I Tried So Hard and Got So(rta) Far
And in the end...does it even matter?
History is full of failures, successes, failures from successes, and successes from failures. My history in jiu jitsu is chock full of each.
I like to joke (mostly to myself) that in jiu jitsu, instead of the circle of life, there is the circle of smash. Someone who gets the upper hand on you in a training round might be the next one getting smashed in the next round. You might get completely wrecked by someone and start spiraling into an existential crisis, only to send someone else into a tailspin the next round.
As much as I try to escape the circle of smash, I cannot. Just like a rocket would need to reach a certain escape velocity to make it into space, the truth of how little I knew in jiu jitsu — and how little I knew about what I knew — came crashing down on me the other day.
My training partners, past and present, observe that I’m too harsh on myself. So in some way, I might be perpetuating the circle of smash, only on myself. It might seem enviable that I’m always in the pursuit of something better, but the effort doesn’t always match the outcomes. You can train every single day and still wind up in a bad position; jiu jitsu is relentless in reminding us that someone out there will best you at any time. Of course, the more experienced you get, the less chances that may happen, but I would argue that though the frequency of failure falls, the intensity of failure rises. And so, the whirlpool of existential angst grows…
I want to make learning — especially the painful parts — as normal as flossing my teeth before bed or checking the weather when I wake up. Instead of viewing mistakes as diseases to be rooted out from my training experience, I need to see mistakes as part of the learning landscape. In time, I hope that failure feels less unnature and struggle less of an aberration.
A word of caution, though — I do not intend to normalize the destructive parts of jiu jitsu. A good check is to ask myself if investing time in this skill will pay dividends for me in the long run, and also, if there’s a less invasive or more efficient option that I can try out first.
For instance, as I’ve shared with some friends recently, I don’t think I can ever normalize the stress that comes from competition, especially in single-elimination formats. It is not something I’m going to strive to make a mundane experience, because it will never be that way for me. I will also never normalize behavior that goes against my values in a martial arts education.
I think that when we struggle about the meaning and purpose behind jiu jitsu, it is usually also a question about the meaning and purpose of where we are putting our time and energy. It is a question about what we truly want and whether we are taking steps proactively in the right direction. Whenever I have found myself unhappy about my training, I usually feel better once I sit down to reflect on my true desires and evaluate how far I am from them. While the answer might not be easy, it is better than feeling directionless and lost.
When I look at social media influencers in the jiu jitsu realm, I feel envious sometimes of their clear direction. They know that to gain visibility in this crowded arena, they need to win championships, get sponsorships, compete in superfights, hand out instructional content, get to black belt, and get jiu jitsu media attention. When a path towards a “respectable” jiu jitsu identity is so clear cut, it’s easy to forget that there are other options that are just as “respectable” in their own ways. I don’t think the path is easy — it is definitely filled with a ton of sacrifices and work — but the fact that so many people easily fall into that trap at some point in their jiu jitsu careers, without giving a second thought to another alternative approach, is what scares me the most. But again, I am envious of this simplicity.
I don’t intend to paint myself as a victim here. I know the choices that I have made are vastly different than the people who spend thousands of dollars and hours to train hard and to perform well. Of the people who do strength and conditioning, of which I recently lasted for all of 8 weeks, and am now in the process of quitting and moving on, partially because I want to save money, but partially because I just don’t really care to put in the work. I take responsibility for that, and I have no regrets. However much I hate on people who know what they are doing, I know that this is simply a reflection of my deepest desire to have faith in what I’m doing for myself and to have the confidence that what I am doing is the right thing, even though it looks different from the “popular kids.”
These feelings of angst that I have are not the only emotions I feel. In fact most days, I feel happy to train and to be amongst friends. I do think that it’s important not to pretend that things are always delightful in jiu jitsu, though, because acknowledging moments of doubt is part of the journey of self-discovery.
I’m still exploring and trying to figure out where my place is in all of this jiu jitsu, but on some days, I still need to remind myself that even if I can’t fully place my finger on why I do jiu jitsu, the fact is that I keep coming back, even if it is to be smashed again.