Just show up.
That’s it. That’s how you get better. Show up. Get your hands dirty. Do the work. Play the game. Whatever it is you want to accomplish, in order to do it, you have to do it.
It seems silly to have to lay it out like this but it’s that simple. Don’t forget, though, simple doesn’t mean easy.
You will fail.
You will try to do the thing and it won’t go the way you think it will or want it to. That’s okay. Keep doing it. Every time you try and it doesn’t go your way you’ll learn something. ‘Well, THAT didn’t work...” Cool. Try something else.
This takes courage. As a culture we’ve so thoroughly embraced the idea of the “easy life.” So much so that instead of the “easy life” being something we aspire to - “I’m gonna work super hard to get myself to a place where I don’t have to work so hard” - we’ve translated that to “life should be easy.” So when life isn’t easy we assume that we have failed. And for most of us here in America failure has been so thoroughly removed from our lives that when we inevitably do it comes as a shock. “Oh my God. I failed. That means I’m a failure. I’m no good.”
First of all, life is NOT easy. It’s hard. It’s a struggle. As Westerners we’ve lost touch with that. Our affluence has spoiled us.
When I was a kid and I didn’t want to eat what was on the table my mother would say something like, “You know there are starving children in Africa who would love to have what you have.” Yeah, I know, but she actually said that. Things like this become cliches for a reason.
And yes, I agree it’s a stupid thing to say to a child. Especially one who has no concept of true want. BUT, that doesn’t make it any less true. If you live in America or Europe you’ve got it made! Why do you think people from other parts of the world flock to us? Even the worst off among us have it better than all but a small percentage of the rest of the world. Life is hard. People struggle just to live.
I’m not saying this to make you grateful for what you have (even though you probably should be) but to offer just a slight sense of perspective.
In my jiu-jitsu classes one of the first lessons offered to us was, when talking about success in jiu-jitsu, “it’s not who’s best, it’s who’s left.” Jiu-jitsu is a hard road. I’ve studied many different martial arts over the years and by far jiu-jitsu is the hardest. Every lesson you learn, as you try to actually apply it, there’s someone actively trying to prevent you from doing so. Not only are they trying to prevent you from applying the thing you’ve learned, they are trying to apply the things they’ve learned. Imagine trying to perform that perfect squat while the thing you’re trying to squat is actively fighting against you. That's a taste of what jiu-jitsu is like.
Talent alone will not see you through. Everyone hits plateaus, places where the training just seems to stall. You keep doing the thing, but you don’t seem to be getting any better. Sometimes it even feels like you are getting worse. That can be incredibly frustrating and, if you’re used to winning all the time, can make you quit.
Then there’s life. Illness, injury, work, family, and a whole host of other things can rise up, demand your time, and get in the way of training. This is a perishable skill. Even losing a week or two of training to a vacation can leave a noticeable deficit. Imagine coming back to class after six months or a year. Everyone you trained with has kept at it. Not only has your skill diminished due to inactivity but their skills have increased. Guys you handled easily are now hard to beat or, worse, now beating you. Not everyone can humble themselves to this. The attrition rate is high and there are many I started training with who no longer train.
The only way to progress is to keep showing up. In my class, I’m one of the older guys. In fact, I’m about to join an exclusive club of trainees, that rare handful of us who are 50 or older. I’m also one of the bigger guys. Because of this, I’ve made a rule for myself: Always take the roll. In our classes our time is divided between instruction in technique, the first 30 minutes, and sparring, the second 30 minutes. No matter how tired I am, if asked to roll I will.
Because even exhausted, there’s something to learn. In fact, maybe even more. Jiu-jitsu is the “gentle art” which means that it emphasizes angle and leverage over brute strength. When I’m tired I have to rely more on my jiu-jitsu because I’m less capable of muscling out of a situation. I also have to check my ego. My number one rule, the one that comes before “Always take the roll,” is: Keep training. That means not only to be persistent, but to also be aware of my capabilities in any given moment. I monitor myself. Losing training time to an injury is a failure. I check my ego, listen to my body, and, when I find myself in a bad position, I tap, thereby acknowledging the superiority of my training partner. I stop the play and acknowledge the loss, but also put myself in a position where we can reset and continue the game. Because playing is the whole point.
Guess what? Life is exactly the same. The metaphor of jiu-jitsu is invaluable in preparing you for the struggles of existence. Whether you’re grappling with a work skill, circumstance, an adversarial colleague, or your own ego, avoidance gets you nowhere. You have to engage. Play the game. Struggle. One of the grand advantages of living here in the Industrialized World is that very few of our battles are life or death. We have countless opportunities to learn through lesser battles, thereby gaining knowledge, skill, and experience that, hopefully, prepare us for the fights that really matter.
So get out there. Get dirty. Scrape your knee. Then get back up and do it again. No matter how bad at it you think you are, the more you do it, the better you’ll get.
See you on the mat.