The greatest initial obstacle to skill development is often one’s mindset. Many of us inherit expectations and beliefs from our culture. Our society does not praise failure, it tacitly devalues or overtly chastises those who miss the mark.
Our relationship to failure is a predictor of the joy and effectiveness of our practice. Skill acquisition is cyclical: we must fail, digest that failure and assimilate its lessons into new modes of behavior, and then act again with improved probability of success. We make constant iterations until we achieve our intended result.
Having done so, we simply begin again in a new endeavor. Past success is the antecedent to future failure. To improve we must not rest on our laurels, we cast them aside and immediately seek a new challenge.
Though the challenges come in many forms, they are of the same nature:
We play at the edge of our current abilities, the precipice of the unknown beyond explored territory (and our associated stress-tested efficacy) where unfamiliar variables force our continued evolution. Whether we are a white belt or a black belt, the process is the same; the color of your belt cannot save you from the necessity of failure.
Nor deem the irrevocable Past As wholly wasted, wholly vain, If, rising on its wrecks, at last To something nobler we attain. -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It is irrevocable; it is necessary. And it is the only way of nobility. The bulk of your time at white belt will be spent in failure. We must learn to see these failings as the prerequisite for success; this is us as an egg on our way to becoming a dragon.
“Rather than be someone with no flaws, be the entity that continually realizes its flaws and overcomes them.”- Jordan Peterson
This is the perspective we must embody. Rather than trying not to fail in training, we should seek out purposeful failure in the most productive way, confronting our incompetence in perpetuity.
The best black belts in the world feel as though they have barely glimpsed Jiu Jitsu. The more skill we develop, the more skill there is to be developed.
“We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.”- John Archibald Wheeler
Not only must we learn to embrace failure, we must see it as a metric for progress. Failure is synonymous with growth. We must continually realize and rectify our flaws, so that we may find more flaws.
This process is infinite.
Understanding the Unknown: The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell taught mythology at Sarah Lawrence College for 38 years. A leading storyteller of his time, he is best known for his magnum opus, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, a detailed text on the commonalities between the many hero stories of fairy tale, myth, and religion throughout recorded human history. This “monomyth” shows the common trajectory of all great heroes (and ourselves):
The hero leaves home, ventures into the supranatural world, overcomes great obstacles and cultivates new abilities for having done so, and then returns to his ordinary world with more to offer his community.
Every roll is such a journey.
We all have positions and techniques where we have considerably more skill than the rest. These are the “knowns,” the ordinary world: pockets of competence in which we experience minimum growth due to our proficiency.
To grow, we must risk failure away from these areas of comfort. We must venture into the “unknown,” the supranatural world of trials, tribulations, and subsequent boons to be won.
Every training session presents a choice:
1) The Way of Comfort: pursuing a high probability of momentary success by staying within your field of “knowns,” using your competency to achieve positional advancement or submission. 2) The Way of Growth: venturing into the unknown, using unfamiliar techniques, positions, and combinations of each relative to specific training partners, to purposefully place yourself in arenas where you are not strong, so as to acquire strength.
The possibility of failure and opportunity for growth always reside in the same place. As Epictetus said,
“If you wish to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”
But we are hesitant to do so.
Ego, healthy rivalry, the immediate feedback of success, and the desire to succeed in the present moment constantly steer us toward the way of comfort. When comfort calls, we must remember another great lesson from mythology: the gold is always found where the dragons are.
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.”-Joseph Campbell
At the time of this writing, I have one image in my bedroom to remind me of this: a man standing at the edge of a dark cave.
I have always used that anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach to guide my actions. Whenever I am presented with an opportunity, if it scares me, I must do it. This is a pact I have made with myself, and my life has grown in proportion to the extent that I have honored it.
And so has my Jiu Jitsu.
We will grow to the degree that we continually realize our flaws, face them, and overcome them, and this can only be achieved in that unknown world, at the fringes of our current ability. We must make the most of the opportunities within each training session, willfully risking failure so that we may succeed. And we will do this in perpetuity, regardless of belt level.
Mastery Does Not Exist
Let’s be clear: you will never master Jiu Jitsu. It is an ideal to strive toward, not a goal to be achieved. The continuum of mastery is as vast as we are finite, and as we have discussed, the more you learn, the more there is to be learned.
And I have found great solace in this truth. Mastery is not a tyrant with which you lord over yourself your inadequacies. Rather, it is a heading for your compass. I recently realized I will not be able to read all the books I want to in my lifetime. After immediate nihilism, a freedom from the self-imposed pressures of conscientiousness washed over me, because to understand the inherent limitations of being brings with it great peace.
To bind oneself to an unattainable goal is to spend one’s whole life in a state of feeling incomplete; the goal is the direction, not a destination. It’s a cliché, but clichés say far more than their familiarity allows us to hear. When we learn to see mastery as a continuum on which we move, and that there is no end, we can find joy in the daily striving to become more while appreciating what we currently are.
In a realm where failure is constant and paramount, I can think of no better relationship to experience than this.
Summary of Rule #1
We must embrace failure to progress in this art. By venturing into the unknown, we give ourselves the opportunity to develop new abilities. We must do this repeatedly, knowing that there are always new opportunities to fail, regardless of skill level. We will never master this art, but we must daily strive to be better.
You are a work in progress. All good things are.
To learn about the remaining rules for white belts, check out 5 Rules for White Belts“.
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