February 28, 2019

This is impostor syndrome, caught on camera. Look at my expression in the end. This is the story behind the face.

Back in elementary school, my mother was my PE teacher.

As she tells it, while all the kids ran the mile, played football, or practiced cartwheels, there was this one kid who just wanted to stare at the ants on the school wall and see where they went.

That kid, of course, was her son.

In the two decades that followed, I did zero competitive sports. I got into zero fights (grew up with only sisters). I enjoyed nature adventures and longboard surfing, and I mainly stuck to the areas in which I had natural aptitude: science, math, writing, people, and so on.

I started Brazilian jiu jitsu three years ago. Okay that’s a lie – I started it in 2015 officially, on and off. The first few months I spent just learning how to even be physically aggressive. Which is why I don’t even count those officially. 

I felt like a sad case. And for some reason, I kept showing up.

Jiu jitsu is hard and humbling for even the strongest athletes as it is. It didn’t help me that I was neither strong nor an athlete, or that newcomers on their first week would function better than I did after 12 months of training. WTF?!

I brought my friend Tony once and on his first day (around my 18 month mark) he had me in a really smart submission. What. The. F***.

“I dunno, I grew up with brothers.” Gahhhhh.

Like anyone on any path of mastery, I experienced every variation of f***-this-sh**-I’m-going-home.

I would never stop questioning whether I am even absorbing anything, if my hard work is going anywhere.

I constantly questioned whether I belonged.

My teammates along the way were really supportive; they’d tell me they noticed X or Y technique improving, and they’d reassure me I was growing.

Over time, I’d even give some big dudes and upper belts a hard time here and there. And they’d tell me.

I wrote alllll those compliments down, each with its date, to make sure I could refer back to them the next time I wanted to quit.

Also, it turned out that there’s other factors: age, weight, whether you wrestled before, whether you’re Russian (kidding not kidding), and how often you go, and how consuming your day job or personal life is.

And this is a sport where you never feel progress, because you forget that all your teammates are also improving with you.

But as it goes, we focus on the negative far more than the positive or even the logical. So, knowing all that barely helped me break even with “f***-this-sh**-I’m-going-home.”

There was one compliment that stuck with me. My instructor Victor told me, “Tal, you know, I put you against these bigger guys or higher belts. And every time they submit you, you get right back up and go at them again. You are not a coward.”

At the time, I was disappointed. I wish he’d complimented my technique or athleticism that I was so insecure about. But now I get it – that was the highest compliment I could ask for.


Last week, though, I got my blue belt.

My professor in SF, Jerry tied it hard and told me “you deserve it.”

Even after three years and ~1500 rounds of sparring, I needed to hear those words so badly. I deserve it. And I still haven’t internalized that or fully believe it yet.

What does a blue belt mean? Like any “achievement” in life, the belt means everything, and it means absolutely nothing.

It’s just another day. Nothing really changed by wearing a different color belt. And everything changed.

The belt system is all about giving an even harder challenge to the ego: In one day, I went from being a good white belt to a sh***y blue belt. It means people are now going even harder on me. It means white belts now want to prove themselves by picking me out. It means now I have even more opportunities to deal with hurt ego, when a less experienced person inevitably submits me, and I’m wearing a colored belt. Just like I did to them.

Everything just reset.

However, the belt also means everything because it validates that I was walking in the right direction, one foot in front of the other. That my habits and principles are not tragically far off.

That I have truly learned how to learn something I totally have no background in. All the dumb questions, all the feelings of being slow, always asking for more critical feedback, the endless mistakes, all that was on the right track.

I trust Jerry. And Jerry said I deserve it.

But this isn’t even about jiu jitsu:

Really what it means is I should better appreciate others’ struggle. I need to better appreciate people who have to do things that don’t come naturally to them. Or where the deck is stacked against them, or where they start behind.

Funny, I didn’t feel any of these emotions about my college degree, or any job accomplishment. But I feel all of this about the thing for which I take the least for granted. Hm. Lightbulb went off…

I didn’t realize it, but this has been one huge exercise in *empathy*.

I learned I need to be incredibly positive with newcomers and people starting out. To make sure they feel amazing for showing up. To notice what’s good, and make sure they know it. To be a source of energy for others and help them focus on the positive. Not just in jiu jitsu. At work. On the street. At a performance. Anytime someone is sticking their neck out.

Maybe it means I’ll now be a little less judgmental.

And if I don’t get it? Well, I still suck at jiu jitsu. I’ll learn eventually.

Candid feedback and thoughtful responses keeps me motivated. What sucked? What should I keep doing? What does this make you think about? Send me a note at tal at talraviv org

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