Tag Archives: ego

“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.


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.


Don’t Be a Spaz: Relax and Move Smoothly to Develop Precision

A “spaz” is someone whose movement is explosive but lacks precision. For the visually-inclined, here’s a Venn diagram:


Being a spaz is something we forgive beginners too easily, as if it’s the awkward teenage phase everyone has to go through, as if it’s not within their control. No, you don’t grow out of being a spaz, you have to work your way out of it from day one.

The basic principle of life is that you get good at what you do most often. Period. You’re not going to stop being a spaz by spazzing harder, longer, and more times a week. You stop spazzing by deliberately relaxing and moving in a smooth controlled fashion.


Relaxing is one of the most important things a beginner can learn. But it isn’t a switch you flip. It’s a constant struggle. You have to remind yourself over and over and over as you roll or drill to release the tension in your muscles. Only once you learn to relax can you begin to build precision in your movement.

I learned this lesson first when I was studying classical piano at a young age. The secret to moving ten fingers in a clean, crisp, super-fast pattern is to start SSSLLLOOOWWWW. Music has a beat, so “slow” has a number, thanks to the metronome. The process is simple:

  1. Set the metronome to super slow.
  2. Play at that speed without once tensing any of the tiny little muscles in your hands.
  3. Continue playing at that speed until you don’t make a single mistake for.
  4. Slightly increase the speed of the metronome.
  5. Go to step #2.

That’s piano though. In grappling, there’s often a big dude doing his best to break off your arm as you try to relax. So it’s different, right? Wrong. Never ever should you stop that dude by tensing or spazzing. When learning, whether you’re playing piano or are locked in a death-match with an NCAA All American wrestler, you have to relax.

Building Precision

So when you’re first learning a movement in grappling, here’s the process I recommend:

  1. Release tension: Relax as much of your body as possible while still accomplishing the movement.
  2. Move slowly: Perform the movement both in drilling and training at the slowest pace you and your partner can bare physically and psychologically. It doesn’t have to be glacial speed, but you can never go too slow at first. It is ALWAYS better to start super slow and increase speed when you’re 100% confident you got the movement down at that speed.
  3. Move smoothly: Each part of the movement should be performed at the same speed as every other part. Unless… gravity or momentum requires you to move faster in certain parts.

Once you achieve precision with the movement at the slow speed you can shift one gear up. For me, in training or drilling, each gear usually corresponds to approximately 100-500 reps.

When precision is developed, style can form. You might be an explosive cobra that’s loud and proud as it murders its opponent. Or you might be a giant python that hides away patiently waiting for the pray to wander into its death by asphyxiation.

But first: relax, slow down, and move smoothly.


I was dishonest in saying that there is no difference between learning piano and learning grappling. The truth is that getting smashed on the mat is somehow much more damaging to the ego. This is perhaps the biggest struggle of a martial artist: to relax and move smoothly as you get smashed over and over and over on your path to mastery.

Every man is born a spaz. It is his burden and his quest: to shed this robe of awkwardness and emerge a noble savage, a fearless primate in full control of his intent and action.

Patience in Jiu Jitsu: 8 Reasons You Need It

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau

patient-catIf I had to describe with one word what (in my mind) is required for a successful journey in jiu jitsu, I would have to say: patience.

I find the idea of “no ego” misleading in the short-term, when trying to figure out how to live day-to-day life. It’s like telling a kid in a candy store to have no ego. For myself, it’s better to tell that inner kid to be patient and instead give him a salad.

Speaking of patience, you will probably need a lot of it in order to get through this post, so instead, just skip ahead to the parts you find more interesting:

1. Working on a New Technique in Training

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
– Winston Churchill

Learning a new technique (or position/concept) in training requires that you stick to that new technique even when it is failing, in order to learn how and why it is failing. The result, however, is you might do a lot worse in training than you usually would. For example, I’ve been working on a weird cross-collar grip while passing. Conceptually this solves a few  problems in my game, but for a while it was allowing many people to off-balance me and sweep me easily. Every time I got swept, I learned something. But I’m also human, so if I get swept, I get a little frustrated, and patience is the process of silencing that frustration and sticking to the new technique anyway. By the way, I’m not in the school of thought that says frustration is bad. Frustration is good. Frustration is the fire that inspires progress.

2. Survival: Escaping Bad Positions

Turtle-Guillotine-ProblemsThis was a tough one for me, still is, especially in competition. As a wrestler, my instinct has always been to act in all bad positions as a wrestler acts when he is getting turned to his back. Basically: go berserk. This is often not a good idea in jiu jitsu.

The moment you stop going berserk, you also have to face that weak-ass negative voice inside yourself that says: “Shit, shit, damn it. I’m losing. I’m going to lose.” I have seen some incredible competitors, more often than I ever expected, get in trouble by being swept, get their back taken, or even put into submissions, and… escape to eventually win the match.

The kind of patience required here is very zen. It’s a calm under fire, staying relaxed and focused on defending. Jiu jitsu is a game where taking a step back is sometimes required in order to take two steps forward. As absurd as it may sound, it is difficult to dominate in good positions without the confidence that you can defend yourself in bad positions.

3. Stalemate in Training or Competition

There are several kinds of stalemates in jiu jitsu. One is because the other guy is blatantly stalling by having a controlling grip or position and yet not making any effort to progress from that position. Patience is required here because a lot of guys that do this are waiting for you to make a mistake and capitalize on it.

The second type of stalemate is when you and your opponent are evenly matched in a particular position, both with a controlling grip, and constantly battling to progress position without success. It goes on back and forth: attack, defend, attack, defend. Especially in competition, there is a big temptation here to throw in an unorthodox attack because your main A-game is being defended well. Patience is required here to stick to the game plan, stick to your strength. Unless you have a wild open style, leave improvisation for the academy and keep to well-tested techniques on the competition mat.

The last kind of stalemate is a tricky one, and comes from experience. In competition, you have to face a lot of different games and sometimes you get a weird feeling about a particular position. It may be one you’ve been in many times, but this particular opponent is doing it slightly differently. Patience is required here to “test the waters” and feel out what the opponent is looking for or maybe backup and try a completely different strategy of attack. Follow your instinct, but ignore irrational fear, if you can tell the difference between the two.

I’ll go to chess for a brilliant example of the third kind of stalemate. The following is a world chess champ V. Anand taking almost 2 minutes to think over a standard early position during a world blitz game (where he is given a total of 5 minutes to make all the moves in the game). Why did he wait so long to make such a simple move? Because something was off. His instinct told him to rethink the position and he was confident enough to calmly follow his instinct without letting the pressure of the clock break his focus.

4. Tournaments: Getting There, Waiting There

dmv-hellWhen you sign up for a tournament, most of your competition experience is not spent on the mat competing. You will spend anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days in transportation to and from the tournament (cars, trains, or planes). Once at the venue you will spend an average of about 6 hours at the tournament site, registering, weighing in, warming up, waiting for your first match, waiting between matches. And all that is for one division.

If you decide to do gi and no-gi, or weight and absolute, you can easily show up at 10am and leave at 9pm for a nice 11 hour experience. That’s a lot of dead time. Patience here is required in the same way as in any situation that needs waiting for a long time in an uncomfortable environment: relax and make yourself comfortable.

5. Losing in Competition

reality-mirrorReality is a bitch. And nothing hands you a cold hard dose of reality like losing in competition. Some people blame the ref. Some people blame cutting weight or not cutting weight. Some people blame doing adult instead of masters. And all these could be legitimate reasons, but deep inside you know: you fucked up. This knowledge will stay with you for days, weeks, and in some cases months. Patience here is required in order to channel the pain of that knowledge into productive learning and training, and not into self-pity and clever excuse-making.

6. Training Around an Injury

detour-signDamn this is already a long post, so I’ll hurry up, just three more…

Training injured is a big part of jiu jitsu. If I took time off every time I lightly hurt something I would never train. I have not been seriously hurt (yet) after 4 years of lots of competing, but take my advice for what it is: an opinion. My opinion is that the best way to avoid serious injury is to never take a lot of time off. If you take time off from the mat, you have to be drilling on a dummy or alone or doing yoga-type movements that mimic grappling at least remotely.

But if you are slightly banged up, you have to train around that injury. Patience here is required in order to take the ego hit from not being able to roll 100% or sometimes even close to it. In the grand scheme of things, your guard being passed by a white belt for a few days/weeks does not even come close to mattering, if it means you get to continue training, and living the happy healthy jiu jitsu life.

7. Training with a “Dangerous” Training Partner

trex7The previous one (#6) also applies for training with a “dangerous” training partner. Some people are VERY aggressive or spazzy or just not sensitive to the music of jiu jitsu. Training hard and training rough are very different things. You want to train hard not rough. So if a person has hurt you in the past, you should not try to go HARDER this time. You should go lighter. Let them submit you a few times if ego is an issue at all. If you are training for competition, you should still go hard but the #1 goal should be get from safe position to safe position without injury. Again, my opinion. Take it for what it is.

8. Training When You’re Mentally Worn Out

woman-cryingThis is one I deal with often personally, especially at this stage in my life. I have a lot of deadlines at work, and really my whole life at this time is my work, so sometimes the lack of sleep spills over to my training. Add women on top of that, and the idea of being mentally engaged in 1+ hours of hard rolling with purple, brown, and black belts is just… tough. Patience here is required to suck it up, enjoy the grind, and train your ass off through the mental exhaustion with a beautiful fucking smile on your face.

The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Train Jiu Jitsu

the-oatmeal-the-terrible-and-wonderful-reasons-why-i-run-long-distancesThe Oatmeal put out a witty introspective comic on The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances. For the author (Matthew Inman), running is a way to find “silence” (aka inner peace) when the flaws of character and circumstance collude to make life outside of running a shameful mess.

My journey through jiu jitsu is a contradictory mess as well. Sure, I’ve heard myself say many times that I do jiu jitsu to stay healthy or for an ego-check or to take a break from work. But the reality is probably something much less concrete. I think it helps me find that same kind of silence amid the sporadic oscillations of daily living: the noise.

The noise is made of my brain’s frequent Facebook-style notifications of my flaws, doubts, regrets, my at-times dysfunctional relationship with food, girls, work, parents, and friends.

The noise is also fear (both rational and not): fear of loss, fear of death, fear of isolation. It’s all part of being a human being, alive, and without a clue about what it all means. I find solace from that noise in jiu jitsu.

Of course, I don’t usually think of it in those grandiose metaphysical terms. Actually, I usually don’t think at all. Just take it one step at a time.

What Would Gandalf Do: Masters Division vs Adult Division

In judo and bjj, being 30+ years old means you have the option to compete with other 30+ year olds in a separate “Masters” division. This year, I have joined the ranks of this group. My first instinct is that of Groucho Marx of not wanting to belong to any club that would have me as a member.

Early on, in my 3+ years of jiu jitsu, I was forced to acknowledge a simple reality:

I will never be as good as the current black belt BJJ world champion in my weight class.

I know this might seem like an obvious fact to just about anyone who knows anything about jiu jitsu. In fact, it’s pretty embarrassing just to write those words. But I’m human, I’m a dreamer, I have an ego, and I had to ask myself on a few occasions: how good can I get? The answer to that was painful, humbling, but ultimately liberating. I have found simple happiness in the day-to-day learning, hard work, improvement, and a systematic dedication to understanding the art and the sport of jiu jitsu.

Anyway, I’m off to DC for a presentation tomorrow, after several days and nights of programming, reading, scribbling in a notebook, and then more programming. My life is not that of a full-time competitor. For me, my work (research) is the main challenge and the main source of enjoyment in my life. Despite the occasional lack of smile, I’m sincerely a happy dude.

gandalf-you-shall-not-passSo for major tournaments (e.g. Pans) I’m faced with a choice: masters division or adult division. I know many people from white belt to black belt that go back and forth. The reality is that winning Pans in any age division is tough, but of course there is a reason why black belt masters matches are 6 minutes while black belt adult matches are 10 minutes. The guys that win the adult division don’t just bring technique, they bring an incredible level of physical preparedness (cardio, agility, flexibility, aggression). The 30+ guys have a bit more “old man strength”, wisdom, and experience (theoretically). Still, I believe that “wisdom” (the opposite of “recklessness”) is more of a negative than a positive. Ultimately, competition requires stupid confidence and focused aggression. If your brain is allowed to ask philosophical questions around the time of competition, you’re probably going to lose.

Also the masters divisions are usually smaller. At the 2013 Pans (see 2013 Pans competitor list) the purple belt middleweight division had 37 guys for adult and 25 guys for masters.

In some sense, thinking about age is the very thing that ages you. If you don’t give a shit, then you don’t age. I’ll leave with this quote from Satchel Paige (baseball player from over 50 years ago):

“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?”

Let It Go: The Incentive to Resolve Conflict

In academia, in politics, in life, I often see two intelligent adults build a rift over a disagreement (large or small), fail to resolve it, and continue for the rest of their life with the rift in place.

It’s ego. It’s human nature. But it makes life more difficult. My advice (to myself and others) is to always let it go no matter what. Linger in the muck of anger for a few days, take a few naps, and then patch up the damaged relationship in whatever way that it will no longer be an anchor on your mind. The weight of conflict can take away the freedom to enjoy this short life and to form meaningful friendships along the way.

In politics, shallow bickering seems to be the modus operandi. Somehow it has become a commonly accepted notion that conflict helps win elections. Showing what someone else did badly is more effective than showing what you did well. Perhaps that might be the case in politics, but I still hold out hope for the personal interactions of regular human beings. There are very few conflicts I can imagine that cannot be resolved through a little swallowing of pride. It might hurt for a day, a week, a month, but it will make life more enjoyable, more productive, and more meaningful in the long term (years, decades).

I’m often reminded of the Borat clock radio “great success”:

There will always be someone with a clock radio that you can’t afford. Let it go.

What is “Ego” and How to Have Less of Whatever Makes It Bad

The goal of “no ego” is professed as all-important in the jiu jitsu community. And yet, in contrast to how often the goal is stated, detailed discussion of this concept is much rarer (at least in my experience).

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

“Ego” as a standalone term is usually used to mean an inflated sense of self-worth. It’s our need to compare ourselves to others, and in the process exaggerate the things we’re better at, and ignore or justify away the things we’re worse at. Unfortunately, such comparison moves you away from enjoying the moment itself. Neither winning nor losing can be good enough. Also, in the context of jiu jitsu, comparing yourself to others is counter-productive to learning, because you have very little incentive to try things at 100% that you’re not good at. If you do, you are likely to “fail”, and evaluate the failure in a negative way for your development.

I think the best way to avoid the negative effects of ego is to go against human nature and resist comparing yourself to others.

Better Than Yesterday

In judo, I’ve often heard the quote: “It’s not important to be better than someone else, but to be better than yesterday.” The quote implies that it’s good to compare yourself to the you of yesterday. In general, that’s true in that your goal should always be to grow, improve, learn. But the “yesterday” part leaves the door open to ego. Because how do you know if you improve? Well the usual way is: “yesterday I rolled with person X and he tapped me and today I rolled with him and I tapped him”. I improved! You are again forced to make that counter-productive comparison.

Two Things to Learn From Failure

When you step on the mat, even among friends and long-time training partners, comparisons are abound. It’s human nature, and is very difficult to stop. I know there will be times that people will make judgements about my training, and I will do the same of theirs. For example, I know that it’s sometimes the case that a person who hasn’t passed my guard the last few times we rolled and passes it easily today several times will feel good about their jiu jitsu, and visa versa. Sometimes I can’t help making that comparison even when I know it’s not good for my jiu jitsu growth.

Here are two things I try to do to fight the ego when I fail at the main task of stopping the comparison before it even enters my brain:

  1. When I get smashed, I try not to justify it as “well he’s been doing it much longer” or “he’s much bigger” or “he’s much smaller so I wasn’t really trying” or “he’s a higher rank” or “my rib is hurt, so i couldn’t really defend”.
  2. When I roll with people that I feel I wouldn’t want to “lose” to, I start playing at 100% a new game I’ve been working on or one that I’m not yet comfortable with. It often fails, and I end up doing poorly, and have to deal with the stress of being smashed and take the hit to my bloated self-esteem. That’s the point: Force yourself to experience defeat as a way to re-calibrate the ego.

By the way, on that second point, it’s important to try the new techniques at 100% not 70% nor 20% and to not make any excuses or justifications, otherwise the bitter reality of the lesson will not be internalized quite as well.

It Never Gets Easier

The prescriptive goal, in the end, is: don’t compare yourself to others. I believe that this is something that has to be practiced actively every day. It’s not like once you hit black belt, you’ve suddenly been liberated of the chains of ego. In many ways, it becomes more challenging to remain humble at that point. Not just acting humble, but living humbleThat’s so damn hard to do. But if anything can make that process easier, it’s jiu jitsu!

I usually don’t like Eckhart Tolle because of the overly-spiritual hand-wavy pseudoscience he teaches, but this short video of his I saw a while ago I think is a nice comment about the place of ego in our life:

Winning, Losing, and Keeping Score in Training

I truly believe that to improve in jiu jitsu I have to knock the idea of winning or losing in training out of my silly ape brain. There are several reasons for this:

  1. I will feel shitty on days when I “lose” more than I “win”.
  2. I will avoid new techniques in training because they will make me “lose”. Or I will do those techniques at 50% so that it’s clear to my opponent that I’m not really trying.
  3. People who are not keeping track of this won’t want to train with me because this mindset is contagious.

I’d like to believe that I have achieved this goal, but in reality I’m far from it. I distinctly catch myself feeling good when I get a submission, and being frustrated when I get submitted. Of course, it’s perhaps impossible to fully move past that while still going 100% but I’m certainly far from achieving a reasonably minimal level of ego.

Some approaches I use for improving in this department are as follows:

  1. Roll with people who I wouldn’t want to “lose” to for whatever reason, and use a new technique I’m working on at 100% without care for anything except the success of that technique. If I get frustrated at some point, I catch myself and just laugh (on the inside) at the foolishness of my frustration.
  2. Never count “match points”. I’ll consider the points scored in an individual scramble just for the sake of tournament preparation, but never who has scored more points or submissions in the match. A lot of people I look up to actually do keep track of points because it makes it more fun, but for me the fun can too easily cross over into excessive competitiveness where my game is in danger of stagnating.

One last important point, I believe in the long term I can’t fake not caring about winning or losing in training. Even if I don’t say anything, it comes out in subtle ways that people can pick up on. But like for many things in life, one of the best approaches to achieving a desired state of mind is to fake it till you make it.

“The More I Tap Out The More Unbeatable I Am”

The quote in the title comes from Ryron Gracie (in the video below) who is scheduled to compete against Andre Galvao on October 14th. It refers to the fact that losing gives you an opportunity to learn the gaps and flaws in your jiu jitsu game. But it also is clearly something Ryron tells himself to help fight the ego that is an ever-present and at-times-destructive force in jiu jitsu and in life.

When I first heard the quote in the title I was put off a bit. That sounded like the opposite of something a top grappler should say before an epic superfight, but then the deeper meaning of it began to emerge. I realized that it came from a humble dedication to learning the art which is perhaps bigger than any individual competitive accomplishments.

I have tremendous respect for Ryron Gracie for going against Andre Galvao. Ryron’s competition resume is much smaller than that of Galvao, so he is a huge underdog. But given that he is a big-time well-respected instructor, the fact that he accepted this fight is truly admirable. I believe that very few people in his position would do so. That in itself is a victory to be proud of: a victory over his ego.