You Are Not Just a Rock

“Like a rock, I was strong as I could be,
like a rock, nothing ever got to me,
like a rock, I was something to see.
Like a rock.
Like a rock, standing arrow straight,
like a rock, charging from the gate,
like a rock, carrying the weight.
Like a rock.”

-Bob Seger (1986)

We admire rock. We use it as simile and metaphor throughout literature, from the old testament, “Ascribe ye greatness unto our God. He is the Rock, his work is perfect,” (Deut 32:3-4), to a cheesy ad in a fitness magazine for “rock-hard abs,” to Bob Segers’ pop hit, “Like a Rock.” Rock symbolizes strength, steadfastness, and honor. To be like a rock is to be reliable, consistent, and resolute in conviction.

Of course, there is a downside to being a rock. Nobody aspires to be as “dumb as a box of rocks.” Rocks are inflexible and extremely slow to change or adapt. Such rigidity is the antithesis of one of our most powerful human traits – our amazing capacity for growth.

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

-Winston Churchill

Nowhere is the capacity to grow more apparent than in the world of sports. World-class athletes, regardless their area of expertise, are shining examples of this. It is a common misconception that world-class athletes are simply gifted – the fortunate recipients of gifts endowed upon them by fate, or more scientifically speaking, good genes. Such “gifts” can only take one so far, however. In the final analysis, the commonality among world-champions is not having won the genetic lottery, but having the ability to improve.

Basketball’s Michael Jordan is a perfect example. Considered by many to be the NBA’S GOAT, anybody old enough to remember knows of his accomplishments on the court. What many are not aware of, is all the work he put in off the court. As a sophomore in high school he was initially deemed too short to play varsity. Rather than quit, he used that to motivate himself. “Whenever I was working out and got tired and figured I ought to stop, I’d close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it,” Jordan would explain. “That usually got me going again.” (Newsweek 2015) Regarding Jordan’s work ethic, Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson wrote,

The thing about Michael is, he takes nothing about his game for granted. When he first came to the NBA back in 1984, he was primarily a penetrator. His outside shooting wasn’t up to pro standards. So he put in his gym time during the off-season, shooting hundreds of shots each day. Eventually, he became a deadly three-point shooter.

Playing outstanding defense didn’t come automatically to him, either. He had to study his opponents, learn their favorite moves and then dedicate himself to learning the techniques necessary to stop them. He’s worked extremely hard to perfect his footwork and his balance.

Nowadays, so many kids come into the league with arrogant attitudes, thinking that their talent is all they need to succeed. By contrast, there’s a certain humility in Michael’s willingness to take on the difficult work of making himself a more complete player. For me, one of the signs of Michael’s greatness is that he turned his weaknesses into strengths.”

Through proper training, we can become faster, stronger, and more agile; we can continually develop an ever increasing level of skill, and become more in-tune to the nuances of the game, whether it’s basketball, Brazilian jiujitsu, or life.

This capacity for growth isn’t restricted just to our physical selves. It’s important to remember that we have just as much ability to improve ourselves mentally and emotionally. We need to nurture what Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck calls a growth mindset, and reject the fixed mindset – the belief that ability is static(Dweck, 2016)

With a growth mindset we acknowledge our potential. We don’t fear challenges, but see them for the opportunity they represent. Through the proper effort, we can deal with what life throws at us, and continually grow in the process. We can build our bodies and our minds. In this manner, we are not so much like a rock, but more similar to a plant. We continually grow stronger, adapting to the conditions of the world around us.

See you on the mat.

Dweck, C. (2016). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books

Jackson, Phil (June/July 1998) Michael and Me. Retrieved from http://www.nba.com/jordan/is_philonmj.html

Not Fine China

Let’s face it, life here in the burbs of NorCal is pretty sweet. We are lucky to be raising our children in a time and place where they are unbelievably safe, and it keeps getting safer, despite what the media would have you believe. While all the improvements we’re witnessing are good news, I fear that in an overzealous attempt to guarantee their safety, we are actually putting our youth in harm’s way. Is it possible to be too safe?

“Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?”

-Shakespeare, As You Like It

Why yes, William, one can have too much of a good thing. Take water for example – it’s not only good for you, it’s vital; we require water to survive, and many should drink more than they currently do for optimal health. Yet too much water is more than a little problematic; water intoxication (hyponatremia) can be fatal. So can drowning.

In this same fashion, the “better safe than sorry” mantra has been taken to an extreme. Our parks have rubberized crash pads under age-appropriate play structures, with nary a treacherous teeter-totter nor merry-go-round in sight. Even with all of this benign safety equipment, there’s always a parent near-by, hovering about like a helicopter from the local news station, waiting to jump in at the first sign of danger. Children rarely walk, or ride their bikes, to school. When I do see them biking, they look geared up for battle – not only sporting a helmet, but also wrist braces, and elbow & knee pads. Once at school, they’re not allowed to play freeze tag or dodgeball for fear someone might get hurt. Just like the public swimming pool, it’s become the land of NO: no running, no diving, no chicken fighting, no pushing, no this, no that, no…..

The teachers and/or parents always hovering nearby are also the new arbiters of all that is right. Not only are we making sure nobody gets physically injured, it is now of vital import that nobody’s feelings get hurt either. Anytime there’s a bit of disagreement, there’s an adult ready to jump in and straighten it all out. Read your local school board policy and you’ll note an emphasis on students’ feelings of safety.

“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” 

– Friedrich Nietzsche

In our pursuit to shield our children from any and all physical, emotional, and mental distress, we are also removing valuable opportunities for them to develop into strong individuals. Bumps, bruises, and hurt feelings (gasp!), are all very real, and vital components of children at play. These are opportunities for our children to develop better risk assessment, become more independent, learn to fall and get back up, and fine-tune their conflict-resolution skills. Perhaps most importantly, they will realize that their bodies, as well as their feelings, will not only heal, but be that much stronger because of it.

In his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder,  author Nassim Nicholas Taleb asks us to think beyond fragility and resilience, and recognize that some things are antifragile; they need to be stressed and challenged in order to adapt and grow. The fine china we received from my in-laws is fragile; it breaks easily, and can’t heal itself. The plastic cups our daughters used as toddlers are resilient; they take a beating and remain relatively unchanged. We need to think of our children as neither fragile nor merely resilient – they are antifragile. Just like our muscles, bones, and immune system, our children get stronger when faced with challenges.

“Thus, when Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil. It exposes his body to hunger, and subjects him to extreme poverty. It confounds his undertakings. By all these methods it stimulates his mind, hardens his nature, and supplies his incompetencies.”

– Mencius,  4th Century BCE

This is the nature of training in jiu jitsu. We are continually putting ourselves under pressure – the pressure of combat, in order to become physically, mentally, and emotionally tougher. BJJ students are antifragile; we are not made of fine china.

See you on the mat.

Magical Thinking

“What do you wanna be when you grow up?

We’ve all heard this question before, and the answer is unique to each of us. Toddlers answers are the best; they want to be mermaids, superheroes, and unicorns. As children get a bit older, their aspirations shift from the fanciful to the more pragmatic. They plan on being athletes, firefighters, doctors, and teachers. Many want to follow in their parents’ footsteps, while others want to go their own way. Some want families, while others want to fly solo. Some kids envision a big house, and others fancy cars. Many dream of fame and fortune. Whatever the dream may be, it takes vision and courage to make it a reality.

Vision and Courage: super powers for mortals.

“If we take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.” 

Maria Edgeworth

We need to have the vision to see where we want to be in 10/20/30 years, and how we’re going to get there. Such a goal doesn’t just magically happen, but is the net result of years of effort. The years being made up of days, our daily habits become the foundation our future is built on. Therefore, our habits are either helping us achieve our vision or they are holding us back.

“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”

Samuel Johnson

Changing bad habits is no easy task. The longer we’ve had them, the more difficult it is. As if it weren’t hard enough, we also tend to fear change, even when we recognize it’s for the best. It’s amazing the amount of suffering people are willing to accept simply because it’s familiar; their fear of change, along with the opportunity it presents, is greater than their current misery. Whether it’s going back to school, getting a new job, adopting a more healthy diet, or diving into a more intense workout regimen, we must have the courage to accept/make the changes necessary to turn our vision into a reality.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

– (here is a thorough look into where this quote came from)

For better and worse, we are creatures of habit. We find comfort in the familiarity of our routines, neighborhoods, and friends. How we choose to spend our days inevitably leads to how we spend our years, thus, we must have the vision and courage to make sure today’s habits are in line with tomorrow’s aspirations. Having long-term dreams of success while maintaining counter-productive habits is no different than aspiring to be a unicorn. It’s just magical thinking.

See you on the mat.

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.

Perception

We recently took our family to Hero’s Virtual Reality Adventures, and had a great time immersing ourselves in the imaginary worlds of the various games. It is truly amazing how engaged you become, as you lose touch with “reality.” While your logical self knows you’re simply in a room with your family & friends, your senses are telling you a different story; you find yourself flinching in response to an orc-thrown battle axe. Your heart races and your legs get weak when you step out of the elevator onto a wooden plank some 40 stories up, even though you know it’s a 2X6 lying on the floor.

The reality we perceive.
The reality she perceives.

Of course it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that our senses could so easily deceive us. In a very real sense, we already create our own virtual reality. A limited amount of information further distorted by our own psychological biases leaves us with a perceived notion of the actual reality of the world around us.

One of the most powerful is the Negativity Bias: the tendency to focus on the negative. This bias stems from our ancestral past, where recognizing imminent danger (negative) could mean the difference between life and death. While modern society has greatly reduced the existence and severity of such threats, for many of us the tendency to focus on the negative remains.  (here’s an earlier post on this)

What do you see in this image?

36864495_s
Copyright: Krisdog / 123RF Stock Photo

Initially, most people will see a broad canopied tree with a crooked trunk. How many see the two faces? Once we see the one image, it can be difficult to see the other, but with a bit of effort, we can direct our mind to see both. In this manner, it is important for us to strive to look for the positive in our daily lives, in order to balance out our tendency to focus on the negative.

As a martial artist, do you focus on your successes or your failures? Do you focus on how far you’ve come, or how far you have to go? Do you see problems as insurmountable barriers, or challenges to be overcome? Do you dread an upcoming workout because of it’s difficulty, or anticipate the feeling of accomplishment? Do you dwell on the “boring” redundancy of yet another class, or look forward to the exhilaration of adding a powerful skill to your arsenal?

As with any great endeavor, becoming a good Jujiteiro/a is a difficult undertaking, requiring much time, effort, and sacrifice. By staying focused on the positive, we can avoid the many self-inflicted pitfalls that would otherwise keep us from success. A positive attitude helps us see past temporary discomfort, and enticing distractions. It helps us work through short-term feelings of boredom. It gives us the perspective to avoid self-doubt. Just like a great arm-bar, it only requires a bit of practice.

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.

Crabs in a Bucket

While on family vacation in Santa Cruz with our Montana peeps, we’ve been enjoying the idyllic lifestyle that the area has to offer. In between hitting the rides at The Santa Cruz Boardwalk, watching the sailboats put in and out of Santa Cruz Harbor, and strolling along The Wharf, the days have been spent building sand-castles, body surfing, boogie boarding, and checking out tide pools at Natural Bridges State Beach.

The crabs, wharfs, and beaches, along with the broad swath of humanity here remind me of the “crabs in a bucket” metaphor. As the story goes, crabs collected in a bucket can’t escape because just as one reaches the top, the others drag it back down. It’s a vivid metaphor for human behavior driven by envy, spite, or competitiveness.

Our Brazilian Jiujitsu community is the exact opposite of this. Even though we’re engaged in a combative sport, in which we “fight” one another on a daily basis, it is a surprisingly communal effort. Our competitive training makes each of us better, and we push to improve ourselves as well as our teammates. We don’t envy other’s successes; we celebrate them.

Congratulations to all of the Werneck Family who’ve recently promoted. Your hard-earned successes are yours to enjoy. You know how hard you had to work, how much you had to sacrifice, to get where you are. We do too – so we’re celebrating your success with you.

belt promotions

See you on the mat!

The Coveted Black Belt

In the martial art industry, there is a very broad spectrum of what it means to be a black belt, and what it takes to achieve it. Time requirements range anywhere from as little as a few hours/week for two years up to  hours/day for a decade. Some schools require efficacy in sparring; many put more emphasis on katapoomse, or taolu. A student’s character, leadership, and “life skills” are also common qualifiers for black belt. Some systems award black belts regardless of age, while others reserve this rank for adults.

As should be apparent, this results in a tremendous range of skill and knowledge (or lack thereof) within the black belt community. The internet is packed full of video evidence to back up this claim. One can find videos of black belts performing amazing feats, and extraordinary fighting prowess, and black belts demonstrating skills that are, to put it kindly, less than awe-inspiring. This is a natural result of the vibrant diversity of our human condition and the free market.

But should it all be representative of being a black belt?

If everyone understood that a black belt was simply a level of achievement specific to the confines of a particular system, then such diversity wouldn’t be so problematic. However, that simply isn’t the case. As a social construct, Black Belt implies a certain level of expertise. According to dictionary.com, a black belt is “a black cloth waistband conferred upon a participant in one of the martial arts, as judo or karate, to indicate a degree of expertise of the highest rank.” Merriam-Webster says a black belt is “one who holds the rating of expert in various arts of self-defense (such as judo and karate).” 

Let’s be honest. People don’t aspire to be a black belt because it symbolizes “better than average.” They strive to be a black belt because it represents the highest level of achievement – as an athlete, as a martial artist, as a human being, and as a leader.  They want to be a black belt because it represents expertise in the art of kicking butt.

Consider this.

Each of my three daughters has their passion: one loves to run, one loves to dance, and the third loves gymnastics. Each has the same choice to make in pursuing these activities: is it a recreational hobby, or are they going to pursue EXCELLENCE? Each can choose to dabble in their “art” a few days a week. The runner can go out and put in her miles at her leisure, while the other two can attend recreational programs for just this purpose. Over time all three will reap the many benefits that come from such participation. However, at these levels, they will NEVER become experts in these endeavors.

The runner puts in 1+ hours of training six days a week during the on-seasons for high school track and cross-country, and tapers to an hour/day in the off-season. Experts in these fields train/compete through high school and college, which works out to around eight years. Then they put in additional time getting a degree or certification in order to coach. The ballerina puts in 20+ hours/week at the studio during the school year, and does an annual three-week intensive (six hour days/six days/week). By the time she’s considered an expert, she will have been training in this manner since sixth grade. The gymnast is currently just recreating a couple times a week. If she decides to pursue it, the competition team starts out at about 5 hours/week for her age, and builds up from there.

annual training comparison

The average karate/taekwondo school utilizing the standard twice a week, 45-minute class structure promotes students to Black Belt in three years. Throw in six months of Saturday morning intensives, and it’s still less than 500 hours total. Compare that to the 2,250 hours in Brazilian jiujitsu (1.5 hours @ 3/week for 10 years), the runner’s 3000, the gymnast’s 6,750, or the ballerina’s 10,000!

There’s nothing wrong with training martial arts a couple times a week. It’s a fun way to stay active, fit, and learn some cool stuff.  Just don’t confuse recreation with expertise. If  you seriously want to be a Black Belt, you can make it happen –  you’ve just gotta be willing to put in the work. Next week we’ll discuss our Brazilian Jiujitsu belt system, to give you a better idea of what it’s going to take.

See you on the mat.