Jiu jitsu lessons

I don’t exactly know why I began learning jiu jitsu. The simple answer is that I was looking for a Muay Thai gym and I decided to go with a Ralph Gracie affiliate in Chicago on the north side. One day I stuck around for an hour after the Saturday morning boxing class and the owner, a black belt named Misho Ceko, told me to get into a position with another new guy. After a few minutes being crushed under my partner’s weight, I realized I knew nothing about self defense. That night I bought a gi.

I did not grow up watching combat sports on TV. I didn’t own any Tap-Out merchandise and I still don’t have any tattoos. I also have no real interest in being a serious competitor in jiu jitsu. I’d like to do a competition for the experience and to test myself, but it isn’t important to me that I win.

So why do I keep coming back to this strange and beautiful brutal sport?

I think it is because jiu jitsu has taught me a lot about what learning means.

When we begin learning a new skill, we often have a honeymoon phase in which we are excited by the novelty. It’s fun to pick up new skills, challenge yourself, and break the monotony of your usual responsibilities. By following a chain of such hobbies, one might successfully defer mastery of any skill by perpetually starting over from scratch.

There is a reason most of us did not keep practicing piano long enough to become concert pianists. When the honeymoon is over, we realize that we are staring down a long, interminable logistic curve of skill acquisition. We might still have dreams of being a rockstar one day, but when we have to practice scales day after day, the magic disappears pretty quickly, and we are left only with an overwhelming sense of futility. Television has not prepared us for this harsh reality.

Through jiu jitsu, I have learned to face my own sense of futility. There is simply no way to pretend to be any good at jiu jitsu. BJJ implements a ruthlessly empirical method of measurement – sparring.

Jiu jitsu is both brutally difficult and easy to practice at full strength without harming one’s training partner in a way that is impossible in, say, boxing. Instead of delivering blows to your partner’s head, you are instead maneuvering him into a position such that he will be forced into accepting defeat, or else succumb to permanent injury – i.e., via asphyxiation or a broken arm. Paradoxically, this makes jiu jitsu quite safe to practice against a competent training partner.

Sparring is the test. And it is this empirical test that makes progress possible.

My biggest leap in learning I had came when I realized what kind of questions I should even be asking. What is guard retention? What does it mean to frame? How does spinal alignment affect balance and stability?

The same is true of any skill. The beginner, knowing nothing of the principles, cannot grasp the purpose of a technique. But he can learn the technique through repetition. He can learn how to implement it in a specific context. By learning enough of these contextual skills, he can assemble piecemeal a working skillset. But he still does not really have understanding. And that understanding may only come when he has already internalized the contextual procedures.

We can think of the learning process as a man trying to climb a very tall wall. First he must begin building a ladder. Each discrete skill that he learns constructs another rung of the ladder. The rungs themselves are not critical – indeed, he may be able to climb the wall missing one or two. The important thing is that he keep focused on constructing the ladder, rather than expending energy trying to scramble his way up the wall, so that one day, when he has long forgotten that the wall is there, he will be able to easily scale it.

Logistic learning curves

The more I reflect on it the more parallels I find between Brazilian jiu jitsu and other aspects of life. This has recently struck me most in the form of the logistic learning curve.

The thing about jiu jitsu is that is starts out extremely hard. On your first day of jiu jitsu, you will feel humiliated by your inability to escape from side control under the weight of a 130 lb white belt. Most people quit right there and then. But for those who keep training, something odd happens. You learn a few really basic escapes, framing, maybe a sweep or two, and suddenly you are no longer getting crushed after ten seconds. That moment of recognition – “holy shit, I didn’t get instantly tapped by that blue belt!” – feels like a massive improvement. Soon enough, you tell yourself, you will be well on your way to becoming a jiu jitsu master!

Unfortunately, that initial aha moment only come once, usually at about the six month mark. After that, your progress will be agonizingly slow. For a while I actually felt like I was getting worse at jiu jitsu. This “plateau” of progress is a common experience. It doesn’t feel like you’re getting better because the big leap of understanding – the difference between knowing nothing and knowing a little bit – is a one time thing. After that, it’s many months of hard slog until gradually a few more things begin to make sense, you start to address bad habits, correct misunderstandings, and so on.

You might remember the logistic curve from math classes. I’m not going to throw out a bunch of equations here, but suffice to say it looks like a smooth curve that ramps up quickly at one end, but then levels off in a long, asymptotic approach toward its maximum value on the far end. It looks like this:


We are accustomed to thinking of learning as a series of knowledge insertions. This is the technocratic version of learning. Your teacher has some knowledge. They transfer it into your head. Now you have that knowledge. This may work well for standardized testing and molding students into industrial drones, but it isn’t how learning actually works.

No, learning is a gradual process. A student has to internalize models and core concepts. It takes time to establish this basic literacy. Initially students are excited when they learn to read and can recite their ABCs. Hey, great, you used to be illiterate, and now you can read. But of course, a child cannot really read. To read is to comprehend ideas encoded into the words, not merely the transmission of words from paper representations into spoken language. Reading, rather than a “skill”, is a mode of thinking which aids in the organization of thought.

Rather than envisioning learning as skills acquisition, the logistic curve gives us a model of learning as a continuous process that never really completes. Even experts will forever grind away on the long tail of that curve. 

Thinking and the internet

I grew up in the golden age of the Internet. Yes, it used to be capitalized. I am of the generation that un-capitalized it. When I was an introverted, isolated teenager the internet was a way to connect with people who liked the same things I did, to share a bit of myself, and to learn. Well into my college career, I still saw the internet as an idyllic place. Of course, there were criminals and bad actors abusing it, as there will always be. But it still retained that magical potential.

At some point, things changed. If I had to put a date on it, I would say the internet started to suck around 2007. This was approximately the point at which Google ditched its “don’t be evil” philosophy. When YouTube was new, it was a tranformative way for creative people to get their work in front of an audience. Over time, it’s become riddled with ads and Google’s spyware, like everything else. Privacy is a feature tacked on to a platform built to monitor their users, to give those users some semblance of control over the manner in which they are monitored. There is no earnest attempt to allow users to opt out of such monitoring, only to slightly tweak in what manner it is monitored.

The internet is everywhere now, and everyone is hiring. In a sense, this is surprising. When I was entering high school, there was an assumption that the internet bubble’s bursting had been a fatal blow. Programmer jobs were being outsourced to India or disappearing entirely. I ended up studying computer science because I liked math and the internet. I had no conception of it as a career. I expected that I would eventually make a living teaching. When I learned to program at the age of twelve I never expected that twenty years later there would be psychology majors and yoga instructors trying to learn web development.

The apocalyptic vision of a tech industry completely moved overseas to Bangladeshi sweatshops never came true. Instead, we ended up with something much more banal. Corporate America took over the internet, exactly as William Gibson said it would, but instead of using it to wage cyber warfare upon one another, they turned it into a massive surveillance system to drive advertising revenue. Instead of hiring armies of underpaid, poorly trained third world programmers to keep it running, they hired an army of underpaid, poorly trained young adults in the U.S.

Now the internet, which was once a creative canvas and a playground for entrepreneurs, has become a series of walled gardens. There was once a belief  that anyone could start their own online news agency, a boon for freedom of speech and freedom of press. A new enlightened age of reason would be born. Everyone with an internet connection would be exposed to well reasoned, balanced perspectives. Facebook’s news feed has hijacked that dream and used its walled garden to create news bubbles that further the bipartisan stupification of Americans. Instead of trying to engage in a dialectic to reach political solutions, we have rabid “activists” online shouting at one another and manipulating sound bites to enrage one another. All that sound and fury, signifying nothing, has spread into actual in-the-flesh discourse. Reason and debate is rejected. Displays of anger, sloganeering, and language games are embraced.

If the internet is to become what we once envisioned it could be, we must go back to that vision. We must reject the control of the corporate walled gardens.

One key to this must come from developers and those who understand the technology. There must be tools built to achieve privacy and freedom of speech. These tools will come in the form of software, but they will also be legal tools. We must defend the right to free speech against anyone who would assail against it, no matter how seemingly noble their reasons for doing so.

Another key is our words. I don’t know anyone else with a blog. I don’t know anyone else who feels comfortable publishing their views on politics and society in a public venue. There is a fear I feel even now, as I type this, that criticizing one of the companies that runs the internet will in some way damage my career.

But if the situation is to change, there must be many more people writing and thinking and criticizing. We must practice these skills. Any skill left unpracticed will atrophy. Ancient people practiced hunting and fishing and warfare, for these skills meant the difference between life and death. The weak did not survive. So these cultures inculcated practice into their lives, and their children’s lives. Our ability to think is just as vital to our survival. When our minds atrophy, we become easy prey to corrupt governments, radical movements, and corporate monoliths. Instead of living free lives, we will become cattle. And so we must think. If we stop, we will perish.