What Martial Arts Actually Taught Me About Self-Improvement
Blood, sweat, and tears are just the cliff notes.
I did not start doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for the health benefits, the personal development, or to “learn a new skill”.
I started doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu because I was a timid 17-year-old with a chip on his shoulder (probably a Dorito, if I’m being honest) and I wanted to take names and kick ass. I wanted to be a fighter. I wanted to be a champion. I had a one-track mind, and that track had nothing to do with “personal growth” or “the process” and everything to do with results.
To say I had a bit of an ego problem is being nice.
The life lessons, self-improvement, and self-awareness that martial arts have given me have really been a surprise. I don’t know if Jiu-Jitsu ever made me “a better person”, but it has made me more confident, more resilient, and stronger than I ever thought was possible.
These are the most important lessons that I’ve learned from more than a decade of learning to fight people for enjoyment, money, and growth.
Lesson 1: Quitting isn’t a bad thing
A lot of people say you should never quit, ever.
Those people have probably never been choked unconscious or put into a leg lock that is applied at full force. It’s good to push yourself, but the growth that happens when you learn how to quit is truly beautiful. By learning how to quit, you’re not just learning that you have limits, you’re also learning that you have control over your mind and body.
That’s the real lesson.
Quitting is a way of taking back the power from a culture that prioritizes hustling and grinding more than actual progress.
In one of the first Jiu-Jitsu classes that I ever went to, I got put in a choke that was applied so effectively that it took an entire 30 seconds of coughing and gasping before I was able to continue training. My partner wasn’t being mean or rude, they were just doing the technique instructed and I was being a stubborn airhead. My stubbornness was exposed when I almost passed out for no reason other than the fact that I didn’t like tapping out.
I should have just accepted my limits and moved on.
Life is a bit more like a Jiu-Jitsu training session than it is a true fight to the death. In almost everything you do in life, you can stop whenever you want. Most of us choose to persist through the pain because that is the only thing we know, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always the best option.
As Jiu-Jitsu taught me, the best option is to give it your all, and then quit if you have to. You can always try again later.
Lesson 2: Get comfortable being uncomfortable
The first combat sport that I ever got involved in was wrestling. I was 12 years old, overweight, and a bit unathletic at the time I began. Truthfully, the only reason I joined my school’s wrestling team was that wrestling was a no-cut sport.
Anyone could join, and I was anyone, so they had to take me.
When I did, I had no idea what I was really signing up for. I was completely unprepared for all the “touching” that happens in grappling sports, and I definitely had no interest in competing in a wrestling singlet. The thought of sliding my chubby body in a onesie and stepping out to compete in front of all my friends and family made me physically anxious.
I had to learn how to master my mind so that I could function (and thrive) in situations where I was less than comfortable.
In martial arts, life, or any other endeavor, discomfort plays a profound role in the early stages of development. Growth hurts, but early growth hurts the most. If you can learn to accept temporary discomfort in your pursuits, you will be able to progress faster in anything you do.
In my life, the way I was able to develop grit, resilience, and perseverance was by throwing myself into the discomfort of martial arts training every single day.
Lesson 3: No one knows your limits, especially not you
Here is a shortlist of my injuries from my 12-year grappling career:
A torn meniscus, torn labrums in the shoulders, a mysteriously popped rib, a herniated disc in the low back, a herniated disc in the neck, ankle sprains (several, both sides), partial LCL tear, hundreds (thousands?) of bloody noses, scabs (and scars) all over my body, arthritis in my hands (yes, at 24), and cauliflower ears that just look freakin’ weird.
I’m not saying this because I want to scare you away from training martial arts. I’m saying this because when I started training martial arts, a bloody nose was enough to make me cry and give up. My threshold for pain and discomfort was so small that the smallest bump or bruise was enough to ruin my week.
Now? My limits have been slowly pushed so far back that I have the opposite problem. I’m too tough for my own good.
I’ve been on both ends of the limitations spectrum, and I’ll tell you this: in order to have lasting growth in your life, it’s always better to test your limits and know where they are as opposed to speculating how much you can push yourself. If you don’t know what you can do, it’s difficult to establish true optimal output.
Martial arts taught me how to push my limits. Failure and injury taught me that I can’t do it all the time. Improvement comes at the little sweet spot just before failure. The edge of the comfort zone.
Lesson 4: The best routine is the one you can stick with
You might believe this, I don’t really love exercise.
I love Jiu-Jitsu, but I don’t love the feeling of being exhausted and sore all day long.
I’ve tried to develop cardio routines, yoga routines, and other types of exercise regimens, but I can’t stick with any of them the same way that I can stick with Jiu-Jitsu.
However, I’ve also burned myself out of the thing that I love many times. I’ve worked so hard on improving at Jiu-Jitsu that I’ve broken my body, damaged my mind, and suffered in both my personal and professional lives.
Jiu-Jitsu is only a part of who I am, and sometimes I forget that.
But reaching your breaking point isn’t a character flaw, and it’s certainly not a sign that you should quit doing something. Mental breakdowns and burnout are data that something isn’t working properly. If you are feeling burnt out of something you love, the problem probably isn’t the thing you’re doing itself. The problem is probably that you’re working in an unsustainable manner.
By learning how to work sustainably, you can reach new heights in skill development that you wouldn’t even be able to see if you were “pushing yourself to your limits”.
As someone who’s experienced the physical and psychological effects of occupational burnout multiple times, I’ll tell you this: working sustainably for a longer period of time will be better for you than working unsustainably for a short period of time.
If self-improvement, life, and Jiu-Jitsu have anything in common, it’s that they’re all marathons, not sprints.
Lesson 5: You don’t always get what you want
I saw an Instagram post the other day from a former training partner who’s a professional kickboxer that said “Life is all about taking risks to get what you want”.
I don’t agree.
Life is not about you. Life is not about “getting what you want”. If my entire life was about “getting what I wanted”, I’d be a painful person to be around.
Competition makes us believe that life is about what we want, but martial arts exposes the truth. The truth is, you can’t always get what you want. Sorry to all the Mick Jagger fans out, but sometimes, you don’t get what you need, either.
Sometimes, you just get your ass kicked.
In the training room or in martial arts competition, not getting what you want (losing or getting tapped out) is not an indication that you should quit or stop training. The same is true in life. Not getting what you want is an indication that you might need to change your approach, but it’s not an excuse to quit or be miserable. Happiness exists independent of whether or not you get what you want.
Self-improvement is a lot like trying to get your black belt in Jiu-Jitsu because getting your black belt doesn't signify the end of your journey in martial arts.
You will never “make it”. You will never wake up one day and feel like you’ve come far enough that you can just stop working. External rewards will not get you the closure you need in any facet of your life. To get this closure and peace, you have to look inwards.
Martial arts training forces me to look inwards every single day.
Without it, I don’t know where I’d be, but I know it wouldn’t be as beautiful as where I’ve been and I’m going.
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How do I work harder in life and be more motivated to become super successful in life?
You might not love hearing this, but hard work sucks.
It never stops sucking.
Right now, my neck, back, and ribs all feel like they’re one wrong move away from detaching. That’s what I get for pushing myself to my limits.
Hard work is not fun. It’s grimy, ugly, and anxiety-inducing.
Hard work isn’t pretty except in those obnoxiously romanticized YouTube videos. Hard work sucks.
The best way to start working hard is to find a way to make hard work suck less.
One great way to do that is to work really hard at something you actually like. If you hate your job, good luck finding a way to get yourself to enjoy the hard work that comes with it.
For me, as someone with ADHD, I have a new hobby/ambition every other week.
A few weeks ago, I wanted to become a rapper (yes, really). This week, I want to become a DJ. Last night, I was thinking about writing a comedy set and getting on stage. I just love trying new things.
But you know what I did instead? I woke up this morning, went to Jiu-Jitsu practice (which I do every day). Then, I came home, put on the coffee, and then I logged into my computer and started writing.
I worked really hard for 5 straight hours this morning on training and writing, and before I knew it, it was 1 pm. It didn’t feel like work at all.
Your best work will feel like play.
To get started, think about the things you already do for fun that are productive, and just try to extend the amount of time you practice for.
Instead of thinking about how long it takes to get good at something or how long it takes to make money doing something, just seek flow.
Instead of “working hard” every day, seek flow every day.
That’s how you make hard work easier. You make it fun.
Thank you for reading this edition of my newsletter! I’m brewing up some premium content options that will be available after I’m done competing for these next few weeks (ADCC Trials and Jiu-Jitsu CON these next 2 weeks back to back), so stay tuned!
As always, if you enjoyed what you read, feel free to share the article from Medium. It helps me more than you know.
Wishing you the best,