There’s nothing quite like the feeling of a 200lb black belt sitting on your chest in training, creating intense pressure and a rapidly building sense of panic that triggers every red alarm system your lizard brain still has left in it. As your training partner slowly peels your appendages away from you and contorts your body into positions that can only be described as involuntary yoga (or murder cuddling, pick your poison), the most incredible thing happens: your mind goes blank.
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Suddenly the earlier stressors of the work day disintegrate into a mental clarity produced by your brain being fully engaged in solving the problem at hand. Which, in this case, is survival. The round ends, you slap hands, bump fists, and thank your training partner. As you raggedly gasp for breath, your body groaning in protest, you feel the light bulb go off: “So THAT’S why that test wouldn’t pass earlier.” Driving home, you can’t wait to ship that fresh commit and unblock your teammate. You also can’t wait to shower. Both are important, but I digress.
Zen and the Art of Jiu-Jitsu (and Software Development)
In my adult life, I’ve found two things that create more of an upward spiral of momentum than anything else. As illustrated above, that is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and software engineering. And while I’m certain there are other movement practices and career paths that can reinforce each other in this fashion, I want to continue to share my experience of blending these two gentle arts together to make myself a more effective Juijiteiro (Portuguese for Jiu-Jitsu addict, basically), engineer, and human being.
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Before I found Jiu-Jitsu, I was competitive for all of the wrong reasons. My pursuit of growth at that time was about establishing a sense of superiority or significance relative to those around me rather than growth for the sake of itself. This didn’t exactly make me a bundle of joy to be around. This manifested itself in my early software development career as an unwillingness to learn from the mentors around me and a need to be right. Spoiler: I didn’t often get to be right as a junior developer. There’s so much context that needs to be gathered and so much nuance that goes into the day-to-day tasks of a highly skilled engineer, and I wanted to believe that this could be skipped. That I could just instantly be good at this stuff. That attitude might have helped me climb up the career ladder somewhat quickly, but it didn’t engender the type of attitude and ease with which I now aspire to carry myself throughout the day. Nor did it make me the most robust member of the engineering teams I found myself on. Similarly, as a white belt in Jiu-Jitsu, there’s simply no room to grow when all of my energy is directed towards being better than other people. Most of those first couple of years are spent unlearning that belief.
I started practicing Jiu-Jitsu seriously about a year into my development career. As a former competitive bodybuilder with a wrestling background (and maybe just a little bit of a chip on my shoulder), I thought I’d be a shoe-in to be great at this thing. No practice required, right? Wrong.
My first match was against a man twice my age and half my size and I couldn’t have been more of an opponent than a limp pasta noodle. Consider my fragile ego shattered. You know what, though? That daily ego break became my greatest solace. It made my mind softer. It made me more curious. I learned very quickly that the things I was doing just didn’t work, and those things also required WAY more effort than was necessary. Jiu-Jitsu is called the gentle art for a reason, and I was ready to learn what that reason was.
Much like Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel-san to wax on and wax off, I noticed that Jiu-Jitsu began to bleed over into the way I approached my day-to-day as an engineer. The more times I got submitted on the mat, the less rigid I became in my opinions about code. The less stressed about deadlines and about seeming smart or productive I became. For the first time since my youth, learning became enjoyable again purely for the sake of learning. Much like I wanted to see my training partners grow and succeed, I wanted to see my teammates at work grow and succeed. As my ego became less and less prominent, my skill in both practices became more and more pronounced.
Meet the Dunning-Kruger effect
More than anything else I’ve ever done, both software and Jiu-Jitsu embody the Dunning-Kruger effect. Effectively, this manifests as an outrageously high degree of confidence early on in something, when our competence is still very low. As our competence in a skill grows, our confidence plummets until we eventually attain a degree of sustainable progression in both competence and confidence.
When I got promoted to blue belt in Jiu-Jitsu, it was because I had finally realized that I knew enough to know that I knew absolutely nothing. Similarly, when I got promoted to Senior Software Engineer, it’s because I realized that I cannot and will not ever know everything there is to know. It’s about knowing myself, my current toolbox, and my passions well enough to see where I can continue to grow.
Of course, Jiu-Jitsu teaches you resilience. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done. It calluses my mind and my body and forces me to learn to shake off things that aren’t important. More importantly, though, it has provided an outlet for me to grow into a compassionate mentor and teammate to my training partners. By extension, it has provided me with a toolbox that has also allowed me to become a compassionate mentor and teammate to my fellow engineers. I’m proud to report that I think that I’m now a downright bundle of joy to work with. You didn’t expect my entire ego to dissolve, did you?
The way I show up in one thing is how I show up in everything. By learning to put my ego on the back burner and focusing on how I can become a slightly more refined and skillful version of myself than I was the day before on the mats, the more I became a competent developer. The more competent of a developer I became, the more analytical of a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner I became. Again, it’s all about momentum. And with these two things working together, I’ve never been able to move more quickly towards being the engineer and human being I want to be. This ends up manifesting itself in my personal life as being somebody who feels deeply fulfilled by the work that I do, whether that is on or off the mats. I’m someone who is able to honor my word and my commitments to others because I maintain my commitments to myself in pursuing my passions. So often in our field, I see calls to focus on honing the craft of engineering, often at the expense of honing our deepest passions. If your experience is anything like mine, the potential for bleed-over is incalculable. Maybe it’s not Jiu-Jitsu for you, but I encourage you to cultivate your own practices and passions and try to draw some parallels between those and your day job. I think you might be surprised by what you find, and more importantly, who you become.
Want to share notes about software development or Jiu-Jitsu? Reach out to me on Instagram (@jordan_p_quinn) to share your thoughts.