Now that we are emerging in to the post-pandemic landscape, one of the things I’ve been doing is ramping up my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training back up to pre-pandemic levels. It means more and more time spent struggling to escape inferior positions and survive against someone whose sole goal for the moment is to choke me out or put me into a painful joint lock. Occasionally, I might get to work on pressing the offense, but it’s still pretty rare these days and that’s okay. What I’m re-learning and re-becoming comfortable is perhaps one of the most important lessons of BJJ and of life. It’s one that Mollii Khangsengsing reminded me about in our The Asian Articles panel this past weekend. And it’s simply this:
Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
I’ve written about it a little before, with how BJJ gives you the opportunity to suffer difficult positions in a safe environment, so that you can work on what it takes to get free of them or even turn the tables on your opponent. When you’re in those positions, they can be physically uncomfortable and even scary. If your partner goes too quickly or too forcefully, or you try to escape in the wrong way, you can get seriously injured. It’s always in the back of your head, and it makes the discomfort real. It also makes the fact that you can emerge uninjured, even triumphant, real, in a bone-deep way that your lizard brain can understand. In time, and what I’m remembering once again as I train BJJ more and as I spend time with our new white belts, you’ll come to not quite welcome that discomfort, but feel at home there while you work on improving your situation. The panicky feeling of being trapped starts to go away. It’s not that you become resigned to it, but it’s not terrifying anymore. Instead of reacting in fear, you start having conscious thoughts and being able to make conscious decisions.
BJJ isn’t the only route to learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, though some may argue it is one of the most effective. Constantly putting yourself in the position of doing something new and difficult and sticking with it until you become familiar and competent with it has similar effects. That time that you spend mired in beginner-land, committing and re-committing to getting through it, and finally emerging as a conquerer (because that’s who you are then!) builds a mindset that allows you to do so over, and over again, during all the times you get stuck there involuntarily. Practice, after all, isn’t just about the skills you work on in a particular context, but also the attitude of dedication and commitment towards doing the thing no matter how hard it seems and how much you don’t want to in the moment, because the bigger end goal is worth it.
The edge of danger that comes with a sport like BJJ, a skill like riding a motorcycle, or even of something like learning to ride a horse to a high level like one of my friends is now, adds to the discomfort, and to the urgency of getting to comfortable. By their very nature, they add the kind of pressure that makes your pursuit a true struggle requiring true focus on the process. That immersion is the kind of experience that you need to burrow in to and embrace, because it makes familiar and old hat all of the emotions and all of the physical feelings that come with being in that space of unknowing and fear, when important things are at stake.
It’s for those times when you have to step out and live independently. It’s when you risk your livelihood on an important project at work, or an entire career switch. It’s when you put your ego on the line pursuing a new relationship or rekindling an old one. It’s when you fight for your life against someone who is trying to kill you. When you’re doing those things, having the calm and confidence to simply do instead of panicking and spinning your wheels, relying on luck for a good outcome. Because here’s the thing: even if you aren’t prepared for the specific crisis at hand, if you’re prepared for being uncomfortable, you will have a much greater chance of finding your way to success.