“How I use martial arts to prevent burnout” With Josephine Fan

…I continue training in the martial art that I love. While I have cut down my practice from every day to once or twice a week after having kids, it’s still very important for me that I keep up with it. I started Aikido because the doctor recommended I pick up some sort of exercise […]

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…I continue training in the martial art that I love. While I have cut down my practice from every day to once or twice a week after having kids, it’s still very important for me that I keep up with it. I started Aikido because the doctor recommended I pick up some sort of exercise or physical activity, due to having high cholesterol, and I know it’s important to keep the body fit and healthy. We only get a single body (until brain transplants become a thing anyway), and I don’t want to neglect it. It’s great for exercise, choreography, and stuntwork with the big flashy throws and falls, so there’s a lot of aerobics involved. I probably focus less on the philosophical aspect than most do, but it also holds principles of harmony and the blending of opposing forces.

At times it feels like wellness or elevating one’s wellbeing, is diametrically opposed to high achievement and high performance in one’s career. The stress, mental energy, long hours, lack of restful sleep, preoccupation that result from a high-achievement life seem to directly inhibit wellness. And yet, in order to sustain the creativity, flexibility, mental acuity and resilience that are necessary for high performance, wellness and wellbeing of the mind, body and soul are also mandatory. So how do we achieve both? This is the question I’m hoping to answer through conversations with high-achieving women who have gleaned and are practicing their own philosophies on maintaining their wellbeing. 

As a part of this series about what successful women leaders do to thrive, both personally and professionally, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josephine Fan. Josephine is the owner and operator of J. Fan Holdings LLC, a real estate investment company that holds income producing properties. She also owns and runs the Long Island Aikikai with her husband, Adam Pilipshen. The school is one of the oldest and longest running Aikido dojo in the country, located in Bay Shore, New York, offering instruction in the traditional Japanese martial arts of Aikido and Iaido.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path and to where you are today?

Thank you for having me! I just hit my 30’s this year but it already feels like a lifetime since I started etching out my career path. First, I have to give my parents all the credit to raising me in becoming who I am today and for giving me such diverse interests in business and entrepreneurship. My father has done/does everything from serving in the Taiwanese merchant marines, to being a consultant for Bloomberg LP, to developing one of the earliest stock trading software, to opening his own computer company, to being a partner in a shipping company in Asia, to owning several teak farms in Costa Rica and is now in the process of building a mall there, among other things — so business runs deep in my blood. They always pushed me to try, to nurture my inquisitiveness and creativity, to use my accomplishments as benchmarks to measure and positively reinforce my own success. My parents also, from a very young age, included us in conversations about their finances and their work, and often narrated their lines of thinking and rationale to us for business decisions in an age appropriate manner.

Their unique method of parenting also included allowing us to stay up as long as we’d like, as long as we were reading, so books were a huge part of our childhood — a mix of fantastical fiction (courtesy of my mom who was a writer and a journalist), and science and business (at the behest of my father.) Every so often I’d come home to a new book on my bed about finances, accounting, real estate, investments, human behavior, and of course gift cards to Barnes and Nobles where I could pick out some more lighthearted reading.

With this background, I started running the Aikido dojo, which is a predominantly male oriented niche, because my husband was teaching it and I had joined the school. Then it’s a tale as old as time — girl throws boy into wall, boy falls madly in love, and they lived happily ever after. (Just kidding, although I guess we do throw each other around more than the average couple.) Actually, it had to do with the fact that at the time my husband was running the school for the most part on his own, and I started helping out. He had a good grasp on the technical and administrative portions, but was severely lacking in the management and marketing aspects and bringing a martial art steeped in tradition to the 21st century. Aikido has been on the decline in the last few years in the US, due to a mix of socioeconomic factors of the population, a lack of market understanding, and a reluctance for change. I began implementing updates in our school to address these issues and have slowly been turning our ship around.

Comparatively the real estate portion is boring — at the time, the Aikido school we were running was renting a space about a third of the size of what we have now for double what a mortgage could have been. It made very little sense to continue renting, and since we were engaged and I had some money leftover in my college fund, I decided to put it into the down payment for a permanent practice space for the Long Island Aikikai. I knew a fair bit about real estate investments since my parents always had rental properties, but it was the first time I set out to invest in one of my own. The price was great, even though the building was a gut job, and I learned a lot about construction since I worked beside my husband and our students as we renovated a lot of it ourselves. It’s why I know how to tile and grout, lay wood flooring, tape, spackle, and paint. It’s mixed use, so we have two other tenants along with our school in that building.

Then I started investing in other properties, and now also own a 4 unit apartment building in the same town, and have plans to make another investment in the next year.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Hm. Interesting good or interesting bad? There are a couple that come to mind. There was the time we swore the dojo building was haunted because we and several other people would hear footsteps and voices when there would be no one else around, or things would random fall off shelves and lights would flicker. Students would come and ask us about people they reportedly saw that don’t exist (although I guess I can’t be certain there wasn’t a secret squatter hiding in the cellar.) That wasn’t very fun and it was terrifying for while… even though I don’t believe in ghosts.

Maybe it might only be interesting to someone in the trade, but the building is over 125 years old and still had knob and tube for electricity. When we updated the system, our electrician said in all his years of working, he’s only seen it one other time, which made it an interesting relic from the past.

Then there was also the time I walked in on my husband and our live-in student sword-fighting with two mummified squirrels they found in the attic… I had to lecture them about germs and the bubonic plague….

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

I deliberately drove my car off the front lawn of the dojo building and it got stuck. I was trying to get it out of the snow so we could pick up some equipment to shovel the parking lot after a huge snowstorm, and I learned that some ideas are best left untested, and a snow day for the school isn’t a bad idea once in a while. Especially since my husband nearly died from laughing as he watched me attempt it from the window, since he was the one who told me it wouldn’t work.

This next one is only funny in hindsight, but for one of the first units I rented out, I had a tenant tell me he couldn’t pay rent one month because his aunt died. Then the next month it was his grandfather. Then the month after it was his dog. You would think I’d have caught on by the 2nd time, but I was very green and had a soft spot for sob stories. When they moved out, I couldn’t figure out some of the things that were left — why was there an opened NUVA Ring in the fridge? Is that how you’re supposed to store those types of contraeptives? Was it used (and if so, did they not think that was gross?) Why did they need five containers of vegetable cooking oil? Why were there algebraic equations on the ceiling of the bathroom? How did they even get them up there in the first place? There were so many unanswered mysteries. After this tenant, I learned how to be fair but firm, and also to be a lot more strict in terms of what requirements I needed from a tenant’s application.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture and work life?

If we can’t be happy in what we do, we won’t make others — not our family, not our employees, not our customers — happy either. Happiness doesn’t necessarily mean that it brings us overwhelming joy, or that we don’t feel some of the work is tedious, but that we take pride in our work and accomplishments and seek to share the fruits of those accomplishements with the people in our lives. I am a big believer in that being kind and fair to others will ultimately bring good opportunities — this to me means 1) recognizing and rewarding the effort of others, even if it isn’t necessarily exactly what we had in mind 2) having healthy coping skills when it comes to times of conflict, and treating even those who disagree with us with respect. How we react to perceived offenses, whether we choose to be vindictive or seek a compassionate resolution, will be the ultimate judge of our character, 3) to know ourselves and our values and to stick with those values even if they hurt us in the short term because being trustworthy is the strongest foundation you could have upon which to build a strong work environment and gain a loyal customer base, and 4) that it’s just as important to know when to give up as it is to persevere. There will be situations where pushing on is unhealthy and we might have difficulty recognizing those cases, especially if we’re emotionally invested in them. Basically, try not to cut off our noses just to spite our face.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview. In my work, I focus on how one can thrive in three areas, body, mind, and heart. I’d like to flesh this out with you. You are a very busy leader with a demanding schedule. Can you share with our readers two self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body to thrive? Kindly share a story or an example for each.

Sure! My personal business card has the words “Live to eat” on it, and I am of the opinion that delicious, well balanced meals are important for my body to give me the energy it needs to keep on going, even on the toughest of days. So I always make time to cook tasty and (mostly healthy) foods for myself and my family.

The second is to continue training in the martial art that I love. While I have cut down my practice from every day to once or twice a week after having kids, it’s still very important for me that I keep up with it. I started Aikido because the doctor recommended I pick up some sort of exercise or physical activity, due to having high cholesterol, and I know it’s important to keep the body fit and healthy. We only get a single body (until brain transplants become a thing anyway), and I don’t want to neglect it. It’s great for exercise, choreography, and stuntwork with the big flashy throws and falls, so there’s a lot of aerobics involved. I probably focus less on the philosophical aspect than most do, but it also holds principles of harmony and the blending of opposing forces.

Can you share with us two routines that you use to help your mind thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)

I like to write, especially about food since it gets my creative juices flowing. I blog in my spare time (which you can follow at www.dearjuneberry.com) and take photos of my creations. I grow a lot of my own food, including fruits and vegetables and ducks for eggs! I like to learn about different cuisines so I’m always looking st new recipes, researching new growing methods, or watching videos about food.

I also very much enjoy reading, and feeding my mind with words. Sometimes I’ll lose myself if I’m let loose into a book store — old habits die hard. It feels like Rip Van Winkle, but with less bowling dutchmen and more papercuts. I feel both these activities keep my mind in shape so that it’s more ready to deal with life. They improve my thinking, creativity, and broaden my knowledge base.

Finally, can you share with us two routines that use to help your heart, your emotional or spiritual life to thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)

My family and my friends fill my “heart” meter the most. I always take some time out of my day to just enjoy time with my family, away from technology and away from work, or eat with my friends. I try to be mindful of the fact that my productivity is actually the result of coping with anxiety, which means that sometimes too much productivity is bad for my emotional health. I force myself to step away just so I can ground myself and remind myself that the human connection is the most important thing I have in my life. I especially like to sit and have “conversations” with my 6 year old and 3 year old. Even though I work mostly from home so I am my children’s primary caregiver (my husband also has a full time job at Nassau Community College), most of the time I’m busy working so they’re often left to their own devices. I like to touch base with them and hear about how they viewed their day — sometimes they come up with the most inspiring things!

I also feel fulfilled when I help others so I make time to have conversations with people who contact me. I always laugh and joke that I’m probably secretly a codependent, but helping others who need it with what I am capable of doing helps me feel like I have more of a purpose in life than to just be a business owner. This I also have my family to thank, since my parents have always stressed the importance of being compassionate. They donate to a lot of environmental and educational causes, and are always willing to lend a hand. There have been times that because of it, they were taken advantage of, but it hasn’t deterred them — they have always attributed their success to generosity. My dad always said he doesn’t know why, since he doesn’t feel particularly smart or wise or clever, but the more good he puts out into the world, the better his life becomes. I think, despite the fact that I am not religious at all, I find that this is what feeds my soul.

When life is very busy, and you cannot stick with your ideal routine, are there any wellness practices, rituals, products or services for your mind, body, or soul that you absolutely cannot live without?

I don’t underestimate the value of taking several deep breaths and clearing my mind for a few minutes every day, and it’s something I do no matter how busy I am. I’m often accused of my mind running a mile a minute (and talking just as fast), which means I can be prone to insomnia and that itch to get more, more, more things done. It has allowed me to finish projects and my work quickly so I can shove even more things into my schedule, but it also easily becomes obsessive and wears away at my ability to be patient with my loved ones. If I feel the agitation come on, I find breathing exercises such as the boxing method (breathing in for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, breathing out for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, and repeat) is the difference between being on the verge of a nervous breakdown and reframing my moods and thoughts.

All of us have great days and days that are not as great. On days when you feel like a rockstar what do you do? What does that day look like, and what did you do to get there?

A great day is definitely a day I had an adequate amount of sleep, have no leftover work from the days prior or stressful issues hanging over my head, have a good appetite (since food brings me a lot of joy and a poor appetite destroys me mood faster than anything else), and everything I want to accomplish on my list that day goes smoothly. Some of this is attributed to pure luck — I have very little control over whether or not I’m going to be able to find a parking space, or if the person I have to see at the bank is available, or whether or not the ATM at the other bank is working properly, whether new students might call or sign up for class, or if a tenant is going to report something broke — the other things are a result of the work I out in the previous day, and not giving in to my desire of reading one more chapter, write one more post, or watch one more episode late at night when I should be sleeping.

I count my lucky stars when I get a good day, and I try to seize the opportunity when it comes.

In contrast, on days when you feel down, what do you do?

I work. I mentioned before that my productivity is actually very likely a result of me developing it as a coping skill against anxiety. On bad days I tend to do whatever work I can and hack away at it even if it’s haphazard and not my best. I am terrified of being frozen in place due to letting work pile up, which has happened a few times in the past. This means working on marketing the dojo and dealing with administrative stuff, fixing and cleaning whatever needs to be done at the buildings and at home, do as much errands as I possibly can to forget just how bad of a day it is. I tend to shut myself up like a clam and work, work, work because I somehow got it in my head that even though nothing went right today, I am still improving incrementally, and hopefully somewhere, somehow, the work I did today will have set myself up for an accomplishment sometime later. Basically, my motto is on bad days I should leave myself some presents for the good days. There are some very bad days, such as when I’m sick, or burned myself out, that I allow myself to completely not work and just relax. On those days, I’m grateful my husband picks up the slack and takes care of the kids and do whatever else that’s needed around the house without me having to ask.

Do you have a story about the weirdest, most bizarre or most humorous wellness experience, treatment, practice, or practitioner that you’ve ever partaken in? If you do, we’d love to hear it.

Not sure this counts, but I once told the counselor I was seeing at the time to “Have a wonderful trip” when he told me he had to cancel our next session…. and it turned out he was going to a funeral. I cringed and nearly punched myself in the face when he responded “It’s a wake.”

I also had a bizarre health experience recently — I am terrified of the dentist so I’ve been neglecting my oral health, but I cracked a wisdom tooth a week ago and finally decided to make an appointment, because medical and oral health is just as important as anything else I do. Right before my appointment, the office somehow got into a fight with the insurance company and they were dropped as a provider, I walked in a few minutes later, already broken out in a cold sweat from the terror of facing the fear of teeth work, and found the dentist yelling at a patient. I promptly walked out and nearly had a panic attack in the car.

The Aikido community has some pockets of practice where they focus on “ki” or energy, and there are videos out there of people throwing others without touching them… but that’s really… not my cup of tea. Because it does have a reputation for this type of fanatical mysticism, once in a while we get visitors who try to mess with people, without realizing that for many of our instructors and students, Aikido isn’t the only thing they’ve studied. A while ago, a visitor took class and tried to take my husband down with a leg grab while my husband was teaching, he ended up in a chokehold because he didn’t know my husband also studied Jiujitsu. I did tear my husband a new one since choking potential students, no matter what they were trying to do, isn’t the right way to go about it when we are developed human beings with the ability to verbally communicate.

I’ve also gotten into arguments with a few people in the Aikido community who aggressively try to convince me that “ki” both exists and works in a way that can’t be measured by science and is some sort of magical energy that can do everything from cure cancer to win fights. I try to stay out of these types of arguments (and I almost never start them) because it never goes anywhere. I’m also a live and let live kind of person so I know that no matter what I say they’ll believe what they believe and that’s okay, but the pragmatist in me does find it off-putting in the sense that they treat it like a religion where they attack me out of the blue because I’m not a “true believer.” Martial arts, especially one with a heirarchal structure, often has the unfortunate habit of becoming cult-like, so it’s something I tend to be hyper-aware of because an unhealthy culture can easily break the community and consequently the business. I love the martial art we teach and do, but I don’t want to be blind to the areas that need improvement.

You’re a high achieving business leader, and you also have family and loved ones that may require a different side of you at home. How do you leave the executive at the door, and be the most loving caretaker at home?

Because I work from home and am therefore our children’s primary caretaker, I have to be both mother and business owner at the same time. Sometimes it’s hard switching from one to the other, and those parts of my life clash. In general I have to be mindful, which means reflecting on how I am responding to each aspect when things come up that put them in opposition to each other. For example, when my oldest is doing her homework which she needs my help on and I get a call from a customer or tenant. My oldest is only 6 so her understanding of not interrupting when she sees a grownup is busy is still not fully developed, despite the fact that we’re working on it. This means I have to ignore her questions or gesture her to be quiet, or sometimes I walk out of the room. I hate this aspect because I know these are actions of rejection so I always talk to her afterwards and let her know I wasn’t trying to be mean but that sometimes I have work I need to address, and if she could be patient that would be great.

Otherwise, my favorite way of showing love to my family is through food, so I like cooking with them and for them. I also like giving them experiences and cultivating their creativity and imagination — for example they’re currently building a “house” made out of cardboard scraps and I provide them with the necessary craft tools to make it the best it could be.

For my relationship with my husband, I’m thankful we both try to make time for each other. He works full time on top of teaching at the Aikido school, and he also practices another martial art (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) so our time can sometimes be hectic and mismatched. Since my schedule is a bit more flexible than his, I try to make sure I can be available to spend time with him when he is home.

Is there a particular practitioner, expert, book, podcast or resource that made a significant impact on you and helped you to thrive? Can you share a story about that with us?

At the recommendation of a friend, I picked up the book “The Art of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo which has, in many ways, given me certain philosophies that have improved my life. For example, in the past, I would buy something that I needed if it was on sale, but it wasn’t necessarily something I really loved. I needed a pot so I bought the lowest costing one, even if it was a weird color that I didn’t like. Or some plates because it was a buy one get one free situation, and I didn’t stop to think if it made me happy to use them. Or I would order the meal I felt was the best bang for the buck, even if it wasn’t what I really wanted to eat. I think what it has allowed me to do is give myself permission to buy what I like, because it turns out being happy with what we have and what we surround ourselves with matters to our overall ability to succeed and thrive as people.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am already seeing it pop up in certain places and communities, but teaching children (and people in general) how to grow their own food and think in a self sustainable way. I believe having such programs that teach the ability to provide for oneself fosters a sense of self confidence, independence, and problem solving skills for the future. It’s the most basic form of what you put in is what you get out.

Other movements I like to see would involve teaching conflict resolution and healthy coping skills in schools — and not just teaching but allowing them to practice, since these are skills that need to be repeated in order for students to apply them. I feel a lot of issues we have in our personal and professional lives boil down to the fact that we may not have developed the healthiest of habits when it comes to dealing with conflict, both internally and externally, which affects our ability to see the big picture and make decisions that lead us to a better place.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Intention does not absolve personal responsibility.” This is something I believe strongly in, since I often hear a lot of people say, “That wasn’t my intention” or “I didn’t mean to do that” in lieu of an apology when they make a mistake or hurt someone else. I am a strong believer in taking personal responsibility, since it indicates that we have the ability to influence outcomes, rather than believing things just happen to us so we don’t have to do or be our best. Acknowledging that I have the ability to influence people and the circumstances around me is empowering, because it means that my actions which are an expression of my free will, make a difference in the word. Because of that, I can be proactive and not reactive.

I currently moderate several community discussion forums, including the Aikido subreddit (which has about 8k users), a martial arts Discord server (about 600 users), and an Aikido Discord server (100+ users) and sometimes disagreements and conflict arise between users. In the past, these forums would devolve into angry arguments and vitriole, personal attacks on people’s intelligence and character. I often hear “offense is taken, not given” as a defense to why someone is allowed to be as disrespectful to another person as they would like to be, hiding behind it not being their intention to offend the other person. It places all the responsibility of the interaction on the person who gets attacked. It is something I personally disagree with since it doesn’t foster an environment where productive conversation can be had, and as such we implemented rules how things are said. I am actually very happy to report that conversations have remained polite, even during disagreements, which creates a deeper understanding and more conducive conversations.

Other instances are when I accidentally offend someone, or my actions/words caused them discomfort. Even if I didn’t mean to do it, I always apologize, because what my intentions were does not mitigate the fact that it had a negative consequence to someone. Knowing what is and isn’t my personal responsibility however, also allows me to stand up for myself when I know I have been wronged — I did my part, and at a certain point I know the responsibility of the interaction no longer falls on me, so it has helped me develop boundaries as well.

What are the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Feel free to follow the dojo Instagram page where you can see cool slow motion falls and sword work with the handle @liaikikai or the dojo Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/liaikikai/

I run a website which provides free resources on helping martial arts schools grow using data driven analytics called https://www.dojoshow.com

My personal Instagram is @grow_mama_grow which is an extension of my blog at http://dearjuneberry.com

You can also find me on Discord with my username @growmamagrow — I run the Aikido Dojo Network, the International Community of Martial Arts, the Small Business Hub, and the Backyard Poultry Keeper servers.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the author:

Ming Zhao is an investor, business strategist, podcast host and startup founder. She is co-founder and CEO of PROVEN Skincare, a technology-powered personalized skincare company that won MIT’s AI Technology of the Year award and is backed by Y-Combinator and Stanford StartX. She is an immigrant, a third-generation entrepreneur, and a mother whose daughter is the same age as her startup. Prior to founding PROVEN, Ming was a private equity investor where she frequently worked 80-hour weeks, wreaking havoc on her skin and soul, leading her to pursue personalized skincare. She has an MBA from Harvard University and lives with her family in San Francisco, CA. Checkout PROVEN’s Skin Genome Quiz at www.ProvenSkincare.com.

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