of praising masters like Elon Musk while in the next breath proselytizing the “4-hour work week.” This makes no sense.
What is your choice?
Not your delusional fantasy of becoming the best in the world with zero effort and sacrifice, but your actual choice for what you want from your life.
I respect anyone who chooses a life of comfort and “work-life balance,” but in a similar vein, I do hope people appreciate the choice others make on their path, seeking meaning and mastery.
I choose the path seeking the mastery of a Kensei for my life.
Two roads diverged in my career-
I took the one less traveled by, the path of difficulty, and the path towards mastery.
And, for my choice for my life, that has made all the difference.
In conclusion, just my opinion, don’t hate. Let’s be cool with having different views.