My Experience Training BJJ at Google

My time at Google has been great on many levels. There are a lot of perks (delicious free food, nap pods, game rooms, etc), but the best part is the work. It may sound strange, but I love doing research and I love programming. Those two things combine perfectly in my position here.

google-bjjAs has been known for a while now, Google has a jiu jitsu class. I finally got around to attending it. It is run by Milton Bastos, a good teacher and a good competitor. Check out his academy.

The beautiful part about jiu jitsu that I’ve noticed throughout my journey is that once you put on the gi, you shed the identity that you carry in the outside world. Your position at Google or anywhere else doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is your technique. There is something very honest and simple about that.

I got to roll with a few very good people (purple, brown, and black belts). The brown belt girl and the lighter black belt in particular threw a few interesting techniques at me that kept it fun and different. I like unorthodox games. It’s like a new puzzle that needs to be solved.

Now, IBJJF needs to organize a Silicon Valley Open: a tournament between the employees of all the companies in the area. Instead of Alliance, Atos, and Gracie Barra the teams would be Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.


Losing is Valuable when Winning is Everything: Why I Compete

The greatest benefit I get from competition is when I lose, having given everything I can to win. Let me explain…

Miyao-cryingI believe that competition is one of the most potent catalysts for honest self-analysis. I’m not just talking about jiu jitsu. In the hours and days after a tough tournament loss, I’ll often struggle with the question of “what the hell am I doing with my life?” That question can take many forms from the small to the big, from “why the hell is my butterfly sweep not working?” to “why the hell am I not pursuing the job I’ve always dreamed of having?” Through this process of questioning, I arrive at new resolutions, changes in everything from daily rituals to long-term goals. And then, the hard work begins. In this way, competition presents the sobering catch-22 of life that we often grow the most from failure. We find ourselves not in the achievement of our dreams, but in the grind toward them…

“I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself.”
– Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)

PS: Check out my conversation with Ryan Hall about the value of competition:


Keenan Cornelius Jiu Jitsu Philosophy in Two Sentences

keenan-cornelius-black-belt-philosophyA month ago Keenan put up a Q&A video on facebook in which someone asked him to summarize his jiu jitsu philosophy in two sentences. His off-the-cuff answer was:

  1. Always be attacking.
  2. Your hands and feet should always be doing something useful.

I thought this was a great answer. Instead of relying on overly-philosophical cliches involving some combination of “gentle art”, “ego”, “never quit”, he went with the pragmatic.

This philosophy resonated with me, as it’s something I constant strive for. To me, “attacking” is bigger than just always looking for submission or to improve position. “Attacking” means maintaining a mind that’s both focused and aware. The goal is to see and feel everything your opponent is doing and have full awareness of your own body (hands, feet, hips, head, etc).

Flow-like state of focus is difficult to achieve and maintain. These days, it’s the main thing I work on, whether I’m rolling with a black belt or a blue belt, in a high-paced hard match that pushes me to physical exhaustion or a more chill-paced technical match. I am constantly working to be active. “Active” doesn’t always mean big drastic movements. Sometimes “active” means subtle grip adjustments and sometimes it means not moving at all while observing the movements of the other person:

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” – Napoleon

It’s an amazing feeling when everything is clear and the path to a submission opens up, very similar to the historically-very-accurate event of the Red Sea parting for Moses. But those opportunities only arise when you’re always active, always attacking.

Thanks to Keenan for the excellent advice. He has a new instructional website if you want to check it out.


Build a Habit: Motivation is a Fickle Mistress, Habit Is Not

The harder you work and the bigger the challenge you take on, the more likely you are to encounter the voice of “reason” inside your head that tells you to take it easy, to slow down, to take a break for a while, maybe even: to quit. This voice comes when the fire (that originally made you dream) fades. Motivation is a fickle mistress. She is there when you’re starting and the world of possibility seems infinite. She’s there when you’re improving dramatically. She’s there when you’re succeeding. But she comes and goes when the going gets tough: when you’re failing, when you hit a plateau, when you have to change and take steps back before you ever can move forward again.

If I learned anything from my work and my training, it’s that I can never count on motivation to always be there. It may be a natural flaw of an overly-introspective brain, but I’ve come to expect that motivation comes and goes. When I’m working at the edge or outside my comfort zone, tension builds, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. There are days and weeks when the answer to: “why am I doing this?” seems to escape my best attempts to find it. So, instead of searching for motivation, I find zen-like contentment in ritual. I build a habit and stick to it every day, no exceptions. I recommend you read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. This book describes the rituals of some brilliant and productive people throughout history.

Motivation-is-what-gets-you-started-habit-is-what-keeps-you-goingThere are plenty of books and blogs dedicated to building habits. It’s an industry that actually boils down to the trivially simple advice of: you know what to do, just do it, every day. I prefer to do everything I’m passionate about according to a strict schedule. I make this schedule not based on a dreamy optimism but based on reasonable expectations grounded in my prior experiences. For example, if I can only train 4 days a week in the next 6 months, I pick the days on which I’m going to train and go in to the gym on those same days every week no matter how I’m feeling. If I didn’t sleep the night, am swamped with work, etc, etc, I still come in to train. It will probably be a bad training session, but that’s not the point of coming in on those rough days. The very fact that I came in teaches my mind to stick to the regular schedule I planned on. Habit is built not when you’re motivated, energetic, happy, etc. Habit is built when the last thing you want to do is the thing that you’re supposed to do according to your schedule, but you DO IT ANYWAY.

The main point of building a habit is so that you don’t have to ask the question “why am I doing this?” often, and can ask it only when your motivation is high. If you decide to quit, it should be only when you’re feeling great, because then the decision to quit will much more likely be grounded in a rational evaluation of your life circumstance and goals.

My girlfriend sent me a text awhile ago that I saved and think about often. Among many other things, she is a runner. She’ll regularly do 7+ mile runs in 90 degree heat and make it look easy. But even for her, doing the thing she loves, motivation is a fickle mistress:

“Some days I love running. I relish it. Some days are like: ‘I’m okay, I can do this’. But there are still days, when my mind is like ‘no no noooo.'”

Motivation is the light at the end of the tunnel. Forget the light. Everyone is good at following the light. Success is found by the few who thrive in darkness.



“Are You Okay?”: The Deconstruction of Ego Through Simulated Murder

Jiu jitsu is simulated battle, and when a man taps he admits defeat in that battle. Luckily, it IS simulated, so tapping is not followed by murder. Much like in chess, a checkmate is not followed by the pillaging of the king’s castle and the slaughter of its citizenry.


Tapping is the catalyst for a brief personal psychotherapy session. The therapy couch is the mat, and your therapist is the man leaning over you with a concerned look on his face, saying: “Are you okay?”

The reddit post entitled “Your pokerface when someone destroys you with a submission and asks if you are OK” describes precisely the response most of us give: “Yes.” But this is only a veil over a complex inner struggle between expectation and reality: the shattering of delusions. This is precisely the struggle from which you grow as a martial artist and as a human being.


EDIT: Based on some comments, I have to clarify a point. The “painful” part of tapping should NEVER be about physical pain. You should tap early and tap often. The “pain” should be of the same kind when a friend beats you in a friendly game of chess.

Tapping is the process of prodding your sleeping ego with a stick. And there is always some ego, no matter who you are or where you are on the journey through martial arts. I don’t believe that training can ever truly involve “no ego”, no more than a bullrider can ever achieve a state of “no bull”. The goal is to control ego and to channel it into productive positive growth. This is something I talked to Ryan Hall about in a recent interview.

On a more practical level, here is how I grow from every time I tap. Whether I’m going at 100% intensity or 20% intensity, the questions I ask are:

  1. What exactly were the detailed chain of events that led to this tap?
  2. Next time, how can I prevent each of the steps along that chain?
  3. Next time, how can I escape the bad position at each of the steps along that chain?

As far as I’m aware, jiu jitsu is the easiest and safest way of going through this humbling process of “self-deconstruction”. Enlightenment through suffering, as the Buddhists like to say.



Metamoris 4 Predictions: Galvao, Lister, and Keenan Win by Submission

Metamoris 4 is going down on Saturday, August 9. Check out the countdown videos here. And check out the Around the Mat show previewing Metamoris:

The card is:

  • Chael Sonnen vs. Andre Galvao
  • Josh Barnett vs. Dean Lister
  • Saulo Ribeiro vs. Robert “Comprido” Medeiros
  • Vinny Magalaghaes vs. Keenan Cornelius
  • Gary Tonon vs. Kit Dale
  • Secret Match


Here are my predictions:

  • Galvao submits Sonnen, because Galvao is 6x ADCC medalist and a 13x Worlds medalist with many of his best performances being relative recent (2011, 2013, 2014).
  • Lister submits Barnett, because submitting Dean Lister is nearly impossible, and not getting heel-hooked by Dean Lister is equally hard, even for a catch wrestling specialist and top notch jiu jitsu black belt like Barnett.
  • Saulo draws Comprido, because Saulo is too patient and methodical to get a submission in 20 minutes on another patient and experience old-timer.
  • Keenan submits Vinny, because Keenan will create scrambles where submission opportunities will arise, and in 20 minutes, statistically speaking, no one can escape his wizardry.
  • Gary Tonon draws Kit Dale because Gary is probably the hardest person to submit on this whole Metamoris card and Kit Dale is incredibly good at controlling position and not making mistakes that will result in Gary ending up on his back. If this is no-gi, then maybe Gary catches a heelhook or an RNC, but in the gi, it’s a draw.

I’m hoping the secret match will be between Joe Rogan and Ed O’Neill, but more likely it’ll be a match involving a Gracie, hopefully something epic like Renzo Gracie vs BJ Penn.

What are your predictions?


Jiu Jitsu in Port Huron: My Experience Training at Alliance BJJ in Michigan

I traveled out to Michigan over a month ago. Back then, I wrote a blog post about training around Detroit, and now, a month later, here are some notes about my experience training in Port Huron, Michigan.

Most of the Michigan trip, I stayed at a cottage on Lake Huron in a town called Lexington. In my book, as far as names of towns go, it’s hard to do better than “Lexington”, a beautiful little town with a 200 year history.

2014-06-23_061-alliance-paulMost evenings, I ventured 20 miles south to Port Huron to hang out in the town and get some jiu jitsu training in at Alliance BJJ of Port Huron (check out their Facebook page). I trained there four times (both gi and no-gi) over a period of a week.

The school is run by Paul Elezaj, an excellent black belt instructor. I felt very welcome. Paul introduced me at every class to any of the students that haven’t seen me previously. Paul is friendly, funny, knowledgeable, and carries himself with an air like he has nothing to prove. He’s there to teach, learn and have fun. I had several long troubleshooting discussions with him about specific techniques.

The teaching was excellent. He gave good details (most of which I haven’t seen) for every technique he showed, and still was very concise and to the point, which I really appreciate as a student. I tend to zone out a bit if there is an excessive amount of talking for each technique. I took four classes and picked up a great new detail from every class. It’s like I took 4 mini-seminars.

One thing that I particularly enjoyed about this school was the 15-20 minute warm up drills. This wasn’t the usual warm-up drills that are only tangentially related to jiu jitsu, but the kind of drills you would see in Andre Galvao’s Drill to Win book. It was basically actual jiu jitsu techniques with slight adjustments to make them flow naturally as a high-paced drill. No gi class had a lot of wrestling drills and gi class had a lot of guard and guard-passing drills.

There was a good mix of skill levels in training, from white belt to black belt. I definitely got a good sweat in. People trained hard but technical, and there was very little ego on the mat. In general, my experience in the midwest with training has been that people are nicer on and off the mat.


First Brown Belt Tournament: Grapplers Quest U.S. Nationals


I competed at Grapplers Quest US Nationals yesterday. This was my first tournament as a brown belt. The brackets were small (2 or 4 people) but I did 4 divisions and ended up with 3 golds and 1 silver. I won 5 matches (four by submission) and lost one match in the absolute by an advantage. The main lesson I learned is that need to be quicker and more aggressive in the initial exchanges against larger opponents: attack, attack, attack. I can’t just let them get a comfortable position because they have the strength to hold me there, forcing me to take bad risks. Lesson learned.


I’ve been working on a few new techniques in the past few months so it was nice to test them out against people who were going 100% and wouldn’t tap unless the submission was really on. That’s one of the biggest benefits of competition is you get to really see what works and what doesn’t, or more accurately, it reveals the problems in your game (from the mental to the technical).

DSC_0079-bassil-lexSeveral of my teammates competed. For some, it was their first tournament. Everyone did well. I’d like to especially give a big congrats to Bassil Hafez (in the picture) for winning his purple belt division, but more importantly, for stepping up to do the advanced no-gi absolute $1000 division. I truly believe he has a solid chance of winning that division. The kid’s got heart. He faced Rustam Chsiev in the first round and lost 4-0 in a great match. Rustam ended up winning the division, beating Garry Tonon in the finals. My favorite part is how disappointed he was at this loss. He truly believe and wanted to win the absolute. That’s something I often talk to my instructor Ricardo Migliarese about is that confidence is a prerequisite to achieving anything on the mat (and in life).

I look forward to many more tournaments at brown belt. I have a few tournaments coming up are NAGA, PGL, and a catch wrestling tourney, all leading up to a very tough middleweight division at No Gi Pans in NYC on September 27.

DSC_0084-steph-lex-with-giI’m grateful to my girl Stephanie (in the picture) who was there before, during, and after being the biggest fan, and making the usually long wait easy.


Brown Belt Promotion

2014-07-01_03-lex-fridman-brown-belt-promotionYesterday, I was promoted to brown belt in BJJ. I’d like to thank Phil Migliarese, Ricardo Migliarese, and all my training partners and friends at Balance and everywhere else in the jiu jitsu world. In some ways it’s just a belt, just a color, but I think it’s a great time to reflect on what I learned from jiu jitsu so far and how grateful I am to be a part of this community.

I’ve grown a lot as a person in the years that I’ve spent on the mat. Jiu jitsu forced me to be honest with myself. It revealed to me my weaknesses and illusions. It made me realize that there are no shortcuts to success: hard work is always required and those who work the hardest tend to achieve the most (in whatever pursuit they take on).


It also taught me the paradoxical fact of human nature, perhaps best stated by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus:

“There is scarcely any passion without struggle.” – Camus

Happiness is found in the struggle, in the challenge, in the climb. I learned to set difficult goals, but not to dwell too much on them. Life happens in the moment, not in the future. So while “struggle” usually requires long-term goals, happiness is found in the “now”. That all leads to the two things I look for on the mat:

  1. Challenge.
  2. Fun.

My personal goals for brown belt are two-fold: (1) compete, compete, compete and (2) become a better teacher. I don’t think I’ll ever be an instructor, but I do enjoy discussing techniques and principles with people. What I would like to learn is how to better explain what’s on my mind clearly, concisely, with philosophical depth, and a slight tinge of Russian flavor.

I’ve come to a tough spot in my career that requires a lot of dedication and sacrifice. Jiu jitsu for me is a hobby. My life, work, and passion are in my academic pursuits. That is where I believe I can contribute the most to the world, and more importantly, that is what I love doing the most. Still, jiu jitsu is a grounding force, a place I return to time and again to get humbled and to reflect on my place in the world. The challenge is to find a balance: not a lazy balance, but a productive balance.

I will wrap this post up with another excerpt from The Myth of Sisyphus. In this essay, Camus uses the example of Sisyphus, a figure in Greek mythology, who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. This (in a nutshell) is the struggle. It may be meaningless, but still there is fulfillment in it. There is real happiness in it. The essay concludes:

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain… This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  – Camus

Congrats to everyone else getting promoted on July 12. I wish I could be there to celebrate, but I will certainly be there to be break in the new belts.



Jiu Jitsu in Detroit: Notes on Training at Kaizen BJJ

kaizen-1000I journeyed out to Detroit, Michigan on the way to a cottage on Lake Huron. I’m writing this very blog post without having had access to an internet connection for a couple days. This trip is not an escape from work or training or life, but a temporary relocation of all those activities into the quieter realm of lake-facing nature. It is helping me reflect on what is important in life: what my goals and priorities are. It is giving me a chance to think, really think, without the need to run off to a meeting or to check my email. Distractions really are the enemy of productivity, and the modern world is increasingly filled with micro-distractions.

It would not be completely accurate to call this a “vacation” as I’m still working (programming, writing, reading) a few hours a day. And of course, I’m still finding some time to exercise: either run or train jiu jitsu.

On Saturday, I visited Kaizen BJJ (facebook), located west of Detroit in Plymouth, MI. It was a no-gi class, taught by their head instructor Ryan Fiorenzi. He was exceptionally welcoming, knew my name when I came in, and when class started he had everyone introduce themselves to me and shake my hand. That’s 20+ people taking the time to greet me. I don’t remember ever feeling so welcome as a visitor at a jiu jitsu school.

The class was 3-4 techniques from half guard with a strong underhook. We drilled the moves, and then did positional training from the half guard position. Nothing fancy just good solid basics. We finished with 4-5 rounds of live training.

Overall, it was good training and good people. I definitely recommend people visit and train there if traveling to Detroit.