Failure is Part of the Process

What MMA can teach us about our beliefs.

Nobody likes to feel foolish. Nobody wants to hear that their idea is bad, or that their belief is flawed. This is neither a new nor revolutionary concept. Protecting your beliefs and ideas is also critical for surviving in a complex world. How? Glad you asked. 

For most of us, our philosophical, political, religious, and other conceits define much of who we are. This is a normal aspect of building a healthy ego. All of the positions we hold and beliefs we espouse create a matrix of guidelines for our behavior and decision-making. Your brain is lazy. It is more efficient to refer to an existing guideline when making a decision than it is to create a new one. So when it comes time to choose an action, your brain really wants to do it the easy way. 

Enter the Matrix

Things like political affiliation, religious dogma, or social groups help us maximize this efficiency.  Any system of dogma or canon comes with behavioral frameworks in nice little packages. These then combine to form a matrix of rules for decision-making. Evangelical christianity comes with well-defined parameters for evaluating most problems. An evangelical christian does not need to spend a lot of mental effort on determining whether a choice, position, or law is a good thing or a bad thing. They can refer to the framework already provided. 

Dedicated democrats and republicans have their playbooks, as do radical feminists, social justice warriors, white supremacists, and virtually any other collection of individuals founded upon the principle of being like-minded. This is neither good nor evil. It’s just a thing that exists because it has worked very well and evolution rewards effectiveness in a very amoral fashion. It’s efficient, convenient, and gets the job done. Applying pre-packaged frameworks is not a bad thing.

However, like literally anything else in this world, it can be used against you. The lure of the echo chamber is too strong for many of us to resist. That is when it gets very easy to slip bits of bad code into the matrix. Plenty of well-meaning groups have this problem. Consider the nature of the “MeToo” movement or the “MAGA” movement. Both began with a common goal that on its surface was positive. The message for both was about making progress,righting wrongs, and generally moving forward. Both movements gathered large numbers of people. Both movements worked hard and even achieved some of their stated goals.

But it is not controversial to say that both movements suffered and still suffer from bad actors who inserted malicious code into that matrix. In most cases, the frameworks we adopt, no matter what form they take, have flaws. When we fail to seek out those flaws and challenge them, the quality of our decision-making suffers.

What We Can Learn From Fighters.

Joe Lauzon defeating Jens Pulver in the UFC

Fighting, and I mean real fighting, can teach us something about frameworks and how they fail. At the end of World War Two and the Korean War, thousands of returning GI’s and troops stationed in the pacific introduced America and much of the world to the codified fighting systems of the far east. These were extremely rigid frameworks with established training systems compared to the boxing and wrestling most westerners were familiar with. 

There was an appeal to the eastern method, as many regular everyday westerners were dissuaded by the steep learning curve and painful practice competency in boxing and wrestling requires. Ask any high-school wrestler about the horrors of wrestling practice. Be prepared to sit for a while, because they will have a lot to say. The ability to practice forms, or kata, all by yourself  at whatever speed you could manage was a far cry from getting smashed in the guts with a medicine ball four hundred times. Exactly where to step and when to turn as part of a known sequence is easy enough to internalize. The vagueness of an old coach screaming “move your feet” or “get out of there!” while some guy with more innate talent uses your head for a pinata is a much subtler concept. It hurts more, too.

To be clear, the eastern martial arts matrix earned this appeal fairly. It was reasonably effective (in the old days, anyway… shout out to my kyokushin and judo guys!) and because it was both effective and convenient, the method caught on. By the late seventies, eastern martial arts were an established phenomenon in the western world. By the nineties, you could not throw a rock in a midwestern parking lot without hitting a taekwondo school. 

But by then it was too late. The bad code had taken over…

Taekwondo Kids

School owners found that if they worked the students too hard, or if the training was too intense, they lost students. Full-contact sparring was the first thing to go. Old-style bare-knuckle schools disappeared because it was just too hard on the everyday person. New code was slipped into the matrix which said that real karate and kung fu were “too dangerous” to be practiced live at full speed. Light sparring and point-fighting took over. Most people thought this was a good thing. That’s how malicious code works. It is insidious. 

Kids and adults could practice without fear of injury now, and this became the default method of martial arts training in the western world for the better part of three decades. The intensity of the physical training declined at this time too. Traditional Japanese karate and jujitsu espouse rigorous physical fitness training. Mas Oyama and Gichin Funikoshi looked to be carved from teak, and even spindly old Jigoro Kano’s “gentle art” of judo gave us the mighty Masahiko Kimura. 

Nevertheless, bad code infiltrated the matrix as time went on. Students who could not fight their way out of a wet paper bag were getting black belts in two years. Doughy adults with combat skills inferior to a freshman high school wrestler swaggered down our streets flush with unearned confidence and the braggadocio to match it. Ninjas popped up once more. Ninjas, for crying out loud. The stupidity of ninjas is a whole article unto itself. Trust me when I say that the entire concept of training to be a ninja represents the utter and complete collapse of any reasonable approach to physical conflict.

Then something horrible/amazing happened. A family from Brazil challenged the entire planet to a no-holds-barred fight. In 1993 the first Ultimate Fighting Championship was held, and it was a thing of horrible, disgusting beauty. Over the course of the next decade, this nascent sport proved one thing over and over again: People who studied eastern martial arts were more often than not learning the wrong way to win a fight. 

Royce Gracie defeating Kung Fu practitioner Jason Delucia, UFC 2

The clean-cut, unassuming, 175-lb Royce Gracie proceeded to defeat virtually every type of fighter in the world with grappling techniques dating back to the times of the early Greeks. When he was not fighting, it was the wrestlers, the boxers, the Muay Thai kickboxers who usually took the prize. Over and over again the world saw the truth of fighting. It could no longer be denied that the way martial arts were being taught in most places was not working, and eventually the code corrected itself. 

Now the western student can train in brazillian jiu-jitsu, wrestling, kickboxing, or general MMA virtually anywhere. When you sign up for a non-contact style of martial arts, you know that you are not learning real fighting, and you are okay with that. Which is perfect. Martial arts should be enjoyed for whatever reason you want to enjoy them, and to hell with what anyone else has to say about it. Thanks to the rise of MMA, you can now choose your flavor of training as an informed consumer. Wanting to learn forms or wanting to move like the people in your favorite movies are both perfectly legitimate and awesome reasons to start training a martial art. At least now the aspiring student will know the difference and can choose their product accordingly.

What Really Happened?

Failure.

Beautiful, wonderful, magnificent failure happened. Karate, boxing, kung fu, taekwondo, hapkido, whatever. They all failed to defeat a medium-sized guy who trained proven techniques all day, every day against fully resisting opponents. Brazillian Jiu Jitsu was founded by Royce’s grandfather, Helio, because Helio was bad at judo.  This is not even remotely ironic. Helio Gracie lost thousands of bouts with his stronger and more skilled brothers when they were learning judo from the legendary judoka Mitsuo Maeda. His code needed correction, so he and his coach altered it for success. Helio had to fail many times before he learned how to not fail. That is a very hard pill for most to swallow.

We are conditioned to fear failure. We are taught to avoid it at all costs. The very word implies that you suck at whatever it is you attempted. And you know what? You probably do suck at it. That is almost certainly why you failed. The whole relationship between your suckage and your failure is tautological. The one does not merely beget the other, they exist in a horrible moebius strip of causality.

As long as you suck, you will continue to fail, and you cannot stop sucking until you have failed enough times to suss out why. To escape this cycle of successive failures, most people just hit the ‘eject’ button and bail the hell out. They leave the bad code in the matrix and just pretend that it is not a problem. You can still find overweight no-contact karate masters claiming they are too deadly to spar for fear of murdering all their doomed opponents. There are plenty of people who look at the world right now and believe that everything is just fine because their facebook group of choice hath decreed it so.

Failure is Part of the Process

In virtually every arena that requires objective analysis, failure is the main tool. The scientific method is built upon a process of making guesses about the universe, and then testing those guesses to see how wrong they are. After enough bad guesses, the scientist begins to see patterns and the guesses get better. Eventually, most of the bad ideas are gone and only good ones remain.

If you watch the sport of MMA now, you will see that many of the techniques and strategies are the same no matter who is fighting. Stylistic differences exist between individuals, but the core skill set is remarkably consistent. That is because the matrix of hand-to-hand fighting has been tested, and continues to be tested with every bout. The bad techniques and inferior strategies get discarded along the way. Even the inimitable Royce Gracie had to watch the sport pass him by. It evolved beyond BJJ and has become its own specific thing. BJJ is still a huge part of MMA, but a BJJ master who enters the cage with only BJJ is not going to enjoy the success Royce did thirty years ago. This is a good thing.

In our everyday life, this feedback loop of testing, failure, and re-testing has been interrupted. Because human interactions often revolve around highly subjective things, it is entirely possible to avoid testing your code in a way that might reveal its flaws. Any internet argument can be ended with a hearty expletive and the click of the “ignore” button. Conflating the sanctity of an opinion with the quality of that opinion is a great way to avoid dangerous conversations, much beloved by those who cannot defend their ill-conceived notions with logic.

Groups make it worse. It is simple enough in our electronic world to surround yourself with people who think and believe exactly as you do. With a few deft mouse clicks, a person can avoid testing their code entirely. Incidentally, that is how cults succeed. They pull an individual away from the wider world and control the environment and interactions to protect their bad code. It does not take advanced degrees in sociology to spot the cult-like nature of many politically or socially active groups. You can pick your flavor of group, association, or movement, and I guarantee you will find bad code being protected within their belief matrix. No one is immune from this because avoiding uncomfortable introspection is human nature. 

Correct the Code

blur close up code computer
Photo by luis gomes

To expunge the weaknesses in your code you must cultivate failure. It’s counterintuitive, but the sum of human history supports this assertion. The ego makes this task difficult, because an ego built upon bad code is a fragile thing. It will not survive testing, and thus it requires protection. The brain will go to great lengths protect the ego, and confirmation bias is the prime tool it will apply. This is when we see a person or group cherry-picking data, ignoring conflating variables, and building false equivalences and dichotomies ad nauseum. They are protecting an essential part of their decision-making framework by eliminating any chance of failure. When you add a large group of like-minded people doing the same, bad code gets reinforced.

The only way to move beyond these self-destructive and self-limiting behaviors is to challenge your frameworks in an environment where failure is not only possible, but even likely.  You have to want to find those weaknesses and make the conscious choice to stop protecting them. 

Here is the real takeaway from this article. A strong, well-tested matrix virtually guarantees success. Let’s go back to that first UFC for a moment. The Gracie family had already tested and retested their code hundreds of times. They had been issuing individual challenges to other martial artists for years beforehand. Royce Gracie knew he was going to win that first UFC long before he stepped into the cage. The UFC was not a test of BJJ, and it was never meant to be. BJJ was already well-tested. The whole spectacle was pure advertising. A big marketing ploy designed to introduce their already-proven system to the wider world. There was never any doubt about who was going to win. This is obvious when you go back and watch those first events.

I’d say it worked. The UFC is a seven-billion dollar company right now, and that is the beauty of cultivating failure. When you stop fearing the fall, when you make failure your tool and weapon, then what remains is a strong and resilient framework for your decisions moving forward. 

So go lose some fights.

Correct the code.