Business Jiu-Jitsu: 9 cross disciplinary lessons

16 minute read

I’ve been practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) for 2 years at Gracie Barra under Prof. Sergio Costa, Master Pascoal Duarte, and Prof. Fabiano Carvalho. I’m still a beginner, but after some 500 hours of training, I’ve internalized lessons that took me more than 20,000 hours to learn and appreciate in business. Perhaps the rate of learning competitive lessons is that much higher in BJJ than in business because of the faster rate of visceral situation-conflict-resolution per hour (e.g., sparring). Or perhaps it’s also because those lessons were ready to be crystalized in my head! It’s probably a bit of both and a laundry list of other reasons. In anycase, in business you might resolve competitive conflicts that move you emotionally once or twice a month. In BJJ, you can get your ego choked several times in an hour if you put your heart in it.

I will now try to synthesize what those lessons were for me. It is perhaps not so striking that BJJ and business have a lot in common, since both can be seen as zero-sum-games of strategy, power and control, with rules that forbid overt attacks.

1. Structure

As is becoming customary in my blog posts, I will frame the content into a memorable acronym. It this case, the acronym is B-Jiu-Jitsu. Here are my personal lessons:

  1. Breathe and save your energy for the right opportunity.
  2. Join a team where you are the white belt.
  3. Improve the people around you.
  4. Use the forces that you can’t control directly.
  5. Judge your opponent giving credence to good intentions.
  6. Invent your own style.
  7. Train today so you can train tomorrow.
  8. Secure the position first.
  9. Unlearn so you can learn faster.

For each lesson, I will now explain how it applies in BJJ and in business (in some cases as an individual and in others an organization).

2. Explanation

2.1 Breathe and save your energy for the right opportunity

When I started in BJJ, I had a few years of Muay Thai under my belt, another competitive fighting sport I love. Additionally, I had played sports such as soccer, tennis, and skiing, and I had practiced yoga and meditation. I was quite fit. But none of that was enough to prepare me for the vital importance of breathing in BJJ. In most other competitive sports, when I’m out of breath and my opponent isn’t, I can keep my distance and take some time to recover. In a contact sport such as BJJ, however, once I’m exhausted, it is extremely hard to recover because my opponent will now be able to make moves and get in a position of power (e.g., right on top of my chest), which will make recovery even harder, if not impossible.

Having the upper hand on resources in business gives me stamina to keep going. However, when I have the money and influence on hand and a clear vision, it can be very tempting to spend them compulsively. Spending too much (e.g., through zealous acquisitions, or too many employees) is a sure way to let my competitors sit back, learn from my mistakes, and outpace me later. In business, many successful leaders are known as thrifty spenders who will patiently wait before they buy. And those same leaders are also able to double down when the opportunity shows up. Consider two examples:

  1. Warren Buffet is famous for his value-investing philosophy to wait for the right pitch before swinging. An example of a great swing would be his $500M investment in PetroChina in 2002-2003, which he later sold for $3.5B
  2. When he became a billionaire, Jeff Bezos allegedly bought a Honda Accord to replace his Chevy Blazer and instilled the same frugality into Amazon’s DNA. Yet, when he realized that every company would struggle to build their digital platforms, he doubled down on Amazon Web Services and made the investment with Andy Jassy at the helm.

2.2 Join a team where you are the white belt

It took me and my wife a while to get into BJJ, but when Gracie Barra opened up near us, it didn’t take us long to sign up. The brand is known as a welcoming environment (it is the largest BJJ school in the world), but it is also known for its many world class fighters. Not only are black belts accomplished fighters with a few gold medals around their necks, but many of the white and blue belts have trained and mastered other martial arts (e.g., Judo black belts, Karate black belts) and performed at the highest level of other disciplines (e.g., famous actors). It is a very humbling experience to be a white belt again. Marcus Aurelius, had he lived today, might have integrated BJJ into this Stoic routines.

In business, I always take a hard look at my teams or company and industry, and if I find that I’m both more knowledgeable and more competent than most, it’s time to identify new places to continue to grow. By optimizing for learning, I will naturally increase my value more overtime than by solely following the immediate money and minimizing costs. As an organization, if we are dominating a corner of an industry, we ought to ask ourselves how long that will last and challenge ourselves to find other areas of growth. For example, Microsoft, despite its position of strength in office productivity, recognized the rise of Git, Slack, and other new productivity tools, and under Satya Nadella made a big push with Azure, Github, and more open source contributions.

2.3 Improve the people around you

BJJ most definitely requires speed and strength, but at a strategic level, it’s like a game of chess, with dozens of moves and counter moves at every step. You don’t need to search very long to find YouTube videos of small BJJ fighters dominating athletes twice their size. As I started learning a few tricks, it became satisfying that I could control others without exerting myself, using the right technique timed at the right moment. Out of self interest, by helping others learn my best moves, I end up raising the bar for everyone on my team and forcing myself to keep improving. But perhaps most rewarding of all, however, is to be able to teach others and feel like I’m making a small difference for other people.

I wish there was a definite study that compares the long term success at work of people who systematically invest in making people around them stronger versus those who don’t. Whether it is through giving them feedback, or creating meaningful step-up opportunities. Unfortunately, my anecdotal evidence suggests that many people get promoted by taking credits from other people’s work and ideas, and are generally not very helpful when the boss (or evaluator) isn’t looking. However, I firmly believe that I will be most successful by surrounding myself with people who want to help each other. One particularly interesting case study could include a firm like Bridgewater Associates, which has quite a unique truth seeking and improvement culture despite being in a cut-throat industry.

2.4 Use the forces that you can’t control directly

According to Daniel Kahneman’s Prospect Theory, loss hurts more than gain feels good. I have observed that in stressful situations, I tend to oppose forces exerted on me to try to keep the status quo and avoid potential losses. BJJ taught me quite quickly that opposing all forces is a sub-optimal strategy. I should play and let play. In BJJ, there are two main external forces: one generated by my opponent’s muscles, and the other by the sizable planet we live on, gravity. First, letting my opponent move and adeptly using that momentum in my favor can save me energy and give me the advantage. Second, using the force of gravity to my advantage is a very effective way to control my opponent - the earth will not get tired of pulling on me anytime soon. Gravity can be used both to pin down my opponent (e.g., by putting a lot of weight on their chest when they are on their back), or to make my stance stronger to move the opponent (e.g., by separating my opponent’s weight from the ground with my legs and hips in between - like in a hip throw or a spider guard sweep).

As a business leader, trying to control and do everything is a sure way to exhaust myself. One of the first things I learned as a manager was to delegate to others. Unfortunately for some, that learning is taken to the extreme and they end up becoming poor individual contributors, which makes them dependent on others and limits their career growth. These managers delegate, but do not make good use of those forces because they do not control them. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world have been labelled as micro-managers (e.g., Walt Disney, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk). The difference is these micro-managers do not necessarily do everything, but they most certainly have a very fine level of control over details several layers deep in their organization. Case in point: Musk personally recruited Peter Bannon (a director at Apple at that time), and gave him all the tools necessary since Feb 2016 to build Tesla’s now market leading Hardware 3 (Full Self Driving “FSD” Computer).

2.5 Judge your opponent giving credence to good intentions

BJJ can be a dangerous sport if practiced recklessly. While a large class of head and abdomen injuries are virtually absent (since any form of striking is forbidden), excessive torsion and pressure on the joints can cause permanent or semi-permanent injuries to the neck, shoulders, and other joints. While I’m most likely never going to show up at the BJJ Mundials, a common mindset in BJJ (and more broadly in martial arts) is to respect the opponent no matter the circumstances. I assume that my opponent wants to win and has no intention of injuring me. In fact, I feel more likely to get injured by a white belt who has just begun to learn how to execute submissions. Whenever someone hurts me a little, even if I may feel upset, I’ll remind myself of Hanlon’s razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

In business, I have witnessed a good share of apparently deplorable and most certainly unfortunate actions. For instance, a manager who blocked an excellent proposal I made after he became aware that I had shared (in good faith) the proposal with a VP (who I assumed was sponsoring the overall effort). My initial reaction was to take it slightly personal (for a few seconds at least). But after some moments of reflection, I realized that it was more about the manager’s insecurities and the need to control scope and messaging. This mindset helped me overcome my emotions and understand better how I could resolve the problem.

2.6 Invent your own style

There are probably in the neighborhood of 1,000 BJJ techniques defined in terms of positions, transitions, traps, setups, fakes, locks, chokes, and counters. The Gracie Barra Fundamentals curriculum alone is partitioned into three techniques per week for 16 weeks, and the Professors might show 3-5 variations of each technique during the week. So ignoring advanced classes and no-gi classes, a Fundamentals student might see over 200 techniques every four months if they show up everyday. It is highly unlikely that I will memorize and master all of those. However, given my weight, height, strength, and flexibility some of those techniques fit me better. In addition, some moves that work for me against one opponent will not work against another. Over time, however, muscle memory will dictate certain paths that become more fluid and effective for me.

In business, the set of actions is several orders of magnitude greater than in BJJ, including actions such as listening, reading, writing (emails, documents, presentations, code, math), speaking (individually, audience), estimating, planning, forecasting, drawing, designing, engineering, providing feedback, buying, selling, loaning, and leasing. And the best style for how to combine each of those actions depends on the specific circumstances, including the role I’m playing on the team. But the same philosophy of inventing myself and discovering what actions work best is an important part of my improvement journey. I have to listen to the feedback of others (implicit and explicit) to continuously improve my approach to achieve my purpose.

2.7 Train today so you can train tomorrow.

The most miserable parts of my life are few and far between, but if I had to point out to a small set of contributing factors, the list would contain lack of sleep and exercise. While I’m not advocating for everyone to exercise every day, I crave it and it makes me feel good to sweat and move. Therefore, one of the worst things that could happen to me would be to get an injury that would prevent me from training for a few days/weeks. Luckily, I’ve never had a serious injury (in any sport) and attribute that mostly to going easy and moderate on the intensity. In BJJ, this mindset is especially important because it means that I can easily manage the scratches and bruises that I get by going easy some days (or skip sparring altogether) so that they never stop me. One complimentary activity I do in addition to BJJ is Yoga, which I find very healing and regenerative whenever I feel soreness - highly recommended also because being flexible is a huge advantage in BJJ.

In business, there are many consequences that can arise from working too hard. Three very visible external effects could include:

  1. Lackluster performance on the family and friends front: divorce, missing out on raising the kids, not keeping up with important friends.
  2. Poor mental health, resulting in anxiety and depression: 40 million adults in the US are affected every year according to ADAA.
  3. Risk to self-actualization: when so much of one’s personality becomes tied with a professional persona (e.g., being a partner at a venture capital firm), any professional setback can engender a toxic spiral of self-doubt.

By pacing myself in my career I’ve been able to participate wholefully in raising my kids with my wonderful wife, I find myself able to overcome any signs of depression, and I take the time to self-actualize through learning things I find interesting (for example, last year I took a Coursera course on Aristotle, Epicureanism, and Stoicism).

2.8 Secure the position first

A checkmate is to chess what a submission is to BJJ (e.g., chokes, armbars, ankle locks, wrist locks, kneebars, etc.). While it is necessary to be able to execute the final moves to capture a king in chess, much of the training to become a great chess player focuses on gaining positional advantage. In fact, many chess games between advanced players end with one player resigning before checkmate is reached. In BJJ, securing a favorable position implies that I will be able to better defend myself, save my energy while in the position, and coordinate an attack when an opportunity shows up. By decomposing the fight into smaller positional victories, I am able to be more systematic, meticulous, and careful. Once a submission position is reached that way, it is usually not even necessary to apply much strength because my grip is so tight that my opponent cannot move away. This has the bonus advantage of reducing chances of injury both for me and my opponent.

As an employee inside an organization (e.g., corporation, government, military) gaining a positional advantage can come in many forms, some more permanent than others. One way to secure positional advantage is through organizational hierarchy, which grants powers that are reinforced by the group’s desire for conformity, order and stability. Such a positional advantage is more related to seniority (i.e., time) and politics. Less skilled leaders will maintain power over their subordinates by selectively sharing information, which has the unfortunate consequence of making the organization less permeable to innovation. I find this kind of bureaucratic positional advantage to be the least interesting but it is very real and important. While hierarchical positional advantage may seem solid, it can be taken away swiftly because it is granted by others.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is positional advantage gained from knowledge and understanding. This kind of positional advantage comes from the inside and is much more permanent. I believe that by having a desire to learn in everything I do, I effectively get into a better position over those who don’t have the same knowledge and understanding. Take a more extreme example to illustrate the point: consider Leonardo Da Vinci. Physical harm aside, it would have been nearly impossible to take away his years of learning. He systematically and meticulously learned mathematics, engineering, geology, astronomy, botany, history, music, architecture, sculpting, painting, drawing and much more. He wielded this knowledge and understanding magnificently, and used it by selling to the King of France, Francois I, and many others and thus financed multitudes of his creations and discoveries.

2.9 Unlearn so you can learn faster

Arguably, learning to learn is one of the most valuable things to learn. It’s a bit paradoxical, then, that kids seem to be so much better at learning than adults. As a BJJ coach to my daughter (5 years old) and my son (3 years old), I’ve noticed that she is amongst the fastest learners, especially when compared with adults. For instance, she only had to see the sit-up sweep demonstrated once to execute it nearly perfectly (cross-arm-grip, sit-up, hip-up, sweep and full-mount). While I can’t explain exactly why, I suppose it has something to do with her huge attention span stemming from the plasticity of her brain (as opposed to half-asleep-half-caffeinated adults with efficient but rigid brains). As an adult, I do three things that help me “unlearn” my rigidity, so I can learn faster:

  1. “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast”: whenever I train, I will slow down my movement to the point of discomfort. This forces me to bring to consciousness small reflexes that I would otherwise overlook.
  2. “Take the less travelled road”: whenever I spar, I mix up my approach and will frequently put myself in trouble and try techniques I’m not comfortable with. I believe that this creates a denser, more connected map of transitions in my mind.
  3. “Always a white-belt mindset”: the main opponent standing in the way of learning new things is my ego. Once I give up who I am and what I think I know, I start to naively focus on more details and the overall big picture emerges with more colors and shapes than ever before.

In business, I don’t always have the luxury to explore and learn for the sake of learning. Despite the best of intentions, when crunch times occur, I have to exploit what I know and make the best out of it. I can only imagine how much more challenging it must be as the CEO of a publicly traded $100B company, having to answer to customers, employees, investors, board members, analysts, regulators, and a lot more. That being said, in the rare moments when I do surface, I eagerly put my five-year-old cap on and start anew. A formula that has worked for me is to meditate frequently to reset my mind to the most fundamental principles of math, physics, biology, environment, economy and ethics. If you’ve never meditated before, I recommend Sam Harris’ Waking Up. Breaking down problems into first principles is a very powerful complement to asking for advice from wiser and more experienced people around me. As in machine learning, carefully crafted ensemble algorithms tend to generalize better. In a sense, thinking from first principle is equivalent to creating “simple” engineering models with only a handful of parameters, while trusting experience/wisdom/pattern recognition is the equivalent to using Deep Reinforcement Learning neural nets.

In light of this, perhaps I need a Digital Twin of myself, directly connected to my brain via Neuralink, to help me learn faster and make better decisions!

I hope that my adaptation of my BJJ training into business skills will be helpful to you. Whether you are a white belt or a black belt in either discipline, I’d love to hear your perspectives and learn from you. Please don’t be shy to message me.