In 2006, I had just quit rockclimbing and had extra time on my hands. That’s how I found myself in a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class rolling on the floor with bald, beefy, fully-tatted men trying to break whatever limb they could reach. It was exhilarating.
In the next three years, I became fully addicted to Mixed Martial Arts training. I practiced three hours a day, six days a week. When I wasn’t working out, I was watching videos of Ultimate Fighting Championship fights, deconstructing and reconstructing strategies. I set a goal to be in a professional MMA fight and test my skills in the cage under the unified (no) rules.
To reach this goal, I began competing in tournaments and amateur fights (or "smokers"). I did well, and began training for the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Mundials in Brazil. My trainers were aggressive and so was I, which is why my right shoulder fell apart two months later.
The doctor said it was tendonitis and required surgery. I never competed in Brazil. Seven cortisone shots and two years later, I gave up the sport entirely.
I had moved to Shanghai, China, a year earlier to understand innovation in Asia and hadn’t once raised my heart rate since abandoning my MMA dreams. I’d lost 15 pounds off my already small 140-pound frame and was looking quite frail. I had battled my tendonitis for three years.
There was a moment when I became so disgusted with myself that I knew something had to change. I had to become strong again for myself. I needed to feel good. Fate would allow me to find a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu place across the street from where I worked. I met the guys. I was nervous.
“Come back tomorrow, and train – no charge,” they said.
At the gym, I put on my gi (the traditional uniform) and began to strap on a white belt.
The instructor stopped me. "You’re a blue belt," he said. "Put it on.”
I didn’t want to. You see, someone who wears a blue belt, especially someone small like me, he is a target for every beginner to beat.
It wasn’t fun.
But I kept going back for reasons I am just beginning to understand: mental, physical and spiritual.
The mental aspect is about dealing with your inner demons. It's about learning to ignore the little voice that says you aren’t good enough. When starting over, you'll always remember how much better you used to be and—if your pride gets in the way—it will lead you to quit. This must be overcome by admitting you're a beginner again. I have accepted that I am a white belt once more, even though I wear a faded blue belt. My pride makes it hard to tap to a white belt, but I do, and the payoff is that I remain uninjured to this day.
The physical aspect is easiest to deal with because it's mostly pain. Pain is a good thing. It tells us when to slow down, which I used to ignore because of my ego. Now I listen to pain closely. I need to move slower than before and everything hurts more in the end. My mind tells my body to move in a certain way but my body can’t follow. That hurts, too. A beginner’s mind with no ego is the salve for this type of pain.
This leads me to realize that the physical and mental aspects of starting over are linked together into an unexpected (for me) spiritual aspect.
Several times in the past few months, I have been underneath a guy trying to rip my arm off, unable to breathe, and completely exhausted. I have found myself questioning why I am there. I have a great job, I am not angry, why the hell am I fighting in a cage? Why do I do this????????
What I've realized is that it's the excitement of progress, of slow mastery, and accomplishment measured on my own terms.
As a competitive person, I used to always compare myself to those around me. With maturity, I have become intrinsically motivated. I now want to improve to do better than I've done before, which has made the whole affair more fun and less like a job.
This has helped me to understand that achievement is completely personal.
Every day, getting up for yourself to try to do something just outside your reach is the highest level of achievement. It has become something measured by money or medals, leading to unhappiness and difficulty in sticking with what is enjoyable. Long-term happiness, and what I am beginning to see as real achievement, is simply the act of doing.
The rest is just distraction.