Forging the Heart Through Jiu-Jitsu

I began training Brazilian jiu-jitsu this summer at the age of 40. I started training jiu-jitsu for reasons including fitness and the pursuit of a new challenge. More than anything, however, I wanted to experience the struggle and stress of a physical battle with another human, fail in that struggle, and then ultimately learn how to survive and succeed in that struggle.  I certainly found struggle, but also unexpected lessons of deep and personal meaning, which will keep me connected to jiu-jitsu for as long as I’m able to do it.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or BJJ for short, is a combat sport system that focuses on grappling and ground fighting.  There is no striking.  Each grappler uses his or her whole body to implement a system of clinches, grips, and holds.  Focusing on leverage and precise technique, a properly trained grappler can manipulate even a larger opponent into submission by choke or joint lock. BJJ is astounding in its complexity, and often is described as “human chess.”

I had no prior martial arts experience.  I first heard of BJJ about twenty years ago in college. A close friend was a fan of the then new Ultimate Fighting Championship , and he enthusiastically described BJJ expert Royce Gracie’s dramatic victories over larger wrestlers, boxers, and martial artists.  That was in the early 1990s, and those first UFC fights — designed to test the superiority of different martial arts systems — were an interesting curiosity but didn’t capture much of my interest at the time.

I didn’t encounter BJJ again until a year or two ago, listening to Tim Ferriss’s podcast.  A number of Ferriss’s guests, including chess master Josh Waitzkin,  neuroscientist Sam Harris, and former U.S. Navy SEAL and writer Jocko Willink, all described their practice of BJJ, their obsession over its complexity and beauty, and the personal benefits they had each experienced from practicing the art.  And so, last summer, I found myself at the age of 40 walking into a BJJ academy for an introductory one-on-one lesson.  Over the course of an hour, the instructor introduced me to some basic principles of BJJ – how to use a basic escape from being flat on your back with an attacker sitting on your chest, how to submit an opponent with an armlock, and how to apply the unbelievably effective rear naked choke, which can render a powerful man unconscious within seconds  by cutting off all blood flow to the brain.  These techniques – simple but awesome in their power – were taught in a smooth, calm, respectful manner, with a conscious awareness of their utility and the responsibility required to employ them effectively.

I was sold and signed up.  And the next day, I found myself the newest student in the academy.  Imagine standing in a new, crisp white gi on a mat with two dozen other grapplers.  You don’t know exactly how much experience each of them has, but you know every one of them is more trained than you. You pay attention to the warm up and the lesson, working slowly through the technique with a polite but unfamiliar partner.

Now imagine the “live” sparring session that follows, where you square off with that partner, who has a great deal more experience (probably years) than you.  You slap hands, bump fists, and you are then left to defend yourself against an onslaught of attacks with nothing more than your untrained instincts.  The experience is overwhelming, much like being caught in a large wave, picked up and tumbling blindly through powerful waters, desperately hoping for the moment when the surge slows and you can begin to try to reorient yourself and recover.  You try to resist, only to find that your efforts to use brute strength are no match for the superiority of technique.  Your partner captures your arm in an awkward angle and you find yourself submitting to a shoulder lock.  You start again, avoiding that last trap, only to find your arm and head caught in your partner’s encircling legs in a move called a triangle choke.  Then you fail again, and again, and again.  Class after class, you fail.

I now train BJJ two or three times each week. Each class follows the same formula.  After a brief warmup of squats, pushups, and stretches, three techniques are taught.  The first typically is a self-defense technique, and second and third are BJJ grappling techniques.  Each technique is demonstrated, and then the students pair off and drill the technique.  The final ten minutes are spent in a “live” drill, where students engage in live sparring and try to refine and use the techniques learned in classes over time.  As students progress in their learning they spend more time sparring in unscripted live training sessions.

One of the things that makes BJJ unique among martial arts is that you can train at full intensity without the same risk of injury that is present in other martial arts.  In any striking discipline, be it boxing, kickboxing, tae kwon do, or mixed martial arts, the trauma caused by kicks and punches requires participants to spar at less intensity than they would employ in a real fight.  In practicing grappling, however, the risk of blunt force trauma is not present, as no striking is permitted.  This means that two grappling students can move at full speed, with full intensity, for long sparring sessions.  This intensity allows students to test the effectiveness of attacks and defense in an environment very similar to a real-world struggle.

Of course, that intensity and the inherent complexity of BJJ makes for a formidable physical and mental challenge, especially for a beginner.  And in that challenge, which often leads to failure, I found lessons even greater than the techniques themselves:

The Importance of Humility

BJJ makes you humble.  Or, perhaps more precisely, it requires you to be humble.  Because if you cannot summon humility, and lots of it, your ego will never allow you to return to class again.  In BJJ, your opponent wins by submission – by submitting you.  “Submit” derives from Latin, literally meaning “to put under.”  And in BJJ, your opponent only wins by submission when you tap out, when you admit that you’ve been beaten, when you admit that your opponent has submitted you.  In tapping, you literally  are admitting that your opponent has put you under him or herself, that your technique was inferior to theirs.

There is no room for ego here.  If you study BJJ for any period of time, you will tap out and submit hundreds, eventually thousands of times.  If you give in to ego, give your ego too much power, you will never experience anything other than embarrassment or frustration in failure.  In contrast, approaching these moments with humility allows you to self-reflect, ask questions, accept advice, and most importantly – improve your game.

This principle is applicable in many phases of life.  Ego is dangerous. If we think we are too good to fail, or underestimate our opponents, we become vulnerable to surprise and we risk falling short of our goals.  On the other hand, if we are open and accepting of our mistakes, our weaknesses, our challenges, we can learn from past experience, adjust accordingly, and remain focused on our goals.  If your goal is improvement, be humble.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

How often to you seek out discomfort?  When you’re uncomfortable, what are you focused on?  Are you fighting to end the discomfort?  Or can you dig deep and remain focused on the goal, even if it means working through an uncomfortable moment and enduring, while you watch things develop?  I believe that we collectively have lost our ability to be comfortable with discomfort, and that as a result, we’ve lost opportunities to find betterment through pain.

In BJJ, there is an offensive move called a stack pass.  A stack pass is an attack where a grappler hooks both arms under your legs while you are on your back, and then drives forward until your knees are essentially buried in your eyeballs, if not behind your ears. He then slides around sideways until he can drop his weight on your torso and take control of your upper body.  It hurts.  It bends your spine into a painfully compressed curve, it stretches your hamstrings into lengths they’ve never known, and it smashes your eight inch neck into a three inch space between your flattened shoulders and the mat.  And it takes a long time.

Faced with this predicament, in the middle of a stack pass, you essentially have two options.  One, you can quit.  Quitting can mean rolling over, giving your back to a choke, flailing without purpose and exhausting yourself, or just lying there like a limp noodle with no plan.  Two, you can endure the discomfort patiently, but with focus, until a new opportunity presents itself.  Obviously, the latter choice is the right one.  The secret is that it’s not as hard as it seems.  But it requires comfort with discomfort.

We deal with hard times all the time.  We can’t control the circumstances of these moments, and we often cannot control the outcome.  But we can control the attitude we face challenges with.  In fact, our response to challenge is the one thing that no one can ever take away from us.  But we can never seize that power unless we take a deep breath, prepare to endure, and then get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The Long Road

Jiu-jitsu is a long road.  Some people say that the path to a black belt is ten years, although there are many students who have experienced longer roads than that.  It is impossible to walk such a long road if you find motivation only in ego or short-term satisfaction.  One can walk this path to satisfaction only if he or she has committed to process, to routine, to small gains.  I feel as though I have not walked far enough to even see the beginning of the path over the horizon, but I am heading towards the trailhead.

Winston Churchill said, ““Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” And that is what is most apparent to me in my very, very short exposure to BJJ.  Betterment lies in the willingness to do the hard thing, to do the difficult thing.  Betterment lies in the willingness to expose yourself to trial and fire and pain and humiliation.  Betterment lies in becoming comfortable with mistakes and failure and weakness, because if we are blind to these things, we will never see the path to conquering them.

I intend to keep walking the path.  I expect it to hurt.  I expect it to be hard.  I’m comfortable with that.  Greater things lie past the pain.


Recognizing and Using Anchoring Bias in Negotiation

We can’t see the world as it actually is, without the filter of our own minds.  We can train ourselves to be better at recognizing that filter, and what impact it has on our views, analysis, and decisions.  Remember, context is everything.

What is Anchoring Bias?

Anchoring bias is the phenomenon that occurs when we are over-influenced by certain information, and allow it to serve as a reference “anchor” for our future judgment.  Here are some examples:

  • A manager is upset when she believes that her project is running 40% over budget, but then pleased when she learns the project is only 20% over budget.
  • A buyer is thrilled when he negotiates the purchase price of a house at $10,000 less than asking price.
  • When a prosecuting attorney seeks a sentence of 5 years, the defendant’s attorney suggests and secures 4 years from the judge.

What’s wrong with each of these situations?  Each individual has won a small victory by “beating” the first number in the negotiation.  But each has also ignored the most important piece of information: the base rate. The outcomes above may feel like “wins” at first glance, but are they good outcomes when you compare them to goals? 20% over budget is still over budget.  The home buyer can’t tell if the purchase is a good or bad deal without deciding what the house is actually worth.  We can’t tell if 4 years in prison is a good or bad outcome unless we know the crime, the strength of the case, and the maximum possible sentence.  Context and the goal matter.

Avoid Anchoring Bias by Keeping Your Goals in View

Avoiding anchoring bias requires attention on three things:

  • Remember your goals – outcomes are measured by how close they match your goals, not by how close they match the opening bid.
  • Remember the base rate – outcomes are measured by their absolute value, not by comparing value to the opening bid.
  • Adjust your assessments with new information – Values change, so don’t forget to update your goals and value assessment when you receive new information. Don’t mistake a dynamic situation for a static one.

Using Anchoring Bias to Your Advantage

Have you ever watched a  talented catcher make a pitcher look better than he is?  If you watch closely, after catching a ball on the edge of the strike zone, a good catcher will quickly snap his glove back into the strike zone.  By anchoring the ball to the strike zone, he can influence the umpire to call some errant pitches as strikes.

Your negotiating opponent is susceptible to anchoring bias just like you are.  So use it to your advantage.  If you are selling something in a negotiating context (a house, a car), set your opening bid high so that your buyer’s expectations are set high, and so the buyer feels like he has “won” the negotiation when you ultimately sell for your real goal.  When you are buying, do the opposite.

Above all, consider your choices and make your decisions based on what you want to achieve.  Tactics are empty without a comprehensive strategy, so remember your goals and constantly reassess those goals in light of new information that you receive in dynamic settings.

Overwhelmed at Work? Expert Strategies to Be Less Busy

Are you overwhelmed at work or in life? Are you too busy? It’s nearly impossible in the modern world to seize control of every external aspect of your work, home, and personal life. But by understanding “busyness,” you can reorient and reengage with your life in a meaningful way.

What is Busy?

Tony Crabbe gives us a modern definition of “busy” in Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much:

“Busy” is that frenetic, always alert multitasking that propels us through overburdened lives. It involves being always “on,” glancing regularly at our phones and jumping from task to task. It is the juggling, cramming and rushing that makes up so much of our daily existence. It is urgency, distraction and exhaustion.

We’re busier than ever because we create and consume more information than ever before.  And it becomes easier every year for other people to reach you and bombard you with emails, texts, pings, and tweets.  While in 1986 the average worker produced about two newspaper pages of content each day, by 2011 this amount had risen to about six complete newspapers every day.

This kind of exponential growth is a disruptive and nonlinear problem, according to writer and statistician Nassim Taleb.  Taleb gives the example of automobile traffic.  A small increase in traffic on a quiet road makes  little difference.  Small increases have minimal impact, until a point of congestion, when small increases quickly lead to gridlock.  You are facing the same traffic jam with your email, notifications, and to-do lists.

Being Busy is Bad for You

Constant busyness is bad for your health:

It isn’t any specific intensity of stress or exertion that is bad for us; it is the persistence. The body and the brain aren’t designed to be always on. The body is designed for switching between active and passive states: to fire up into an adrenaline-fueled, alert state, and then cool down to a calmer one.

Busyness also stops you from reaching your goals. It’s hard to set aside time to focus on important work.  The interruption and temptation of a new email is always present.

We are busy because we don’t make the tough choices. We allow the world and our inbox to set our agenda, rather than think for ourselves. It’s easier to simply react; to choose to try to do everything, rather than make the difficult decisions and unchoose things—it takes more courage to do less.

Strategies to Become Less Busy

Faced with the crushing weight of an endless inbox, you might be tempted to work even harder.  If you could just fine tune your productivity system, you’d be able to stay ahead of emails and get on to important work, right?  Wrong.

The key is to know the opposite of busy:  “The opposite of busy is not relaxation…[it] is sustained, focused attention.”

How can you develop sustained, focused attention in the midst of so many demands? Crabbe urges us to focus on mastering our attention and reengaging with our lives. Mastery is “the willingness to let go of our need for control,” and requires “shifting our focus from managing time to managing attention.”

Managing attention requires you to make tough choices to protect the time you need to do your most important work.  This requires an active and conscious choice on your part.  For example, on a particularly busy day, Gandhi was heard to say, “Today will be a busy day.  I won’t be able to meditate for an hour.  I’ll have to meditate for two.”  You cannot control the incoming demands, but you can control how you direct your attention.

Crabbe urges you to try the following strategies:

1. Say “no.” This can be difficult, especially with demanding bosses and clients.  But it’s necessary and worth it.  Use Greg McKeown’s “90% rule” when evaluating an option.  If the single most important criterion isn’t at least a 9 out of 10, reject the opportunity.

2. Switch off – Choose specific and set times to check in with email and messages.  Never before bed.

3. Turn off notifications – It’s amazing how much peace you can find if your phone doesn’t ding with every email.  Try it.

4. Kill meetings – Some meetings are necessary, but most are not worth your time.  Cancel one today.

5. Double your time estimates – Double the amount of time you estimate a task will take.  You’ll find room to think and do better work in that time.

6. Watch the clock – Remember how much work you get done the last day before vacation?  Strict time awareness creates efficiencies.  Be aware of the clock, and then…

7. Finish on time – Burning the midnight oil won’t help your work quality or you.  When the day is over, put down your pen.

8. Prime your brain for difficult tasks – We often procrastinate over difficult and complex problems.  Let your subconscious work on the problem by doing an early review or mind map of the problem before you sit down to work on it.

Final Thoughts on Expert Strategies to Be Less Busy

Perpetual busyness arises from your desire to maintain control of every input and demand in your life.  True control comes from abandoning that impossible chase and refocusing on the work that you value:

We have to accept that we will never be in control again; there are too many demands on our time. Instead we should aim to gain a sense of mastery in our lives by letting go of our need for control, by making brutal choices, by managing our attention and by negotiating our life back.

German designer Dieter Rams famously said, “Weniger, aber besser,” or “Less, but better.”  Protect your time. Do more by doing less.

A New Weekly Newsletter for the New Year

For 2016, I am going to begin sending a weekly newsletter from Country of Quinn.  I will send it on Sundays, and it will include links to the week’s new posts, updates on books I am reading and recommend, and other articles or finds relating to mental tools, science, art, psychology, philosophy, business, and technology.

My goal is to pass along things that were of value to me over the week, so that we can all learn together from the best minds to have tackled our common human challenges.

Sign up here for insights to improve judgment, broaden understanding, and build a better mental toolbox.

Make Better Resolutions by Understanding Your True Goals

With the turn of the calendar year, it’s resolution time for many people. The New Year feels like a clean slate, a world of opportunities, a chance for new successes that have eluded us.  An unknowable number of resolutions are made come January 1st, many of them falling into the familiar and repeated: to lose weight, to get more sleep, to eat more healthily, to exercise more, to spend less time at the office and more time with family.

Plan for Better Resolutions

Will you succeed?  The University of Scranton Journal of Clinical Psychology reports that just a measly 8% of Americans are successful in making and implementing their annual resolutions. Why is this?  Presumably a person chooses a resolution that is important to her life, that she wants for herself, and which she believes would represent a positive change.  Why such a poor success rate?

1.     Know Your True Objectives

Buster Benson offers a mental framework to use to make and keep better resolutions.  Benson starts by encouraging us to know our true objectives. Success in sticking to your resolutions requires an understanding not only of what you think you want to change in your life, but why you want to make the change.  In other words, what is your real objective?

The traditional resolutions I listed above appear at face value to be positive changes.  Who doesn’t want to improve their health?  Who wouldn’t want a more fulfilling work-life relationship?  Who can argue with spending more time with family?  Standing in a vacuum, however, these resolutions are actions without objectives.  The objective is the “why” of the resolution.

In making your resolutions, spend some time thinking about your objectives.  If you have a practice of a weekly, monthly, or annual review, where you reflect on past performance and set future goals, you should already have a good sense of these.  Think about the objective behind the resolution.  If it is not a goal that you are committed to, that will fuel your days, weeks, and year, you’re probably not going to get very far with the resolution.  Picking resolutions that align with your goals is the task here.

2.     Understand your personal environment

Your life is like no one else’s.  Your familial, professional, physical, mental, emotional, financial, and geographic situations combine to form a unique environment in which you operate.  That environment will influence your ability to change or alter certain aspects of your life and routines.  Understanding your personal environment will provide you with a much greater insight into what resolutions you actually have a chance of sticking to.

This is the point that so much self-improvement and productivity systems literature ignores, as Benson adeptly notes:

This is why goal-achievement is so difficult to prescribe from afar. The goal-achievement self-help industry cannot create personalized instructions for them to grow in 7 billion different environments, and so the instructions often ignore the environmental conditions entirely saying simply:

  1. Take goal out of box
  2. Water at the goal every day for 21 days
  3. Make sure it doesn’t die
  4. Success!

Step 3 is usually left purposefully vague — just commit yourself, they say. Go ahead and throw out any how-to manuals that you have (including this one). Growing a goal requires that you put on your own gardening hat and gloves and pay attention to the soil that you and you alone have to work with.

Figure out the details, advantages, and hurdles of your environment.  If you are single, you will have distinct time advantages in your environment than someone with many small children in the house.  Note your work schedules, your family commitments, your responses to stress (eating? drinking alcohol? skipping the gym?), your commute time, and anything else that stands as a contour that you must navigate in your daily life.  Once you’ve done this, you might revisit your resolution choice.

Consider swapping your original resolution with one focused on changing the environmental condition that has the most potential to prevent the success of your original resolution.

As an example, two of my objectives this year are to increase the number of posts on this blog to at least three per week, and to read at least 100 books.  My personal environment includes family commitments to two young children, who wake up early and require a lot of attention during their waking hours.  I could have simply “resolved” to write and read more.  But this wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere, as it is conclusory and doesn’t detail an actionable step given my environment.  Thinking about the details of my life, a more focused resolution is to get up earlier.  So I’m going to try to move my wakeup time from 5:45AM to 5:00AM this year.  If I’m successful, that will give me nearly an entire hour additionally to myself in the morning, before the kids get up, to read and to write. Hopefully, it will give me more time to reach my objectives.

3.     Remember, review, and revisit your resolutions.

If you’re going to successfully make some change in routine or habit, you can’t rely on just blind memory to help.  You need to use tools and reminders to check in and remind yourself of your objectives.  First, you need to identify your goals for the year as part of a reflection and planning process.  Then, you need to revisit those goals on a regular basis.

Pick a review interval that makes sense for your life.  You might consider doing different types of reviews at different intervals.  For example, I start each day with a morning ritual that consists of a workout, a short journal entry making notes of opportunities and gratitudes (similar to this), a short mindfulness meditation, and a review of my to do list for the day.  On a weekly basis, I block out about two hours on my Friday afternoon for a weekly review, where I gather all loose information and to-dos from all the places they collect over the week, and review the status and to-dos for all projects, both personal and professional.  I check my progress against my goals for the week.  Then I set three goals for the following week.

I do the same thing on a monthly and annual basis on a higher level.  Monthly reviews allow for a review of goals and targets, including the resolutions and habit changes I’ve set for goals.  There’s no magic to this pattern, and you might find that a completely different review process works better for you.  You must make the time, whatever method you choose.   It is only through regular review of progress against goals that you will understand whether you are on or off course, and be able to identify any needed changes in course.

4.     The Point of Any Resolution Is to Increase Your Quality of Life

There is no secret universal blueprint for great resolutions that will work for everyone.  Remember that the point is to increase the amount of time in your life that you consider to be high quality.  That may be family time, it may be more time for yourself, it may be more time focused on a new project or business endeavor or hobby.  Whatever it is, spending the time to identify your goals and priorities will allow you to understand what it is that really makes you happy.  Once you know that, you’ll be able to think about discrete, meaningful changes you can make in life that will help you take small steps every day toward those goals.

Good luck!  Have a great 2016.

photo credit:Mike Peel ( [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons