The Takeaway: The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi

Let’s start with a point of clarification. This is the book written by Miyamoto Musashi (translation by William Scott Wilson). There is another great book entitled ‘Musashi’ written by Eiji Yoshikawa which is a fictionalised book about Musashi.

Musashi was a Japanese swordsman in the 17th Century. Reputedly undefeated in 61 duels he became famous for a developing a two sword fighting style called Niten Ichi-ryū. The Book of Five Rings was written with the intention of passing on the philosophy of this style to his students after his death.

The relevance of this book extends far beyond martial artists. It is a book about strategy. Musashi is probably most famous for the quote “If you know the Way broadly, you will see it in all things”. It’s a quote I like a lot, but I’m going to diverge from this and focus on another important takeaway from the book.

The true Way of the Martial Arts is to train so that these skills are useful at any time, and to teach these skills so that they will be useful in all things. – Miyamoto Musashi

‘Training’ is a constant theme throughout the book. Don’t worry about the Martial Arts component. If you want to improve, you need to drill. Repetition is your best friend. The more you do something, the easier it becomes.

It’s remarkable how often we overlook the simplicity of drilling. Pull-ups are a mainstay in my training and last year I hit a plateau that was causing a lot of frustration. I decided the best way to push through was to start doing supplementary exercises that would strengthen the supporting muscles used in a pull-up. I was doing all kinds of movements until I heard Jocko Willink say “to get better at pull-ups, do pull-ups.” Good advice indeed.

The benefits of drilling extend beyond the physical domain. Repetition is just as important for cognitive performance. We learn by establishing neurological pathways that become stronger through use. We can also unlearn maladaptive behaviours through drilling. There is a common psychological therapy called systematic desensitisation which does exactly this. Patients with phobias are treated by ever increasing exposure to their source of fear. Through repeated exposure, the fear eventually diminishes.

As a student, you should practice without end. – Miyamoto Musashi

Adopting the mindset of the student will give you humility. Mastery is just a concept, it’s not an end state. What you do day in, day out determines whether you’ll meet your goals.