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What People Get Wrong About "Challenging Themselves"
"What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.” ― Nietzsche
Competing in martial arts (or doing anything similar) is a great tool for personal development.
Signing up for a competition forces you to deal with your nerves, dial in your diet, be disciplined with your training, and focus deeply on improving your skills. You must do this, or else you will face negative consequences — like losing, failing, and performing badly.
When I was younger, I thought that competing in and winning martial arts matches would make me a full and complete human being. I thought that I could fight my way to a happy and peaceful life.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
The “pursuit of happiness” is strange.
It’s strange because the pursuit of happiness is very different from the pursuit of success, yet culture often makes the latter and the former seem like the same thing.
Advertising, social media, and even the films we watch and the books we read make it seem like life is about the pursuit of a goal, and when we reach the goal, we will get to this place called “happiness”. Now would be a good time to reread the subtitle of this post.
People make it seem like after a certain achievement, there will be peace. There will be serenity. There will be an endless supply of chocolate cake.
As an athlete, I often feel like I’ll reach “happiness” after a hard week of training or after winning a certain competition.
Unfortunately, this isn’t true.
The truth is that even after great performances in competitions or other massive moments in my life (getting my BJJ black belt is a good example), the “happiness” only lasts a few days.
After that, it’s back to baseline.
What do you do then?
What is happiness if it’s not what we think it is?
The elated feeling you get after doing something exciting or triumphant is not happiness.
Winning is not happiness.
In The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith, the moment where he goes through the whole grind and gets his job to provide for his son — the moment he says is “happiness” — is not happiness.
That’s excitement. That’s pride. That’s joy.
That’s a great feeling and it’s worth striving for, but it’s not happiness. Happiness is the ability to enjoy the day — even if it sucks. Especially if it sucks.
Happiness is more closely related to mindfulness than it is success, triumph, or victory. Happiness and fulfillment are sometimes even different things.
This is a tough message to sell to people, but real life is harder to advertise than the romantic version we post about and try to sell products based around.
The truth is that challenging yourself — overcoming things, doing hard stuff, and improving yourself — is only a fraction of character development.
That’s what I’m interested in thinking about today.
Beyond the grind.
If there’s anything I know, it’s working hard in the name of goals.
I’ve been doing Jiu-Jitsu full-time for several years now, writing online for several years, and before that, I spent 6 years in the merciless grind of wrestling. I also won a Jiu-Jitsu world championship in the adult division while I was still a full-time college student — something I was told: “couldn’t be done”.
I hustled a lot and I still do.
However, what I’ve found is that hustling and grinding can only take you so far in this life.
It can take you exceptionally far in certain areas of your life, but in terms of character development and being peaceful, hustling, and hard work are alone inadequate.
You must find something else to help you grow.
What I learned from teaching 8-year-olds how to do Jiu-Jitsu.
Up until late February of this year, I was teaching kids Jiu-Jitsu 3-4 days a week in Chicago.
I was doing this while training for and performing well at the ADCC Trials, competing in major international events like Grapplefest, and writing things on the internet that were viewed by more than a million people.
I had all the vanity metrics to achieve a lot of personal success, but I decided for a while to stay home and teach the nuggets how to fight.
I wasn’t doing this out of nobility, either. I just wanted some extra cash and routine.
However, what I learned were some very valuable lessons about life and balancing the ego.
The truth is, at a certain point, kid martial artists can’t really tell who you are. They can’t tell the difference between me, Rickson Gracie, and Joe Schmo the black belt hobbyist. They’re 8 — they don’t care about these semantics that we obsess over as adults.
They don’t care about the semantics that I obsess over — like getting everyone to think I’m great at everything all the time.
All they see is the belt and that you’re “the coach”, and all they care about is how you treat them.
How to reverse the curse.
Competing in martial arts — being a competitor — is a great tool for personal development, but it simultaneously feeds the ego.
It has to if you’re doing it properly.
As you train, you become stronger, faster, fitter, and better at fighting. Your goal is dominance. You want to be the best and you won’t be satisfied with anything else.
The problem is that too much ego is bad for personal development. You must moderate this.
You have to realize that no one else cares about you winning nearly as much as you do.
This is why the key to optimal personal development is to do things that disconnect you from that ego. I’m probably not the most qualified to say this because it’s something I still struggle with, but the truth is that a bigger and stronger ego does not make you a bigger and stronger human.
A bigger and stronger human is someone who does the internal work to be better.
Someone who’s happy with today as it is.
Someone who is mindful.
People usually roll their eyes when I call myself “old”, but in the last few years, I’ve aged a lot.
I think being an athlete does that to you.
As an athlete, you die twice, so you should also (in theory) age twice. That means that for me, right now, I am probably about middle age as an athlete. I became an athlete of sorts around 10, and I’ll probably continue in some capacity until I’m in my mid to late 30s.
But my focus has shifted.
When I was younger, I was obsessed with training as hard as possible, winning a medal or a match by whatever means necessary, and then showing off my handiwork online afterward.
Now, years later, this is something I find myself only doing for “work”. Now, what I’m really interested in is performing the best I can. I just want to be the best athlete I can be.
If I didn’t need social media for my work with Jiu-Jitsu, I’d delete the whole thing. That’s how strongly I feel about the truth about personal growth.
I know what I need to do.
And hey, maybe one day. A man can dream.
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