Kaizen 改善 The Quest for Improvement

The Japanese term kaizen is made up of two kanji characters 改 (modify, change or search) and善 (goodness or excellence), often translated as to strive for continued improvement or betterment.

If one individual embodies the concept of kaizen it is Japan’s renowned sword master Miyamoto Musashi kamisama, celebrated for his prowess with the blade, extraordinary talents as a calligrapher, artist and master strategist, and single-minded devotion to the pursuit of martial excellence.

“When I reached the age of thirty, I looked back on my past. The previous victories were not due to having mastered strategy. Perhaps it was natural ability or the order of heaven, or that (my opponents) …were inferior. After that, I studied morning, evening and night searching for the principle and only came to realize the ‘way of strategy’ when I was fifty. If I had several lifetimes, my search for perfection would not end.” Musashi, 五輪書 (Go Rin no Sho, second year of Shōhō , 1645).

Rejecting “perfection” as a fixed principle, recognizing the power of transformation and continuing his “search” until his death, Musashi became a beacon of inspiration to generations of budoka.

Fast-forward to the 21st century where we straddle a world of two extremes.

At one end is the illusion of perfection.  What does the “perfect” block, kick, punch or stance look like?  The “perfect” body, job, family, home, car, clothes?  It’s costly in every sense – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually and keeps us from living our best lives. At the other end, everyone’s a winner.  Show-up rather than rise-up, and accept ordinary rather than striving for extraordinary.  It sells us short and can result in a false sense of achievement.

Between the pursuit of perfection and being mired in mediocrity is kaizen which fuels us with clarity and Musashi-like enthusiasm on our quest for improvement:  one of the challenges, joys and arguably, primary objectives of life.

Years ago, a black belt asked, “If perfection is unattainable, why do we pursue it”? While he understood the journey versus destination explanation, it is kaizen and NKS’ Student Creed that provide the best response to this question. What’s your quest?  PERSONAL BEST!

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