humility

Activism isn’t a word we’ve had for a long time. Google Books data shows that the word wasn’t popularised until midway through the 20th Century – around the same time that Amnesty International was founded by two lawyers in 1961.

The popularisation of activism directly correlates with the rise of the human rights, civil rights and women’s rights movements.

The graph below displays the use each word or phrase over time.

(Graph via Google Books Ngram Viewer)

The dictionary definition of activism is, “the activity of working to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organisation with particular aims”.

I’m fortunate enough to know some incredible activists, and they have me believing that activism at its core is more specifically about relating to people, connecting with them and inspiring participation.

“Activism is any action that increases valued participation in the future.”

– A Wise Friend

For an individual to be an active participant in any democracy, they must seek out political relations with other members of their communities.

As people discuss and build relationships around the values which they hold dear, variations between those values and the values held by their democracy are highlighted.

When enough people band together around shared values which aren’t represented by the democracy they exist within, movements are born.

Progress will always involve the participation of the people who are suffering, but for a movement to build enough momentum to affect the values of a society, the voices of the people often need to be listened to, organised and amplified.

It follows that a person’s participation in the democratic process is most valuable when their values aren’t being represented by the democracy they live in; or when they are relating to someone for which this is true.

Activists and community organisers have been at the forefront of this kind of work throughout some of the biggest social movements the world has ever seen – and there are plenty more to come.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) people are some of the smartest, strongest, and most dedicated you’ll ever meet. The art of self-improvement is ingrained in their day-to-day.

Most martial arts teach respect and discipline, but not many demand the same level of fortitude, resilience or humility that Jiu-Jitsu demands of its masters.

(Image courtesy Michael Port)

All Jiu-Jitsu masters, those who have dedicated their entire lives to the art, train every day embracing the fact that they will always have more to learn.

They trend towards perfecting their knowledge and technique with the understanding that they will never complete their quest.

Even after a lifetime of vigilant training, they will never fully know Jiu-Jistu.

This is because, like most worthwhile pursuits, BJJ is not a closed system; there is an almost limitless number of actions and reactions to be honed, perfected, and re-honed when something surprising rears its head.

Jiu-Jitsu is being innovated constantly.

To get better at Jiu-Jitsu is to continually realise how much you don’t yet know; the more you learn, the more there is to learn.

I believe this humbling cycle to be at the core of the Jiu-Jitsu mindset. It seems to me the reason that humility and respect are so entrenched in the sport.

People with large egos tend not to last very long at Jiu-Jitsu gyms, because having your weaknesses exposed is a fundamental step towards any level of competence.

There’s nowhere to hide your weaknesses in a roll, and the mats don’t lie. This proves uncomfortable for anyone who can’t handle a regular feeling of defeat.

I’ve seen it first hand; a new guy comes into the gym and as soon as he gets an opportunity to roll, he freaks out. His face goes red as he angrily exerts all his energy trying to pummel somebody who could comfortably choke him unconscious using only their legs.

It usually plays out one of two ways; either the experienced grappler is patient with the new guy, defending themselves casually while he thrashes around and tires himself out, before they strike quickly and efficiently, forcing him to submit; or, they ramp up and meet his intensity not with anger, but with focus. They get on top of him, let their weight drain the air from his lungs as he struggles, and make his life a living hell for however long it takes new guy to calm down.

Being confident enough to productively and openly process defeat is a skillset. Having the self-awareness to know what your limits are, and where you need to improve is so valuable, but getting practiced in the art of failing takes time. You need to dance with the discomfort, dance with the fear, in order to make progress.

(Image courtesy Michael Port)

There’s no denying that it’s tough. But every black belt had a first tough roll. Every single one has felt totally powerless on too many occasions to count at the hands of someone far better than them.

And every time, they chose to come back. This is the entire game.

Training Jiu-Jistu requires you to embrace your fear and choose to show up anyway; to keep getting beat, knowing that all the people who are better than you have all done the exact same thing, and that they have your back; to implement the lessons each defeat has to offer you; to persist.

This ability to persist, to command yourself to get better despite the cost, is what separates those who become black belts from those who don’t.

There’s a saying you sometimes hear black belts offer to demoralised white belts;

A black belt is just a white belt who never quit.

It’s cheesy, but it’s true.

This rule applies to most valuable pursuits in life.

The same applies to writing. The same applies to making ruckus.

If you want to be good at something; figure out how to safely expose your weaknesses, then do the work.

Find people who better than you, and learn from them.

Set up a feedback loop where you will be forced to train.

Come to terms with what you need to change, what you need to do, and how far you need to go to accomplish your goal.

Then, it’s simple. All you need to do is persist.

Don’t quit.