What Jiu-Jitsu Has Taught Me About Success and Failure

When I started in the martial arts I went a bit extreme and tried more than a dozen forms in under a week. After that wild skirmish, I came away practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). This is a violent sporting form – which means it is designed to submit without incapacitating the opponent permanently.

The Value of Attention

Since I first started Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu I have learned a lot about attention. It isn’t enough to want to win, or even to have perfect technique. It is important to pay attention to what you are doing, too. I have noticed three categories into which practitioners fall, depending on their experience: adrenaline-fueled fight-or-flight novices, especially aggressive intermediate practitioners and the very advanced practitioners, who are almost always very calm, collected and intentional. I have heard it said that “crazy” wins every time, and it is my experience that when I feel like I am fighting for my life I will do so twice as hard, and often overcome by sheer force of energy more advanced opponents. But against the most advanced, who are invariably calm in the face of my high-energy, I don’t stand a chance. This is due to the amount of attention that these most advanced students bring to bear on a situation: they are better at seeing what is actually in front of them, not put off just by high energy assaults.

brazilian jiu jitsu
Photo: Michael Holler

The value of attention has extended well beyond the martial arts into many other areas of my life. Since noticing how quickly I failed against the advanced opponents, I have begun to be more aware of similar fight-or-flight instincts that I have outside the sparing arena. By observing my patterns in jiu-jitsu I have become aware of how I engage similarly in the rest of my life. To give just one example, I recently went in to a job interview that I very much wanted. As I entered the door I felt a surge of adrenaline and experienced an almost hallucinatory experience of being outside my body. I recognized the amount of adrenaline I was experiencing and considered the consequences of such behavior in jiu-jitsu. Invariably, the novice will not see the next attack coming and lose. By realizing what I was experiencing in that moment, I took a couple of deep breathes, reconnected with my enthusiasm for being at the job interview and proceeded more calmly.

Awareness has the power to dramatically improve our result, on and off the mat. Practice being aware of your habits in one environment, and they will transfer elsewhere in your life.

Redefine Failure

Another result of my training in jiu-jitsu has been to redefine my understanding of failure. In the competitive martial arts failure is a fundamental part of every training session. Often, failure is the only way to proceed. By contrast, in running my business, I have found failure to be taboo. A business deal that falls through, a project that doesn’t go as planned, some money lost: these things count as failures in business, and failures are bad. But in jiu-jitsu, the only way to practice a skill is to apply it on other people and have it applied on you. This can be done incrementally, tiny step by tiny step, but also needs to be done in real time to experience the full progression. We learn by doing, and at first execute very poorly. jiu-jitsu students practice failure repeatedly because that’s how we learn.

brazilian jiu jitsu sweep
Photo: Michael Holler

Actually, failure is an important part of how we learn from a very early age. Children learn to walk through try to crawl and failing, trying to cruise and falling, trying to walk and stumbling. We would do well to learn from their example. Instead, we consider failure an almost exclusively negative consequence and idolize those more successful as seemingly fail-proof. Whether in business or the martial arts, failure is an essential step towards eventual success.

How We Measure Success

Like most people, I compare myself to those I perceive as more successful than I am. I have done this in business and throughout many of my athletic endeavors. While it is a commendable trait to always be seeking to improve, it is also a detriment if we never consider ourselves good enough. In running my business I have rarely considered myself sufficient. Even if I’m delighted with my own recent progress, there is always more that I feel that I should be achieving. In jiu-jitsu, while I might get pummeled and submitted by a peer, I immediately then observe my former opponent suffer a similar fate from someone his superior. Even the founder of my gym, an experienced black belt, regularly gets submitted by other classmates or outside instructors. The key difference between jiu-jitsu and the rest of my life is the immediacy of feedback. Because in grappling we are constantly observing the failures of those much better than us, we are inured to the idea that their failure is bad. Our own expectations are recalibrated, failure becomes a part of the learning process and we lower our high standards.

One simple solution is to take more careful note of other’s failures, not to judge but to gain exposure to the idea that failure is not a problem. Another, simpler, path is to practice recalibration. Even just remembering that in jiu-jitsu I am okay with my follies is a useful reminder that I use, regularly, to become more comfortable with how I define my success and failure in the rest of the world.

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