Today we bring you one of the most inspiring and powerful interviews we’ve ever done at FierceGentleman.com.
Meet Mark Goblowsky, formerly of the U.S. Air Force, owner of American Academies of Martial Arts, and father to a 13 year old son with a traumatic brain injury. His son was in a hit-and-run car accident at the age of 3.5 years.
The interview below is full of gems related to overcoming difficulty, perseverance, personal integrity, as well as lessons for success in business as well as mentorship.
By interviewing various everyday heroes, I’ve learned that when you talk to quality people, even a short 30 minute conversation can be absolutely packed with wisdom and practical insights. Do yourself a favor and listen to the full interview, or read the full transcript below, and be sure to write down notes of what resonates with you so can apply it to your life right away.
FG: I’d just love it if you could tell us a little bit about your story. Take a couple minutes and describe what you’ve been through: I know on your application you mentioned going through a couple of really big challenges, also that you’ve been in the Air Force, that you’ve had your own business; so I would love to just hear kind of the thumbnail sketch: who is Mark?
Mark G: Sure. Well, Mark’s a guy who at the age of twenty joined the military. Spent nine and a half years in the Air Force. At the time it was the Iran Hostage affair, I honestly thought we were going to war, so I kind of felt compelled to get on board and ended up spending 9.5 years in the military, the Air Force, got to spend time in the Pacific and the Philippines and in Korea, in Okinawa as well as stateside.
And then I took up martial arts while I was overseas, and I came back to the States, had my last tour here in Nebraska, wanted to continue studying [martial arts], was looking for a way to get my teacher over to the States, I opened a school at his request, that’s how I ended up in the Martial Arts business and continue to be there today.
And then I had a son, he’s gonna be turning 14 here in the fall, but he was in a hit-and-run car accident at about the age of three and a half — 10 years ago — and ended up with a traumatic brain injury, and that changed the direction of our lives entirely, and forever.
So yeah, that’s the thumbnail.
FG: Thank you for that. And this is is part of the reason I want to talk to you is, a lot of men are going to go through some challenges in their lives, and I’m always curious to ask people that have been through some pretty significant challenges — you know — how they do it. I’m usually humbled by the challenges people have gone through that are so, so much in excess of what I’ve had to deal with so I usually ask those people, you know, “How do you deal.” So, just to talk about that for a minute, a lot of people don’t know traumatic brain injury but it’s actually a growing part of our culture especially the culture of men. A lot of guys I know, service members, coming back from different deployments – you know, our life saving technologies are a lot better — but also there’s a lot more concussions and traumatic brain injuries from things like roadside bombs. I would love to hear you talk about it a little bit and talk about how it’s affected your life, and what you wish people understood or knew about it.
MG: Sure. You know, in what you speak to in terms of the military, you know that’s something that’s near and dear to my heart. I was never in combat; the years I served there were no major conflicts, it was the Cold War actually — but there’s a lot of guys coming back from service and they are suffering from traumatic brain injuries, due to concussive and explosive events, and it’s a huge deal.
My son was riding in the back seat of a car, strapped into a regular child seat, and a semi pulled over into the lane of the car – Josh was riding with his mother at the time — hit the back end of his mom’s car, and the car spun across about 5 lanes, came to a dead stop, pointed the correct direction in traffic, and was immediately rear-ended by another semi truck.
Which, when people started getting out of cars and trying to help, they couldn’t even tell that there was anybody in the back seat, because the trunk was in the back seat, Josh had been folded over, and his head was pinned between the back of his mother’s seat and the back of the back seat, which was now almost in the front.
And eventually when they got his Mom out of the car, his little arm flopped out and they discovered there was a 3-year-old in the back seat.
So anyhow, it was a profound day for us, his injury is a global injury, meaning both hemispheres of the brain, all the lobes, and the brain stem, had been damaged. He had to go on a ventilator, and it was touch and go, the Doctors — nobody would say anything, they didn’t know if he was gonna live. Finally 3 days after surgery, the neurosurgeon said, if he makes it this week, he’ll probably live.
Which he did, and so that kind of left us with a different direction for our lives.
He is now — if you’re gonna pick a label — it would be disabled, due to his brain injury, his mobility is off, his ability to walk, he can’t ride a bicycle, he can’t swim, he has motor control [issues], he also has cognitive deficits, which means his ability to learn things has been impeded. He’s in the 8th grade but he reads more like on a 1st grade level and there’s along with that some maturity challenges.
So yeah, we’ve had a child with disabilities for the last 10 years now: we had to teach him — he had to learn to swallow again. It was interesting, the brain injury was so bad that actually a newborn baby could do more than he could. He was officially in a coma for 34-35 days which is about 5 weeks. Was in the hospital from August till December, about 3.5 – 4 months — and from then on it was daily — he used to go to 12 therapy appointments a week, that was after he got got out the hospital! And we did that for months.
It’s been a — I don’t want to say a burden, but it’s been a challenge, you know — it takes mental energy, emotional energy, physical energy because now you’ve got a kid who’s — need so much more help. I mean actually more than a newborn baby, initially, in trying to teach him to walk again, and get him, you know, now he’s back IN diapers because of the accidents and so you’re trying to potty train again at the age of four and five and six and, teaching him how to eat — he couldn’t even swallow. So it was devastating. It was a big thing.
FG: For me — I don’t have kids, yet. But it’s hard to imagine how I’d be able to handle that. Or how I would be able to cope and just keep going on. So I’m curious, what do you think gave you the fortitude or the strength, or where did you find the resources to take that journey?
If you don’t get invested, if you don’t commit, if you don’t go all in, you’ll never know how far something can go.Mark Goblowsky
MG: I love my son. I’m crazy about him, always have been. I would think that’s the be big motivator to keep pressing forward is, when you care enough about the object of your love, the person that you love, that you’re willing to make s sacrifices of your own in order for them to get, or have the things that they need. I think it started there. So that was the fuel.
And honestly I didn’t know what the future held. It’s not like a broken arm, or even a badly broken arm, or a leg where they put a bunch of pins in and they get you healed up and it’s a surgery — and you’re probably gonna be okay.
But a brain injury’s not like that. They don’t know if you’ll ever be okay, and the extent to which you’ll recover. And it was definitely difficult, looking at your child in a bed.
But I knew that I had to do whatever it would take if he was going to be able to get more out of life. I didn’t know where this was going. I totally invested myself into it. He was my kid and I kind of view it as maybe a sacred responsibility, having a child, that you are responsible for their upbringing and at least helping or attempting to shape them for the future, and I just didn’t know what his future was gonna be like, but I had to do whatever I could to help him recover as much as he could. It was such an unknown it’s actually is still an unknown today because we don’t know. They never — they didn’t actually think he would live initially then they didn’t think that he would get better. They thought he would actually be a vegetable, or in a vegetative state, and probably pass away within a couple years anyhow, due to just deterioration. But all of those markers he’s passed, in an amazing way.
So if you don’t get invested, if you don’t commit, if you don’t go all in, you’ll never know how far something can go. Like if you give up too soon, I guess, is what I’m saying because it never looked good; and it certainly wasn’t fun. It’s difficult taking him to twelve appointments a week for months after months after months. You do it because you love them, and you find the energy because you are running on empty a lot of times mentally, physically, emotionally, financially.
FG: Yeah — this is one of the things that’s so I think profound about brain injuries, in particular — and I think a lot of the medical community is now coming around to this — is just that the brain is so plastic and especially in a growing body. Up until the age of thirty, thirty-five the brain is so plastic – so I’ve seen incredible things, and the body is an incredible organism. And there are a lot of things that medical science just doesn’t know about how the brain works and how it can rewire and function.
So we’re definitely in the area of mystery I think with that still — and it reminds me of the movie Gattaca if anyone out there has seen that, or I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie, but it’s a, the synopsis is basically it’s a movie where there’s genetic testing before birth and the medical community says “oh your son is going to live until X age.” Everyone has a predicted date of death based on the genetic profile and the point of the movie – y’know, spoilers — is that the protagonist of the of the movie, Ethan Hawke, outlives his predestined death date basically by getting really healthy and by committing, like you were saying Mark. He just made a decision that he was committed, he was all in, he wanted a different life than it was predetermined for him, and he got it. So I think what you’re saying is really profound because we never know — and none of us know. None of us knows what’s happening next in our life and we think we do, we think we have a pretty good idea, but life is really precious, and it’s really impermanent.
MG: You are spot on with that. It is precious, it is impermanent and things can change so profoundly in such a, I mean literally in one second your whole life goes in another direction. And whether that comes from you know somebody getting injured, or a life threatening illness enters. A good friend of mine was just diagnosed with colon cancer this week, he’s in his 40s. You know, things can change so so quickly. And I think valuing, appreciating, and honoring those around us and expressing that, making sure that they know that, here today, gone tomorrow….you just don’t know where things are going to go.
FG: Absolutely. And so I want to actually roll back and ask you a little bit more about your martial arts background — because that’s not something you mentioned in the initial email — I’d love to hear what got you into martial arts and then kind of tell us the story of obviously being, you must have been so into your training and so committed at that point to bring a teacher over to the U.S., so I’d love to hear how that evolved and the role that’s played in your life.
MG: You know, I’ve been scrappin’ since I was a kid. I’m not always proud of that, but when I was younger, the combat arts kind of attracted me, and we were dirt poor growing up. There were 5 kids in a family, there was no way. This was back in the 60s end of the 70s, there was no way we could afford it, and there weren’t martial arts schools on every corner. But when I was growing up, there was a series out called Kung Fu with David Carradine in it, and I just watched that and thought, “Holy cow. I would like to be this guy who’s so incredibly powerful, but so calm, so centered, so committed, so generous, so compassionate.”
And that was what my idea of the martial arts was – this powerful person who had total control over himself at the same time. That really drew me in.
Eventually when I was in the Service I had the resources and the time and eventually found a kung fu master where I was stationed in Korea, of all places, which is the home of Tae Kwan Do actually. But I found a kung fu master there who was just amazing and I got totally committed to studying the arts. I wanted to the confidence, I wanted the skillset, but I still wanted that centeredness and that peace that comes confidence, from knowing you can take care of yourself, you don’t need to feel threatened.
So yeah, I was totally committed, and he asked me to open a school, so when I got to the states I started teaching part-time on the Air Force base here in Omaha – Bellevue actually – and within a year opened a school downtown – was still working full-time in the Air Force – and then, petitioned the INS to have my instructor come over as a full-time employee. The INS turned me down.
Just a little bit of advice, get professionals to help you. I’m not sure I would’ve gotten this done – I did it all myself – applying through the INS – but I’m not sure if I would’ve gone through an immigration attorney, that it might have turned out different. At any rate, they turned down the work visa, I got him over here on tourist visas. He came over and would visit for months at a time, sometimes several weeks, sometime several months, and so I was able to continue my training.
Eventually, my school started to grow. I went out and I sought out professional help from an organization that did tuition billing and consulting and I was able to grow my one school into several hundred students. Kept expanding the size of it, eventually that school grew to 600, and I opened up another school, where that school grew to about 200. I had about 800 students at that point in time.
And, yeah, it’s just a passion. It’s one of the most powerful things in the world you can do for yourself, or if you have kids, you can do for them, is to find a quality martial arts program and go study yourself. As we teach in my school, the mat is a mirror. So that training floor that you’re on kinda exposes everything about you. Your weaknesses and your strengths. And it reflects that back to you. And that martial arts journey can then become a journey of self-discovery. And, if you’re aware enough, you can take the information that you get and utilize it to become a stronger person, man or woman. You use that information to become stronger, more compassionate.
When I say stronger, I mean strength of character, as much as I mean your physical body. As far as self-defense goes, you might need it once in your life — most people never need it — but you’re gonna need perseverance every day of your life. You’re gonna need self-control. You’re gonna need patience. You’re gonna need compassion. And you can learn all of that in the martial arts. And the lessons bleed over into every other part of your life, if you let them.
FG: Yeah, that’s absolutely been my experience as well, and as you’re talking I’m asking myself “Why did I ever get out of martial arts?” …and I hope that a lot of our listeners are also either thinking that, or thinking “Why did I never get into martial arts?” because it’s right up there with the meditation practice in terms of, you know, best single things you can do for I think your overall health mental, physical, emotional, spiritual.
MG: Absolutely, you’re right.
FG: And so I’m curious just from the business standpoint — because you’ve been in business in this martial arts business for so many years — and a lot of our listeners out there are intensely interested in entrepreneurship, or looking for a different path in life — I’m really curious what words of wisdom, or what sort of lessons as you reflect on your years in business, what would you think, or what would you want to share with others, as bits of advice on the path?
MG: Well, you know, I’d be cautious about saying things like “follow your bliss” and what not but I would spend some time, if you’re going to be a businessperson – now some people are just good at making money. They just have the Midas touch and they could run any business and it wouldn’t matter to them and they’re gonna be successful. There’s others of us that want to be entrepreneurs but we’re not maybe that inclined in that direction, but we want to be of service, or we want to be our own bosses, or whatever it is.
But I would find out, first, discover what you’re passionate about. I love the martial arts, and so it was a perfect fit, for me. But that passion for your chosen path of business will get you through. Because there’s gonna be difficult times. I’d be remiss if I wasn’t completely honest here and just say, it’s never a cakewalk. Business is difficult at times. And you have to be totally committed to your business. But you don’t want it to own you, either.
So I would find something that you’re passionate about, and get out there and do that. But then I would systematize your business. And make sure that it doesn’t own you. Franchises work because it puts out a predictable product that certain people enjoy. But the franchise itself works because it’s systematized. You can produce, with a certain degree of predictability, what that product’s gonna look like at the end. The franchise owners are not in there working the stores. They’ve systematized it, and they’ve created an environment where they can duplicate their efforts, over and over and over again.
So whether you’re a single standalone business, you become an online business of sorts, or you’re brick and mortar, I would invest in systematizing things so you’ve got a little black book, red book, whatever you call it, and you can pass this on to your employees and say “This is how we do absolutely everything, from turning on the light switch in the morning, to how you do your most complicated task, to where the stamps are in the drawer.” And make everything predictable. So that you can get employees who can perform for you, duplicate your efforts, and you can still have a life with your family, while providing good employment for those that choose to work for you.
FG: That’s great advice. What has been the role, I’m curious, of mentorship or guidance in your journey, in terms of starting a school, and building a school, and expanding your business?
MG: I’ve been blessed with having amazing relationships, and I’m gonna point this out – in my 30s I became very purposeful about connecting with other men. And I always started it, really, as a friendship. Because I don’t want people thinking I’m just pursuing you because of what you can do for me. I want to be a contributor to the relationship. I want to add value, create value.
A smart person learns from their mistakes. A wise person learns from a smart person’s mistakes.Russian saying
So many of the relationships that turned into mentorships, or turned into relationships where I was able to benefit, business-wise, they started because I just went out there and was purposeful about connecting with other men who had other skill sets in the business world.
But they were achievers. So, connecting with men, on purpose, for the relationship first, but then, y’know, there’s value that comes after that. But I’ve been blessed, and some of those relationships have evolved into mentor relationships, and I’ve had it in the martial arts, but on the business side as well.
I don’t think I could have done a quarter of what I’ve done without other men, and at times women, absolutely – for me, it’s mostly men that I’ve surrounded myself with, contributing into my life, and I am able to benefit from their wisdom. I heard, just in the last couple of weeks, “A smart person learns from their mistakes. A wise person learns from a smart person’s mistakes.”
FG: That’s great, I love that.
MG: Yeah, and if you can do that – and I’ve not always been the best at that – but I am telling you, you reduce the learning curve so dramatically, and you avoid so many problems, by simply taking the advice of a good mentor and kind of – you have to go on faith. You just have to go on faith. But if you do, and he’s a legitimate guy, he’s telling you the truth, and I’m assuming he would because he’s become your mentor, you are gonna go much further, much faster, with less problems, by just taking that man or woman’s advice and going down that road and trusting them.
FG: Yeah, I think it’s key what you said about faith — It’s so hard, it’s really hard for a lot of us to do that. Our culture is sort of built around — we want proof that works and security but as we’ve been talking about there’s really no, there is no security. Anyone that gives you or offers you security, it’s just an illusion. So it’s really important, I think, to emphasize the role of faith in all of this stuff, in any endeavors. It’s just at some point you have to trust. And this was the thing I confronted the first time I quit the corporate world to do my own thing. It was very scary, but you’ve got to do it.
MG: That faith, that faith part… stepping out and believing that there’s gonna be physical dirt under your foot, the next step you take, we see that – we see the sidewalk in front of us, but sometimes we don’t see the fruits of our results, for maybe weeks, or months, or even years. But you have to keep marching forward in faith and keep doing the work. Eventually, if it’s the right idea, and you’re doing the right things, there’s going to be a harvest, there’s going to be a payout. You will succeed; you will impact people’s lives.
FG: Absolutely. Mark, this is so great, I just want to kind of ask you one final question here and wrap us up: if you had one piece of advice that you would want to pass on to the younger generation from your experience, what comes to mind as the thing you would want to say?
MG: Be a man of integrity. I think a lot of times when you hear the word integrity, you think of honesty, but it’s more than that: it’s wholeness and it’s completeness. And when you are a person of integrity – and that means your word to yourself, and your word to others – that it’s gold. That you make promises and you keep them. To yourself, and the promises you make to others. You keep them as well.
In the end, only integrity is going to count.Buckminster Fuller
If I make a promise to somebody else, I’m really promising that I’m gonna deliver that. And if I don’t deliver that, I actually put a little chink in my armor, and I weaken that. And just like there’s structural integrity for a building, and if that structural integrity is compromised in any way, that building will collapse.
It’s the same with our lives. And I can speak to that, where, I’ve, at times, conducted myself with less integrity than I should have, and it caused a collapse, and it caused grief for me, as well as those around me. So I guess that’s a little self-disclosure there. But if you don’t maintain your integrity you really run the risk of creating pain in your life, and in the lives of others.
But when you do conduct yourself from a place of integrity, you learn that you can trust everything that comes out of your mouth, and everyone else around you learns that they can trust you implicitly, without a doubt. And I think that’s the best kind of man that you could ever be.
FG: That’s really powerful. One of the one of my favorite men, a hero I look up to, is Buckminster Fuller, and one of my favorite quotes of his is: “In the end, only integrity is going to count.”
FG: And I think that’s what you’re saying as well. And he was saying it on a structural level — he was an engineer — but he was also speaking on a metaphysical level, like we’re speaking here.
So, absolutely fantastic, I hope everyone listens to this really carefully. There’s been so much to take away from this conversation, I feel like I could talk to you all afternoon! But we’re going to have to leave it there.
MG: Yes sir.
FG: Thank you so much Mark; much respect; thank you so much for spending your time with us, and for sharing your wisdom and experience.
MG: It’s my pleasure. Good luck with everything.
- Here is a link to the Brain Trauma Foundation, where you can donate to research and serve our troops coming back from war with TBI
- One of the best ways you can protect your brain against the degradation that comes with age is meditation. We have 14-day meditation class that is going through open beta right now, so it is 100% free. You can sign up here.
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