Monday, July 28, 2014

Untangling Complex Situations

Rafael Mendes and Rubens Charles "Cobrinha" Maciel locked in a complex guard position

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Martial arts was created to help us understand the tough situations we find ourselves in

There are so many ideas from martial arts that I find to be transferable to any situation. To think martial arts is only about fighting or cheap parlor tricks is a mistake, and if you train martial arts purely for those aspects you're leaving a lot on the table you can benefit from. Maybe because we compartmentalize and don't transfer knowledge well (here's martial arts, here's everything else), maybe it's the Puritanical foundation of American culture where we take everything literally and at face value (a punch just represents a punch, what else could it mean), and it's why we need a good bonk or two to the head through fighting to realize martial arts is so much more than physical conflict.

Sadly I have met few modern teachers of any martial art who have been able to accurately convey this message, and my goal is to remedy that. Nothing more ironic than to be a black belt on the mats and a white belt in life (or the board room).

One of the pursuits of martial arts is of insight. It's why we practice a move until we get into a trance, it's why we meditate, it's why we test our limits, it's why we fight.


The capacity to gain an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of a person or thing or idea. Martial arts is a system to give us insight into the universe and of ourselves.

I've been studying martial arts (and when I say study I literally mean study, reading everything I can on the subject) since I was six. I've tried every martial art I could get my hands on. My goal wasn't to become the greatest fighter, but to have a rudimentary understanding of the framework of any specific martial art and deduce universal patterns. I am no expert, but in a short amount of time I understood the principles of the moves and the principles of the art. The art that I found to be the most complex to understand was and still is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). I started writing about MMA in 2003 and writing about my own BJJ journey starting from 2006 and I have yet to stop.

Like warfare, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is based around territory

All strategy is really based around territory, gaining key pieces, and accumulation. Unlike other martial arts that valued one strike one kill; BJJ focused on acquiring more of your opponent's land until they had no recourse left but to submit. Occasionally there are Hail Mary moves just like Hail Mary throws in football that can win you the match, but if your life is on the line, you stick to the fundamentals.

Unlike a strategy board game, BJJ is a physical game and the board is the body of your opponent. You want to first gain control of your opponent's legs (pass), then their hips (stabilize), then their stomach (side control), their chest (mount), their arms, until you worked your way up from bottom to top until all you have left is their neck, at which point, you go in for the finish. All the while your opponent is resisting you like hell.

Every time I train, it's a constant reminder about how I should live my life. That you have to plan and use proper tactics and strategy, then you have to fight like hell for the things you want. It's about slow accumulation -- rush and get too greedy and you make poor decisions and mistakes. Much like weight loss, it's a game of strategy not a race. You don't go backwards in a race, and in that way nothing in life is like a race.

Life Lesson 1: What are things I need to accumulate?

When I'm faced with a tough decision, I ask myself what is the territory I need? What pieces do I need to accumulate? What is the most vital piece to overcome this obstacle? How hard am I willing to fight for it? What steps leads to the next step? From bottom to top, what's the most efficient path to get there? Can I build momentum?

Life Lesson 2: Where is the center?

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a system of complex situations that adhere to some fundamental rules. No matter how alien a move may look, for it to work against resisting opponents, it must obey the fundamental core principles of Jiu Jitsu. One of which is about controlling the center. From the center of the ring, mat, cage, to controlling the center (hips) of your opponent, and always threatening with your center (your hips). Your center creates leverage, and is the fulcrum to break any of your opponent's limbs.

What are your core values? What about the core values of your business? What is your core product?

A Case Study - The business has no soul

My friend Mark co-owned a fitness business that had within it another business that did Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, another business within it that did kettlebells, another that did strength and conditioning, another that did bootcamps, and another that did kickboxing. It tried to do a bit of everything and it was confusing, no one knew what the business was really called. It had multiple names for each of their brands. I asked Mark when people think of his business, what core product they associate with it? He mentioned all of the products. His thought, the more the better. The other question I asked, what's the main thing this business is trying to accomplish? No answer. My final question, at its core who runs this business? Mark's answer, "There's several of us and we all run it equally."

A fitness business can have many products, but it needs to grow into it, only after mastering it's core product and unifying all the products with the core principle and values of the business. Since Mark was well liked, his business had a lot of word of mouth going for it. Word of mouth is not enough, it went as far as word of mouth was going to get it without having any direction or business plan. Less than a year after opening, the business was closed. The business had many limbs but no body.

A Case Study: Lego

Lego was bleeding millions of dollars a day several years ago. It lost its soul, it lost touch with its audience, its core values, its core product. It had stores, clothing lines, toys unrelated to its puzzle pieces, theme parks, and more. Jørgen Vig Knudstorp took over as CEO and directed the company back to it's core product: the puzzle pieces, and its core values of making a cohesive toy universe. Lego is now the world's top toymaker setting record profits. All of their other ventures push the core product, the puzzle pieces. The Lego Movie was itself an entertaining two hour Lego commercial. Brilliant.

Find your core, protect it, and never forget it. It's hard to be lost in a situation if you always know where the center is; and from there just work your way out.

Life Lesson 3: From the perspective of your opponent

Something I found to be helpful in my development in martial arts is to understand the wants of my opponent. You often hear in the dojo, if you want to get good at passing your opponent's guard (the leg position fighters use to protect themselves), get better at the guard. If you want to get better at guard, get good at passing. Understand the opposite point of view. To create strategies to stop someone from getting past my defense, I need to understand what are the things they may attempt. To get past my opponents defenses, I need to better understand what tools my opponent has available. Sometimes it's good enough to develop one skill by practicing that one skill, but against live opposition and not just doing it theoretically, it's helpful to practice the opposite of that same skill. It's why in many sports, good offensive players also tend to be the best defensive players.

If I had an internet business and wanted to make our internet security better, I would ask myself, how would I hack into my own company? How would the world's best hack into it? Could I hire people to try to break into our system? Then I would take everything I learned and plan accordingly.

If I wanted to live a more fulfilling and happy life, I would ask myself how would I ruin my own life or someone else's? Maybe I'd mess with their finances. Trick them to spend too much. Tell them to live a selfish life. Add unneeded stress. Tell them to avoid building any resilience to stress. Somehow sabotage their education. Tempt them with unhealthy habits or indulgences (drugs, excessive alcohol).

Then in my attempt to live a happy life, I would make sure I understand personal finance and make sure it's something I'm always monitoring. That I don't spend needlessly. That I do some meaningful work in my free time or volunteer. I would eliminate any unnecessary complications in my life, but if there were important things in my life that needed to be handled, I would take care of it and build the grit I needed to face bigger challenges. I would be disciplined or outright avoid situations that could somehow damage my mind or body.

Use cautionary tales and controlled pessimism to build mastery

People tend to want to hear stories of inspiration, success stories, motivational stories, positive stories, best case scenarios. I find they get your emotions running, but doesn't offer much in the way of learning.

It worked out great, just as people planned, what's there to learn from? I find cautionary tales, or stories about failures, mistakes, regrets to be very beneficial. Though they may sometimes be sad to hear, there's a wealth of information there. All the things you're not to do, all the ways you could be sabotaged so you can safeguard yourself. Remember martial arts is about defense first, offense second (unless you're planning to use the art to be an assailant and not for self defense).

“Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.”

― Sun Tzu

With proper planning, listening, learning, and asking the right questions, you can win before a move is even made. You can make things better before it's gotten bad. Avoid needless moves, save time, and avoid mistakes when possible. It becomes easier to know what to do, when you know what not to do. If you look from the opposite point of view, what not to do becomes much clearer. It's still not going to be easy, which is why you still need grit and a fighter's heart.

I find people don't need more motivation. We as human beings tend to get motivated quite easily: a pep talk, a smile, a Youtube video, a book, a quote, a movie, and so on. What we lack is practical knowledge and planning. We think just throwing more motivation at it will solve it.

Many people who start a business don't need more motivation or books on motivation, they actually need to learn things in regards to running a business. Many great motivated martial artists have started and killed businesses because they had no business acumen. Instead of going to that weekend life motivation seminar, take a class on spreadsheets, bookkeeping, and/or marketing. Motivation deals in best case scenarios, there's nothing to learn there. What about worst case scenarios? Motivation tells you not to worry about that. That's a mistake, we live in objective reality not fairy tale. Focusing on obstacles doesn't mean you're being negative, it means you're being strategic and business oriented. The whole point of martial arts is to focus on what bad things might happen. Defense, defense, defense. Just because you create positive intentions doesn't mean your opponent won't punch you. If someone wanted to mess up your business, they wouldn't mess with your motivation, they would mess with your marketing, your books, your finances, they would mess with your actual business. Your motivation would die on its own after that. Founders hardly ever remain CEOs, they're the motivational person, not the actual person qualified to run the company. If you want to succeed, either be the leader who runs the show or find someone who will. There is no upside or downside, just right side.

Plan, prepare, prepare for failure, learn from cautionary tales, learn from the opposite point of view, see what really matters. Focus on the things you need first, not on the things you already have. The foolish who never learn from their own mistakes will blame a lack of motivation in their business dying, that in some cases may be true, but in most cases it really had to do with poor business skills. When a bank or investor takes over a business, they'll never evaluate that the business failed due to a lack of motivation. There will always be some business mistakes or mismanagement involved.

If you only look at the "bright side" and only concern yourself with the "positive," then there is no need for mastery as it won't take much skill to accomplish any task in best case scenarios. But mastery is the name of the game and is what many philosophies have been attempting to teach us for thousands of years. Don't get carried away with worst case scenarios either, as that will lead to the ridiculous and mental jibberish.

In every part of your progress, you should be looking at the perspective of the other. In trying to be a just person, you should always take into account the perspective of the other.

Life Lesson 4: Reverse engineer it and break it down

Often times a BJJ fighter will come up with a new move or situation that confuses everyone and takes everyone by surprise. The first step in solving it is to reverse engineer it. You get into the end position and figure out all the parts involved and the steps to get there. You can use this to create a counter or to improve the move itself. BJJ is full of these types of breakdowns.

Like in writing a good detective novel, start with the end, the impossible situation, then figure out what would be the best steps to get there. What makes the situation so impossible and such a shock? Work your way back to eventual clues and foreshadowing that you could add to bring the audience to this point.

If you work in this way, you can better understand any situation. Let's say you want to have a successful company, and you look at another company who's had similar success in that field. Where are they, how big are they, what do they own? Evaluate the company, then from there break it down. Separate the meaningful causes of their success from luck, the mistakes, and the meaningless. You can't control luck, focus your attention on the meaningful.

A Case Study: Apple

Apple is one of the top companies in the world. They've done a lot of things, some good, some not so good. What are their core products? The iPhone and iPad. What do the products look like? A screen and it really only has one noticeable button. What is exemplified by this simple design? That the company is really not about how their products work, it's more about who their products are for. It's for young people, it's for people who want simplicity, utility, it's about being different from the status quo of tech, which is all about being overly complicated and only targeted for the most technical of audiences. Then it's less about the product and more about the company, people buy because it's Apple, not because they need the product or know how it works. That's powerful branding.

In reverse engineering of a product, a book, or a martial arts move, you figure out what are the key points that really matter. This will save you time down the line so you don't have to learn it all from trial and error (though you will always be doing some amount of trial and error).

Hips always facing the opponent no matter how unusual the situation

Even in the most unusual of martial arts positions, if you break it down and reverse engineer it, one of the key points is that the hips must always face the opponent. Then in your own variations, this rule must apply. In taking the view of the opposite, you must make sure your opponents hips do not face you.

Life Lesson 5: The collective mind just going for it

Another step in solving the riddle of a complex situation; after you've broken it down and reverse engineered it, is to try out many possible solutions. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, it truly is about many minds being better than one very smart mind. It's the collective mind or hive mind effect. Someone uses a new move at a tournament to devastating effect, thousands of schools, and millions of individuals will talk about the move, watch the move online, and practice their own solution to the move. Not all of them work, not all of them are good, many will get weeded out, some will get improved, then it gets refined and refined, and eventually the best versions of the solution begin to appear in small tournaments, then people are able to do it in bigger tournaments. Just as the original move itself spreads in popularity and gets refined, so does the counter to the move. Instead of one person using trial and error, it's a countless number of people making mistakes and learning from them, and sharing information. It's not only better than any solution any one person can come up with, it's also light years faster.

There is no one master, don't trust any one authority. Trust objective reality. Trust data. The difference in science and pseudoscience is in the amount of scientific evidence of proof. Once a pseudoscience collects enough scientific evidence of proof, it will no longer be considered a pseudoscience, it will just be science. Think about that before you jump onto the promises of any alternative medicine or wishful thinking system. Some people fear the search for proof and refuse testing or challenging of their ideas, because they fear being debunked. Not only in pseudoscience, but martial arts, politics, and day to day lives.

What is another particularly unique aspect of BJJ is that there is less of an emphasis on the teacher being the ultimate authority. A BJJ teacher is often known to say they'll learn from a white belt, and there are times that they do. Every individual in a school can add to the data needed to figure out how every move works under an infinite amount of situations. Every individual can also add their creativity and imagination, which is unique to them and impossible to replicate.

None of this can work and no solutions can rise to the top unless people go for it. Fear of failure stifles progress and innovation.

"Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good."

― Voltaire

There are so many valuable lessons to learn from failure. It's not even failure, you're just beta testing. There is nothing to learn in best case scenarios. If someone has a theory and it works on the first try, it's hard to even understand why it worked, there is no data to collect. Hard to separate coincidence from reality. I wore green socks today, and hit a home run. Is it really because of the green socks or is that a coincidence? There's not a lot of data to collect when things go your way, you're also not likely to try different things to improve it. You get fixated on the idea, which is how it becomes superstition. It worked on the first try right?

Multibillion dollar companies model their business around this concept of testing out a vast amount of ideas. Sometimes with no other goal than testing it out and getting more data. It's why they don't always require people to have college degrees to get a job. Good ideas can come from anyone, degree or not. What they don't want are people who are adverse to failure and can only operate when conditions are perfect. They want lots of people with lots of ideas who aren't afraid of being wrong and are willing to learn from it. Perfectionists neither make good leaders or team players. They often make inferior products or no product at all. Amazon created a bunch of new online shows, just to see what would happen and how people would react. Imagine if people working on it only felt comfortable if it was a ratings hit? That would be the wrong mindset for this type of company. There is no failure, just beta.

The CEO and execs know they can't have all the best ideas, ideas should be based on merit not on the position it's coming from. They can't afford to let a good idea slip by their fingers. All ideas also don't have to be initially successful. These are the opposite philosophies of many antiquated industries that are quickly dying. Look at Netflix vs the Hollywood system. Netflix and online content steadily going up, whereas movie ticket sales have been dropping consistently for over a decade.

Cloud technology was a creation of the collective mind due to the wants of the collective consumer. It couldn't have been done with antiquated ideas about business and Google and Apple wouldn't be where they are now.

Don't get paranoid

Be willing to share ideas and learn. Yes there's a small chance someone could take your idea, but no one can take your execution. If you keep your ideas to yourself, it will never get better, it will never go anywhere. Create a team or support group, test ideas on each other, have everyone create ideas, use the internet and message boards, see what people like. Improve, improve, improve. Get many minds involved.

Carlos Gracie said, "There is no losing in Jiu Jitsu. You either win or you learn." There's another saying in martial arts: Evolve or die.

"Paradoxically, the man who has failed and one who is at the peak of success are in exactly the same position. Each must decide what he will do next, choose the course that will lead him to the future."

― Jigoro Kano

Give it a try, just go for it. Get others to go for it with you. Even if you think you're not smart enough, rich enough, important enough, if you have a good idea go for it. Spread that message. People aren't your rivals, they're your best assets. If an idea doesn't work, learn from it. Learn as a group. The world needs people to keep trying so the best ideas can rise to the top, and if your idea is one of those ideas that rises, the world will reward you. You'll only get rewarded if you try, and the more you try the more chances you get. If you associate with other people who are also trying, you also get to be a part of their chances. If you try as a group, you've increased your chances even more and increased your chances of having a better idea.

When pessimism gets uncontrolled, it leads to paranoia. Be disciplined, as paranoia is a sign of a weak mind.

Life Lesson 6: Be efficient and tenacious and humble

Control what you can control and forget about what's not actionable. If it's broken, fix it. If it's not broken but can work better, fix it. Martial arts is all about fine tuning what works, fine tuning what doesn't work, and eliminating all the things that doesn't matter. Don't focus on the goals, focus on improving your methods. Can you use technology to streamline? Can you use machines? Can you delegate and outsource? What's the current system? If there is none, you need to create one.

The mind of a martial artist needs to like water and a rock at the same time. Free flowing but hard when it needs to be. You attempt to make everything easier and better without ever expecting things to go easy. The moves get easier as our minds get harder. It sounds contradictory, but to be successful you must be many things at once. With training, practice, and (I can't stress this enough) discipline, it can be done. Discipline has become a four letter word in many people's minds, and again I can't stress then the importance of a good bonk on the head to add clarity.

The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in so far as it stands ready against the accidental and the unforeseen, and is not apt to fall.”

― Marcus Aurelius

The opposite of "difficult" is not "easy," it's "less difficult." Don't ever expect things to be easy, if it ends up being easy, that's a blessing. Be prepared if it's not.

“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you until it seems that you cannot hold on for a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time when the tide will turn.”

― Harriet Beecher Stowe

People try to make their lives easier and somehow believe this can bypass the tough growing pains of building resilience. The mindset you should have is to make things easier and still develop resilience. Be soft and hard, rock and water, flow and grounded, push and pull, as this is the essence of Yin and Yang.

Not only insight, also pursue balance. Many people train to be only one way, out of balance and extreme. Surround themselves with the same kinds of people, same types of activities, and drink the same type of Kool-aid. The best ideas cannot rise to the top in these scenarios, this can only lead to oppression of new ideas.

“In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”

― Carl Sagan

Improve your ideas, improve yourself, improve your system, then listen to other ideas and see the point of view of the opposite. Be prepared then to defend your ideas against those who have also refined their ideas and see which is truly better. If there method is better, be willing to adopt it. Leave your shoes and your ego at the dojo door.

"Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world."

― Miyamoto Musashi

How does a smaller man beat many bigger men?

He uses efficiency and tenacity. These things must be practiced for your whole life. You can only learn if you remain humble. Enjoy the journey.

Life Lesson 7: Create your own manual for success

If you do all of these things, you can unravel nearly any tough complex situation. Understand the things you need to accumulate, learn from the perspective of the other, reverse engineer it and break it down and use their manual to write your own, then try multiple solutions and figure out what works, then refine it and fight for it. Create your own FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) manual, then answer all those questions. Over time create better questions and answers. Sometimes you'll be in a situation where you do all the right things and you still can't figure it out. Do you give up? No!

"If you understand, things are just as they are…If you do not understand, things are just as they are."

― Zen Proverb

Taking all of these steps helps but it's still not a guarantee for success. It's attempts to save you time. Nothing is as valuable as the lessons you learn from attempting. At the end of the day, things are as they are. It's nice if you understand it, but if you don't, does it really matter? It may take you longer, some more trial and error, but you'll still get there.

You'll never get lucky if you never try.

There will always be chaos and when faced with a tough situation, all you'll have left, all you can rely on is your training. Value your training, trust in your training to save you every time. This is the mindset you must keep.

You can never train enough. You can never commit enough to training. How much of your life do you dedicate to your own personal training? How seriously do you take it? From being a mother, a father, a wife, a businessman, a doctor, a teacher, an artist, always be training. Life is both training and application.

While others freak out at unexpected situations, for you unexpected situations will become the highlight of your day. And the world will reward you highly for that type of mindset.

"Act without expectation."

― Lau Tzu

Source: Must Triumph

Sam Yang from an early age has been obsessed with connecting the dots between martial arts and efficiency, health, mindset, business, science, and habits to improve optimal well-being. For more info, join his newsletter. You can also connect to All Out Effort on Facebook and Twitter.

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