Last January, I found myself a new hobby: Brazilian jiu-jitsu. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a self-defence martial art and combat sport that was developed from judo in the early 20th century. I’d been weight training for around three years by then but it was starting to feel a little stale and I was looking for a new challenge. It was daunting at first, starting something I didn’t really know anything about, but I’m glad I did.
The thing about Brazilian jiu-jitsu (or BJJ) is that it’s far from fast-paced. It takes between 10 and 15 years of hard, consistent training to be considered anything near an expert and maybe two years before you’re even close to competent. When you reach your black belt – the highest of the five main ranks, white being the lowest – you’re far from done. There are two more belts beyond that for experts to achieve. It’s a continual, often lifelong process of learning and adapting.
Even if I were to train all day every day, it would take at least two years to get my next belt, pandemic notwithstanding. Perhaps that’s why I fell almost instantly in love with this sport. There’s just something about knowing that I’m playing the long game. It feels like the perfect tonic for the world we find ourselves living in, which glorifies anything that’s low input but yields a quick reward, like the instant gratification of watching the likes roll in on your latest Instagram post.
In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, your coach sets your pace and you learn not only to trust the process but to enjoy it, too. If you can’t put aside perfectionism and fully accept the feeling of being a complete beginner, it’s likely you won’t make it past your white belt. As someone at the start of their career, constantly worrying I was falling behind my peers, this was a revelation.
Martyn Cahill is a second-degree black belt and the head coach and co-owner of Fighting Fit Manchester, a specialist martial arts and fitness gym. "Being a beginner in a sport like BJJ can be a daunting prospect for several reasons," he explains. "It is natural to want to progress quickly but the beginner should embrace their situation."
The thing about Brazilian jiu-jitsu is that it takes between 10 and 15 years of hard, consistent training to be considered anything near an expert. It's a continual, often lifelong process of learning and adapting.
"As a beginner, you are not bound by expectations," he continues. "The expectations of one's self can be stifling to your growth as the pressure of performing to a certain level creates fear of failure. This can lead to a rather protectionist type of behaviour where a student no longer seeks new challenges and therefore ceases to grow."
I think this is a perfect analogy for life. A 2018 study by the University of Bath and York St John University found that perfectionism is on the rise among young people. Millennials now are 10% more likely to desire perfection from themselves than young people in the late 1980s. Too often I see people stressing that they aren’t where they think they should be, especially in comparison to others. This type of thought pattern – let’s call it compare and despair – presents itself in all aspects of life: career, relationships, fitness, everything.
As someone who got into their chosen field relatively late (compared to many of my peers), my lack of experience, industry contacts and ability to find work at the start left me feeling lesser than. I’d spend my days frustrated that I wasn’t yet where I wanted to be, wishing away the time it would take to get there. But this time, I know now, is often the most formative; the most important. When I stopped putting so much emphasis on goals and outcomes, I was able to appreciate and embrace the systems and processes that make them possible to begin with.
Dr Craig Knight is a psychologist and research fellow at Exeter University. When we fixate on outcomes, he tells me, we have a tendency to forget about the things that really matter. "In work, for instance, the focus is frequently on the outcome and not the enjoyment of the job and, in a relationship – where there are countless mini and maxi outcomes – if you can’t negotiate and enjoy the routes you take, you are likely to flounder."
He’s right. Imagine you’ve been with your partner for almost 10 years and they still haven’t proposed. All of your friends are either engaged or married and all you want is to see your partner down on one knee, holding a big, shiny, diamond ring. It’s the logical next step, right?
So every date, every holiday and even every birthday, you’re expecting your dream proposal. And every time, you get let down. You didn’t enjoy any of the dates, holidays or birthdays because they were all ruined by false expectations. One day you look back and realise how much time you wasted being disappointed or upset when you could have been enjoying spending time with the person you love.
Besides, what happens when we get there and it isn’t what we expected? What if we don’t feel fulfilled? What if we look back at the last however long and realise we’ve spent so much of our time wishing for something – at the cost of our own enjoyment – that we didn’t want, anyway?
Most of us spent every minute of school looking forward to the day we could leave. Lo and behold, our school years (for the most part) were the easiest of our lives. I look back now and almost yearn for the worries I faced back then.
This constant strive for perfectionism can prevent us from living in the moment and, says Dr Knight, it can be exhausting. "Perfectionists tend to over-prepare, over-worry and are frequently emotionally constipated," he says. On the other hand, "there’s a certain exuberance in being a beginner," and embracing that feeling when starting something from scratch can be great for our mental wellbeing.
In work, for instance, the focus is frequently on the outcome and not the enjoyment of the job. But if you can't negotiate and enjoy the routes you take, you are likely to flounder.
Dr Craig Knight
"This is because there are two forms of stress: distress and eustress," says Dr Knight. "Eustress is positive stress which we feel when we have the resources – practical, physical and emotional – to rise to a challenge. When we have a project or something we can look forward to, then we have something that can benefit health, motivation, performance and emotional wellbeing."
Not only that but as Martyn points out, being a beginner is the only time you aren’t weighed down by external pressure. "As a beginner, you are expected to fail and fail repeatedly, therefore any success is met with positivity and pride," he says. Any perceived failure – whether that’s not getting the job you applied for this time around or failing to defend a submission on the mats – is seen as part and parcel of learning something new.
Embracing this as fact leaves much more room for forgiveness. We need to allow ourselves opportunities to fail, learn and grow.
It takes a certain number of dedicated hours to master a skill. And the hours spent worrying that you don’t know enough or are progressing slower than others are hours you could have spent perfecting your craft. Or learning to accept yourself, working on your mental wellbeing or whatever it is you’ve been hoping to achieve.
The last 11 months put my life on hold: graduating from university straight into a pandemic threw me off balance. Everything, from work to fun and even Brazilian jiu-jitsu, was put on pause. If it wasn’t for this philosophy, which I’ve come to champion since the start of 2020, I don’t think I’d have known that it’s okay to slow down.
Life is constantly changing and we are always adapting, learning and growing. I’m not going to have my perfect life overnight, and what would be the fun in that if I did?