Focus

What a wonderful, crazy world in which we live. We work and we play. We go shopping, come home, and fix dinner. We rest. All the while, our families, friends, and neighbors are there, taking the time to make us part of their lives as well. Technology beckons, as the television, radio, computer, and smart phone also vie for our attention. There are books, blogs, and articles to be read, videos to watch, and games to play. The phone rings, pings, or vibrates to alert us to yet another call, text, or email to be answered. We become engulfed in the ebb and flow of traffic as we commute to work, and transport our children to school.

We are continually surrounded on all sides by a seemingly endless barrage. It often seems as though everything is demanding your immediate attention. In this ongoing sea of activity, it can be easy to lose sight of where you are, or where you’re headed. Our ability to focus is a powerful tool that can help us effectively traverse such a multifaceted  landscape.

Focus your eyes, focus your mind, focus your body.

One of mantras I teach younger martial artists is, “Focus your eyes, focus your mind, focus your body.” It’s a reminder of the importance of paying attention to the task at hand. When we spar at the studio, or compete at a tournament, we must have a singular focus. We need to keep our eyes focused on our training partner/opponent, our mind focused on our game plan, and our body properly prepared for the ensuing match. A break in any one of the three greatly decreases our chances of success.

While the intensity of competition demands it, this level of concentration is helpful in more common aspects of daily living as well. We really should strive to focus in such a manner on all endeavors throughout the day. Being continually distracted by extraneous factors, makes us less efficient at getting the job done. When writing this post, for example, I have to turn on the “do not disturb” on my iPhone. Otherwise, I’ll be tempted to respond to the five texts, 20+ emails, and three phone calls I’ll surely have waiting when I’m done.

“Wherever you are, be there!”

– Jim Rohn

Efficiency is one reason to be focused on the here and now. Safety is another. Being aware of one’s surroundings is the primary step in self-defense. For example, given the fact that automobile accidents are the #1 cause of accidental death in the U.S. with over 35,000 deaths annually, wouldn’t you think that it might be wise to pay attention while crossing a street, or while driving, for that matter? Yet, given the inherent risk, I am amazed at the number of people I see crossing the street with their gaze locked onto their smart-phone. (that makes “smart-phone” an oxymoron, doesn’t it?)

“Remember, today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.”

– Dale Carnegie

Quality of life is yet another reason to practice focusing on the here and now. Often times we bemoan past events, or worry about the future. While it is good to learn from our past mistakes, dwelling on them does nothing other than to relive the negative feelings caused. It is also good to plan for the future, and thus be prepared for tomorrow. Worrying about it, however, is just adding more needless stress to our already stressful lives. Learn from past mistakes and move on. Plan for the future, and trust your plan. Learn to live today for today, and enjoy every moment.

“There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called Yesterday and the other is called Tomorrow. Today is the right day to Love, Believe, Do and mostly Live.”

– Dalai Lama XIV

See you on the mat.

Achieve the Unachievable

I find events such as World Championships and the Olympic Games awe inspiring. Especially engaging are the individual sports like Gymnastics, Boxing, Track & Field, Wrestling, MMA, and of course, Brazilian Jiujitsu. Seeing the best of the best experience “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat” is a thrilling, emotional roller-coaster, and every time somebody wins the gold, or breaks another record, I rejoice in our human capacity for growth. We just keep getting better.

“Citius, Altius, Fortius.”

-Henri Didon, 1891

What really makes these spectacles so amazing to me is the knowledge that these glorious moments in time are the culmination of long, arduous journeys. Leading up to every victory, every loss, and every broken record are years of grueling, hard work; world-class athletes put in thousands of hours of disciplined, repetitive practice, suffer through dozens of injuries, and sacrifice leisure time away from family and friends. Spectators want to believe these folks have super human physical gifts, when in reality, their greatest “gifts” are an indomitable spirit and the willingness to endure what others won’t.

Ever heard of Alex Honnold? Neither had I, until I came across his video on TED.com. last week. In it, he talks about free solo climbing Yosemite Park’s El Capitan. Yes, that’s right – he climbed the 3000′ granite face of that monolith by himself, with no more equipment than “shoes and a chalk bag!”

Trust me, you need to watch this video.

I remember reading the headlines about this back in 2017 and thinking that it was pretty amazing. I also jumped to a conclusion similar to that of sports fans witnessing greatness; I assumed that some gifted, albeit crazy, climber had just up and decided to go make history. I couldn’t have been more wrong (except, perhaps, the crazy part). My assumption completely discounted all of the time and effort that Mr. Honnold put into preparing for the event – the decades of climbing experience leading up to the decision to do it, and then another two years training specifically for this one event. Imagine 100’s if not 1000’s of repetitions, and rehearsing the same moves over and over; eventually memorizing every crack, crevice and ledge in sequence up a 3000′ cliff.

Alex Honnold’s astounding accomplishments in climbing stand as a testament to what is possible. Whether you want to be a better parent, be more effective at work, win a World Championship in BJJ, or free solo El Capitan, the steps to success are the same.

  1. Dream Big. You’ve got to have a vision of where you’re headed, and believe in your ability to get there.
  2. Plan Well. You must develop a well thought-out plan of action.
  3. Work Hard. You need to put in the time & effort necessary to be prepared.
  4. Execute with Confidence. The first three steps fine-tune your ability and reinforce your belief to make your dream a reality – GO FOR IT!

What are you waiting for?

See you on the mat.

Where Are You Going?

Back in college, my friends and I took a few weekend road trips on nothing more than a whim and a shoestring budget. We didn’t know where we were headed other than “west until we hit the Pacific,” or “somewhere north of the Canadian border.” The haphazard nature of those come-what-may adventures was a lot of fun, and made for some fond memories. They were a great way of blowing off a little juvenile steam, while simultaneously celebrating the freedom of our youth.

Fast forward to our family’s recent month-long trip to Europe. Traveling with three children is no simple task in and of itself, but for an entire month throughout France, Germany, and the Czech Republic? This journey took months of meticulous planning and advanced reservations – but it was well worth it. We were able to cover over 3000 km (1865 miles) without feeling harried. We took in the iconic sights of Paris, ferried up the Rhein river and hiked in the Bavarian Alps. We stood in Roman ruins in Trier and toured the medieval town of Rothenburg. We explored the castle in Prague, and stood with one foot on each side of the line where a wall once separated East- from West-Berlin.

It should be apparent that the first model, while exciting in it’s spontaneous and unrestricted nature, is a pretty ineffective method of living out our daily lives. Accomplishing great endeavors requires some forethought and planning. (Anybody that has traveled with kids knows exactly what I mean.) Yet there are folks who have never sat down and made a life plan; they’ve never invested the time and effort to think about what they really want and what they must do to make it a reality!

Begin with the end in mind.

We’re always asking children, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” We need to sit down and ask ourselves the same question. Seriously. The first step in getting anywhere is knowing where we’re headed, both in the short term and for the long haul.

In his seminal work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey asks us to consider our own funeral. If there were to be four speakers from different spheres of your life, i.e. family, friends, professional, and community, what would you like them to say about you?

“Now think deeply. What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? What kind of husband, wife, father or mother would you like their words to reflect? What kind of son or daughter or cousin? What kind of friend? What kind of working associate?

What Character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? Look carefully at the people around you. What difference would you like to have made in their lives?”

Stephen R. Covey, (1989)

This exercise can help us recognize the root of our character, and what is truly important to us. Ultimately, this is our life’s work – our destination. All of our other goals, whether related to family, fame, or fortune, should align with this conceptualization of who we want to be.

Accomplishing tremendous undertakings is really just a number of smaller more manageable tasks chained together over time. Our life simply becomes a matter of making a good plan or detailed map of how we’re going to get to where we’re headed. We just have to decide where it is we wish to go. We must begin with the end in mind.

“Life is so strange, when you don’t know your destination.”

Missing Persons, 1982.

Be Proactive

Training in Brazilian Jiujitsu (BJJ) can be a life-altering experience. It’s a great workout in which we develop some powerful skills, for both self-defense and sport. It’s mentally stimulating to learn the moves and counter-moves, while developing one’s own “game,” or style. The training develops an intense esprit de corps, as teammates push one another to be their best. It is a powerful platform, providing us the opportunity to learn/re-learn the lessons that make us better at life – as sons & daughters, mothers & fathers, students, workers, and as citizens.

Being Proactive rather than reactive is one such lesson; Proactivity is vital for success on the mat, and in life.

Stephen Covey says being proactive means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives.” It requires taking the initiative to decide for ourselves how we will respond to the world around us and recognize that, ultimately, it is these choices which matter most. Furthermore, we must distinguish between things we have no influence over, and the things we do. Instead of reacting to events/people outside this “circle of influence”, we should focus on what we are doing about the things within. In this manner, we can actually expand our influence over time, and become more effective in the process. (Covey, 1989)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is covey-circles-1.jpg
Covey, 1989.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

-Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr

Too often people point to outside forces as the source of their lot in life. These poor souls blame their ancestors (genetics), their parents (psychology), or their circumstances (environment). As an extreme example, consider little children when something bad happens – they are experts at externalizing. If a child knocks a glass off the table, they say, “it broke.” After hurting another, a child claims, “they made me mad,” but when the roles are reversed it’s, “they hit me.” This immature way of seeing the world denies our individual agency, making us helpless victims to external things deemed beyond our control.

“When you point your finger ’cause your plans fell through, you’ve got three more fingers pointing back at you.”

-Dire Straits, 1980
Covey, 1989.

BJJ hammers the importance of Proactivity home in the most matter-of-fact manner. We all start our training at different times in our lives, and come to the table with varied backgrounds, fitness levels, and limitations. We “roll” with training partners who have more knowledge & skill, who are bigger, faster, stronger, and/or <insert trait of your choice>. When you’re in the heat of the battle, none of that matters. You just have to figure out what you’re going to do about it. You have to try and solve the puzzle.

It is vital that we recognize and accept our individual agency. We can’t do anything about the past, and there are many things that affect our world which we have no control over, but we always have the ability to choose how we respond. We can always decide what we’re going to do about it.

“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”

-George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Warren’s Profession

See you on the mat.


Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. Simon and Schuster, 1989.

It’s 2019 – What Are You Going to do About it?

With the New Year, there comes a sense of a new beginning; a clean page on which to write the story we want. People start out with the best of intentions, making a list of their New Year’s Resolutions, and taking the first steps in realizing their aspirations. Yet, while many aspire to achieve their goals, many will quit, and find themselves making the same goals the following year. This is so common that the entire concept has become a well-known punch-line.

One of the reasons some are successful while others aren’t lies in the difference between being interested, as opposed to being committed, to doing something.

Those who are simply interested in doing something plan on getting to it when it’s convenient. Whatever the goal, whether losing weight, finding a better job, or  finishing a college degree, the interested plan on doing it when they find the time, when everything lines up, or when they “feel like it.” So people interested in getting fit for the new year hit the gym, diligently putting in their time, for a few weeks. Soon, they start finding excuses as to why they can’t make it in as often. It becomes more and more inconvenient, until soon they’re not going at all.

The committed, on the other hand, do whatever they need to do in order to accomplish their goals. They learn everything they can about the pursuit, create a plan, and prioritize their time in order to assure they dedicate enough to the effort. They don’t allow anything to stand in their way. The committed don’t wait until they find the time, they make it. They don’t wait for everything to line up, they line everything up. They don’t wait until “they feel like it.” The committed follow through on the plan knowing the long-term goal will far outweigh any short-term feeling that may come and go along the way.

What were you interested in accomplishing last year, but never got around to?

Are you committed yet?

Sticks and Stones

While teaching English in Daejeon, South Korea, I found myself out late one particular night with a number of students. We were sitting around a Pojangmacha (포장마차), enjoying whatever various Anju (안주) were being served, along with some cheap Soju (소주) and good conversation, when this rather intoxicated fellow sat down next to me, and started intensely telling me what it was he had to say. My Korean skills at that point consisted of asking directions, and ordering food, so his diatribe was all but lost on me. His tone and body language clued me into his intent, but it wasn’t until his friend had taken him away that the students would tell me what he’d been saying. He was trying to insult me, derisively commenting upon all the standard topics á la Junior High: my appearance, my heritage, my mom. His intent was to hurt my feelings and make me mad, but as ill-intentioned as he was, I remained unscathed.

Of course it was easy to dismiss what he was saying; I couldn’t understand a word. Even after I was told what he said, I still was simply amused by his antics. The things people say have zero impact on our well-being; it’s only what we hear that matters. How we receive the message and process it is really what dictates its effect on us.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

As adults most of us are pretty adept at filtering the things people say. We are confident enough to not worry that much in the first place, and smart enough to recognize that the source, the intent, and the setting all play a role in how we accept it. A close friend making a snarky comment about our hair is much different than an acquaintance at work saying the same thing. Still, we all know how hard it can be at times, to not take some people’s words personally.

It is even more challenging for younger people to navigate these waters. Even with the frequently heard, “just kidding,” or “it was only a joke,” often times children’s feelings get hurt. They simply haven’t had the time and experience to develop effective discernment, and thus struggle with the nuance of sarcasm, hypocrisy, humor, and teasing.

One of the greatest tools we can give our children to help them weather this learning period is self confidence.

Being confident in who we are is like being vaccinated against the terrible things that people say.

Training in Brazilian Jiujitsu is a sure-fire way to develop a strong sense of self. As students repeatedly drill their skills and continually put them to the test, the grind makes one physically, mentally, and emotionally tough. Successfully “tapping out,” or submitting training partners with an ever-refining, ever-increasing arsenal builds confidence. Simultaneously, getting tapped out teaches resilience; our ego can take a “loss,” and thrive. Additionally, people who train in this manner are in little need of validation from others, thus what they say carries less weight.

It’s important to note that the most serious forms of teasing are committed by those who wish to build themselves up by tearing others down. Whether they’re seeking attention, or trying to establish their superiority, the perpetrators are looking for a victim. Just like bullies and criminals, they look for easy marks – people who appear unable or unwilling to stand up for themselves. The body language of a jujiteiro/a says, “I am NOT a victim;” it is a subconscious deterrent to predation.

If you want to teach your child how to deal with people teasing them, get them into a jiu jitsu class. They can train BJJ and learn to handle the trash talking with aplomb.

See you on the mat.

photo credit: kT LindSAy

Back To School

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

– President Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910

 

Professor Cassio Werneck traveled all the way to Danbury, Connecticut this past weekend to compete in the Fight 2 Win 83. His dossier is packed full of accolades from over 20 years of competing. From Brazilian State Champion to Pan American Champion, and from World Champion To Masters’ World Champion, Professor Werneck has won them all. He could easily rest on his laurels, yet he continues to lay it on the line; rather than taking the easy path, he chooses to challenge himself again and again.

This is the indomitable attitude of a warrior. It is the willingness to push one’s self past the comfort of the known; it is the self-disipline to embrace the day-in, day-out grind of never-ending improvement. It is the internal fortitude to commit to excellence, even when surrounded by a society full of those who settle for mediocrity. A warrior chooses to strive for more; win, lose, or draw, they will know that they gave it their best.

As summer comes to a close many of us find ourselves shifting gears – children head back to school, and parents re-adjust their shuttle schedules. This can be a time of excitement, and of a bit of trepidation; children can be a bit intimidated by the prospects of new teachers, and moving up a grade. It is a great time to remind ourselves, as well as our children, of the power of accepting the challenge – just dive in.

  1. Based on past experiences, make a plan of action, and execute.
  2. Stay focused on the task at hand, the potential for victory, and the many benefits of success.
  3. Remember that stumbling, sometimes even failing in the attempt, is still an opportunity for learning and growth. Learn the lesson and move on.
  4. Surround yourself with a good team. Your family and friends should be like-minded and support your efforts

We should approach the rest of our lives just like we train in BJJ. Play all in; push past comfort zones – sometimes winning, sometimes losing, and always learning. In the end we will know we gave it all we had.

Let the nay-sayers worry about the risks from the side-lines.

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.

Are You Comfortable?

I recently came across a blog written by another student of Brazilian Jiujitsu. Grips & Growls chronicles his journey. Anybody already living the BJJ lifestyle will be able to relate. For those considering trying Brazilian Jiujitsu for the first time, his is a fresh perspective from one who has just recently begun. One particular post entitled “Sweaty Floor Karate,” hit upon a key concept of our art.

When you’re comfortable being uncomfortable for a hobby, everything else gets easier.

Let’s face it. We all enjoy the good things in life. We glory in the opportunity to sleep in, look forward to the chance to just sit on the couch and “veg,” and spend our weekdays anticipating a weekend at the lake, or a night out on the town. Daily, we are tempted to just hang out at the local coffee shop. While we’re at it, we can snack on a Snickers® bar, have a soda with lunch, and a little cheesecake for dessert.

While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying any of these from time to time, too much of a good thing is, simply stated, too much.

Consider as well all of the technology we’re surrounded by, and for the most part, take for granted. It was all designed with the intent to make life easier. There are planes, trains, and automobiles that get us where we’re going. Flip a switch and we have lights. Push a button and we have air conditioning. Push another and we change the channel. Turn a dial and we’re mixing, juicing, and cooking our food. We can open and close the garage door without ever leaving our car. Indeed, with a few thumb clicks and swipes on our smartphone, we can do just about anything, without ever leaving our home!

Remember the people aboard the spaceship Axiom in the movie WALL-E?

Our modern, suburban lifestyle provides us with ready access to every luxury imaginable, and an environment nearly free from discomfort. However, all of this easy living has a downside: it makes us weak. Just like the poor folks abroad the fictional ship Axiom, such a lifestyle can leave us ill-prepared to deal with adversity.

There are moments in our lives that can be less than pleasant. Taking an exam in school, applying for a job, and speaking in front of a large audience are some common examples. Avoiding them isn’t always an option, and oftentimes it isn’t in our best interest to do so. A successful test score, job interview, or presentation could lead to a vast improvement in our lives in the form of college placement, employment, or a promotion. These are times when being able to remain confident, calm, and clear-headed can enable us to effectively deal with the circumstances. (Let’s call these the three C’s of being comfortable.)

Learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable is fundamental to the transformational power of Brazilian Jiujitsu.

There’s nothing quite like having a larger, stronger training partner who has gained a superior position to help us understand the importance of the three C’s. In this circumstance, it is guaranteed you are going to be uncomfortable. As the pressure they apply smashes you into the mat, it gradually becomes harder to breath, with each consecutive breath a bit more shallow than the last.

The beauty of Brazilian Jiujitsu is that there’s a way out. If you can stay calm and clear-headed enough to remember your technique, and then execute confidently, you can escape. Not only that, but it can become a total reversal of fortune. It is an exhilarating experience to escape, improve your position, and then submit the person who was smashing you moments before.

Brazilian Jiujitsu is physically and mentally taxing. It pushes us to our limits. This is what makes it so powerful. The confidence gained radiates into every aspect of our being. After training with our teammates, everything else appears less intimidating. Any anxiety regarding an upcoming exam, job interview, or public speaking engagement is more manageable. We can look life’s challenges in the eye and say, “is that all you’ve got?” Our training enables us be confident, calm, and clear-headed when facing adversity.

We can be comfortable being uncomfortable.

See you on the mats.