Seeking Failure

It has been two months now that I’ve been training in the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. A few things are repeated time and time again:

  • Leave your ego at the door
  • Tap early. Tap often.

The first is in place for obvious reasons. Not leaving it at the door can lead to injuring yourself or a teammate when you become too proud to heed the second point. If we care to deconstruct the first point a little further, we can find very important sub-points. One of which is the idea of seeking failure.

Dr. Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, taught me about the fixed versus growth mindsets. One can only adopt a growth mindset if and only if one seeks out failure.  Josh Waitzikin, in his book The Art of Learning, describes “Investment in Loss” in one of the chapters, which is the same idea.

My very good friend Jonathan has also written about this idea before in his blog post, Failure is Good. So Are You Failing Enough?  So, I am not writing about anything new here, only providing my perspective.

Why Seek Out Failure?

In BJJ, what good would come from rolling with someone I could beat every time? How does this lead to growth? What would I learn?

We cannot grow and learn as individuals unless we make mistakes. In order to make mistakes, we must seek out challenges we have not yet faced.

On the mat, I prepare myself mentally and physically to embrace the mistakes that I’m inevitably about to make. Then, I capitalize on them by asking and thinking about the following questions.

  • Why was it a mistake in the first place? (How did my competitor exploit my mistake?)
  • What was it that led to making that mistake?
  • What do I have to do to avoid making that mistake in the future?
  • When that mistake is made by someone else on me, how do I take advantage?
  • What can I do after making such a mistake to optimize my post mistake position (because I will probably make the same mistake again and again)?

Each failure creates a rabbit hole of growth! Between training sessions, it is difficult to think about anything else. Sometimes I find myself lost in an hypnotic state of going through moves with and without mistakes, and visualizing the consequences and rewards, respectively.

Understanding Ego

Ryan Holiday’s book Ego Is the Enemy did a wonderful job in helping me understand my ego, and how it gets in the way of my growth.

Leaving your ego at the door is easier said than done. Many can genuinely abide by the rule in specific, but not a broad, setting. Leaving your ego at the door is easiest to the most difficult when it means competing or rolling with

  • a higher belt (someone with a higher level of experience).
  • someone of equal experience.
  • someone of lesser experience.

We easily forget that we can still learn much from those of equal or lesser experience.

As a professor of mathematics and statistics, students will often point out a mistake. They may figure out something faster or in an alternative way than I am presenting it. Each time this happens, I grow right along with them.  This is analogous to the occasional tap or ego check when rolling with someone of lesser experience in BJJ.

Controlling Ego

Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly helped me find better ways of controlling ego. As a shame researcher, she helped me grasp the power of vulnerability and put my shame in check.

It might seem shameful to have to tap out to someone with lesser experience. It potentially could drive me to shame if a student was able to point out a mistake I’ve made that I was unable to correct on the spot. If we do not allow those with lesser experience to not get the upper hand every now and again, then we are inhibiting their growth, which in turn inhibits our own.

Making oneself vulnerable is synonymous with putting yourself in a growth mindset. Without placing yourself into a position where failure is not only a possibility, but a near certainty, there is little room to grow.

We do not know it all and never will. There is an infinitude of growth in front of us.

Let’s truly check our ego at the door, and embrace the power of making ourselves vulnerable.

Let’s seek out failure.

-Much of this post was initially inspired by Josh Waitzkin’s book “The Art of Learning.”  He was the child chess prodigy that the movie “Searching For Bobby Fischer” is based on. Josh would later become a world champion in Tai Chi Push Hands. In December 2011, after his book was published (in 2007), Josh was awarded a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Marcelo Garcia. His interviews with Tim Ferriss along with my wife’s encouragement played a significant role in my entry in the world of BJJ.   

2 thoughts on “Seeking Failure

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, and congrats on a great post! I’m proud of you for picking up BJJ, and you’re obviously learning a lot from it already. I particularly love the idea of “tap early, tap often.” You’ve done a great job of weaving different concepts and books together in this post. Nice!


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