Think Before You Speak

“The Pen is mightier than the sword.”

– Edward Bulwer-Lytton

It doesn’t take much to recognize the power of our words. We use them every day to communicate; we share our thoughts and feelings, we teach, and persuade. We can use our words to motivate and inspire, and we can use them to criticize and punish. Our words are critical tools for civilized society; so vital, in fact, that our founding fathers enshrined their unfettered use in the First Amendment of our Constitution.

With all this power, one would expect that great care would be taken to assure the proper use of the written/spoken word. Yet we’ve all been witness to the often cavalier manner in which some use their words. We can also emit some pretty harsh stuff in moments of anger or frustration.

We are warned that “words can cut like a knife.” Shouldn’t we, therefore, wield them with as much caution? Just because we can say something, doesn’t mean we should.

We’ve all been there; some of the most vicious animals on the planet are kids. They can say the most hurtful things to one another. While it generally starts out innocently enough, as they just don’t realize what they’re saying, they eventually fine-tune their craft. By the time they’re in middle school, they can be absolutely brutal. Nothing is off limits, as they ridicule their peers; hairstyle, body composition, complexion, fashion, and even your mom are all fair-game. (Just in case you’re wondering, back in the day, my dad could beat up yours.)

Most of us eventually grow out of this phase. We learn to recognize the social nuances of appropriate speech. We might “kid” our friends about their fashion choices, but that kind of discourse is reserved for personal time. Harassing your peers at work, or someone you hardly know about such things is a recipe for disaster.

Just as we teach the children in our junior’s program about the proper use of their jiujitsu and the responsibility which comes with it, so too, we want to teach them to navigate the social waters of appropriate speech. The tool we’re teaching them to use is the acronym THINK.

Before you speak, THINK…

  1. T – Is it True?
  2. H – Is it Helpful?
  3. I – Is it Inspiring?
  4. N – Is it Necessary?
  5. K – Is it Kind?

Unless you’re close friends with someone in class, your conversation should really be focused on the task at hand. While we’re on the mat, we should be focused on improving our jiujitsu, as well as our training partners’.

“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.”

-My Mom

See you on the mat.

Bad, And Getting Better

Do you feel the world is becoming more dangerous, that violence is on the rise, or that more and more people are dying from disease? You’re not alone. Every year since 1989 Gallop has asked Americans whether there’s more or less crime, and every year except 2001, the majority said it’s on the rise. Even though the statistics clearly prove otherwise, most feel the opposite. Americans aren’t alone; when polled in 2015 65% of British people (and 81% of the French) said they thought the world was getting worse.

If you find yourself in this majority, it’s time to change your focus, (check out last week’s post). By every metric of measure humanity has made, and continues to make, great headway in improving the lives of an ever-growing majority of the world population. Hans Rosling presents an enjoyable, easy-to-read argument in favor of a more realistic world-view in his book Factfullness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. He also has a number of great videos on Youtube; here’s one of my favorites.

Now this isn’t to say that everything is just fine. That would be as inaccurate as thinking everything is getting worse. We still need to remain vigilant; we face serious problems that require us to continue forging ahead as we work to find solutions. It’s simply acknowledging the reality – contrary to what the media and our politicians may tell us, things have improved drastically, and continue to do so. As Mr. Rosling points out in his book, we need to remember that

“…things can be both bad and better.”

This same mind-set can be helpful to the aspiring jiujitsu practitioner as well.

When we first start training BJJ everything is new, fresh, and invigorating. It’s easy to see our progress as we learn new techniques, and feel our bodies getting stronger. We see how much better we are than when we started. Over time, it can become more difficult to see our progress. Our perception shifts as we begin to realize how much more there is to learn. We can focus on our defeats, and lose sight of our victories. Our perspective can leave us feeling inadequate; compared to what’s possible, our BJJ is bad.

A key to the Jiujitsu Lifestyle is maintaining a healthy, optimistic perspective. If you catch yourself struggling with motivation, or feel like you’re just not making any progress, double check your perspective. Consider how much you now know compared to before you began. Remember that as long as you’re putting in your mat time, whether it’s two, three, or twelve classes a week, you are improving. Forge ahead having faith in the process. You can be both bad and getting better at the same time.

See you on the mat.

What Can You Do?

John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address is a highly motivational piece of our American history which you should read here: jfklibrary.org. (or watch it here) His is a great manifesto of Strength and Honor, praising the value of standing up for what’s right, even in the face of adversity. Perhaps the most well-known part of his speech is our focus this week.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

-John F. Kennedy

This admonishment applies just as well to those of us who might be too young to vote or have any comprehension of the politics of our day. It could just as easily read, “ask not what your family can do for you – ask what you can do for your family.”

As very young children, obviously our parents take care of everything. As we get older, we start to help out, and generally get assigned some “chores,” or responsibilities. Assuming my own childhood, and more recent experience as a parent are pretty common, this means that parents still spend quite a bit of time and energy reminding, cajoling, and/or bribing their progeny to clean their room. It is a sign our children are growing up when they start to accept their responsibilities, and perform their given tasks on their own accord.

At an even more mature level, a person identifies what needs to be done and takes care of it without guidance. Here is where asking yourself what you can do for your family comes into play. Develop the habit of looking at circumstances from the perspective of, “how can I help,” as opposed to “somebody else will take care of it.” This is about much more than just being helpful around the house. Having a proactive mindset is a key to success, as it leads to independence.

When faced with adversity, some people spend their time and energy blaming circumstances and others for their predicament. They also look to others for the solution, essentially behaving like a little child whose parents do everything for them. One thing that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu teaches us is that in the end, it’s up to us. Your professor can teach you the moves, your training partners can help you drill, but once you’re out there rolling, it’s all on you.

Is life much different?

Let’s teach our children to be independent thinkers – to be problem solvers. Let’s teach our children to “ask not what we can do for them, but what they can do for themselves.”

See you on the mat.

The Golden Rule

We’ve all heard it, or some derivation, before. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  The Golden Rule has been handed down through antiquity, from the ancient civilizations of Egypt, India, and Persia. It can be found, in some form or fashion, in every major religion or philosophy. People often adhere to it in the hopes of reciprocity, that is, “If I’m nice to you, you’ll be nice in return.” Parents and teachers use it to teach children empathy. I don’t know how many times I’ve caught myself asking my own daughters, “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”

It can also be a powerful tool in leadership.

Back in December, I blogged about Leading by Example, and mentioned the difference between being a boss and being a leader. It’s a common misconception that the two are synonymous. A boss is someone who’s position or title in an organization allows them to tell people what to do. They often have the power to reward and punish in order to enforce compliance. Being a leader, on the other hand, is much more than simply ordering folks around.

“The True Measure of Leadership is Influence – Nothing More, Nothing Less”

While there is no single trait that makes successful leaders, there are plenty of lists out there trying to boil it down to a manageable few. In his highly regarded bookJohn C. Maxwell discusses The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. One such law, The Law of Influence states, “The true measure of Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.” An effective leader doesn’t need a title, nor leverage. They influence those around them to success. They inspire through word and through deed.

Which brings us back to The Golden Rule. If you truly wish to lead others, you must first lead the way. Telling them what to do just doesn’t have the impact that showing them does.

If you want others to treat you with respect, treat people respectfully.

If you want others to work hard, then work hard.

If you want others to be honest, then always tell the truth.

If you want others to be patient, then be patient.

Whether as a teacher, or as a parent, it’s important to remember that this leading by example thing can go both ways. I don’t know how many times I’ve witnessed one of my daughters do something, only to realize exactly where it came from. Be prepared for your students/children to reflect both your best and worst traits.

If you’re impatient, don’t be surprised when your student/child is impatient.

If you’re inconsiderate of others, expect your student/child to be inconsiderate of you.

If you lose your temper, get ready for your child’s tantrum.

If you have unhealthy eating/exercise habits…

As martial artists, we have the power to better our lives, and the lives of those around us. We can inspire one another to greater success on and off the mat. Consider all of the people we get to train with. Who is the most enjoyable to train with? Who is the most helpful or inspiring, and why? What kind of a training partner are you?

See you on the mats!

Clean Your Room

As parents, we’ve all been there. “How many times do I need to remind these kids to clean up their stuff?” I have to laugh at myself when I hear the discussion between my daughters and I – the same discussion I had with my mom some four decades ago. I’m guessing it’s probably the same discussion she had with her parents, and sounds identical to the one our daughters may someday have with their children. The rooms always end up a mess, and we adults always demand they be cleaned. Round and round it goes.

I’ve come to care a bit less about how tidy the girls’ rooms are on a daily basis. They can make as big of a mess as they like, knowing that eventually the place will need a good cleaning, and it’s their responsibility to do it. I think it’s vital for children to learn this at an early age, because this simple act reinforces a larger ideal. The concept is fundamental to being successful, and to being a good citizen. Each of us must hold ourselves accountable for the mess we make, and be responsible enough to clean it up.

Have you ever attempted to park while shopping, only to find a shopping cart blocking the spot? The inconvenience of finding another spot, or getting out and moving the cart represent the cost you pay, albeit minor, for another persons actions. Ever notice how many carts are left out? Or how often people leave garbage in them? The increased work-hours spent collecting, cleaning, and returning them to the store represent an expense for the business, and thus will be reflected in a higher cost (once again, to you) of the goods sold.

I often see frail older people essentially using the cart as a walking aid, or harried moms simultaneously trying to load their groceries and their hoard of kids into their minivan.  These are instances when I’m personally willing to absorb the costs for their sake. In fact, I’ll volunteer to take the cart back if I’m headed to the store.

On the other hand, most of the carts are left haphazardly by completely able-bodied folks apparently too busy to be bothered. Perhaps they consider the increased cost incurred by their actions to be a convenience fee. Maybe they figure they’re creating jobs for some low-wage, entry level positions. Personally, I can’t help but wonder whether their parents made them clean their room.

Such evaluation of the costs/benefits of our actions is a big part of being civically minded. Taking the time to consider how our actions affect those around us makes us more aware of our role in our community. By striving to be better friends, neighbors, daughters, sons, fathers, mothers, and teammates, we can be a “force for good.” We can positively effect the communities in which we live.

“Leave no trace”

One of my favorite pastimes is backpacking. I love being out in the middle of “nowhere,” and the solitude that comes with it. There’s something very empowering about hiking two to three days into the wilderness, and knowing that it’s all on you; everything you need, from your water to your food, to your shelter, and even your first aid. You are solely responsible for taking care of yourself and getting yourself back out again.

You’re also responsible for packing out everything you took in.

Being completely surrounded by the sounds and smells of the mountains is an amazingly refreshing and rejuvenating break from the noisy hustle and bustle of our suburban existence. Even though there’s always a hint along the way of those who’ve come before, i.e. the trail, campsites, fire rings, there’s not much other evidence of fellow hikers. A large part of the ambience of the wilderness is this absence of human debris, and it’s a disheartening distraction when you come upon somebody’s discarded granola bar wrapper. Part of the ethic of backpacking is cleaning up after yourself, so that those who come after can enjoy the same “pristine” feel that nature has to offer. In backpacking we say,“Pack it in, pack it out.”

What’s in it for me?

There’s more to be learned from cleaning our rooms than a basic civics lesson. It also helps us develop the habit of holding ourselves accountable. For example, instead of a messy room, let’s say a person finds themselves a mess. They haven’t taken good care of themselves for a couple decades. They’re out of shape, overweight, have terrible eating habits, and along with the onset of middle age, they find out they’ve got high blood pressure and pre-diabetes.

Many folks find themselves in such a predicament and blame a plethora of external factors for their fate. Not only do they point the finger in every direction imaginable to lay blame, but they also sit around, waiting for somebody else to fix the problem. They never learned the lesson behind cleaning their own room. Because of this, they will never be able to achieve any level of success.

People who learn to clean their own room learn to take care of their own affairs. They learn to take responsibility for their actions. They acknowledge the mess they’ve created, and take steps to fix it. In the event they inherit a messy room not of their own doing, they don’t waste time pointing fingers. They get busy cleaning up the mess.

How clean is your “room?”

See you on the mats.

 

F.E.A.R.

One of the ways we humans distinguish ourselves from the rest of the species on the planet, is our cognitive ability. Our capacity to reason, to use logical and abstract thought, is what has enabled us to go from being nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic “stone age” to  the modern era, from flint knives and tools made of bone to walking on the moon!  We reflect on the past, recognize patterns, correlate cause and effect, and calculate the odds of future events. We have dreams, imagine abstract concepts, and experience emotions like love, fear, and anger.

Our brain does more than just store data and contemplate the meaning of the universe. It contains our body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls all of our unconscious, “automatic” activities, such as heart rate, digestion, and respiratory. It is also the driver behind our so-called fight or flight response. This instinctual response is powerful and fast, and for good reasons. When suddenly faced with a life or death level threat, the immediacy and intensity of the response is paramount.

This whole system works pretty well, as witnessed by how far humanity has come over the millennia. We have our minds to thank for all of the advancements we are surrounded by in our daily lives. However, there are some kinks in the program, and these can result in a full spectrum of negative consequences.

In the presence of imminent danger, fear is the result of a healthy, natural, and powerful response. It is an autonomic response in which the amygdala, a primitive part of the brain, quickly responds and prepares us for survival. The ensuing dump of hormones increases your heart rate, shortens your breathing, and  prepares your muscles to explode into action. Your mind and vision become more focused on the task at hand. In this state, you are primed to fight, or to take flight.

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”

-President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Fear is also an emotion elicited in response to things we perceive to be threatening. We might be afraid of heights, speaking in front of an audience, or flying in a plane. To feel a bit anxious in any of these situations would be considered normal. If the fear is debilitating to the point of negatively effecting one’s life, however, then taking the time to assess the actual risk could be helpful. This is where things get a bit tricky, because we are terrible at assessing risk.

Our modern world is much more complex than that of our ancient ancestors. We now live predominately in densely populated, urban settings surrounded by fast moving technology. Our access to information via television, radio, and the internet is exploding exponentially. All of this information provides the opportunity for us to become more well-informed, and thereby to be better at risk analysis. However, there are some barriers that hinder that ability.

Our mind constantly handles so much information, that we’ve developed various psychological mechanisms to help sort through it all and speed up the process of decision making. These heuristics provide shortcuts to help streamline our thought process. We often refer to them as “a rule of thumb,” “stereotyping,” or “intuition.” Heuristics often lead to a variety of cognitive biases, and while heuristics and biases help us come to quicker conclusions, they can also lead to grave errors in judgement. This is especially true when it comes to assessing risk.

It’s also important to note that all of that information we have access to is filtered in a number of ways, such that we are generally working with just a portion of the “facts.” If your source for information is the news, it’s important to remember this: that which is newsworthy is the outlier, the anomalous. Reporting the norm, sadly, is rather boring. “Today, just like yesterday, and the day before that, 150,000,000 Americans went to work.” “50.7 million children attended over 98,000 public schools today, and will be all week long.” That’s not what the headlines look like though, is it? Instead, it’s, “Earthquake Destroys Village, Death Toll 300 and Rising,” “Train Wreck in Countryside Leaves 120 Dead, 300 Injured!”

False Expectations Appearing Real

The availability heuristic is the tendency to judge the frequency, the probability, of something based on how easily you can bring it to mind. This worked great for our great-great-great-great (you get the idea) ancestors. When they saw their buddy get mauled by a saber-tooth tiger, that threat became paramount: “saber-tooth tiger – BAD.” In our modern society, we don’t have to worry too much about being mauled by a tiger. In fact, when one looks at the actual statistics, we find that for the past 25 years our lives have continually gotten safer. Violent crime in the U.S. has been on an overall decline since their peak in the early ’90’s (and that includes the slight uptick for the past two years).

vcrimechart

Traffic safety has also been steadily improving. This is good news, as automobiles are one of the top causes of accidental death in the U.S. (37,757 in 2015, or 11.7 per 100,000)

traffic deaths graph
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

So why is it that a majority of Americans feel less safe than ever, when the reality is the opposite? In large part, we can thank our availability heuristic. Every time we see a heinous crime on television, or on the internet, that visceral image becomes dominant in our mind. A singular event portrayed over and over again becomes larger than life. We give it undue influence on our assessment of it’s frequency, and how likely it is to happen again. In this manner, our fear grows beyond reason, as a False Expectation Appearing Real.

What can we, as martial artists, do to remain calm in the face of the proverbial storm? How can we keep our head, and make sound decisions for our future, without allowing our emotions, our fear, to cloud our judgement? The first step is in acknowledging that such biases as our availability heuristic have an impact on our perspective. Second, when it comes to risk assessment, people really should study actual statistics, which can help clear up misconceptions. Here are a few resources:

Third, in my opinion, is to stop watching the news. These organizations do a poor job of presenting material in a manner that isn’t intentionally inflammatory, over-sensationalized, and down-right misleading. They want you ticked off, and/or scared. It sells.

Turn off the television, get on the mat and train.

Character

Over the past few years my daughters and I have really enjoyed watching the movie versions of Marvel’s Avengers. We can’t wait for the hubbub at the box office to die down, so that we can go to the latest installment, Black Panther. I think that part of the popularity in this series is the diversity presented in all of the various characters. Each has her/his own superpower, as well as their own personality. As they evolve under the stress of the various adversities they encounter, both individually and collectively, we see them struggle with their own character, both strengths and flaws.

While we are intrigued by their superpowers, I think the most engaging aspects of the storyline involve their struggles with their own, very real, and very human weaknesses. At different times, it’s reigning in their ego, or coping with self-doubt. Sometimes they must resist the temptation of power. There’s always the weight of doing what’s right for the greater good, versus what’s best for them. In the end, they always find their way through the turmoil, and make the hard choices that lead to success.

Which superhero is your favorite? Which traits do you appreciate the most? Obviously, while we can’t have their superpowers, we can rise to the occasion where it truly matters. While we train to develop our physical skills as martial artists, we can also work toward developing in ourselves the character traits we admire in our heroes, both real and imaginary.

See you on the mats!

 

“I Have A Dream”

As we celebrate the man this week, it’s important to remember his message. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy should stand as a reminder to us all that regardless of race, or for that matter, any other arbitrary external measure, we all are equal in our humanity. Individuals should “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” (follow this link to read, or better yet, listen to MLK’s historic address)

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

In the Korean martial art tradition, the uniform symbolized this equality. The idea was that, regardless of ones belt rank, all were students of the art and thus wore the same uniform. While a student of higher rank might be further along “the path,” and therefore have more knowledge in the art, they were reminded to appreciate the lower ranks for having the courage to start, and the tenacity to continue on the path.

While we don’t have a specific color code to our uniforms in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the moral code is the same. As practitioners, we have mutual respect for everybody willing to pursue the path we have chosen.

Training in BJJ is difficult, and anybody who’s put in an extended time on the mat knows this as undeniable fact. It is physically and emotionally demanding, requiring not only extraordinary physical output, but taxing your psyche as well. Learning to cope with winning & losing, fighting from uncomfortable positions, and retaining your composure under duress, all add up to a psychological workout like no other.

It is also a challenge to make the time to train. Most of us have lives off the mat and must work our training schedule into our lives, working around school, our jobs, and our families. To train regularly and consistently, while still maintaining our other obligations as family members and citizens is a task of herculean proportions.

It is important to note that, while we train to develop skills which can destroy, we train in a manner that strengthens both ourselves and our partners. In order for each of us to pursue excellence, we need excellent training partners. If we injured or “beat down” every soul who chose to train, we wouldn’t be able to achieve our goals. This necessity further reinforces the supportive culture we have on the mat.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Anybody is welcome to join our ranks. Regardless one’s color, creed, or station in life, if you have the courage to try, the willingness to commit, and the strength to continue, you are always welcome.

Honor

The group of warriors, locked in the throes of battle, are focused on the task at hand, oblivious to the world around them. Each individual is fighting his or her own battles, pushing the limits of their strength, their endurance, and their spirit. Simultaneously they are playing the ultimate game of chess, as they try to outwit their opponent, and develop their own strategic game on the mat. The solitude of the room is broken only by the occasional “tap, tap, tap,” and the eventual ring of the timer. At the end of class, they circle up, and with a bow, recite their motto, “Força e Honra,” Strength and Honor before shaking hands with, and thanking, their training partners.

Honor is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “a showing of usually merited respectrecognition.” We honor our instructor, our school, and our teammates through our appreciation. We respect Professor Cassio for his accomplishments as a competitor, his guidance as an instructor, and his example as a family man. We support our school and our teammates as part of that honor, showing up to train, contributing our own “blood, sweat, and tears” to the process of helping make each individual better. We honor our teammates, for we share the common understanding of the trials and tribulations we all experience on the mat.

Merriam-Webster also defines honor as, “a keen sense of ethical conduct: integrity.” There have been various attempts to codify ethical conduct, none more apropos than those coming from the warrior communities of the U.S. Marine Corps and Jiu Jitsu’s own Bushido heritage.

As per the U.S. Marine Corps website,

“Honor <sic> is the bedrock of our character. It is the quality that empowers Marines to exemplify the ultimate in ethical and moral behavior: to never lie, cheat, or steal; to abide by an uncompromising code of integrity; to respect human dignity; and to have respect and concern for each other. It represents the maturity, dedication, trust, and dependability that commit Marines to act responsibly, be accountable for their actions, fulfill their obligations, and hold others accountable for their actions.”

The Bushido of the Samurai was a code of conduct which evolved over the centuries. Earlier versions include The Hagakura, and The Book of Five Rings. These codes were eventually  paraphrased, so to speak, as The Eight Virtues of Bushido by Nitobe Inazō in his book Bushido: The Soul of Japan.

  • Righteousness ( gi)
  • Heroic Courage ( )
  • Benevolence, Compassion ( jin)
  • Respect ( rei)
  • Integrity ( makoto)
  • Honour (名誉 meiyo)
  • Duty and Loyalty (忠義 chūgi)
  • Self-Control (自制 jisei)

As martial artists we train for the love of the art, to make ourselves stronger, for fun, and for the camaraderie. We pay homage to these ideals after every workout, with the intent of making them a part of our lives. They espouse something greater than ourselves; something to live up to. Just as warriors, both past and present, we too live by a code. Força e Honra.

See you on the mat!

Take a moment

On this anniversary of 9/11, we’d like to take a moment to contemplate the magnitude of such a tragedy, and all of the innocent lives lost. Our thoughts go out to the friends & family of those who perished on that infamous day.

Our gratitude goes out to the 1000’s of men and women who chose to run toward the danger that day, instead of away from it, many of whom lost their lives trying to save others. We have great appreciation for all of the first responders, firefighters, and police who go to work every day, to protect and serve, not knowing whether they will return home to their own.

It’s also a good time to consider the ensuing war we are are still engaged in, and all the lives lost fighting that war. Our gratitude goes out, as well, to all the military members, past and present, who put their own lives second to fighting for their country. We owe you and your families a debt that can never be repaid.

Please take a moment to consider all that people have given to make this country a great place to live. Make the most of the day.

See you on the mat!