I came across an article on CNN called “20 Questions that Could Change Your Life.” It was written by an Oprah.com woman, and when I read it I immediately connected many of the questions to jiu jitsu. Not all of them are directly applicable, and I think the article is very worth reading, but I also think that for jiu jitsu practitioners, reflecting on some of these in regard to bjj is valuable.

[Note, the questions may have been modified slightly, but they are still essentially quotes. Italicized text is a quote from the original article.]

1. What questions should I be asking myself?

Without this question, you wouldn’t ask any others, so it gets top billing. It creates an alert, thoughtful mind state, ideal for ferreting out the information you most need in every situation. Ask it frequently.

In jiu jitsu, it can mean the difference between asking “How long until my next belt” vs “How can I improve?” or the difference between asking “What gains have I made” rather than “Why do I suck?” Additionally, it may be helpful to know what questions to ask others.

Ask, “what is YOUR strategy when you’re in this specific situation?”
Ask, “what your highest percentage techniques to pass the guard?”
Ask, “what are the techniques I should learn first from this position?”
Ask, “can I feel you do that technique on me please?”
-Stephan Kesting

2. Is this what I want to be doing?

This is an important question in jiu jitsu – and only one that you can answer. I see this question pop up on jiu jitsu forums a lot. It’s usually something like “I’m thinking of quitting jiu jitsu, should I?” In some cases, yes, you should. Only you know you and what changes you should make to your life. If you are thinking about quitting, consider why. Is it because your ego is taking a battering? You’re not progressing fast enough? Why are you doing jiu jitsu in the first place? Is this what you want to be doing? A positive answer can get you through rough times.

3. Why worry?

I dearly love Dune.

I dearly love Dune.

Ultimately, worry rarely leads to positive results. If you’re worried about getting worse, worry may lead to either overcompensation or avoidance on the mats, which won’t help. If you worry about injury, you’ll likely quit jiu jitsu. If you worry about someone progressing faster than you, it may cause you to fixate on them or lead to anger or even the dark side! ^_^ But really, the expert here is the Dalai Lama.

“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
Dalai Lama XIV

4. How do I want the world to be different because I lived in it?

When I started my blog, I had no idea it would end up where it did. However, I realize that I’m okay publishing difficult articles that take some heat if it means legitimizing experiences that women have faced in this sport. I want to encourage women to do jiu jitsu, fat people to do jiu jitsu, out of shape people to do jiu jitsu. I want women to feel that they are not alone in this sport – that’s how I envision this blog. I believe that in some way I have touched people’s lives by sharing my experiences in jiu jitsu, and that I have made a difference, and I’m proud of that.

5. Are {black belts} better people?

Again, it doesn’t have to be vegans [black belts]; the brackets are for you to fill in. Substitute the virtue squad that makes you feel worst about yourself, the one you’ll never have the discipline to join, whether it’s ultra-marathoners or mothers who never raise their voices. Whatever group you’re asking about, the answer to this question is no.

This is key for me. It’s really easy to think that because someone has better skills in jiu jitsu, that they’re good people. That sort of hero worship can lead to dangerous routes. This can be said of instructors, upper belts, tournament winners, etc. Similarly, believing that X are better people may simply be a way for you to judge yourself as not as good, or even to be taken advantage of.

6. What is my body telling me?

Listen to your body, especially as you get older. I really dislike the notion that people are encouraged to train through pain/injuries. Your body needs time to heal. Of course there are aches and pains that occur with jiu jitsu, but please be wise. Yes, there are times to push through pain, and you have to know your body. For example, after herniating a disc in my back, I’ve learned the difference between spinal pain and muscular pain, and if I experience sore muscles, I’ll train through it. Spinal pain – I’m sitting out. No pain, no gain is a lie.

7. Where am I wrong?

This might well be the most powerful question on our list — as Socrates believed, we gain our first measure of intelligence when we first admit our own ignorance. Your ego wants you to avoid noticing where you may have bad information or unworkable ideas. But you’ll gain far more capability and respect by asking where you’re wrong than by insisting you’re right.

This is a tough one. It can mean admitting that your instincts are wrong. It can mean admitting that someone else may know better than you. It’s coming to jiu jitsu with an open mind and a heart ready to learn, rather than steeling yourself with needing to be right. It can be examining moves to figure out why they aren’t working rather than just insisting on MAKING that choke work. Ultimately I think it will help your jiu jitsu. Similarly, I think that upper belts should go in with an open mind as well, and learn from other students as wells, even if they’re lower belts. For example, using your students’ expertise. Mine was training teachers, and I love giving advice on teaching – it’s my background. It doesn’t mean my jiu jitsu is better, but I can absolutely give teaching advice.

8. Am I the only one struggling not to {fart} during {yoga}?

Substitute your greatest shame-fear: crying at work, belching in church, throwing up on the prime minister of Japan. Then know you aren’t alone. Everyone worries about such faux pas, and many have committed them (well, maybe not the throwing up on PMs). Accepting this is a bold step toward mental health and a just society.

I think this examination of shame-fear is dearly important, especially amongst women, for whom many have a shame-fear of crying in front of teammates/colleagues. It sucks to show weakness or to make them feel you aren’t quite the same as them. As I was telling Georgette, her article about crying in the bathroom deeply affected me and I needed to read it to know I was not alone. I decided that it was really important to me that I share those hard times. I’m so thankful for women who shared their period slip stories so that women who feared this happening would know that they were not alone and that the world would not end.

9. Where could I work less and achieve more?

I think that this is an important question that comes up in bjj. I’ve seen JoshJitsu, a purple belt, mention it a few times – about why white belts shouldn’t focus their time on the rubber guard. Tim Ferriss is master of the work less, achieve more concept. Learning basics and figuring out what can be done from there. Learning high percentage moves rather than focusing on lower percentage moves.

10. How can I keep myself absolutely safe?

Ask this question just to remind yourself of the answer: You can’t. Life is inherently uncertain. The way to cope with that reality is not to control and avoid your way into a rigid little demi-life, but to develop courage. Doing what you long to do, despite fear, will accomplish this.

I had a doctor friend tell me that in jiu jitsu, it’s not about IF you get hurt, but WHEN you get hurt.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5Otla5157c]

11. Where should I break the rules?

Well, one of the ways I do this (shh don’t tell my instructor) is that I generally only practice submissions on one side. (Ps if you can find where this came from you’ll be my hero) I once heard Marcelo Garcia say that he only does submissions on one side because it made more sense to get very very good with one side rather than be okay with both. This made SO MUCH SENSE to me. Escapes – both sides – you can’t control which side they’re attacking, but for doing submissions, I’d much rather make one side very automatic. But breaking this “rules” – this is how bjj evolves and grows and responds. Just because you should or shouldn’t do something doesn’t mean it’s right. However, I would definitely caution lower belts about this because you don’t have the foundation built yet.

This this this and this

This this this and this

12. So say I became a black belt and a world champ and was able to submit anyone by simply looking at them…then what?

We can get so obsessed with acquiring fabulous lives that we forget to live. When my clients ask themselves this question, they almost always discover that their “perfect life” pastimes are already available. Sharing joy with loved ones, spending time in nature, finding inner peace, writing your novel, plotting revenge — you can do all these things right now. Begin!

I think this is applicable to jiu jitsu in that we can also get so obsessed with the next belt or improving or winning that we forget about the joy of doing jiu jitsu. It can be so serious that you forget to have fun. Enjoy your journey. Keep it playful.

13. Are my thoughts hurting or healing?

Whatever your situation is, it’s helpful to examine your thoughts to find if they’re helping you progress and stay on the mats, or if they’re hurting your progress and keeping you from it. This has to do with worry, fear, self-talk, etc. I believe the mind is a powerful tool, which is why I try to encourage people who are discouraged to change their thinking. I encourage people to embrace the suck rather than bemoan it.

14. Really truly: Is this what I want to be doing?

It’s been several seconds since you asked this. Ask it again. Not to make yourself petulant or frustrated — just to see if it’s possible to choose anything, and I mean any little thing, that would make your present experience more delightful. Thus continues the revolution.

Again – you’re in a relationship with BJJ. Is it where you want to be? I hope so! If not, it’s totally okay. If it is, then get out on the mats and stay positive. I think this can also be related to – is this school really where I want to train? Do I really want to quit my job and train full time? Do I really want to be a world champion? Any of these questions related to jiu jitsu SHOULD be asked rather than just going on autopilot.


Was this article perfect? Nah. But it’s where my brain went when I read that article, and I love meta-thinking. Jiu jitsu is what I love, and it helps to remind myself of that. It helps to have positive self talk. It helps to reach out and help others. It helps to have fun. It helps to remember that you chose to do jiu jitsu, and you have options and choices – you are NOT stuck*.

*Okay, you might actually be stuck, but you, my friend, are an outlier!

I’m curious as to your reaction to this article? Too much intellectualizing? Have you asked yourself any of these questions and did it lead to a positive result? Were any of these questions what you really needed to hear right now? Anything you want to add/share?