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The Smart Way to Fail
Getting what you need so you can get what you want.
When I was coaching Jiu-Jitsu full-time, beginners would often tell me that they were nervous about their competition matches.
When a competition came around, the DMs and post-class conversations would start up like clockwork. Grown men with successful businesses, flourishing families, and otherwise happy lives would have their minds in agony over an upcoming local BJJ tournament.
They were usually too scared to mention their anxiety to anyone except the person who was coaching them every day, but they also all had the same questions and issues. They were all extremely anxious about failure.
Failure is something I have a lot of experience in. The only thing I worry about is that sometimes I think I have too much experience with failure.
Still, if you can learn how to fail “properly”, you can become more successful, happier, and mentally stronger than you've ever been.
You need to learn the smart way to fail.
Failure is always going to be a part of the process.
This is especially true in something like combat sports — Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for me — but it’s also true in things like writing, business, and even personal relationships.
Generally, people don’t get these things right the first time.
In my first year of wrestling, I won 4 matches and lost 14. In my second year, I won 4 matches and lost 28. I also didn’t win my first white belt Jiu-Jitsu tournament (or my second, or my third).
When I first started writing on Medium in 2020, I couldn’t get accepted by even the most lenient of publications. My sentences were rambly, my ideas were unclear, and my headlines were just plain boring. I’m not saying I’m Hemingway now, but I was a not good writer when I first started.
In both of these skills (and in most others), the way that you learn is “on the fly”. You learn by doing the thing — over and over again.
The way you get better at Jiu-Jitsu is not by watching videos or studying but by training and applying the concepts that you learn. The way that I got better at writing was not by reading books about writing, but by sitting with my laptop every day and practicing the craft of trying to create a well-constructed article.
The process of learning to do anything better involves a lot of practice, a lot of experimentation, and a lot of failure.
How to be happy with failure.
Failure is always going to be a part of the process of improvement. We’ve established that.
It will never go away.
The anxiety before Jiu-Jitsu matches doesn’t really go away for me either, even after nearly 10 years in the game. The little voice in my head that tells me I’m bad at writing is still there too. Rejections in life (and the possibility of rejections) are going to be around for as long as you are trying to do things.
The more you push yourself, the more you are going to struggle with these nerves because you are going to want to be rewarded for your efforts more and more the more effort you put in.
So what do you do? How do you chase success without letting the obsession with success ruin your life?
I think that first, you need to let go.
You need to care, but not too much. If you struggle with anxiety and you want to be the best you can be, you need to drop your ego a bit.
Here’s a recent lesson I’ve learned in my Jiu-Jitsu training that has helped me become looser with my pursuit of getting better at different stuff. I think it might help you too.
A competitive playground, not a proving ground.
In general, lower-level grapplers tend to try to win a lot during training so that they can prove to themselves that they have the ability to win during a competition.
They have anxiety about their abilities, so they try to compensate for this anxiety by being extremely competitive in the training room.
On paper this makes sense, you train how you fight, right?
Wrong. Training and competition are 2 very different beasts.
That’s just the beginning of where this ideology starts to break down.
If you want to win in a competition, you actually need to take some losses in the training room. You need to be experimental. You need to fail a bit — maybe more than you’re comfortable with.
If you only train to win, you’re going to get bored, beaten down, and probably even injured. This is why you should always chase technical skill development more than just something that “works”. More than toughness, ego satisfaction, and anything else that doesn’t last, you need to be working on getting better.
Do not get caught in a positive feedback loop in practice that leads to a negative feedback loop in competition or when you’re testing yourself.
Some of the most accomplished guys in the training room are accomplished not because they are egoic and tough, but because they are always working on developing their skills.
For them, training isn’t fight club, it’s a place to practice. It’s a laboratory, an art studio, or a journal —a safe place where they feel comfortable exploring and experimenting. This, as far as I can tell, is the best way to play the game.
Training is competitive, but the best guys remember that there’s no gold medal in training. The gym is more of a competitive playground than an egoic proving ground.
The lesson from Jiu-Jitsu applies to everything where competition exists.
In relationships, if you’re anxious and insecure about losing the relationship, you’ll probably freak over dumb stuff and lose your relationship anyway. In writing, obsessing over every word all the time will lead to never publishing. You’ll get “cabin-in-the-woods syndrome”.
This is not the way to getting better, even if it’s the way that seems to have the least amount of failure.
The path to success involves a lot of failing. It involves constantly pushing yourself, testing yourself, and seemingly coming up short all the time so that eventually, you can come up big.
Ego protection is nothing but a crutch. It makes you complacent, anxious, and fragile. You must have the self-awareness to give yourself what you deserve so that eventually you can give yourself what you want.
It’s better to have a bunch of small failures in a safe place than a big one in an unsafe place. The way to do that is to constantly be testing yourself.
Long-term over short-term.
This is the smart way to fail — the way that involves the greatest chance for long-term success.
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