Chris Santillo is an author and martial arts expert. He is the founder and head instructor at Potomac Kempo, a health, wellness & fitness company that offers martial arts classes to clients who seek better health and improved quality of life. Santillo is the author of the book Resilience Parenting.
Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
During my childhood, we moved every four years or so, which created the opportunity to reinvent myself every so often. It also made it difficult to keep long-term relationships. It was good for this reason and bad for that. When I’m feeling my best, I look into my childhood and find explanations for my success. When I’m feeling down, I look and find reasons for my shortcomings. It’s all in there, and it all shaped us.
But once you understand that, you can craft better questions. It’s not interesting what from our childhood shaped us because it all did. It’s more interesting to ask what we choose to take from it. I choose to claim the independence I gained from biking through our small town in Wisconsin. I’ll keep the experience of helping on my grandparents’ ranch in the middle of nowhere, northern California. I’ll hold on to performing on stage in Ohio and then in Scotland.
And some I choose to let go of.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
Truth One: The most important thing is how we feel.
This is simple stuff, but it took me half of a lifetime to figure it out. Life is really about feeling; all of the things we think we want from life are merely the outward expression of how we want to feel. We think we want a promotion or a vacation, but really we want to experience how having those things will make us feel.
Truth Two: How we feel is strongly affected by our thoughts.
The single most significant variable in how we feel is the thoughts that we think. When we think about positive things in the past, present, or future, we feel good. When we think about negative things, we feel bad. Planning a family vacation will bring a smile to your face; stewing on a presentation that went poorly will put you in a bad mood. It’s that simple.
Truth Three: We can direct our thoughts—but seldom do.
And Truth Three is the lever that can remake our lives. We get to choose what we think about. We usually don’t; we let the outside world dictate what we think about. We read a negative news story or get a nasty email. Our brain starts thinking along those lines—and continues to do so until another part of the outside world switches us back—all without realizing that we hold the power to direct our thoughts and change our life.
Is this powerful that stuff that has changed my life? Absolutely!
Do I always remember to direct my thoughts consciously?
Unfortunately, no. But I’m working on it.
What are the harmful recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Our society seems obsessed with how to achieve more, earn more, and become more successful. All of that is good and fine, but these voices are so much louder than the conversations discussing how to build a balanced life. Let’s spend some more time and energy there.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it, and what you learned from it?
In 2012 we nearly went bankrupt. We had to refinance our house to keep the business open.
I learned that I’m not my income, and I’m not my bank account. I had known that stuff never brings happiness, but I also learned that having to pay for it can create stress. Our income rebounded the next year, but our spending never has. I now spend half as much money and twice as much time with my family.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the most significant contributor to your success so far?
My wife. She is my partner in all things, my closest confidant, and my most trusted advisor. In my life, nothing of any consequence has gone wrong since the day I met her, nor shall it while she is by my side.
What is your morning routine?
I know that morning routines are hot right now. But the short answer is, I don’t have one.
I’ve arranged my life such that I don’t have early morning commitments. I wake up when my body is fully rested, and I take a deep breath. I like to read a little bit, sometimes from something motivational, but just as often from a good novel. I might meditate or do some breathing exercises. I’ll often do a short warmup or workout, depending on whether or not I have another planned for later in the day. The most consistent part of my morning is my cold shower. Nothing starts a day better than a cold shower. Then I hug my family; I like to find every one of them and reaffirm my love for them. And then some coffee.
If you want one upgrade to your morning routine, my suggestion is simple: shower cold, every day. Tell your family that you love them. And maybe more coffee.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
My martial arts training; no other practice, education, or behavior, has had more impact on who I am today. Whenever I encounter a challenge, I draw on the resilience, perseverance, and ingenuity that I have gained—and continue to gain—from the martial arts.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
If you really want to be productive, you simply need to commit to yourself that you will do so. When you commit to doing something, then you must perform in order to maintain your Integrity. To the extent that we are people of Integrity, there is no longer any hesitation, and we follow through effortlessly. We struggle with productivity when we don’t truly commit to a project, allowing us to neglect our work without feeling that we have failed in any way.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
How can a person answer that question?
All of these books that we’ve read are piling up in the back of heads, slowly decomposing but also creating a landing pad for everything else that we read. By reading The Art of War by Sun Tzu as a young person, we start seeing everything through that lens. After we read Start With Why by Simon Sinek we begin looking for the what, how, and why of everything else we read. When we revisit the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, we realize how much of western culture stems from ancient roots.
So, most influential book?
The last one I read.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
I was raised with the expression, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess.” Which has led me through some successes but also to numerous ruined home-improvement projects and some overtraining injuries.
My early adulthood was filled with, “What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail.” This was undoubtedly necessary for launching my first two businesses, even though neither had a credible chance of success (the first failed, the second succeeded).
As I roll into later life, I often come back to Leonardo da Vinci, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” and the closely related Bruce Lee, “It is not daily increase but daily decrease, hack away the unessential.” I don’t suspect da Vinci and Lee are oft-quoted together, but together they point towards a return to the basics. Not all problems need solving; not all projects are high priority. Spend your time well.
Where can we go to find out more?