On the Martial Artist

It is not always clear, but training doesn't end in the training hall or the day you retire your belt.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

I often call myself a "martial artist," but upon some self-reflection I had to think about what it is I mean by this term. The more it gets thrown around without thought, the more meaningless it becomes. "I love my family," uses the same term as, "I love this pizza." It means different things in different contexts, in different countries, and different time periods. So what exactly is a "martial artist"?

To begin, I decided to ask the most philosophical and witty martial artist that I know, Renzo Gracie. A true mixed martial arts pioneer and a member of the legendary Gracie clan. He makes you think, laugh, or both. So I decided to send him my philosophical question about what a martial artist is. He sent this back:

A super hero without a cape and funny tight clothes ;-)
— Renzo Gracie.

At first, it seemed funny and nothing more; as I posed this question to others, the more meaningful Renzo's response became. There was a clear pattern, everyone's answers were nuanced based on their life and their background. Bruce Wayne influenced Batman just as much as Batman influenced Bruce Wayne, to use the Renzo analogy.

I asked over 20 martial artists, ranging from Silicon Valley, Wall Street, to Hollywood, and everything in between: what is a martial artist? What I learned is that, some get good at martial arts, and some get good at getting good.

On What Being A Martial Artist Means...

David Allen is a world famous productivity consultant, executive coach, speaker, writer, and the New York Times Bestselling author of Getting Things Done.

Successful overcoming.
— David Allen

Chatri Sityodtong is a self-made millionaire, business leader, global investor, philanthropist, and motivational speaker. As a fighter, he has over 30 professional fights. As a coach, he has trained several world champions and was named one of the top combat coaches in the world by MSN sport. At Harvard Business School, he subsisted on $4 a day when his family lost everything during the Asian financial crisis. He went on to become a startup founder, hedge fund manager, and chairman of ONE Championship and Evolve MMA. Chatri serves on the board of directors for Project Sunshine, one of the largest volunteer organizations in the world for terminally-ill children. He is also active with Boys Town Home and Singapore Children's Society.

A martial artist is someone who possesses a relentless desire to unleash their greatness upon the world through the warrior’s quest of continual self-improvement. A martial artist is someone who is ready to conquer their fears, doubts, and insecurities in the pursuit of evolving into the best person they can be. A martial artist is someone who is willing to do what it takes to transcend circumstances, to overcome hardship, and to defy odds with nothing, but an unbreakable warrior spirit. In conquering ourselves we can give to the world more than we receive.
— Chatri Sityodtong

Dr. Terry Wahls is a clinical professor, staff physician, and a multiple sclerosis patient. Confined to a wheelchair for four years; she created the Wahls Protocol™ and restored much of her health, now pedaling her bike five miles to work each day. Her TEDx talk has received over 2 million views, and her book, The Wahls Protocol, has revolutionized how people think of autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders.

I loved doing taekwondo when I was in my twenties. For me it was an excellent venue for cultivating my mental, physical, and emotional strength. Now after 40 years of multiple sclerosis, how I practice martial arts has radically changed. Now instead of teaching my martial arts class, I am teaching the public about the critical role of diet and exercise in creating health and vitality. My followers are Wahls Warriors — a harkening back to my time as an active martial artist. We as a nation are sliding into deeper levels of inactivity, diets that are more and more devoid of vegetables and berries, and a lack of social and family connections. Learning how to be a martial artist is a powerful intervention in the battle to restore health and vitality. It is time for us to become warriors to reclaim lives of vitality with bodies that are once again strong. Diet and movement together make us the strongest.
— Dr. Terry Wahls

Russ Simmons is the co-founder of Yelp and is a member of the "PayPal Mafia," the founders and early employees of PayPal. Members have gone on to start YouTube, Tesla Motors, SpaceX, LinkedIn, Yelp, and Kiva (several members also early invested in Facebook). Alumni include Peter Thiel, Elon Musk. Chad Hurley, and Reid Hoffman. Years ago, I was living out of my car and training martial arts around the country. Russ heard about my wild plan and let me crash on his couch for a part of the journey.

I certainly don’t feel qualified to define such a thing, but I started thinking about martial arts in comparisons to other sports or activities. And say, lots of activities involve discipline, or perseverance, or whatever, that’s not unique. But I think that physical fighting might be unique in how many deep parts of your brain it taps into. Stuff like climbing or extreme sports tap into primal fears and such. But fighting seems to even further — because it taps into primal fears of injury, plus deep ego/ ‘domination’ type stuff — because you are struggling against another person. So I think that because it taps into these primal emotional areas, it demands more from a person. You need to confront fear of literally getting your ass kicked, and it also demands things like empathy for your training partner or opponent (hopefully). So it seems like a true martial artist would be someone who could excel in all those dimensions gracefully. Compared to just ‘fighting’, there is something to treating the activity as an art to be cultivated. But say with BJJ, the initial hook is that it’s intellectually fascinating and sort of — surprising/ interesting because a lot of the techniques are super effective but counterintuitive. But then without even thinking about it, I think there is also this feeling of it being deeply demanding/ challenging in a way that other things are not. I don’t tend to explicitly think of self-cultivation but on a subconscious level I think one can feel oneself being forced to grow in many ways.
— Russ Simmons

Rubens "Cobrinha" Charles is a former baker who gave up his apron to become one of the most decorated and winningest competitors in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and submission grappling. As a teacher, he has coached world champions in grappling and MMA. He runs Cobrinha BJJ where I am fortunate enough to be one of his students.

The martial artist is more than a fighter and athlete. What I have been learning in martial arts is discipline. A person with a disciplined mind and body is more likely to get things done in an efficient manner. We learn how to be disciplined and it translates really well to our everyday life — to get the ‘gold medal’ in life, business, and relationships with others.
— Rubens Charles "Cobrinha" Maciel

Lisa Maki is the CEO and co-founder of PokitDok, a cloud-based API platform designed to make healthcare transactions more efficient and streamline the business of health. A Stanford grad and former Microsoft employee, Lisa hit on the idea while recovering from a spinal injury. After six frustrating months, Lisa found an experimental treatment and is now pain-free. She's determined to revolutionize healthcare.

My first response is it’s a path of self-knowledge and acceptance. I have a similar view of startups and any other pursuit, such as art or music, that requires a full surrender and commitment of ‘self’ as the price of mastery. Each requires endless hours of training and study, each has a different expression, set of skills and test of courage. Each requires precise observation of the world around us. Each requires sacrifice and assimilation to the process, which is why these are the only ‘jobs’ or pursuits where you are called by the name of the practice: a martial artist, a musician, an entrepreneur.

When I read writings by founders of the martial arts, most counsel to avoid fighting at all costs, but if you must fight, destroy your enemy. I didn’t understand this at first — why wouldn’t they counsel to fight just enough to get away? But, now I think I understand it this way: not fighting in a world that is often complex and adversarial requires creativity, ingenuity, judgment, self-control, and courage — but perhaps most importantly it requires building empathy and understanding through connection — a connection to yourself, your surroundings, your community and even your opponent. As a martial artist, you will do everything possible to avoid fighting because it puts all of that at risk. The only reason to fight, and why it requires the ultimate commitment, is when the point is reached where everything you love and are responsible to is at risk. There is no in between, the rest is just training.
— Lisa Maki

Sean Patrick Flanery is an American actor, known for The Boondock Saints, Dexter, Suicide Kings, The Dead Zone, Powder, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, as well as Saw 3D. He has studied martial arts since childhood, is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and owns Hollywood BJJ. He is also also one of the most influential teachers I've had in martial arts. It was only after several months of training with him that I learned that he was a well-known actor. He embodied: martial artist first, everything else second.

A fighter’s only requirement to achieving the title of ‘fighter’ is to fight. And that title can be achieved in a single day. There is no technical prerequisite to becoming a fighter — just the willingness to go to blows. The martial artist, however, knows every aspect of conflict — from avoidance all the way to extreme violence. And their skill is nuanced with a temperance for peace if at all possible, but backed with the ability to NOT have that same temperance in the blink of an eye should the need arise.
— Sean Patrick Flanery

Robb Wolf, a former research biochemist, is the New York Times Bestselling author of The Paleo Solution. He has a top ranked iTunes podcast, helped to pioneer CrossFit, and is one of the most recognized names in the health industry — having been featured in countless TV shows and articles.

I just love movement, and ‘martial’ activities seem to be some of the most demanding, technical things humans can do. I’ve tried meditation and some other attempts at ‘flow’ states but have been largely unsuccessful in those areas, whereas rolling, doing long bow archery, or hunting are all immediate, long lasting flow-states, for me anyway. The fact Brazilian jiu-jitsu and other activities keep me in shape and offer some degree of self-defense is a bonus, but really secondary to the mental engagement and joy these processes bring to me.
— Robb Wolf

Dr. Mark Cheng is a Chinese orthopedic medicine specialist, acupuncturist, teacher, Sr SFG kettlebell instructor, and FMS faculty. He is a researcher in the fields of pain/ injury rehabilitation & athlete pre-habilitation, and martial arts anthropology.

The hunt for economic viability has allowed some martial arts schools to pander to extremes that don’t reflect the wholeness of martial art. On one hand, those who want to be philosophers and exercise with movements resembling the trappings of combat, have been able to open schools and build global associations using the term ‘martial arts.’ On the other hand, there are those who’ve built successful gyms that are little more than gladiator-style factories that also use the term ‘martial arts’ in their descriptions and marketing. While the careless will tend to be dismissive about the importance of word choice and downplay the semantic significance, a traditionalist will draw a careful distinction between combat training and ‘martial’ ‘art.’ If combat efficacy is the be-all, end-all, then creation of a human attack dog is all we need be satisfied with. If philosophically-based movements without simulating the requirements of real-world combat efficacy is the goal, then ballet may as well also be considered martial art. For a system or school of thought to be both ‘martial’ and ‘art’ in the East Asian sense, it requires the seamless combination of these 3 things into a well-rounded whole:

1) Combat efficacy - martial (external)
2) Restorative/ longevity development - martial (internal)
3) Logical and ethical education - art

Because of xenophobic reactions of the community and the fear of offending the religious majority, most of the cultural/ ethical/ moral messages traditionally inherent to East Asian martial arts had to be downplayed or edited out altogether for mainstream Western consumption, especially in the US. The irritation and resistance expressed by many Westerners about merely bowing before entering and exiting the training area alone is case in point. As a result, many practitioners of these similar fields are unable to differentiate the discriminate pursuits that they’re involved in, lumping them all into the same umbrella term.
— Dr. Mark Cheng

Terrence Chan is a professional poker player and mixed martial artist. He has won the WCOOP and SCOOP poker titles, as well as being successful in WSOP. He also blogs about life from the perspective of a gambler, fighter, game theorist, and probability genius.

We fight for territory, for possessions, for status, and for myriad other reasons. But as apes go, we are remarkably intelligent — capable of reason, cognition, and self-awareness. To me, the martial arts are a natural synthesis of our intelligence and ability to strategize, combined with our primal instincts towards violence and domination. The modern day martial artist is a paradox. Every day he attempts to perfect his chosen technique of violence. And yet what is truly amazing — and beautiful — is that as the martial artist gets more and more effective at performing violence, the most valuable lessons he learns are those of camaraderie, empathy, humility, control of one’s ego, and mastery of one’s body. Through the perfection of violence, he learns about peace.
— Terrence Chen

Lawrence Kenshin is a fight analyst, writer, and martial arts historian. In my opinion, he is one of the best minds in combat sports and has elevated fight analysis with a mixture of history, science, and context.

My ideal martial artist is based on the virtues and values required to excel in the arts. Patience, passion, respect, resilience, sacrifice, continuous improvement, and a healthy ego. In my opinion, a martial artist that’s achieved excellence will have transferred over all the traits that allowed them to excel, and in that regard, a martial artist is a good human being and someone that can be looked up to. But in a world where meaningless violence can be glorified and machismo is often respected and sensationalized, martial artists are not a dominant breed. Martial artists are heroes, and right now we could really use some more heroes in combat sports. I can’t emphasize the respect element more: the part that makes me the most cynical about combat sports is how so many people just can’t get along. It’s filled with people trying to tear each other down rather than elevate each other. If we spent half as much time elevating each other, behaving as a martial artist, combat sports would be the most celebrated sport in the world today.
— Lawrence Kenshin

Nicolas Gregoriades is an online personality, broadcaster, writer, life-hacker, teacher, speaker, and the first black belt under multiple time world champion Roger Gracie. He is the head of the Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood and co-host of The Journey Podcast.

A martial artist is an individual who expresses himself by engaging in controlled combat scenarios. He is dedicated to the improvement of his body, mind, and spirit through life-long training. This training is characterized by the interplay between discipline, continual evolution, and most importantly, playfulness.
— Nicolas Gregoriades

Professor Alan Yuille received his degree in mathematics from the University of Cambridge, and his PhD in theoretical physics was supervised by Professor Stephen Hawking. He has taught at MIT, Harvard, and UCLA. His research interests include computational models of vision, mathematical models of cognition, artificial intelligence, and neural networks.

I like the physical side — the training and the control you get over your body. Also the discipline. This is fairly similar to what you get if you train for other sports — I did a lot of training for squash and there was similar attention to detail (although not to the same degree). But the main difference with other sports is the visceral nature of martial arts. There is something very basic about fighting (all children do it). It is also a test of courage. Other sports can be really competitive — in squash you are often trying to exhaust your opponent in the hope he will give up — but fighting takes this to another level. Also in fighting you are much closer to you opponent — right in their personal space.
— Professor Alan Yuille


Tom Callos is a successful martial arts entrepreneur who now helps other martial artists run a better business with integrity. As a humanitarian, he is involved with homebuilding for the underserved, peace education, health programs, community outreach, and many others. He also happens to be former UFC champion BJ Penn's first instructor, and father to submission champion Keenan Cornelius.

I remember my mother crying in front of our black and white television as a riderless horse was led by a soldier in a funeral procession, the absent rider’s boots turned backwards in the stirrups. That was for our assassinated President, John F. Kennedy. I remember Walter Cronkite discussing the body count for the day in Vietnam and I remember, like I just saw it yesterday, the image of that little Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, just 9 years old, as she ran down a road in Vietnam screaming, naked and burned from Napalm. I remember the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the first moon landing, being taught to ‘duck and cover’ in case we were attacked by nuclear weapons, and I remember the rapid decline of my father’s health as he died from colon cancer at age 63. He died in my arms, the same arms that cradled my youngest daughter, the same arms that held and comforted my other three children. I recall great successes and times when I blundered like any fool does. With all that I’ve mentioned and oft forgotten anyway, I have come to realize that my ‘martial arts’ experiences are my ‘life experiences’ — and with this in mind when I say ‘martial arts,’ I’m really thinking ‘life.’ I am not seeking to be great at the martial arts, as that’s one hell of an easy task when compared to living in the here and now. Now, whenever I say or think ‘martial artist,’ I think to myself: ‘human being’ I’ve seen too many great martial artists who failed to do the really hard work, which I believe is found not in being an ass kicker but in being a deeply and truly compassionate, engaged, cognizant, and participative human being. I have come to realize that my life is my dojo.
— Tom Callos

Hywel Teague is a photographer, filmmaker, journalist, documentarian, and is the creator of BJJ Hacks.

Initially I was attracted to martial arts such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu because of their practicality, but with study and practice, I realized I was in love with the creative play and endless discovery that they had to offer. Creativity is an integral part of my life. I search for it, look to channel and focus it, and ultimately everything I do in my professional life hinges on my ability to be creative. A martial art like Brazilian jiu-jitsu gives me many tools to play with, and I am an artist every time I train. My opponent is the canvas, my techniques are the materials with which to work. Every roll is performance art: movement and expression in physical space. But it is art versus art; my art against his. Two artists must face each other in a test of whose creativity and skill is better. This process is an accelerator for my own art, as I am required to develop my own with which to vanquish another’s. I train because it is another way for me to indulge and explore an art form — one that is less forgiving than others — and because it satisfies that desire within me to create.
— Hywel Teague

Rony Sellam is the CEO of InsideTracker, a company that analyzes health through a series of biomarkers. As science evolves, so does the model they use to analyze and optimize the health of their clients. It's a service that's revolutionizing self-tracking and quantifying.

I have never thought of a martial artist as a fighter. Or perhaps I did before I started karate. A martial artist in my mind is someone who abides by a strict discipline that leads to an optimized mind and body, and feels the responsibility to be a force for good, starting with himself and spilling over to others.
— Rony Sellam

Paul Moran is a school psychologist, jiu-jitsu coach, and cancer survivor. He is also the creator of Open Mat Radio, co-host of The Journey Podcast, and co-founder of Moran Equestrian.

Being a martial artist means you are on a path of personal development. This includes self-defense on a physical/ technical level and also on a more global scale. A real martial artist works to protect themselves by eating right, caring for the environment, and understanding that our communities are interconnected. If we would stop someone from attacking a person in front of us, shouldn’t we do the same if it’s happening across the street? Across the state? Across the planet?
— Paul Moran

Marlon Ransom is currently working on a documentary about his son's battle with a deadly kidney illness. He is a serial entrepreneur, business consultant, speech writer, and law student. He also manages the DDP YOGA workshops and sponsored athletes program.

Someone who seeks a balance between the physical, emotional, and spiritual. That aforementioned balance sets them apart from everyday people, as I am referencing a much higher state of consciousness that allows them to be in control and at peace in every sense of the word. A true martial artist strives to be humble, remains in a constant state of learning, remains in the present, and has a deep-seated desire to share their knowledge with others.
— Marlon Ransom

Chrissy Polcino is a health blogger, web developer, entrepreneur, and lifelong learner. She loves the wonders of the universe and everything coconut.

As a woman, self defense may have been a factor. But I think that as time went on, health was becoming the bigger focus — both mental and physical. And I think eventually, I was surprised to learn that actually, mental had to precede physical. Martial arts is balance. It’s neither excess nor deficiency It’s both teacher and student, hard and soft, all at the same time.
— Chrissy Polcino

Kamal Ahmed works with at-risk youths as a meditation instructor and therapist-in-training. Currently working towards his MA in counseling psychology, he is involved in expanding the mental health field for people of color. He hopes to someday open a private practice as a licensed clinical therapist.

A martial artist, like other masters in their respective fields, is someone who strives for perfection in his craft knowing that he will never become perfect. This doesn’t only pertain to the craft but to other areas in life as well. Martial artists think before they move. The martial artist’s limbs are controlled by his mind and not vice versa. In times of crisis, he responds instead of reacts.
— Kamal Ahmed

Brian Herskowitz, currently in his late 50s, still actively competes in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, holding world titles in both arts. He is a screenwriter, producer, director, author, business consultant, teacher, and film financier. Brian was there for my first judo class, and twelve years later, there he still is...

There are two basic mantras that I think represents the martial arts to me. First, civilize the mind, but make savage the body — and the other is the perfection of the mind and body for the benefit of all mankind. The martial arts should go beyond the technical and physical. The confidence and craft of the fighting arts allows the true martial artist to NOT fight. To me that’s the essence of martial arts.
— Brian Herskowitz

David Penn is a tech blogger, specializing in financial technology. He is also a black belt instructor in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

It is a strange thing to be a martial artist in the 21st century. In a world that is increasingly digital, increasingly technological, increasingly human-agnostic, there is nothing more human than the pursuit of excellence in martial arts. After all, we don’t seek out martial arts mastery to defend ourselves against packs of wolves. We learn essentially to help defend ourselves from each other. This opens up the path for the unique compassion of the martial artist, the sort of compassion you see in grappling competitions when the victor shows his vanquished opponent just how the winning submission was applied. It is an extension of the necessary trust of martial arts training, a faith in the artistic essence of the martial artist. It is worth pointing out that it is pretty good to be in a culture that is able to express martial arts, this ‘artistic essence,’ as sport. I agree with much of the criticism over the dominance of the ‘sportive’ and ‘athletic’ aspects of martial arts. But I am glad that as many of the new students I see come to class eager to learn a martial art for its own sake, to help get in touch with a better version of themselves, as come out of a fear of needing to protect themselves against physical harm.

I first began training martial arts as a scrawny 12-year-old terrified of being bullied. And as someone who hasn’t grown much bigger — or been in a street fight — since then, it has been awesome to spend the past nine and half years devoted to a martial art that allows me to expand my capacity for both self-defense and self-expression with my fellow humans through the admittedly gentle violence of my choosing.
— David Penn

Why Did I Do This

It is not always clear, but training doesn't end in the training hall or the day you retire your belt. You take it with you, wherever you go, in whatever you do. It's not only about the physical practice but about the mental and attitudinal changes that the practice brings.

Martial art isn't just stylized violence, though that's what many of us (even modern martial artists) have come to believe. Then it is no wonder that many believe it to be a waste of time, just as many believe the humanities to be a waste of time, since they cannot see any practical day-to-day usage. We seek utility when some of the most important things cannot be quantified under those terms. The humanities may not make immediate sense when we think of income potential, yet that is not the only purpose of college, for college was also intended to help people lead better lives, become better thinkers, and better citizens. Rather than specialized knowledge, the humanities gives one diversity — where a graduate can be good in many fields, in a broad spectrum.

That is, or perhaps was, the martial artist — one who was capable of being good at many things. One might argue that the purpose of the martial arts were always militaristic, yet the most highly trained military operatives say, they aren't trained for killing, they are trained to have an ability to get good at anything that is necessary of them. The militaristic definition still tracks back to generalized preparedness — any situation, one must be prepared, especially when that situation is peace. (One only needs to look at the military leader Marcus Aurelius — or for the pragmatist, perhaps the number of Navy SEALs who have successfully transitioned to entrepreneurship is more inspiring.) It is hard to define what the martial artist is now, we can, however, give examples of the potential of a martial artist.

We are transitioning to an age where there are more cyber attacks than physical ones, wars are fought with buttons, and achievement through income is the new religion. Then the career path of the martial artist is not so obvious. Yet the purpose is not to win fights, but to successfully overcome. The martial artist must evolve or perish.

Many people self-impose limits on themselves; they create a self-identity and only do those things related to that identity. If they are a "jock," they only pursue physical activities. If they are a "brain," only mental/ career pursuits. If they are "spiritual," they only meditate or focus on church. Professor Alan Yuille (who researches the brain) told me, he doesn't understand the mentality: nerds are nerds and jocks are jocks. He said it always made the most sense to try to be good at many things. "That's what is actually best for the brain," he said. People fear being good at one will hurt the other, when in fact being good at one helps the other. For every contributor to this article, there is no separation between the pursuits of the physical, mental, spiritual, and career. And there shouldn't be. A martial artist's identity is to seamlessly pursue it all without conflict.


At first, I was amazed by the amount of responses — but maybe I shouldn't be; martial artists help the world. There is a lot said about the mental aspects, the cognitive aspects, novel connections, and that martial arts have limitless applications that go beyond the training hall. Many of us have spent more time training martial arts than many have spent pursuing higher education. It would be an extraordinary waste of time if the only application for martial arts training was limited to only that activity, just as college would be a waste of time if it had no application outside of college. And there isn't, unless we find applications for that knowledge. That's on us.



Many of the contributors to this article may argue that martial arts has served their lives better than formal education, or perhaps they may argue formal education and every other aspect of their lives got easier after their courage was constantly tested on the mats. From their backgrounds, it's apparent that there are a lot of things they are good at, and they are always looking to learn more. That may be the common theme: lifelong learning, then applying that knowledge to give back — or as Tom Callos puts it, "Out of the dojo, into the world."

You don't have to physically train to adopt these principles. Many leaders incorporate these principles without ever having stepped on the mats. It is worthy to note how many of the people interviewed try to live the superhero's life. Or perhaps they see the martial artist as a much needed hero. (The point Renzo Gracie made.) In a far gone era, that's exactly what they were.