Monday, September 13, 2010

Tom Brokaw Would Love Tao of Texas

When I teach my students how to break pinewood boards, I often emphasize the importance of setting an intention – a visualization of their foot or hand going through the board. I remind them that setting an intention is a spiritually powerful exercise that can be applied to any of life’s situations and dilemmas, oftentimes with freakishly effective results.

Today I realize how my own lessons in setting intentions have impacted the school’s bottom line. In the grand scheme of things, if you ask legendary television newscaster Tom Brokaw, it’s a good thing. But it’s sure made for a hard business road less traveled.

Dial back time to October 2005: I’m sitting in a Denny’s restaurant with my partner at about 5 a.m. because neither of us could sleep. While we’re waiting for our breakfast, I grab a napkin and start writing a mission statement for a martial arts school that hasn’t opened yet.

“We are committed to:
• Helping children and adults of all ages and sizes become physically fit through the art of Taekwondo – and thereby become healthier people.
• Helping attention-challenged children learn to focus so that they can succeed in school – and in life.
• Giving at-risk youth powerful, character-rich role models and a place to work out aggression – and thereby build a greater sense of self-worth and respect for others.
• Giving women and children a safe place to learn self-defense – and to feel secure in their home and world.
• Giving everyone – regardless of age, race, gender, beliefs, or lifestyle – the opportunity to gain mental, physical, and spiritual strength, and as a result, make the world a better place.”

Almost five years later, we have accomplished every one of our intentions – including one that I never wrote down: “Making a difference trumps making money.”

This is the one intention that set the biggest tone for the school.

When I opened Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute, I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew why. When my grandmaster decided to close his Taekwondo school, his students looked to me. At the time, I was just a fledgling youth instructor.

“Where are we going now, Ms. Chapaty?” they asked.

So I shrugged, said, “O.K.,” and became a chief instructor. Why? I felt obligated to help them continue their training – and I’m a people pleaser.

My students and I kicked around at a local YMCA for about 18 months before my partner found this little funky double-garage-door space in Central Austin. The building had foundation problems, flooding issues, and NO air conditioning, but it was the most affordable place we could find in a somewhat affluent, easily accessible area.

“It’s perfect (for a school),” she said. So I shrugged, said, “O.K.,” and became a school owner. Why? My students, their parents, my partner, and my friends thought I would make a great school owner. They caught me at a weak, codependent moment. So I signed for a $10,000 start-up loan, poured in all the money I had from my savings account, and gave it a shot.

You may have noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned the desire to own and run a martial arts business.

That’s because I didn’t.

Regardless, my friends and I painted walls, hung sheetrock, attached mirrors to walls, and laid down 1-inch-thick mats over spray-painted concrete floors (the building’s prior tenant was a custom sign shop).

I didn’t have a clue regarding how to run a business, and, honestly, I really didn’t want to know either – which put a lot of pressure on me to figure out how I was going to make this business thingy work without it being too much of a business thingy.

Thankfully, along the way, many offered support. Friends, mentors, and colleagues made suggestions regarding how I could make a buck.

Some of their suggestions were no-brainers. Others felt too confining. While I tried not to be too stubborn (the opposite extreme of perseverance), some suggestions felt like putting on a coat that not only didn’t fit, but itched, and made me look like someone I wasn’t.

One day, I spoke to a martial arts consultant, and I was shocked and appalled at his recommendations that I:

• Charge the market rate of $125 per month for tuition. (Was he comparing my students to "The Day's Catch" at a seafood restaurant?)
• Charge more for rank exams, and charge an increasing amount for each higher rank.
• Hold more frequent exams.
• Let some students test (and pass) even when they’re not quite proficient because they’ll catch up later.
• Charge a monthly fee for locker use.
• Begin a Black Belt Club and charge extra for membership.
• Begin a Leadership League and charge extra for membership.
• Shorten class times and reserve the last 15 minutes of the hour for students who join a Special Training group and … you got it, charge extra for membership.

Overall, his suggestions didn’t feel right in my GUT (my acronym for “God’s Unique Talk), which I rely on heavily to maintain personal integrity.

It wasn’t entirely his fault, though. He was just trying to help me make money. He had no idea – no one knew – that my unspoken, Denny’s-enacted intention put me in direct conflict with running a school that focused solely on maintaining a high profit margin.

Right or wrong, good or bad, I tossed that consultant’s advice out our double garage doors and did it my way, vowing to:

• Not incur new debt (besides the start-up loan), ensuring that the business paid for itself and lived within its means
• Not draw a salary until we had a prudent, three-month emergency reserve of all bills (we haven’t reached that mark yet)
• Continue working at my part-time day job to pay my personal bills until the school could afford me a salary (I'm still working that job)
• Not hold back certain information, lessons, or programs just because students or their parents couldn’t afford to be a part of an added-expense Black Belt Club
• Create a Junior Leaders program and make its membership contingent on whether students put in a required number of volunteer assistant teaching hours rather than paid more money in tuition per month
• Let people pay half-tuition if that’s all they could afford
• Start a scholarship program, and when the coffers occasionally dried up let those students continue to train

One day in Year 3, my partner turned to me and said the obvious: “You’re never going to make any money from this school, are you?”

“Probably not,” I replied.

“I didn’t think so,” she said, and we both nodded our heads in acceptance.

Almost five years later, the start-up loan is paid off and the school is supporting itself. I’m not much more than a penny wealthier from a financial perspective than the day we opened, but I'm FILTHY RICH with students whose personal growth and transformations are valuable beyond monetary measure, such as:

• A kid learning the value of telling the truth
• A brother learning how to be more patient – and thereby having a better relationship – with his annoying little sister
• A parent of an ADHD child breathing a sigh of relief and seeing a ray of hope because her son is finally able to focus on anything for five seconds
• A recovering alcoholic/addict healing from a childhood of violence through the art of safe and controlled sparring
• A woman who has never thought of herself as strong (much less an athlete) doing 100 jumping jacks, 30 sit-ups, and 30 push-ups – and living to tell about it
• A kid who now enjoys going to school because he’s heard often enough to “smile and nod” (what I call Verbal Aikido) when a bully says mean things to him
• A young girl who on her first day of Taekwondo class came in with bangs covering her eyes and head pointing to the floor who now confidently sits back straight, head high as first chair oboe in her high school band

I wouldn’t change the above for the world. Today I know that I’m a gifted youth martial arts instructor with a knack for working with ADD/ADHD populations and that I’ve had a tremendous impact on others.

That's priceless, and that's all I've wanted to do.

Which is why I think Tom Brokaw would like Tao of Texas. He once said: “It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference.”

Here, here!

Brokaw’s words are like a validating, comfortable, warm, and worn coat that feels right wearing. I haven’t been trying to make a buck. I’ve been trying to make a difference, and that’s why running Tao of Texas MAI – where I’ve valued helping people grow mentally, physically, and spiritually more than attaining monetary gain – has been such a financial struggle at times but at the end of the day also a tremendously rewarding experience.

Has the school been a success? By martial arts industry standards: Nope. In the grand spiritual scheme of things: YES. Today, though, it’s pretty obvious that I have no business running a business. I’m terrible at it. I’m miserable in it. Someone else who has less of a problem dealing with the whole “making money in martial arts” should do it – and maybe I should work for them.

I love to teach, so I’m going to let those who dream of owning martial arts schools step in while I return to doing what I love and do best anyway: impacting lives through Taekwondo.

Will I ever negotiate an internal peace treaty between money and mentoring through martial arts in general? I must, if I’m to realize mental, physical, spiritual, and financial balance. Everyone should be compensated for a job well done. That's why today I’m setting a new intention – and this time I’m not hiding it:

I will focus my energies on mentoring others through Taekwondo, and I will be generously compensated (through monetary and spiritual means) for my efforts.

Now that’s a coat that fits me perfectly.

Open-Air, Open Eyes

Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute is an open-air dojang. Although we have a small air conditioner we use occasionally, it doesn’t work very well, so the majority of the time we end up throwing open the garage doors, turning on a gazillion fans, and training till our doboks are drenched.

Open-air training has become rare in most modern martial arts schools (especially in Texas), but it has been a vital element of how we build mental, physical, and spiritual strength and perseverance at Tao of Texas.

First, it helps everyone feel closer to nature. Hot and cold breezes blow in. Leaves slowly and softly drift to the ground in the fall. Tree limbs sway and swish year-round. Birds chirp. It’s all right outside our white, metal garage doors.

Second, we sweat a lot – I mean A LOT – which forces students to hydrate and take care of their bodies. They drink more water, which helps all their organs function at optimum levels. They learn nifty little statistics, such as, "When you're thirsty, you're already 40% dehydrated."

In this age of obesity in America, one might think students training in an open-air dojang in the height of summer IN TEXAS would have yet another excuse not to exercise. On the contrary. I see just the opposite. Summer training presents an odd challenge. A badge of courage and perseverance of sorts. No matter the temperature, there are those who will not buckle. No matter the weather, someone always shows up for class.

Third, when we sweat and tire, it challenges us to remain in the discomfort of the moment, to notice it – but not run away from it (through drugs, alcohol, food, etc.). I’ve learned that discomfort is often a temporary condition, and I tell my students to let it be until it isn’t anymore.

“This, too, shall pass,” I remind them, adding that when things get hard – in Taekwondo as in life – to remember that the only constant in life is change.