I think I was the worst wrestler in the history of my high school. Like, 1-30 terrible. Over my two season-long wrestling ”career,” I lost to everyone: boys and girls alike. And I remain convinced that the unsuspecting freshman that I beat was in his first few days of learning the sport. The opening bell would sound, and before I knew it, I would find myself on my back, struggling to avoid being pinned.
Despite the constant losing and the draining weight loss regimen, I enjoyed my wrestling experience, namely for the team’s camaraderie and training. While wrestling is an individual sport, each team trains collectively, and work together closely to improve each teammate’s individual prowess. Rather than being an embarrassing footnote in my life’s story, my high school wrestling failures have proven incredibly consequential, even life-changing.
When I made the decision to accept a job in Brazil, I did so despite not having any friends in the country, let alone family. With a newfound surplus of free time, I decided to take up Brazilian Ju-Jitsu (BJJ), a grappling-based martial art that has become one of the country’s biggest cultural exports. With my wrestling failures front-of-mind, I sought to approach my ju-jitsu training from a clean slate. ju-jitsu has become an instrumental part of my life since taking up the sport, and has re-enforced many of my closely held values.
After several weeks of settling into my new position, I found a nearby BJJ gym, hopeful that the gym’s proximity would give me little excuse to avoid going. From my first class, I was introduced to an entirely foreign experience, with specific rules and customs to attend to. As a white belt, I was relegated to the back of the gym, reserved for the most junior members of the gym. Surrounded by individuals with years and decades of experience, it is hard not to feel humbled every time I enter the gym, to this day. This humility serves as the basis for much of my learning and progression – my “novice” status enables me to ask basic or “dumb” questions, actively seek out opportunities to learn and improve. This humility drives my willingness to learn, and to not miss any opportunities to get better. This means constant, near-daily training, and pangs of guilt when I do decide to take a day or two off.
The gym is filled with students of all levels, from minimally experienced white belts to black belts with decades of experience. Inside the gym, age, physical prowess, social standing, and one’s profession, things that serve to divide us in the “real world,” especially in a place as unequal as Brazil, go away. As a white belt at the beginning of my journey in ju-jitsu, my primary objective is to act as a sponge – to “soak up” the actions and mannerisms of those around me. Each member of the academy has something for me to learn from. As a result of my willingness to learn, I’ve developed a strong camaraderie with the men and women of the gym, who have acted as a surrogate community for me and have embraced me as the token “foreigner” of the group.
As the weeks progressed, I joined the ranks of my fellow students in the gym: individuals on a personal journey of self improvement, but committed to working together to elevate their own craft and the success of the gym. My initial feelings of humility have not dissipated, but are momentarily accompanied by mommentary recognitions of progress.
One of my all-time heros, Anthony Bourdain, was a humble student of BJJ, a challenge he took up at the ripe age of 58 and partially based in the inspiration of his now ex-wife, Otavia Busia-Bourdain, a dedicated BJJ practitioner and competitor (here’s an article written by Busia-Bourdain on ‘how jujtisu changed her life’).
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Bourdain explained how BJJ has reengaged a long-dormant part of his brain:
I started at 58. It’s the last thing in the world I could’ve ever imagined wanting to do or enjoying. I’ve never hung out in a gym, I’ve never really cared about those things.
I think it can best be explained by, at my age, to entirely learn a new skill is deeply satisfying. To recreate the feeling of being the lowest person on the totem pole, being in a kitchen when I was 17, knowing nothing, in a very hard world. The incremental, tiny satisfactions of being a little less awful at something, every day, it’s like that with ju-jitsu for me. I’m learning an entirely new skill, a very difficult one, a very physically demanding one, but one that I think about for the rest of the day. They call it “physical chess” because it’s something you think about […] there’s a lot of engineering involved.
Recently, I’ve reflected a bit on my aptitude for ju-jitsu, especially in comparison to my tenure as a horrible wrestler. As I’m still reminded by my training companions, ju-jitsu is oftentimes about patience – about establishing your position, thinking about your next move, and conserving your energy, versus wrestling’s rule of constant motion.
This patience extends to my training more broadly. Time and time again, through injuries (a couple of undiagnosed deeply bruised/broken ribs, fingers, and toes), humiliating defeats, and periodic moments of retention, I am pitted with the enormity of the journey ahead of me and the need to maintain this perspective throughout this lifelong journey of advancement and improvement.
In August, I received my first examination result, adorning my white belt with two stripes, signifying my (minimal) advancement. Now several months in, I’m no longer at the far, far end of the gym, replaced by younger newcomers just a few months behind me. But far from any overconfidence or feelings of deservedness, I continually remind myself that the process continues, learning is lifelong, and I have decades to go before my jujitsu journey is complete.