In this article, we seek wisdom from the martial arts as we look to the future of finance, investing and capitalism. We argue that in learning about “Sustainable Finance”, progress and mastery can best be realized through a balance of classical and modern styles. The same can be said regarding the tools of finance and economics when thinking about capitalism. The classic tools of modeling businesses using discounted cash flows, can be enhanced by the new analytical tools associated with an understanding of material Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors, which are becoming ever more available today.

In fact, with the evolution of “big data” and standards for corporate disclosures around the factors that matter most, we are getting closer to being able to analyze future economic and profit outcomes based upon ESG realities facing society. To do this though, there is a steep learning curve, and climbing it may be easier if we keep an open mind and embrace “The Mind of the Beginner.”

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The martial arts are split. There are two distinct factions, the Classical and the Modern. Each will claim that their approach is perfect and fits all needs. They are both wrong.

When you imagine the all-white uniforms with the colored belts you are envisioning the Classical style. When you watch people fighting in a cage, you are witnessing the Modern. Classical martial arts, as in all classical arts, is an attempt to precisely reproduce what has come before. Interpretation will come later (much later). Exactness is the goal – and the beauty – of a classical art. For the most part, the Modern martial arts are about pragmatism. What works is kept and what fails is discarded. Which techniques and strategies are kept is based on the specific needs, whether it be sport or self-defense. These two approaches to the martial arts serve different purposes. Beethoven is worth studying, but probably not the best for a kid’s birthday party.

When someone begins their training, whether it be in a Modern or Classical style, the experience is similar. They need just do what they are told. A good teacher has a plan for the depth and breadth of a new student’s lessons. To show them every technique in the book would be overwhelming. So would showing only one technique for hours on end. A balance of the two is best. A single technique without context or complementary techniques makes little sense. For their part, the student himself must remain open and willing to absorb knowledge.

At this point, both Classical and Modern are taught classically. It is not a two-way street. For adult students in any discipline putting down their ego and approaching their new endeavor with an “empty cup” is both difficult and necessary.

As the student progresses, the methods and focus begin to change depending on whether the approach is Classical or Modern. A student of the Classical arts will continue as before. The depth at which they look at their art gets deeper. Their vision can get broader as well, but usually the focus is on mastery of a smaller set of techniques.

Understanding the Goal Ahead

At this point, however, the Modern practitioner will typically become more goal oriented. Is the goal outright competition? Is it weight loss? Is it self-defense? Depending on the answer, the training will differ wildly. Certain elements will be discarded, while others will be expanded on. The student may have an integral role in the decision process. Some techniques may be thrown away entirely even though they are effective for another person simply because they don’t fit the student’s body type. They may be thrown away because the student just doesn’t like them. It is this purging that allows for innovation.

Let us say an average person has an average brain. Equipped with this instrument they can learn X number of techniques and strategies. Some people may be able to remember 20% more, some people 20% less. The classical arts were designed to be full systems. When they get too broad in scope, they tend to get shallow. Most of them evolved to a balance that a normal person can handle. But there isn’t much room for more. This works well. But it does not allow much space for new creation. Look at a Modern approach. You throw out a lot. You have left yourself enough mental hard drive space to add new things. So what do you add? You seek out innovation. You learn from other cutting-edge practitioners. And in their absence, you invent.

As a concrete example, there are certain kicks that are less effective if you are shorter. A Classical art requires you to practice all of the kicks to a similar degree. While attempting this you may discover that some of the kicks that seem ill-suited for you actually have potential. The Modern student will ignore the higher kicks that their shorter legs make difficult. They may focus on low kicks. But with only so many hours in a day, they spend more time perfecting them. They evolve the low kicks into different variations and use them in novel ways. Evolution occurs.

Should someone pursue a Classical art or a Modern one? I think being exposed to both is best. They serve different needs. Classical arts (martial or otherwise) carry with them the benefits of experience.

They are tried and true. The mistakes have already been made and may be avoided. But with these benefits also come the burden of experience. The weight of years of habit can make them less adaptable. Less willing to realize/admit that certain ideas, approaches and techniques may be wrong.

We are as likely to be trapped by our classical routine as we are by being seduced by our fascination with something new. These ideas are not limited to the martial arts. Most human endeavor contains this dichotomy. Either choice may be best for you. The key is knowing what you are choosing.

Matthew Fremon is a fifth-degree black belt with over 20 years of experience in Kenshikai Karate, a traditional Japanese art. He has studied Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and taught full time as the co-owner and head instructor of the Upper West Side Kenshikai for the past 10 years. A central focus with his students is the merging and understanding of both the Classical and Modern martial arts.