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An Artist’s Heart vs. a Head for Business

For years I have struggled with navigating the very thin line between operating and maintaining a traditional Martial Arts school vs. trying to be successful in business. The practice and teaching of Aikido is my full-time profession and livelihood, but it is first and foremost my life’s work and my art. Pondering the necessary measures to balance art and business seems often paradoxical and the solutions continue to elude me.

The other day a student walked up to me with some cash in hand and said, “Here you go Sensei.” Puzzled, I asked what it was for. They replied, “Oh, for that uniform I took the other day.” Ah, okay I thought, “Thanks.” This sort of thing actually happens to me quite often, I get handed some money for a “borrowed” uniform or a bokken, or some dues that were overdue. Thankfully, I have honest students that for the most part are keeping their promises and are ever-mindful of their obligations to the dojo. But after interactions such as the one mentioned above, I can’t help but be reminded that I have never been very good at business.

I believe that most of my policies and practices would be scoffed at by most business-minded people; if someone is in need of something like a uniform but doesn’t have the money, I provide it. If a student’s personal situation changes and they are no longer able to pay dues, I make some financial arrangement or sometimes even suspend their dues altogether until they are back on their feet. And unfortunately, I don’t seem to be very good at bending my traditional ideals to fit the mold of the more mainstream business practices that are so popular with modern schools.

And so here I am with probably the silliest business model in the world; run the school never as a business first, but instead as a duty. My business plan, to make sure that the school is always properly cared for and never in jeopardy so that the students will always have a place to train and grow. Of course, a model such as this usually means that the owner is quite poor, even starving as we know many artists to be, but though my pockets may be empty, my heart remains full.

I would like to extend a heartfelt blessing to all who dedicate their lives to artistic pursuits. May you find joy in the struggle and sustenance in your practice.

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