Tag Archives: Philosophy

Goodbye Philadelphia

philadelphia-lex-fridman

I’ve lived in the same one bedroom apartment for most of my twenties, during my undergrad and grad studies. If you’re reading this, you may have visited there on occasion. But if you have not, I’d say it’s a cross between a library and a cave. A dozen bookcases line the walls, full of books and countless trinkets: two staplers, a postcard from a high school friend who I never really got to know, a mug from France or Germany or Italy, who knows… and hundreds of other things that gathered dust and watched as I made mistakes of all kinds but mostly with cooking.

All those things are now gone. I got rid of 99% of my possessions, and moved out of the apartment. Most of what I own now fits into a carry-on suitcase. All I’m left with are the phone numbers of people I love and the chaos of ideas rumbling around in my head, waiting to spill out. Yesterday, as I walked around on this year’s first snow, I couldn’t help but miss every little thing about life in Philadelphia before I even left. Everyone is still here, within reach, but I already miss them.

I miss the people I’ve worked with in academia: long hours chasing deadlines, enthusiastically tossing around ideas like kids building a LEGO castle without the instructions. I miss the people I’ve trained judo and jiu jitsu with: blood, sweat, and tears spilled on the mat over a pijama game that somehow forced me and everyone else to confront fears, weaknesses, and the absurdly delusional ramblings of the ego. I miss the friend with whom I traveled across the country with: the Neal Cassady of my life “on the road.” I miss my mom, my dad, my brother. I miss playing music at shady bars: with a great guitar in hand, no, could be the best? Gibson Les Paul everytime, singing songs in front of people who were too drunk to care about anything except a good Hendrix cover: “Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand?” I miss the long runs on Kelly Drive. I miss the late night diners: the grey faces, the burnt coffee, and the feeling that nothing matters and everything is beautiful. I miss the long bus rides north, alone. I miss the people. I miss the conversations. I miss being younger… and stupider.

Goodbye Philly… for now. I’ll be back.

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The photo up top is taken by my brother. I love you bro.

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:

Shut Up and Work: Do It Every Day, Do It All Day, Do It For Years

I just finished reading Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield. It’s quick, simple, and profound. The advice: dedicate yourself fully to your art, your work, whatever it is that you want to succeed in. Distraction, laziness, risk-aversion, fear all prevent us from finding deep fulfillment in work. The best quote from the book:

“Resistance hates two qualities above all others: concentration and depth. Why? Because when we work with focus and we work deep, we succeed.”
– Steven Pressfield

The distinction that he draws between pro and amateur is instructive. There’s a list of 11 qualities of a professional from his earlier book that resonate with me, and is where the title of this blog post came from:

  1. The professional shows up every day.
  2. The professional stays on the job all day.
  3. The professional is committed over the long haul.

writeOr as I put it: do it every day, do it all day, do it for years. All that requires a passion for the work. So, combining with the first quote above, I would say that the three qualities required for any significant achievement are: concentration, depth, and passion.

Okay, now, back to work.

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.

running-motivation

Dunning-Kruger Effect: The Illusion of Superiority or How the Stupid are Too Stupid to Realize They’re Stupid

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” – Bertrand Russell

Dunning-KrugerIn researching some material on skill acquisition, I came across the mention of the Dunning–Kruger effect. It describes the cognitive bias of incorrectly estimating you own competence at a skill. The Cornell University researchers after whom the effect is named (David Dunning and Justin Kruger) highlighted that the unskilled often over-estimate their abilities, while the skilled often under-estimate their abilities. In their own words:

“The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

Put more simply: The stupid think that everyone else is stupider. The smart think that everyone else is smarter.

homer-everyone-is-stupid-except-meI have experienced this effect in my own beliefs with many of the activities I’ve undertaken, and perhaps there is a good reason for our minds to work like this. If we correctly estimated our own incompetence when first learning a skill, the sheer enormity of the undertaking might be too overwhelming to continue. At the same time, once you become an expert in a skill, it may be beneficial for continued growth to believe that there are a lot of people out there who are far more skilled than you. This gives you reason to continue striving to improve (in as much as competition is a motivator).

The practical conclusion I draw from this very human self-delusion is that I need to constantly look for ways to gauge my actual skill-level in the most objective way possible. For sports, that’s easier because often you can evaluate yourself directly against others in organized competition. For intellectual pursuits, like in academia, this is far more complicated. You have to seek feedback from your peers and social circles. However, this process is fraught with bias as the following video describes:

“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.

are-you-okay-cat

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.

im-okay

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.

dean-lister-rodolfo-viera

The Power of Books: They Reveal the World As It Is Not As You Wish It To Be

Good books challenge me, terrify me, force me to question everything, force me to see that I’m not special, that I’m mortal, that life often lacks clarity, certainty, and meaning.

Why read Camus, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Hesse, Becker, Nabokov, Beckett, Orwell, Coetzee, Hemingway and their ilk? Is it just because we silly apes seem to derive pleasure from tasks that are more difficult to complete? No, there is more to it, I believe:

These books reveal the world as it is not as I wish it to be. They do so not purely through the content of their words, but through the very fact that they challenge me. Being challenged puts the brain into a whirlpool of humbling questions. It forces me out of my comfortable self-centered cocoon. I begin to re-evaluate the conventions and assumptions of my upbringing, my social circles, my inner and outer world. That way lies madness, but also enlightenment, so I proceed carefully…

kafka-keyDespite the heaviness of its lows, this process is ultimately life-affirming. After being dragged along the bottom of my skull by a tough book, I always emerge on the other end with a quiet contentment that feels unshakably real.

It seems that happiness is earned through fire.

This post was inspired by this Reddit post and the Franz Kafka quote:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

Off the top of my head, here are ten authors (and books) that chipped away at that frozen sea for me:

  1. Camus: The Stranger, The Plague, The Myth of Sisyphus
  2. Hesse: The Glass Bead Game, Demian, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha
  3. Kafka: The Metamorphosis, A Hunger Artist, The Trial, The Castle
  4. Dostoevksy: The Idiot, Notes from Underground, The Brothers Karamazov
  5. Kerouac: On the Road
  6. Orwell: Animal Farm, 1984
  7. Philip Roth: American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theater
  8. Salinger: Catcher in the Rye
  9. Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms
  10. Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals

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:

venn-diagram-explosive-precise-bjj-spaz

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.

Relax

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.

Ego

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.

How to Argue Like a Man: Don’t Be a Whiny Bitch

2014-05-22-teddyTheodore Roosevelt photograph courtesy of Reddit: 19-year-old Theodore Roosevelt during his freshman year at Harvard, 1877

Side note: If the phrase “like a man” or “don’t be a whiny bitch” offends you, please read this article on Misogyny and Feminism. What I’m saying applies to men and women, and has little to do with the literal meaning of the words in the expression. “Man”, as absurd as it may sound, is something that both a man and a woman can be. The word (in this case) simply means integrity, strength, empathy, and intelligence. I wish our language was less misogynistic, and I’m sure it will evolve so, but for now it is what it is.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” –  F. Scott Fitzgerald

The following are some principles of argument that should be followed by people with the guts to care more about the truth than about their ego.

Do not get emotional

Anger and irrational verbal aggression is not manly. It’s a form of whining. Example: when arguing about the justification for the Iraq war, don’t start name-calling or questioning the other guy’s patriotism. Be calm, cool, collected, focused. Victory in an argument is not achieved by being “right”. It is achieved when a step is taken towards the truth.

Shut up and listen

Most problems in life can be traced back to you talking too much. Shut up and listen. That’s when learning is done. Also, that’s when thinking is done. It’s not easy to deliberate on a thought while flapping your mouth.

Fully consider the arguments for the opposing side

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

Empathize. Empathy is hard. It takes time. It takes self-sacrifice. It takes temporary suppression of ego. You have to ask: “What world view is the person I’m arguing with coming from?”. You also have to ask: “Does his/her worldview have less or more objective validity than my own?”

Be willing to change you mind on any subject, no matter how personal

You might’ve spent years passionately arguing for (and even living for) an idea. Do not be afraid to discover that you were wrong. Do not be afraid to accept that you “wasted” all those years, and that it is now time to change your mind. This is really tough. Albert Einstein argued against quantum mechanics for decades, long after the majority of the scientific community has accepted it as a valid theory. However, the flipside of that (see next point) is that sticking to your guns (as long as you are brutally honest) is also important.

Do not be afraid to be an outsider, a heretic

“I don’t care what others think” is a popular claim to make, but one that very few people can actually live by. To be an independent thinker goes against human nature. It is hard. You have to value truth more than happiness and sometimes more than your own well-being. An example is Giordano Bruno who in the 16th century proposed several radical cosmological ideas and stuck by them despite overwhelming opposition. He turned out to be right, but was executed for his beliefs.

Above all: Think.