In mid-April 2015 I set a challenge to “get really good at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu” in one year.
I had no idea what “being really good” meant. I didn’t even really know what Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was. But I was a bit full of myself and fresh off all the publicity we got from the original Expert in a Year challenge. I thought I had mastered learning and could just pick a random martial art and get ‘really good at it’ quickly.
I turned up at a gym, and after getting my arse whooped I tracked down the head coach and black belt Jude Samuel to ask his advice and boast about my challenge. He raised an eyebrow. I told him about how I spent a year playing table tennis and got pretty good and that I wanted to do the same in Brazillian Jiu Jitsu. He raised the other eyebrow.
But he humored me. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but the gist of it was that if I turned up to three two-hour training sessions a week I could probably become a pretty good white belt after a year’s worth of training.
I was so arrogant. A good white belt?! There are five belt levels in Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu and white is the lowest one. The bottom of the heap. How after training hard and efficiently for a year could I still only be a goodish beginner?
Well, it turned out he was right. I threw myself into training, broke a couple of bones, bought loads of books, watched hours and hours of YouTube videos and even took a trip to Brazil. After all of that, I was still only a passable white belt.
In my post summing up the year I spoke about how much I had learnt and how I just wanted to enjoy the journey. That was all true, but I was also a bit gutted that I hadn’t made it and wasn’t ‘really good’.
Over the year I had clocked up about 275 hours of ‘mat time’ and although I have now stopped counting I reckon I have done about another 50 hours since then.
Then this happened:
Jude Samuel, the same guy who set me the target of trying to become a good white belt in a year, promoted me to blue belt. He has put his reputation behind my skill level and said “this guy is good enough for a blue belt”. That is massive.
A lot of people in Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu say that belts don’t matter. They say that it covers just 2 inches of your arse and it’s up to you to cover the rest. Well, it matters to me. I like rewards, and I particularly like rewards that are hard to get and represent a lot of work.
If I had started Jiu-Jitsu and cruised through training once a week and picked it up easily I don’t think I would be anywhere near as proud.
Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led diffcult lives and led them well. – Theodore Roosevelt
The blue belt is a physical acknowledgment of all the hard work put in so far while being a sobering reminder that the journey has only just begun. That is pretty cool and something you just don’t get in most sports.
If you see someone in a Jiu-Jitsu blackbelt, you are seeing proof that that person has put in thousands of hours of practice. They might be old, tiny, or disabled. But you know they’re a master at jiu-jitsu.
When I spent my year training table tennis I signed up and competed in some semi-pro tournaments. But everyone in table tennis looks the same. I was putting myself up against the table tennis ‘black belts’ and didn’t even realise it.
I played over 110 competitive matches at tournaments all around the UK and only won six. And those six were against the other people who also shouldn’t have been on the circuit.
And what is hilarious is that I actually felt bad about losing to them! I assumed they were all superhumanly talented and that I had worked really hard and should be winning. But under that tip of the iceberg of apparent skill was a huge amount of hard work and dedication. I had done just 350 hours table tennis whereas they had done thousands.
I was a blue belt throwing a tantrum because I couldn’t score any points against a black belt.
The belt system helps keep you grounded and show you how far through the journey you still have to go when you feel like you’ve already put in ‘lots of work’.
I find that motivating. In fact, I like the belt system so much that I have now started using it to rate my progress in other areas of life.
I reckon I’m a pretty good blue belt at blogging. It seems to have started well but I have a long way to go before I can call myself a true master. Just because I’m earning some money doesn’t mean I don’t still have a lot to learn.
I’m a bad white belt in Spanish. Probably a purple at Amazon FBA. A blue at coffee shops. A good blue or maybe a bad purple at programming. A white belt at cooking. Umm, what else. I’m pretty good at gambling so let’s give myself a brown belt at that. A white belt at traveling. And let’s throw in that blue belt at table tennis.
Now I’ve patted myself on the back for coming so far and getting so skilled at all these things. I need to get back to the drawing board and start working on those next belts.