February 6, 2018

Choked on a daily basis

I step out on the rubber mat. Some big, sweaty dude comes up to me and asks if I want to roll.” I swallow, and feel a cold tingling running down my spine. A minute later, he holds me in a vicious choke hold, and I have to struggle just to keep breathing. It’s the best form of stress management I’ve found so far.

OK, maybe that was a bit dramatic. But it’s basically true.

A couple of years ago, I was recommended to try a martial art called Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

It didn’t really appeal to me since I don’t see myself as someone who enjoys violence. Also, it just seemed a bit creepy to spend that much time being intimate with unknown people.

But then I heard about this weird sport from more and more people. A buddy started training and got hooked. It was mentioned in a podcast I listen to every week.

So I figured: why not give it a shot?

A friend and I signed up for a beginner’s class. After 30 minutes, we were laying on the floor, breathing hard. My friend went to the bathroom and puked.

He never came back.

I did.

I still do.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is about learning to control your opponent, and then putting them in a submission hold. A submission might be an arm lock, or a choke. When you have no way to escape the submission hold, you tap out” — you literally clap on your opponent to let them know that you give up. The match is over.

Why would anyone want to experience this?

Forced presence.

There is no way to think about your other problems in life when someone is trying to choke you.

If you like the idea of being mindful but don’t want to sit cross-legged, BJJ might be something you’d like to try out.

It’s a sort of forced presence. It keeps you in the moment, because it demands everything from you.

Sometimes this is called the flow state. And as with other flow activities, you only really experience it when the opposition is just right: not too easy, not too hard.


Sometimes really athletic people start training BJJ. They always look cocky, like they are ready to show everyone that they are ready to kill.

But no matter how much strength or cardio you have, you will get your ass handed to you for the first years in BJJ.

Sure, strength might keep an opponent at bay for a few seconds more. But the art of jiujitsu is about using leverage, wedges, and cunningness to control your opponent. This gets really obvious when you see a 145lbs black belt dominate a 220lbs weight-lifter.

As a beginner, it will be tempting to give up when everything hurts and everyone is better than you. Imagine what keeps people from training in general, and add that they will also get choked …

So, to progress in BJJ you need one thing more than anything else: grit.

And by training your grit, you might find that this skill bleeds over to the other things in life you are passionate about.

Tapping to a problem

One of the things I like most about BJJ is how it makes abstract concepts practical.

Tapping is one of those things.

When you tap in BJJ, you are saying: I can’t fix this problem. It’s too much for me. I give up.”

Giving up seems like a bad thing in other areas in life. But here’s the trick: when you tap, you don’t give up on the martial art. You don’t give up on your ambition. You don’t give up on the big picture.

You give up to that specific obstacle.

And after you’ve given up, you spend a couple of seconds disecting what happened. Why did the problem occur? What could you have done differently?

And then you go again!

This is a rewarding thing to keep in mind when you run a business. I try hard as fuck to fix something, and when there are no options left, I give up. I learn. I do something i different. I go again!

With, not against, the problem

Jiu-jitsu is Japanese for the gentle art.” Now, if you look at the world championships in BJJ, it might now look very gentle.

But the most effective moves are those when you use your opponents strength against them.

They are pushing forward with all their power? Trip one of their legs and let them fall face down.

They are trying to retreat from you? Use the space to get a better position.

This is an idea that of course can be applied to other areas in life.

A big project gets postponed? Perfect time to step up your learning — read more books. Got a shitty review on your work? Use that feedback to improve.

I know this sounds cheesy, but when we’re able to see obstacles as something we can use … everything becomes easier and more fun.

If you’ve read the Tao Te Ching, you recognize this way of thinking. To move with the world, not against it.

The continuous feedback loop

I was super shitty at BJJ for a long time. Longer than most, actually.

A lot of it was because I didn’t use one of jiu-jitsu’s greatest benefits: the continuous feedback loop.

See, in BJJ, we sparr every time we train. Sparring is a real match that only ends when someone taps.

And that is the most effective tool for learning I’ve every encountered.

Every training session I get to know what works and what doesn’t.

And instead of ignoring that, or taking it personally … you should of course use it.

So nowadays, I note after every session what works and what doesn’t. In the best of cases, I even do it between rounds. And then I go home and think about my mistakes and try to find new techniques to solve them before the next session.

And now, I’m not super shitty anymore. Now I’m just shitty. In BJJ terms, I’m a blue belt, not a white belt.

Heaven is other people

It’s kind of hard to make new friends when you’re an adult.

At least it is for me.

But BJJ is a great place to meet knew friends. You would imagine that there are only these super aggressive people who want to train such a gruelling sport, but the opposite is true. I’ve met everyone from military leaders to newly arrived refugees to engineers. BJJ practitioners come in all sizes and forms — it’s actually way more diverse than most tech companies I meet during my dayjob.

And you won’t have to worry about breaking the ice. If you’ve been physically intimate with someone like that, you won’t have trouble to start chit-chatting.

Also: it’s sometimes lonely to travel for work. BJJ changes that.

I’ve trained as a guest in NYC, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Barcelona, and even Tokyo. Granted, Tokyo was a bit hard because of the language barrier … but it’s still a great way to meet people in a city you’re visiting.

Talk is cheap

In the world of business, you often run in to gurus who know everything about success and happiness.

But the more you get to know these people, you see through the cracks. They’ve never built a successful product. They’ve never lead a team. They struggle with their relationships just like everyone else.

In BJJ, it’s completely impossible to talk about your skills in that way. We can just roll. It will become 100% obvious in less than three minutes what skill level you are on.

This pragmatic and self-evident skill assessment is refreshing for those of us who encounter big talkers daily. I wish more things in life were like BJJ in that sense.

I have still more to write, but this post is already longer than I planned. Maybe that conveys how much I love BJJ. Even though it fucks up my back, even though it hurts as hell, even though it’s kind of weird.

The main lesson here might not be to try out Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Rather, I would say:

It’s not obvious what will help you manage your stress. It might be something that looks super stressful that turns out to be the most relaxing.

I get way more chill after BJJ practice than after yoga.

Go figure.

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