The Best Jiu Jitsu Advice I've Ever Gotten
...and it wasn't even about jiu jitsu
I was in the office on the 22nd floor and trying not to look down at Times Square traffic. Behind the desk sat an impeccably dressed law firm partner, in a tailored suit. Two giant monitors worthy of superhero villany flanked both sides of his head, not unlike the ship that the Grand Inquisitor used in the Obi-Wan series. But this was no Disney, and there was no Jedi to save me for what was coming next.
I had just finished a long, hard summer trying to get hired as a first-year associate at the law firm, and I was about to find out if I was going to get the job. After the initial pleasantries, he pulled out my law school transcript. I gulped.
“Your grades are too low for us,” he said. “But we’ll give you the job since your work this summer was good. But, let me tell you, there’s a lot of antitrust courses on here. There’s more to antitrust than antitrust itself.”
Whether it is actually the case or simply due to my mental framing, I often find that the most memorable pieces of advice are often the most painful, because they point out a fundamental flaw that I need to overcome. The people who say them to my face don’t care if they upset me with their unpasteurized truth.
Something that I noticed in law school in terms of the difference for people who had taken some time off between law school and college. Intelligence and reasoning ability aside, the intangible quality that I lacked was simply real world experience engaging with problems in a non-academic context. In addition, these classmates of mine were much more well-read in terms of ideas, unlike the narrow bubble that I found myself in during college. They simply saw things in different ways that I hadn’t even considered before, simply because of their varied experiences.
Whether I want it or not, that piece of advice given to me as a young attorney stayed with me even after I left the law. In particular, it has profoundly affected my journey in jiu jitsu, in ways that I’m still trying to understand.
There is this saying in jiu jitsu that to get better at jiu jitsu, you have to do more jiu jitsu. This statement remains true. This is a sport and art where physical and mental labor is necessary for skill development and progress. And yet, jiu jitsu seems to present the same trap that I fell into for my law school years — the temptation to make jiu jitsu the only (or extremely central) part of one’s experience.
I have written about this before and have heavily implied, and will now simply state outright, that only focusing on jiu jitsu is unhealthy. Besides the risk of linking your identity and self-worth to a single activity, which inevitably leads to existential dread when something goes wrong, it also is just really freaking hard to keep up with physically over time.
But I want to make a bolder statement, which is that focusing on jiu jitsu as one’s number one priority will actually hurt one’s skill development, or at least result in suboptimal outcomes. This is because creating such an environment that puts other experiences always in second place, or consciously devalues them, causes you to miss out on themes and lessons that are absent, or difficult to uncover, through jiu jitsu.
A viewer made an astute observation in the comments section of a masterclass recorded between Lang Lang, a world-class pianist and a very talented 12-year-old. It was apparent that the latter struggled with feeling “sad” emotions when it came to interpreting a piano piece. Of course, the kid could play all of the right notes, but simply did not have the life experience to embody sadness in that moment. Similarly, as a martial artist, you may know how to secure dominant victories at the highest levels, but you may still be held back by demons that you haven’t faced. Tammi Musumeci, a world-class athlete, had this to say about her experiences while battling depression:
I love the "grind" and all the hard work and countless hours of training that goes into preparing for these tournaments. I love being able to showcase my hard work and ability on the big stage in front of the many people watching.
Even though I love all of this, most of the time, my mind didn't allow me to enjoy what it is that I love. It was not that I didn't prepare enough or that I wasn't mentally strong, it was just that my emotions prevented me from doing so and it was a very frustrating experience for me. I'm the kind of person who tries to ignore the pain I sometimes feel and try to push through, but sometimes doing so would cause me more distress and discomfort […]
I would have so much self-doubt and negativity that even if I came out the victor in the fight, I would still be so sad and depressed because it was just so frustrating having my own mind be the one to bully me and bring me down.
I believe that it is in living life, not “doing the thing” more, that will feed the richness of one’s artistry.
Doing well in jiu jitsu means that you’ve done well in jiu jitsu, but it is likely not the end goal nor the solution to the most fundamental and vexing of personal problems, which I argue are more important to tackle than any opponent on the mats. For Tammi, seeking therapy for her depression was the missing link that allowed her to eventually weave a better jiu jitsu experience for herself in the end.
And I acknowledge that jiu jitsu already teaches us a lot of lessons about failure, heartbreak, perseverance, resilience, blahblah — it is much more because it involves other people (often sweaty) and it involves physical stress (so it is more primal). But as the same argument that things in jiu jitsu are “not the same” as things outside of jiu jitsu, it stands to bear that this sport cannot provide us with everything, and nor should we attempt to force it. To do so would be shirk what I think is the core pursuit of martial artists, which is a greater understanding of ourselves, regardless of transient context.
For a long time, I only read self-help and jiu jitsu related books, because I wanted to improve myself. Then I “re-discovered” that there were other books out there which presented ideas in a slightly different way, whether in terms of the syntax (e.g., poetry) or the characters involved (e.g., novels). The novelty (pun intended) of the material made me open up a new part of my brain that had not considered things from that point of view before. Or, learning how to play ukulele showed me that challenges of having to use two different senses (strumming the strings and singing the lyrics) at the same time.
These examples are not here to ask you to take up another hobby besides jiu jitsu (though I do think that is a healthy move!). Even the simple act of stepping away and being with yourself can help you develop a sense of self that is more stable and long-lasting than the fleeting moments of day-to-day practice.
And, I also realize that most people are not in the stage where jiu jitsu is their whole world. That’s good. More than anything, this piece serves as a gentle warning to myself that when I dive too deep and too intensely into something, I forget. Sadly, for some, it takes a catastrophic event to make them look up and realize that there is an entire world above them. I would not want that to happen to anyone.
Live a life beyond the belt. I dare you to try it.