A Martial Arts Profile of Jonathon Miller - CEO, AOL
By Stephan Berwick
Can one of the world?s most successful chief executive officers (CEO) ever be underestimated? Jonathon Miller, CEO of America Online (AOL) and Chen Taiji practitioner, says he often was. Despite an enviable record as a prominent CEO in the global media industry, Miller asserts, ?In my professional life, I?ve often been underestimated because I don?t come on a certain way. But I?m usually the last one standing.?
Miller?s understated confidence suggests more than a focused business persona. It hints at what fuels the success of this inimitable world-class CEO. Perhaps it is his long little-known devotion to Chinese martial arts, in particular his devotion to Chen Taijiquan and the teachings of renowned Taiji master, Ren Guang Yi. Miller describes himself as ?not a confrontational person, so my personality meshes well with Taiji.?
A CEO?s Martial Arts Bio
Before his rapid ascent to the top of the business world, Miller began his martial arts training as a student of Wah Lum kung fu in Boston in 1978. Miller joined Chan Poi?s school based on a recommendation from a Chinese-American high school friend. At that time, Chan Poi?s original Wah Lum Preying Mantis school was fast becoming a prominent traditional Chinese martial arts institution that produced a number of well-known practitioners, including Yao Li and Josh Grant.
Miller recalls when Josh Grant, one of his fellow students at the time (who later produced one of the world?s best-selling Taiji instructional videos), traveled to Mainland China in the early eighties and returned with things ?we had never seen,? including Hsing i, Pa Gua, Chen Taiji and other forms. ?He introduced us to more internal training techniques, such as standing exercises (zhang zhuang). Until his return, we trained with a very athletic orientation.?
Miller moved to NY in 1987 to work for the NBA, and then moved to the UK as CEO of Nickelodeon UK in 1993, continuing his practice of Chinese disciplines with Peter Young. As Miller solidified his status as a highly-regarded CEO, leading such powerful media companies as the USA Information & Services company, his martial arts training slowed. But during this period he heard of Master Ren. Miller?s first exposure to Ren was from Ren?s early (1994) instructional videos.
From two of those tapes he gained an appreciation of Chen Taiji ?as more real and genuine than many other systems. Chen Taiji is designed as a true martial art.? Upon first sight of Master Ren, he recalls, ?The stances were so low! How can I ever learn to move like that?? He also noted that Chen Taiji has a ?real aesthetic, a beauty to it,? with powerful energy and health aspects. With these videos in hand, he became more intrigued with Chen Taiji and hoped to meet Master Ren in the future.
In 2003, he finally met Master Ren from an introduction by one of Ren?s most celebrated students, musician Lou Reed (featured on a 2003 cover of Kung Fu Tai Chi). Miller stated that ?Around the office, some knew that I was interested in martial arts, but I didn?t talk about it much.?
One of Miller?s employees, AOL?s VP of Programming, Scott Richman - a student of Master Ren who arranged an AOL online Lou Reed concert - mentioned that Reed was a Chen Taiji practitioner and student of Ren as well. Richman arranged a dinner with Miller and Reed. During the meeting, Reed excitedly described what he was learning from Master Ren, which, Miller recalls, ?excited me too.? Reed then arranged an introduction for Miller and Ren.
From his first meeting with Ren, Miller noticed ?Master Ren?s presence.? He immediately arranged to train with Ren privately, which he does religiously today. Miller lives in NY, but currently spends most of his work-week at the AOL campus in Dulles, VA. ?Every Monday morning I?m up at 5:30 am to train with Master Ren before flying to Washington for work.?
Miller quickly learned that how he trained before would not work for his training in Chen Taiji. He had to start over. It was ?hard, yet very exciting,? he recalls. He describes his training as ?following exactly as I?m being taught,? which ?has been very rewarding.?
The Universal Principles of Martial Arts
Celebrated playwright David Mamet?s recent article in Men?s Health magazine describes martial arts as the perfect compliment to business practices. Mamet, a long-time martial artist, studied at the Boston Kung Fu Tai Chi Institute founded by Miller?s early kung fu brothers, Yao Li and Josh Grant.
Mamet wrote in the summer 2005 special fitness edition of Men?s Health that the strategies of unarmed combat - namely the use of leverage and technique to overcome a larger, stronger foe - can be used for business success. Not knowing that Mamet studied Chinese martial arts with practitioners from the same lineage he once did, Miller readily agreed with Mamet.
As such, Miller is especially vocal about how Taiji is applicable to many facets of life and work. He notes that Taiji principles hold a universal quality that impacts areas beyond martial arts. Miller?s view that Chen Taiji concepts are ?universal principles? is especially noteworthy. He maintains, ?I think about this a lot. If these principles apply here, they should apply to other areas. If it is a true principle, it should apply in other places. That?s one of the tests of a true principle.?
Chen Taiji Principles for Business
Miller notes that ?Chen Taiji emphasizes extremely high levels of precision taught with tiny corrections that have a big impact. Master Ren is a technician. He knows where/how everything should be and is supposed to work. Everything is very precise.? He notes Chen Taiji?s emphasis on precision as ?translating to my work in the business world, where small things that start wrong can end up as big problems.?
Miller gives an example: ?The concept of Peng is a true principle that can be applied and tested in any environment.? In Taijiquan, Peng defines a crucial physical and mental state. Peng is perhaps the most important of Taiji?s 8 Powers or Ba Fa. These powers, or skills, known as jings, describe the attributes core to Taijiquan. In Chen Taiji, the Ba Fa are especially evident. (They are Peng, Lu, Ji, Ahn, Lie, Kao, Cai, and Zhou.) Each jing is a specific expression of energy that forms the basis of Taiji usage. Peng can be described as a structurally intact physical frame that expresses energy outward in a connected, wholistic manner. In Taiji push hands (tui shou) training, Peng is honed as the dominant physical state necessary to apply Taiji correctly, especially for combat. Peng in use allows the skilled Taiji boxer to meet force with a rooted softness, permitting a smooth whole-body neutralization of attacks from any direction. When expressing Peng, the Taiji boxer appears full, yet relaxed; still, yet responsive.
Miller adds, ?As Master Ren teaches, Peng is a connected state of fullness; it is both hard and soft. The concept of Peng can be helpful in dealing with situations like workplace confrontations. You don?t have to meet confrontations head-on, but can yield with them. I don?t say this type of thing in the office, because they don?t think that way, but I do.?
Like a true martial artist and Taiji boxer, Miller states, ?One should be prepared to move when ready and able. In business, it is most important to see the situation at hand and move as the situation requires. You have to fit yourself to the situation. From my understanding, I believe that is a Taiji approach, as opposed to saying that the (business) problem must be solved ?my? way without looking at the situation for what it really is at that moment in time.?
Miller likens it to Ren?s execution of chin na. He states, ?To me Chen Taiji chin na is an excellent example of this.? Chen Taiji chin na is quite different than most other styles of joint-locking. Chen Taiji chin na training is not based on the memorization of rote techniques. It is instead based on the principle of silk reeling (chan szu jing) that instills a responsive, unrehearsed coiling skill to escape and apply locks. Recalling his recent chin na practice with Ren, Miller says, ?Master Ren lets you lead, not knowing what will come. He has no preconceived notion of the situation. He reacts to the situation as it is, allowing him to escape any joint-lock with ease. I can never catch Master Ren in a joint-lock! This Chen Taiji principle has an influence on me.?
For Miller, ?True principles should apply in many ways. Taiji principles have been around for many, many years and can be applied to many different things. Taiji principles are universal.?
Taiji Benefits for the Business Leader
On work and Taiji practice, Miller says, ?I work in a high-stress environment - turning around a major Fortune 400 corporation. Stress tends to disperse one?s energy. I have found that Chen Taiji enhances one?s focus. My family notices when I practice. Chen Taiji instills a smoothness - it smoothes out the rough edges.?
He adds, ?I also enjoy learning a true craft. This art is very full. It does much more for you. Chen Taiji is a full experience that combines hard and soft movement, applications, and health.? He also describes the craft of Chen Taiji as a deeply satisfying way ?to get everything right?that does more for you.?
When asked if he would recommend Chen Taiji to his peers, he replies, ?If you only have so much time available, do something that provides the most benefit. It is real work, real exercise, but it is not draining. In Chen Taiji you?re getting many things all at once. It?s very sophisticated.?
On the Future of Chen Taiji
Miller reflects, ?It would be nice to see Chen Taiji become more mainstream.? When asked how the corporate world can help promote Chen Taiji, Miller says, ?Corporations might be able to provide exposure at different levels, but they can only do so much. At AOL we do have fitness classes for employees. Chen Taiji, however, is sophisticated and depends on high levels of personal commitment that companies can?t directly address.?
But Miller insists, ?I think we?ll see over time that Chen Taiji will become more popular. Chen Taiji combines real martial arts with universal principles both young and old can equally enjoy. In the future I want to learn the whole Chen Taijiquan system from Master Ren and over time do it well.?
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Stephan Berwick :
Stephan Berwick is a Chen Taiji specialist and martial arts researcher based in the Washington, DC area. He can be reached at www.truetaichi.com