The doorbell rang late on a Sunday night.

My eyes darted to the front door, then back at Melis. “Who the hell is that,” she asked, knee-deep in legos. She pulled Scarlett close. One look at our neighborhood, and you’d appreciate our apprehension. Our house sits in a dark, wooded cul-de-sac, nestled within dense marshland blanketed in misty, lingering fog.

I’m exaggerating, but it definitely oscillates between beautifully tucked away and downright creepy.

Until then, I hadn’t even known if the doorbell worked. Our first Halloween was still days off, and not even Jehovah’s Witnesses ventured down our secluded shady lane. And let’s be honest: aside from cops and serial killers, who knocks on doors anymore? Even Fedex gave it up, opting to shot put packages from the curb instead.

I tried to lighten the mood. “I knew it, Rich and Barb are swingers,” I said, heading for the front door. Like most elderly couples, our neighbors are asleep by 8 o’clock. Melis offered a courteous giggle.

I looked out the narrow window along the length of the door, and saw nothing but darkness. Instinctively, I hit the Kennedy Compound lights, a series of spotlights mounted around our house’s perimeter by the previous owner. They’re ridiculous. With a click the yard lit up like Fenway Park, everywhere but the front door. The bulb was out, of course, and had been for months. A handful of I’ll do it later’s eventually became we don’t have a porch light.

I opened the door, ready to unleash a front kick that would make Leonidas jealous. As I peered into the backlit shadow, the silhouette of a small, older man began to emerge.

My eyes adjusted quickly to the dark. First impressions are not this guy’s strong suit, I thought. He wasn’t small at all, just an unfortunate combination of poor posture and meek demeanor.

He stood modestly in jean shorts and a crew-neck sweatshirt, with white tube socks stemming from weathered New Balances. Part Bill Gates, part Wall-E, his impossibly thick glasses magnified the calm and kindness of his eyes. My apprehension waned.

He had no warrant, and no machete. He didn’t even have girls scout cookies. What does this guy want from us, I couldn’t help thinking. “Pete,” I said, reaching my hand out. You can glean a lot about someone’s intentions just from a greeting.

“Walt,” he replied uncomfortably. I liked him right away.

I stepped back, inviting him in. We stood just inside the doorway as Walt began explaining his mission. He’s going door to door- as he has for the last 8 years- in an effort to raise funds for Multiple Sclerosis research. To help his cause, he participates in an epic bike race each year.

“Come on in,” I said, and led him to the kitchen where Melis stood waiting. With Scarlett on her hip, she smiled her what the hell’s going on smile, a derivative of the patented I’m gonna kill youHe’s harmless, I replied, with an almost imperceptible shake of my head.

Walt went on to show me a list of donors from the area, neighbors of mine who kindly gave $10, $20, or even $25. He scrolled clumsily through an impressive stack of hand-written spreadsheets, stopping randomly at names and amounts. I noticed the addresses, scribbled in different colors of ink, spanned across five neighboring towns. This guy’s been at it all damn day, I thought.

It’s a labor of love, I quickly came to find. Walt’s wife suffers from MS, and instead of letting helplessness devour him, he’s taken action. He expressed how incredibly grateful he’d be for even a penny. I believed him.

“Say no more, Walt,” I said, walking over to the junk drawer. At this point, I’d have let him babysit Scarlett.

As I searched for the checkbook, Walt looked over to Melis. “She just loves the beach,” he said, “my wife.” His awkwardness briefly melted away at the mention of her, then quickly returned. “We couldn’t go anymore, because her body, ya know a symptom of MS patients they can’t, um, regulate temperature.”

Walt paused, and a rueful look washed over him. “She always loved the ocean,” he said, offering another glimpse of the poetic cadence his voice possessed only when speaking of his wife.

He brightened up, pulled from his revelry. He told us that thanks to his fundraising efforts, they were able to get a special apparatus, a type of jacket that cools her body. It was obviously a much-needed win.

I imagine he told this story, or one just like it, countless times to countless strangers over the weekend. But you’d never know it; the triumph in his voice was clear as day. You could easily imagine him sitting on the beach, taking simple pleasure in watching his wife slide her toes into the sand.

Walt spoke about the incredible things he does for his wife without an ounce of self-pity or martyrdom. He wasn’t worn down or defeated, nor was he boastful. He loves her so dearly, so matter-of-factly, and that meant being at my doorstep late on a Sunday night, no matter how unconventional it’s become to ring a doorbell. It was that simple.

I was ashamed of how suspicious I was of Walt, that my knee-jerk reaction was apprehension. But the truth is, it’s warranted.

We’re always being pitched. And we know it. We know it because you simply cannot fake authenticity, and when someone tries to, it’s grotesquely obvious. It’s as crystal clear as Walt’s unwavering love for his ailing wife. And still, we’re forced to put on our waders everyday, and trudge through the ever-deepening BS.

Walt didn’t need to take an online course in sales, or show up at my door in a custom suit and wingtips. It was quite the opposite; I could barely hear him stumbling over his words, and his sweatshirt said Save the Max. He didn’t need a conversion strategy or drip e-mail campaign, because he wasn’t full of shit.

He’s raised a quarter of a million dollars since his wife was diagnosed, and he’s done it on sheer authenticity.

My brief encounter with Walt truly left an impact on me, and I share this story for two reasons. One, because Walt deserves it; and two, because good God we could use more authenticity in the world.

I was struck by how quickly and wholeheartedly I trusted Walt, how refreshing it was to not be pitched. The vast majority of marketing and sales pitches are synthetic and off-putting. Admittedly, I’ve been guilty of it. I’ve tried mimicking the very same sales techniques I’m constantly accosted with, because I simply didn’t know better; I thought it was a consequence of being in business.

Ultimately, all I was doing was adding to the endless barrage of inauthentic rubbish.

I’ve since changed our “marketing strategy,” and abandoned all the “market-tested” sales techniques. In fact, I gave up trying to “sell” altogether. Our approach now is simple: offer an authentic glimpse into how incredible Jiu Jitsu is for our students. That’s it.

You can probably guess what happened next. The phone started ringing, and it hasn’t stopped.

We aren’t breaking any records, and we aren’t trying to. We’re not in the business of churning out faceless numbers through a revolving door. In fact, we’re not a business at all, we’re a practice. We’re in the practice of enriching our student’s lives through Jiu Jitsu, and we do it genuinely and sincerely.

Walt shifted my paradigm more profoundly than any marketing guru or sales course ever could. He didn’t try to be something he’s not. He showed up on my doorstep and reminded me that authenticity is the foundation of success.
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“It’s better to endure the discomfort of the truth now than suffer the discomfort of the lie later.”
-Simon Sinek

This is perfect.

When you reach a certain skill level in Jiu Jitsu, it becomes much easier to hide your deficiencies and flaws. Simply stick to what you’re good at, keep the ball in your court.

In essence, hide.

But eventually, the facade will come crashing down. The aspects of your game you’ve blissfully ignored, or worse, kept hidden, will undoubtedly be exposed in time. And that sucks.

What better example of this than the leg lock game? The old guard who scoffed at it have been supplanted by innovators and more open-minded peers.

Evolve or die, right?

Sure, it can be painful to be awful again. But who cares. Better to embrace the beginner’s mindset now, than to endure the pain of being “found out” later.
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“When should I teach her to hit back?” I asked, driving home from the party.

Party has taken on a very different meaning since we’ve all had kids. Playdate collective might be a better phrase. Adults gather in the kitchen, and Lord of the Flies unfolds downstairs.

“I dunno, she’s still so little,” Melis said. “I just never want her to feel afraid.”

I love these parties believe it or not, because they give me a chance to see my kid, be a kid, with other kids. Sounds weird, I know. But at 20 months old, she’s just now starting to venture into the fray.

She’s coming into her own, becoming an actual person right before my bloodshot, sleep-deprived eyes. Brief glimpses of who she’s going to be will flash by in a smile, an expression, a gesture. And it turns out I really like her.

Anyone with kids has experienced this magical, bittersweet phenomenon firsthand.

I stood in awe, watching what was just moments ago a tiny bundle of delicate flesh, that’s somehow blossomed into a little person with emerging talents, quirks, and personality. It’s a wondrous thing.
Then a little boy shoved her to the ground, and the bubble burst.

Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, I suddenly became startlingly aware of the world. I had forgotten about bad things. Reality crashed over me like a tsunami, washing away my blissful ignorance.

Homeschool her until she’s thirty, was my initial thought.  What’s the property tax on a deserted island?  Long shot. I could always just build a moat.

Resistance is futile; she’s going into the world, whether I like it or not.

And she should, because the world is an amazing place filled with kindness and beauty and de la Riva guard. For all its beauty, however, the ocean still has jellyfish and sea urchins. And lurking among all the good people in the world, there are the bad. They’re there, slithering around in different forms.

She’s going to be bullied. She’s going to be left out. She will be used. And someone will try to hurt her, simply for the sake of hurting her.

This stark realization sent me into a paternal panic. I envisioned knocking on the doors of hypothetical bullies, and drop-kicking imaginary fathers for their kid’s transgressions. I saw myself ripping fictional prom dates named Brad or Chuck out of red Mustangs, and beating them senseless in the moonlight of Makeout Point.

Look, I can make all the jokes I want about kicking jock’s asses and showing up unannounced at her college parties. But, as all parents know, I cannot be her eternal shadow. And it’s terrifying.

Then, in the midst of this downward spiral into daddy despair, an epiphany. I took a deep breath and let it go, along with all the uneasiness of a future that hasn’t yet happened.

I can’t control what the world throws at her, but I can certainly give her a fighting chance. I can make damn sure she isn’t helpless; that she’s not easy prey, that she’s got some claws and fangs. I can make sure she knows that she’s precious cargo, absolutely priceless and irreplaceable.

“I just never want her to be afraid.” 

How can we protect her from fear, I thought. Then it dawned on me: we can’t. I’ve spent my entire life training, and yet I’m not fearless. I realized it’s not the feeling of fear that we need to shield her from.

“Melis, I feel fear all the time,” I admitted. “But I never feel powerless.”

Scarlett will absolutely know how to fight. She’s going to understand the mechanics of control and leverage, and how to mount the next kid who shoves her. She’ll know to shoot a double leg when Tiffany swings at her after school. She’ll be able to strangle Brad with her legs, even if she’s pinned beneath his weight.

More importantly, she’ll grow up with the confidence and self-awareness that develops alongside these skills. She’ll wear it like a badge, because you simply cannot mask confidence. Victim will not be her default setting, and target will not describe her. Jiu Jitsu will permeate every ounce of her being, just like daddy, and that lets me breathe a sigh of relief.

It’s shameful, absolutely grotesque, that the word victim should even exist. But I’d be an irresponsible fool to bury my head in the sand and imagine it doesn’t. She will absolutely feel fear in her lifetime, but I never want her to feel powerless.
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An unfortunate truth is that the most valuable lessons are oftentimes the least pleasant.

I was just five days out from my second amateur MMA fight, on top of my game and feeling like a world-beater, when I learned this firsthand.

It was one of the last hard sessions of our fight camp, and I was smashing my training partner. It was a proper beating, the kind you only see between friends of this sort. For the sake of the story, we’ll call him “Mike Steeil.”

I mounted.

There was no question in my mind which submission I was finishing with. I knew it three moves ago. Hell, I knew it three days ago.

We had just wheeled a shiny new technique out of the shop that week: the mounted gogoplata. It isn’t exactly what you’d call a “high percentage” move, and certainly not something I’d even attempt in my fight. It’s as hard to finish as it is to pronounce.

But, I was feeling flashy. And Steeil, to his credit, was becoming exponentially harder to submit- which was infuriating for the young, stubborn, purple belt ego. He saw it coming. I was not to be denied. Determined, I over-hooked his arm, slid my knee under his shoulder, postured up, and pulled my foot across his face.

It’s important to note, dear reader, that years of kneading dough as a renegade pastry chef had left Steeil’s right hand massive and viselike, like a human Fiddler Crab.

Alas, my telegraphed attack was easily stymied by his big, stupid, crab-hand. I leaned into it anyway, of course.

Pop pop POP!” said my knee. Training screeched to a halt as I limped over to the wall and slid down next to Professor Dante.

“I’m good,” I lied.
“You’ll be fine in two days,” he lied.

Aldous Huxley said something along the lines of “don’t burn the house down to bake a loaf of bread.” Well, the roof was on fire, and I didn’t even get the damn loaf in the oven. I was consumed with getting this particular finish against this particular person, so much so that I set my house ablaze to do it.

That isn’t Jiu Jitsu. Not my teacher’s Jiu Jitsu, at least. Ricardo once told me, “I never do anything that hurts me more than it hurts them.” He said it with a grin, and the message was clear: don’t be an idiot, idiot.

It was an eye-opening experience. Apparently, I was far less enlightened than I had thought, even though I read Siddhartha that summer. And, unfortunately, I wasn’t as good at Jiu Jitsu as I had thought.

To be in this for the long haul, I realized, the stubbornness and vanity would need to die; taken to the shed out back and shot, Old Yeller-style. Not the competitiveness. Not the drive. The egotistic obstinacy.

I would’ve loved to have landed the fancy new technique, especially on Mike Steeil. Who wouldn’t? But forcing a risky maneuver days out from a fight? Show some damn restraint, kid.

“Falling in love with a solution makes it incredibly difficult to see its flaws.”
-Seth Godin

Surely I learned my lesson that day, right? Not quite. A laundry list of avoidable injuries are proof that my stubbornness knows no bounds. I write this, even now, with a bag of frozen peas draped over a swollen ankle. Just another POP! to notch my belt; a not-so-friendly reminder from the Gods of Prudence that I still have a long way to go.

But with each snapcrackle, and pop, my stubbornness recedes. These days, I rarely go inverted or rely on flexibility. I guard my shoulder like it’s a map to Shangri-la. I’ve got decades to go, and need this meat-wagon functioning.

I’ve noticed that the extent to which we learn from foolish mistakes seems directly related to the severity of their consequences. Get your guard passed enough, and you might start framing more. Get your foot ripped off in a heel hook, and you’ll tap like a typewriter the next time you play footsies.

I still joke with Steeil about the time he broke my knee with his face, and think of him every rainy day when it creaks and cracks. And for the record, five days later I went on to fight and win. By mounted gogoplata. (Kidding, it was a Kimura.)
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It’s a long hard road to black belt. One fraught with perils of all sort: bumps and bruises, aches and breaks.  Cauliflower and rush hour.

Add into the mix a new job, newborn baby, and a codependent Fantasy Football League commissioner, and suddenly your attendance nosedives like a Kamikaze fighter pilot.

But the most dangerous evil, the one most likely to lure you off the yellow brick road, is the one that lurks deepest and darkest. Your own laziness.

And it’s in those weakest moments- when a Billions binge seems far more alluring than mount escapes- that a hero swoops in and saves you: your favorite training partner.

And if it’s no-gi night, he’s even in tights.

They bring us back from the brink, as we’ve undoubtedly done for them in the past. They remind us how goddamn fun this Jiu Jitsu is.

Or, if need be, they break our stones so unmercifully that we have no choice but to get to class.

Here are the 4 T’s of your FTP, your Favorite Training Partner:


Your FTP is tough- more than willing to go to battle with you. In fact, he relishes it. He doesn’t protest when you choke his face, but giggles instead. Sounds sadistic, I know. But the best training partners are the ones who can go deep into the trenches with us, not take 3 minutes to tie their belt.


Yes, we love to train hard with our FTP. But what makes it so much fun is that they’re technical, too. Movement is fun, and the smoother the better. Of course, we’ll eat the occassional accidental elbow. But if you flop around like a Walrus being attacked by a Great White, you’re no daisy. No daisy at all.


If your FTP has only a snowball’s chance in hell of submitting you, they’re just your FPB: Favorite Punching Bag. There’s got to be a mutual threat. It keeps you both honest, and it keeps the training intesity high.


This is easily the most important, and a direct consequence of the previous 3 T’s.

Without trust, your FTP is an opponent. Trust is what allows you to open up your game, put yourself out there, and push your limits without fear: fear of getting hurt, fear of looking dumb, fear of going too hard.

You know they aren’t trying to “win” the round, so you can just slap hands and go. You know they want to see you succeed.

It’s what allows a crazy training session to have an element of playfulness.

Discipline, perserverance, drive, passion… these get all the glory. But the truth is, we make it to black belt on the backs of our favorite training partners.

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Confidence comes from experience. Knowing you can defend yourself is a game-changer. More importantly, the personal growth you’ll experience from constantly challenging yourself- getting out of your comfort zone– will shine through in all areas of your life.


You’ll have a far deeper and richer friendship with a Jiu Jitsu buddy (who tries feverishly to choke you) than with Bob from your fantasy football league- even though he brings his boysenberry home-brew on draft day.


Imagine swimming. With a St. Bernard. Who’s trying to drown you. It’s a great workout. 


You will undoubtedly be put in compromised, uncomfortable positions. Your ego will beg you to give up. But you don’t. You realize you’re still alive, and that you can endure much more than you thought.


Jiu Jitsu is dynamic problem solving under stress; it’s human chess. Strategy and technique trump power and aggression, but you’ve got to develop razor-sharp focus, and learn to think quickly under pressure. And you will.


Jiu Jitsu is a blast, but it’s hard. Getting good at it takes commitment, effort, and humility. If you don’t learn to check your ego at the door, you’re in for a long day when the 135 lb IT specialist wraps you up like an anaconda.
Jiu Jitsu allows us to confront our weakest self, in order to uncover our best self.


Not to be confused with flexibility– mobility is strength throughout the entire range of a movement.
Jiu Jitsu develops phenomenal hip and shoulder flexibility, core strength, and coordination. Think wrestling meets yoga, but with chokes.


Training is the ultimate palette cleanser for a rough day. I guarantee you won’t be worrying about those TPS reports when you’re fending off an armlock. The best part? Everyone there wants to be there, is excited to train, and genuinely happy to see you.
What’s more, regular exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress. It’s a proven mood enhancer. We were designed to move, so do your body a favor and get on the mat!


It takes a long time to earn a Black Belt in BJJ. Luckily, it’s fascinating, so sticking around isn’t hard to do. The belt system is a great tool to keep you motivated, and public recognition for your progress is extremely rewarding.
Having a coach and teammates who are truly invested in your progress is an added bonus in keeping you on track.


The truth is, most fights go to the ground, whether the combatants want to or not. Carlos Machado famously said, “one way or another we’re going to hit the ground, and you’ll be in my world. The ground is the ocean, I am the shark, and most people don’t even know how to swim.”
No other martial art’s effectiveness has been proven time and again like Jiu Jitsu. It works. Nothing about it is theoretical or mystical. The success of Jiu Jitsu is incredibly well documented.
The best part is that the strength of Jiu Jitsu lies in technique, strategy, and leverage- not strength, size, and aggression. It’s been refined to the point where smaller, weaker practitioners can neutralize and even defeat larger, stronger opponents.
That means it’s great for people from all walks of life, no matter age, gender, level of athleticism, or disposition.

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Gratitude is a tough one. It’s just so easy to take things for granted.

Until they’re gone.

We never appreciate good health as much as when we’ve got the flu. Or a fully functioning body until a popped rib.

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?
-Joni Mitchell

Do yourself a favor- be grateful. Now.

You get to train Jiu Jitsu. Be grateful that you’re healthy enough to do it- which is miraculous in itself. Be grateful that you’ve made the right amount of good decisions in your life to have the resources and stability to be on the mat.

I’m not as flexible as she is. 
If only I were ten years younger. 
I can’t train as much as he does.

Stop. You’re here now, appreciate it. Make it count.

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose…
-Dr. Seuss

Let’s go a step further.

Not only are you healthy enough to train this amazing martial art, you were self aware enough to seek it out. Do you know how rare that is?

Intuition prodded you forward, and you heeded the call. Most would have ignored it.

You made the decision to pursue this difficult thing, which turned out to be much harder than you originally thought. And instead of turning tail, you became enthralled and chose to dive deeper.

And the deeper you went, the more difficult it became. And still, you persisted.

And now, today, you realize that the reason you stay is a world away from why you started. This very difficult, very different thing called Jiu Jitsu gives us a little slice of heaven a few times each week.

Let’s be grateful we had the self-awareness, curiosity, insight, and courage to start.

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This passage from George Bernard Shaw is a powerful one, one of my favorites.  It encapsulates so much wisdom on how to live- I read it often.

Read it, read it again… then remember it whenever you’re too sore, or too afraid, or too apathetic to push past your weakest self.

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

George Bernard Shaw
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Don’t let the selfies fool you, I despise the sauna.

It’s hellish.

Imagine sitting in this claustrophobic cedar hotbox, eyes bathed in salty sweat; your heart racing faster and faster with each passing minute. Your equilibrium begins to betray you, so you draw a deep breath- a lungfull of air so hot and thick it feels like volcanic mud.

I’m not a sociopath. It’s unpleasant.

It’s twenty minutes in, and I want out. Badly. And although my soul screams for mercy, I grant it no reprieve. I offer my weakest self no amnesty, because history has already taught us that Appeasement is a poor strategy.

Then it’s over. And as the ground slowly stops swaying and my eyes regain focus, I delight in knowing that I won.

I won the battle over my weakest self. Skirmish might be a better metaphor- because each of these instances of subjecting myself to discomfort are just small, brief clashes in a Great War.

And you never know where the fighting will break out.

I don’t enjoy most of the things I put myself through. I engage in these difficult endeavors and deprive myself of certain comforts for my own health and personal growth: longevity, recovery, cognition.

Fasting? The worst. Try making a grilled cheese for your daughter 16 hours into a fast, and you’ll know the 3rd level of hell.

Oh, you love cold showers? Interesting. What else do you lie about?

I don’t like it. I do these things because they need to be done. They’re immensely beneficial. Unfortunately, in an equally hilarious and infuriating twist of fate, Mother Nature- in her infinite wisdom and humor- developed this supercomputer we call brain, this miracle, and apparently tasked it with fighting us every step of the way.

Our very own hardwired worst enemy.

The foe is a worthy adversary: cunning, resilient, conniving. Your mind has no qualms with Guerilla Warfare, and knows the dirtiest tricks to play.

Good. Each small victory is made that much sweeter, and that much more bountiful.

Yes, you reap all the benefits of the act itself: cellular autophagy, heat shock proteins, reduced inflammation, hormone regulation- but it goes far beyond that.

When you’ve forgone the easy road; when you haven’t folded, or wilted- when you’ve stuck it out, you’ve earned the gratification of being the person you want to be, who you intended to be, not who nature fated you to be.

It feels damned good. Relish it.

And each time you triumph, the power balance shifts. You’ve grown stronger, and the enemy weaker. You’ve confronted your weakest self, and have seen his dirty tricks. What once swayed or tempted you becomes white noise. Your language begins to change. I might becomes I will, and if becomes when.

Discipline equals freedom

Make promises to yourself, and keep them. Do this enough, and you’re free. Free from guesswork, free from temptation, free from the incessant internal negotiations. The Siren Song of the couch loses its allure. Of course I’m training, because I’ve decided and it’s not up for debate.

But how? you might ask. Start small. Move the pebble.

The great stoic Seneca said:

You have to persevere and fortify your pertinacity until the will to good becomes a disposition to good.

Build yourself up brick by brick, until your willpower is a stone fortress. Develop pertinacity, a tenacious stubbornness. Build it slowly, build it surely, and never stop adding mortar to the joints.

It’s an invaluable lesson, however, and one you’d be wise to revisit often: you don’t have to enjoy these things. In fact, if the act itself is enjoyable, it’s most likely doing you little good. Instead, learn to enjoy the victory over weakness, or laziness, or temptation. Enjoy the novelty of it, the absurdity of these difficult endeavors.

Enjoy the person you’re becoming.

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What keeps them coming back?

For years, I’d been racking my brain. I just couldn’t figure it out. Then, a revelation.

It was a rough night of training, and only a few of us were left. Drenched in sweat and radiating heat like an old Chevy, I looked up through beads of sweat to see one of our white belts heading out. He had a tough night. He always did.

“What keeps guys like that coming back,” I asked. It was directed at no one in particular; a question so tired it was all but rhetorical.

Against the wall behind me sat Big Al, a moat of sweat trickling out around him. He sat quietly as the guys all chimed in, listening to the debate unfold.

Like the other disheveled, exhausted heaps left scattered around the mat, Al was an OG: one of our original students. A pillar of the school. Nights like this- when the original dirty dozen gets together- are the roughest. And the best.  In Jiu Jitsu, trust, love, and loyalty are the magical ingredients for epic training sessions.

We got after it, and it showed.

I know why these guys come back. In part, well, because they’re insane. But mostly because Jiu Jitsu isn’t so much of a struggle for them- they’ve been athletes all their lives.

Everyone tossed in their two cents. As usual, they all started listing the benefits of hard training. And as usual, they were missing the point. It was all coming from the wrong perspective.

Then a voice boomed from behind the group, “I’ll tell you what it is.” We all turned to see Big Al, head tilted back against the wall. “They know they belong.”

He meant the unlikely ones, the underdogs, the ones who struggle most. Those who experience the least amount of success (if any at all), who pinball between rocks and hard places each night- yet keep coming back.

What a brutish environment, you might be thinking. I assure you, it’s not. RuffiansElitistsBullies! Nope.

In fact, I’ve dedicated my life to making Jiu Jitsu more accessible: more welcoming, less adversarial, less intimidating. I’m of a new generation of Jiu Jitsu ambassadors who fight feverishly to beat and batter down the once monolithic barrier of entry to Jiu Jitsu; a generation who understand that the Law of the Jungle is archaic. And my top guys are the same.

It’s no longer Survival of the Fittest, but Survival of the Willing. Still, Jiu Jitsu is hard. It’s a crucible, a forge.

No matter how intuitive the curriculum, how engaging and articulate the instruction, how pristine the culture, Jiu Jitsu will always be hard. It will always have underpinnings of competitiveness; there will always be a hierarchy, both physically and socially- and certain people will always struggle far more than others.

It’s so damned hard that it would make all the sense in the world for someone who’s been only the nail to not come back.

But they do.

They do come back, sporting triumphant grins directly proportionate to the amount they’d struggled in the previous class.

I’ve been the nail, trust me. I’ve been smashed, strangled, and suffocated. I’ve been the nail, but never for too long. I’ve never been so deep in the woods that I lost sight of the trail, never so far adrift I could no longer see the shore.

In all honesty, I’ve never ridden the bench in my life. Even when my lacrosse coach proclaimed so eloquently that I ran like old people screwing- slow and sloppy- we both knew he was lying.

Leadership is about perspective. and I needed to view Jiu Jitsu through the lens of someone with more chips stacked against them.

“They walk in, and they feel the community here,” Al said. “They see that even if someone’s no good yet, the Varsity takes them in. They’re right there with them.” Varsity is the advanced crew, the most naturally gifted and experienced students, the top of the food chain. The OGs.

What Al was saying is that in Jiu Jitsu, nobody rides the bench- no matter what. And for some, it’s the first time in their lives.

It was simple, but it resonated. Heads nodded. The insight was made more profound, perhaps, by Big Al’s resemblance to Ving Rhames. What does Marsellus Wallace look like? Al. He looks like Big Al.

The next morning, I woke up thinking about the conversation we had. I appreciated his perspective. When I asked him to elaborate, he wrote back:

The validation you feel for still being wanted in a place where you’re not the most important person, or the “best,” goes far beyond what we get from any other aspect of life. When you truly feel you’re part of something, and needed, is what drives you to do what most would deem as “crazy”, day in and day out…
-Big Al

He articulated perfectly something we all feel: everyone plays a role in the academy, and no one part is more valuable than another.

What’s beautiful about Jiu Jitsu, what makes it so impactful, so important, what makes this beautiful art so transformative- is that everyone’s journey matters.

It’s palpable, and undeniable.
You’d think that given enough time, only the strongest would remain. The naturals, the “alphas.” But it simply isn’t the case. In fact, those who struggle most make up the majority of the academy. The truth is, they aren’t really the underdogs, not in Jiu Jitsu. They’re the ones who get the most out of it.

In almost every other arena in life, if you aren’t dripping with talent or toughness, you’re cast off as benchwarmer or equipment manager, the mascot, comic relief.

Not on the mats. Here, you’re the hero of the damn movie.

And that white belt? Well, he’s a blue belt now. And although he isn’t setting the world on fire, he’s much better than he used to be. And that’s a beautiful thing.
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