What Freelancers Can Learn from Karate

I have studied Kenpo Karate for over 20 years. I earned my 2nd degree black belt in 2006.

Throughout my career, I’ve noticed how the things I learned in karate class apply to my business life–especially my time as a freelancer.

In this post, I’ll share how some of the life lessons I learned in Karate apply to freelancing. I think you’ll come to see that freelancing and karate aren’t so different after all.

Be Aware

In martial arts, you need to be aware of your surroundings, including who and what is around you, in order to see in advance and avoid potential confrontations. In freelancing, awareness is most important when it comes to your customers.

In particular, what do your customers think of your work, and what do they want or need from you. The more you know about their needs, the better you can satisfy them (and maybe even charge a little more). With social media on the rise, knowing what is going on with your customers is easier than ever. Keep in touch with what they are doing, and proactively suggest areas you might be able to help.

After a project is over, be sure to follow up with customers to find out what they thought of your work. Be aware of potential dissatisfaction, so you can act to address it. If you don’t know about a complaint, there is nothing you can do. Ask for feedback and act on it. Often, your relationship will be even better coming out of resolving a complaint.

Treat Everyone with Respect

This can be a difficult thing. Whether in a social situation where someone says something negative, or whether in a customer meeting where they mention considering a competitor, it can be tempting to talk badly of someone. Don’t do it.

When a customer mentions a competitor, it’s best to talk them up, rather than run them down. When you talk them up, you don’t say they are better than you, you just acknowledge that they are a reasonable choice. If you imply otherwise, the potential client is likely to get defensive, and focus on arguing with you. That isn’t what you want.

If you agree with your client that your competitor is an option, the client won’t be defensive, and you can follow on with points about the service you offer, now that the client is open to you. Badmouthing doesn’t help your chances with landing a client–it hurts them.


Becoming a black belt isn’t difficult. You don’t need to be in perfect shape, with huge muscles and extraordinary flexibility. All you need to do is practice regularly, for years.

Practice is also important in freelancing, especially when first starting out. Practice for freelancers means doing whatever it is you do, whether graphic design, copywriting, or law, as much as you can. Take a position with a non-profit where you can apply your skills (they are always looking – always). Just for fun, take a stab at redesigning someone’s website, or redoing a well-known logo or tagline. Put the results on your blog (making it clear if they aren’t actually a client).

Practice can refine your skills, help you push yourself, make connections, and promote your business. Junk Charts is a blog I love where Kaiser Fung (a professional statistician) practices visualizing data by re-doing charts other people provide. It is no coincidence that Kaiser is now one of the most well-known statisticians with a great-selling book published.

Take Care of Everything That Keeps You Going

Be sure to look out for your body, mind, and spirit. Like I said before, the hardest part about getting a black belt is time. A big delay for me was that I dropped out of the martial arts for a while following a knee injury. It took two years to get back to where I was after my break.

Health is also important for freelancers. There are no paid sick days. If client work doesn’t get done, you don’t get paid. While some illness can’t be controlled, keeping in good health generally by eating right and exercising also helps keep many bugs at bay. Plan workouts into your schedule, or take up an activity that you go to on a regular basis (like the martial arts). Schedule time to eat as well. My weight suffered a bit when I started freelancing, as I got into a habit of picking up fast food since I didn’t plan enough time to eat right.

After I got back after my knee injury, I injured the same knee again. I was just starting to feel good, and it was very disappointing. This is why taking care of your mind and spirit is also important. Things will be difficult sometimes, but if you keep your mind sharp and spirits high, it will be easier to power through the tough times.

Read books, both in your area of expertise and just for fun. Keep your spirits high by spending time with family and friends. Turn off the cell phone, and leave email for a while every so often. Recharge, and come back even better than before.

You don’t have to take martial arts classes to apply these lessons to your freelance business. If you do, you’ll soon be known as a black belt level freelancer.

Your Turn

What would you compare freelancing to? What lessons have you learned about freelancing over the years?

Share your answers in the comments.

Image by kaibara87