Today on CSReview, Joris Merks, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu champion and one of Google’s finest marketers talks about his professional path and his new book Samurai Business.
CS: Welcome to CSReview, Joris. Why did you decide to write Samurai Business?
Joris Merks: End 2011 I did a five minute inspirational speech on Google head quarters in San Francisco before the global marketing team that at that point in time was 800 people strong. I had put on my blue judo suit for the first time in years and talked about what marketers can learn from fighters. I had observed how people in business are often confronted with topics that are so complex that answers are never straight forward. At the same time particularly in big companies it can have huge consequences if you make mistakes. At best you just waste a lot of money. Where some people keep making the right decisions under this combined pressure of complexity and risk, others freeze and dare only make small changes to earlier decisions taking as little risk as possible. Of course that attitude does not get you there in a fast changing world. In fighting you also have simultaneous risk and complexity. You can lose any fight in one second and get injured in the process, yet how you can win is never clear when you start that fight. Launch and iterate is the way to go both in fighting and marketing. Don’t wait until you have guaranteed success, for then others will be faster or you may even never start something fundamentally new. Start as early as possible trusting your skills and judgment will guide you along the way to make the right decisions at the right moment. That five minute speech triggered such great reactions that I had a continuous stream of thoughts after it about important lessons from fighters to help professionals. That resulted in the book Samurai Business with 13 Samurai principles to help professionals focus on what really matters under any kind of pressure in an endless amount of stimuli and possible choices.
CS: How does a jiu-jitsu fighter go from a tatami to a pen and paper? Please share your journey of becoming a writer.
Joris Merks: I started martial arts at the age of six and moved into competitive Judo soon. As I grew older I added Aikido, Jiu-Jitsu, Kobudo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Boxing and Kick Boxing to the list. When I was eighteen years old I started studying Technical Physics and later Science of Communication at university and earned some extra cash being a judo teacher for small kids. The man who was my own teacher (sensei) was also my mentor and a father figure already from the age of twelve. Besides Judo, Aikido, Jiu-jitsu and Kobudo, he taught me a lot of important life lessons. At the age of twenty I was training twice a day and my body felt indestructible. I had many injuries like any competitive fighter but they always healed sufficiently to be able to continue. Then suddenly in judo competition an opponent tried to throw me in a way that dislocated my knee. My cruciate ligament tore and I could immediately feel this was bad. In the ten years following I had five surgeries but the knee never healed in a way that allowed me to continue martial arts. That was devastating for it felt like all skills I trained for over twenty years completely dissolved in one split second. It basically took away my identity at that point in time.
Despite the fact that I could not practice martial arts anymore, I kept meeting my teacher in the weekends doing long walks through the forest talking about matters of life and he showed me that even though my body could not fight anymore, the fighter deep inside me was independent of that. The practice of martial arts, doing competition and all experiences that come along with that have shaped me in a way that will never be lost. After University I started working first in media, than advertising and finally in research for large advertisers about their media, advertising and brands. This led me to my role as Head of Research Benelux for Google. I had been walking around with the idea of writing a story relating martial arts to business already for ten years. I was looking for a great central theme and at the same time needed to build sufficient experience to step back and observe the business world. I had meanwhile started doing a lot of public speaking on the topic of research, advertising and online and offline marketing. That brought me to the idea of submitting my proposal to do the inspirational speech about fighting versus marketing at the Google global marketing meeting in San Francisco. That five minute inspirational speech was the final trigger to start writing down my story.
CS: Everybody has their own demons, some chose to fight them, others – to ignore. You seem to be the first type. What personal change are you most proud of?
Joris Merks: I am very proud that I managed to accept the loss of my ability to fight and managed to reshape my skill set to build success in professional life and even more importantly to succeed in doing work I like with great people around me. I had to completely transform myself for I felt devastated losing my skills and felt lost in office culture in the first years of my career.
CS: Do you believe in no-win scenarios?
Joris Merks: No, especially not when looking from a long term perspective. I only work together with people if I can find common ground, if I can see what they gain from working with me (and vice versa). That is the only way to achieve great things, because great things almost never come easy. If you don’t work with people on a win-win basis you’ll find yourself chasing the people around you all the time as soon as things get hard or complex. While chasing those people and working in that atmosphere, you gradually burn your relationships. In a win-win situation people always stay motivated to make projects a success no matter what happens. If you manage to play a role that helps enable everyone to build the success which keeps them motivated and inspired, you build credits that will help you do even greater things together in the future. Win-win is a strong positive chain reaction just like putting people under pressure too much is a negative chain reaction. I choose the first type.
CS: What do you think is necessary for a successful business model in today’s economic and socio-political reality? Does integrity matter?
Joris Merks: Yes, I believe integrity is the most important source of sustainable success in the 21st digital century. This is the century of transparency and a century of connected individuals which allows people to organize themselves and put pressure that is so strong it can make governments step down. In an era like that you can only build sustainable success by doing what is right for your clients and customers, by adding real value to their lives for a fair price and by improving yourselves in doing that every day. Companies cannot get away with just defending what made them great in the past. Therefore professionals need to feel an intrinsic motivation to keep reinventing themselves every day and that intrinsic motivation comes from the sincere will to serve people around you and be the best person you can be. This is what I would call integrity.
CS: Do you have regrets?
Joris Merks: That is a hard question that I have tried to answer in my final chapter of the book. I asked myself whether I would have made different choices had I known the consequences of my permanent injuries and the daily pain they cause. I realized the only way not to have these injuries would have been to not do martial arts on competitive level, which also would mean I never would have known my great teacher and would have missed all great moments, insights and friendship together with him. I would not carry the same experience in my professional life. Of course I don’t know what I would have had instead both in terms of gain and loss. If there is any regret I think it is the fact that I could have listened better to my body, give it better treatment in case of injury and get more rest in general. I try to do this now in my work. I have learnt that working under continuous pressure wears you out in a way that takes the freshness out of the things you do and the thoughts you have. It also decreases the quality of your cooperation with people and of course the balance with your private life. I think I can balance focus and calmness better under pressure due to this tough experience and that again positively affects people working and living around me.
CS: Where do you see yourself in five years from now?
Joris Merks: Five years is hard to say. I have done a lot of public speaking in the past three years both about lessons from fighters for professionals and about the topic of online and offline marketing and research which are my areas of professional expertise. I wrote books on both topics and have more in the making. The combination of speaking, writing and consulting could shape my future five years from now. At the same time I enjoy my work for Google a lot and I still see many unique things I can do there. I would not be surprised if I still enjoy my career at Google five years from now. I have developed myself to be at the intersection of research with advertising, brands and marketing. I specialize in quantifying human emotions, behaviors and thoughts and then bringing those to life again for people who are not used to working with research or data. I help making data useful and understandable so better decisions can be made. I feel there is still a lot I can do there and maybe those two paths can even compliment each other. I see a lot of possibilities.
CS: Thank you for a wonderful story, Joris. Wishing you a great journey and looking forward to more of your inspirational speeches!
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