From my experience in dealing with people from all kinds of backgrounds, I have observed the vast variety of behaviors aligned to different cultures and ethnicities. It is not always possible to be exposed to cultural diversity, we often end up limited to the clients and teammates we share, whom may have more similarities than differences to us.
In 2013, when I returned to Brazil after living in New York for 5 years, I began my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu journey. In the US, I was fortunate enough to meet people from all continents — but that’s a story for another time. The gentle art came into my life and since then it has become my ally in facing and overcoming problems in all dimensions of my life.
Today, 5 years on, I have put into perspective the importance this activity has had, especially in dealing with difficult clients and different teammates. Here’s five points that I’ve chosen about Jiu Jitsu that have helped me in my design career, and in my overall well being.
1. Self Awareness — When we dominate our “internal beast”, our defense and attack instincts which have evolved throughout millions of years, we learn how to deal with these feelings that people usually try to suppress. By mastering these instincts, we become more self-aware by leaving all our anger, anguish, and frustration on the mat. In Brazil there’s a saying “Those who practice BJJ, don’t fight”, and indeed it is true. We become more aware of our own potential resulting in an overall more relaxed person, who goes to “war” regularly in our BJJ sessions. BJJ teaches that to overcome limits, it is necessary to work on ourselves. Our own minds impose limits, and our bodies translate these through the limiting of reaching our true physical potential. Becoming aware of our limitations, weaknesses, strengths, and overall potential is a powerful eye-opening tool.
2. Ego — Few lessons were as powerful as the ones I came across when starting BJJ as a white belt. I got thrown around like a rag doll by my teammates. People 50 lbs lighter, were able to submit me in seconds, it was hard to conceive how such a thing was possible. In the first two years of practice, your ego suffers a lot of damage — in a good way — teaching us that appearances are extremely deceiving and that we are not as powerful as we’d like to believe. The famous saying — leave your ego at the door — is the premisse for evolution as practitioners and professionals. When your ego is “checked”, you welcome criticism and feedback which will lead to a better understanding about your work
3. Uncomfortable Zone — Regardless of how long one practices BJJ, it never becomes comfortable. It requires inner strength and sacrifice to consistently keep pushing boundaries. During the first two years of my Jiu Jitsu journey, I was fortunate enough to never miss a single week of practice. Thankfully, I never hurt myself in a serious manner, so eventually I was able to make a comparison between when I first started and after two years of training, it gave me great gratification to see how far I had come. In BJJ, persistence, attention to detail and obsession to improve are paramount to success, just like in design. Practicing BJJ, I was able to understand that people act exactly the same on and off the mat. Behaviors overlap in all aspects of life, so people express themselves on the mat similarly to how they express themselves in meetings or during a serious conversation with a colleague. Being out of the comfort zone [the uncomfortable zone] is the most efficient way to ensure growth. Through rolling, moving, and sweating until exhaustion on a daily basis, Jiu Jitsu guarantees that we become comfortable in being uncomfortable.
4.Compassion — an integral part of empathy, necessitates that we accept that the reality and perception of our colleagues, clients, and training partners, with which we interact daily, is different to our own. In my BJJ training academy for instance, there are businessmen, lawyers, convicted felons, police, former drug addicts, people who suffered life-changing traumas and in general people from all walks of life. The common denominator for all these people is BJJ as a therapy tool. Despite their background, there’s still an underlying compassion with one another. After all — we are all in this together — and this mantra should be spread as far and as wide as possible. Overtime, this compassion, spills into other areas of life and all of a sudden you not only better understand your users and colleagues, but you also feel that their differences are important and should be taken into consideration. It is one thing to know someone, but something very different to feel for them. Once feelings are involved, it becomes hard to turn a blind eye, resulting in more understanding and empathy towards others.
5. Spirituality— or for a lack of better term — faith. Jiu Jitsu awakens a sense of connectivity amongst humans, like a sixth sense that feels beyond what’s visible. I had already started on a journey of connecting my mind-body-spirit, however BJJ helped strengthen this connection. I naturally felt this strengthening through the daily refinement of my art. In design, for instance, we work weeks and months on one problem in order to find the best solution, whereas in Jiu Jitsu it can take months and years to challenge that more advanced colleague, or simply survive a black belt roll. Only with a lot of persistence — and a whole lot of faith — it is possible to arrive at a solution which was previously unattainable or in a BJJ session, to roll with someone that would have been dangerous. When we awaken within us this inner belief everything is more attainable and less scary, giving us a sense of purpose in whatever we are doing.
The awareness I’ve attained through BJJ has certainly carried over to all other dimensions of my life. With design practice continuously becoming more crucial during this technological era, we have the responsibility to elevate our consciousness to better understand others. Whether a client, colleague or a loved one, it is not always easy be sympathetic towards others’ needs — and sometimes even our own — but it is our obligation to look for ways to improve our self-awareness.
Naturally, empathy doesn’t exist in a vacuum, like Steve Selzer wrote empathy isn’t everything. Critical thinking and strong ethics should help guide our decisions and solutions at work. There are no secrets to becoming a better version of yourself. The capacity to overcome challenges is an ability that can be learned, so that the potential we sometimes withhold can be expressed throughout our professional and interpersonal relationships.