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How to Teach People How to Do Difficult Things
Most teachers can't do this.
When I joined my school’s wrestling team in middle school, my coach used to say that anyone who could walk on their hands all the down to the end of the mat would be a state champion.
I could never do it. I could hardly walk more than a few steps. I was never a good hand-walker. I was also never a state champion.
I was average in all things combat sports for the entirety of my youth. I didn’t win anything that mattered until I was 22.
By that time, I had been involved in combat sports for more than a decade and I was doing it for the love of it. By the time I had any real success on the mat, I was already intrinsically motivated, and that gave me the work ethic to develop the skill required to have competitive success.
As a side project, I still never gave up on my hand-walking, either.
By the time I could walk to the end of the mat on my hands, I was already a Jiu-Jitsu world champion, and I was walking on my hands for the hell of it.
I’ve realized that my wrestling lessons have helped me develop intrinsic motivation from a pretty young age, and as a coach, I try to help people do the same things.
I realized this more as a coach than an athlete, but it is true in whatever you do: intrinsic motivation is the key to achieving difficult goals over extended periods of time.
This is how you can teach people to develop intrinsic motivation.
If you can do x, you can (maybe) do y.
One thing that I hear a lot in the writing world is something along the lines of “if you write every day for 10 years, you will be a 6-figure writer”.
Unfortunately, the way the market works, this is not necessarily true.
You might not attain any success in writing. Nothing is guaranteed. If you write every day, that doesn’t mean that you will be the next Stephen King or Mark Manson.
However, I can guarantee that if you don’t practice writing just about every day, you will definitely not achieve any success in writing. The same is true for music. The same is true for Jiu-Jitsu.
In order to develop the ability to do the work required to do something incredibly well, you have to do the thing not because you want to be good, but because you love doing the thing.
You must drop the results-driven approach, and seek “flow”.
This is what I taught a 6-year-old how to do over the last few months.
If a child can learn to flow, so can you.
My work life is split about 50% between writing and teaching/competing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Most of my teaching income comes through private lessons and teaching classes at a local academy here in Chicago, where I teach kid’s Jiu-Jitsu classes 3 days per week.
I’ve done this for 6 months now, and when I first started, I had the kids “walk on their hands” for one of their warm-up exercises.
As a joke, I channeled my wrestling coach told them that if they could walk all the way down to the end of the mat on their hands without falling, they’d be world champions.
When we started doing “handstand walks” during class, none of them could make it more than a few feet. Most of them still can’t. Most of them are not physically developed enough yet to walk on their hands.
However, some of them love walking on their hands. For a few of my students, the difficult task of walking on your hands as far as you can is their favorite part of Jiu-Jitsu class.
One kid who loves this a lot is Armani.
“Coach, can we walk on our hands today?”
Every single day that Armani is in class, he runs over to me during warm-ups and asks me if we can walk on our hands.
Every. Single. Day.
The only question I get asked more than “Coach, can we play dodgeball?” is “Coach, can we walk on our hands?”.
Kids are funny like that. They’re consistent.
Armani is undeniably consistent. When he started walking on his hands, he couldn’t get more than a few steps. After a few months of watching me walk on my hands, getting some pointers, and practicing at home on his own, Armani was able to walk almost all the way down the mat.
That was when I decided to make a friendly competition out of our daily hand-walking exercise.
“Whoever is the first person to walk all the way down the mat on their hands will get a candy bar of their choice from me,” I said one day a few weeks back.
After I said this, a funny thing happened.
Intrinsic motivation is the key to perfection.
Once I presented the students with the option to win a candy bar, some of them started to practice hand-walking before and after class. They desperately wanted that free candy.
To answer my own question — Armani wouldn’t. Armani didn’t.
For Armani, this extrinsic motivation did very little for him because he was already intrinsically motivated.
A few classes later, Armani successfully walked all the way down to the end of the mat on his hands without a problem.
After he did this, I pulled him aside.
“What kind of candy bar do you want? You won.”
“What do you mean?” he replied.
He had completely forgotten about the challenge. He was walking on his hands every day not because he wanted to win, not because he wanted a candy bar from Coach, but because he just liked walking on his hands.
He won himself a free Milky Way bar that didn’t even really need. He earned it through hard work, dedication, and most importantly, enjoying the activity that he was doing.
That last point is the most important.
The most important aspect of learning to do difficult things is not being gritty, being tough, or even being resilient.
The most important aspect of learning to develop a high level of skills over an extended period of time is learning to enjoy the difficult skill.
This is why I’m very grateful that I started wrestling when I was just 12.
Legendary wrestler Dan Gable once said, “once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy”.
Obviously, this isn’t really true, but there is some truth to it.
Becoming a successful writer, grappler, business owner, or anything is still difficult when you have wrestling experience. However, what wrestling and other physical endeavors inadvertently teach you is to love the grind for the grind itself.
There were moments during my career when I was completely miserable and the thought of dying was literally more appealing than stepping onto the mat. However, now, when I look back at my wrestling days, I can’t help but reminisce about the early morning bus rides in the freezing Chicago winter, the ridiculously hard workouts at all hours of the day, and the constant soreness and hunger that I felt when wrestling was my entire life.
I sense that little Armani is going to feel a similar type of way about walking on his hands one day.
He’s going to think it’s hard, he’s going think it’s frustrating, but he’s also going to think it’s an incredibly fun activity to do.
Learning to love doing difficult things for no other reason than the fact that they’re fun is the key to doing difficult things easily.
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