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Black Belts and Silver Buckles: Neither Will Make Your Problems Disappear

Posted by on Jul 5, 2013 | 3 Comments

Yesterday’s drunken, rambling post could use a little explanation. It was written after a confluence of events, which included:

  • Reading a middle-of-the-pack ultrarunner’s blog. This runner was aggrandizing their latest ultra finish even though they had finished longer/ more difficult races AND their effort was rather pedestrian. In the process, they hinted that their accomplishment was far above and beyond what others were capable of accomplishing. In other words, they were adopting “I’m special because I did this” attitude. The runner also discussed how the reward (belt buckle) made them feel like their life was complete. There’s a fine line between douchiness and inspirational, and this particular blogger wasn’t even in the same zipcode of that line.
  • I had been perusing an old thread on a Brazilian jiu jitsu (bjj) forum discussing black belts. Jiu jitsu’s belt system is very conservative… earning a bb usually takes at least 8-12 years. The people that had not yet reached that milestone were discussing how it would change their lives. The few people that already earned the bb tried explaining how the accomplishment was nice, but it wasn’t life-changing. It wasn’t a magical route to happiness. They still had all the same problems after earning the belt as they did before.

The two sports are very similar in regards to the “rewards.” The belts in bjj are offered to denote progressive achievement. If you stick with it, you eventually improve just by showing up. In that sense, the belts are basically like the participation ribbons given out on field day in third grade.

The rewards from ultras (buckles, medals, etc.) earned by finishing various distances are the same- participation rewards. Show up, put in the work, get your trinket.

Both sports DO have legitimate “I’m the best” rewards. In bjj, there are tournaments to win which include world championships. In ultras, there’s obviously those that win races or series of races, including the “big” races like Western States.

So back to yesterday’s post. I’m a pretty introspective person… I spend far too much time in my own head. If something bothers me, I HAVE to figure out why. That blogger’s posts really bothered me.

But why?

Why should I care if some random person I’ve never met defines themselves by accomplishments that aren’t especially noteworthy?

My best guess- this particular blogger simultaneously hit two nerves.

Nerve #1: They were patting themselves on the back for something that wasn’t really all that great in a way that would discourage others from attempting to accomplish the same. They were making themselves seem superhuman when their accomplishment was really just a function of showing up every day for a long period of time… something all of us are capable of doing.

Nerve #2: They implied that the reward for finishing (the belt buckle) dramatically improved everything. They were propagating the “Once I [insert random event], my life will magically improve” idea. That’s never the case with something like this. Ultras can change your life… but it’s not the buckle. It’s the journey that matters. The focus on the end goal causes people to miss the joys of the quest… they don’t take the time to learn the lessons along the way. Also, they’re almost always let down once they accomplish the goal because it’s not the life-changing event that was advertised.

Does any of this matter?

No, not really. I should be focusing on the events in my own life instead of worrying about random runners and bjj players. Yes, referring to the bjj practitioners as “players” sounded weird to me, too. Anyway,  digress.

These types of issues DO serve a useful personal purpose. They force me to consider my own thoughts and feelings. They force me to think about my own journey. They force me to recognize the joys in my own adventures. They also remind me not to be so quick to publicly pat myself on the back because of arbitrary accomplishments, especially if I make it seem as if others couldn’t do the same thing. If I need affirmations from others, I know I’m probably not doing the activity for the right reasons.

Someday I may earn a black belt. Issues like this help remind me that a black belt isn’t going to change me. The next time I show up to train will, though.

Likewise, earning that buckle doesn’t have the power to make your life better… but your next training run does. Tell yourself that every time you head out for a run. By the time you do earn that buckle, you will be a better person because of the journey.

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3 Comments

  1. John
    July 9, 2013

    Hey Jason! Read “A Fighter’s Mind” and “A Fighter’s Heart” by Sam Sheridan if you can. Discussed in these books are muay thai, Western Boxing, Chess, and BJJ. I’m sure you will find the sections on BJJ to be very insightful, and will give more clout as to why they call themselves, “players”.

  2. bosenoge
    July 6, 2013

    Its about the Path and getting through it, not the final goal like the buckle or black belt. All good philosophies and people will tell you that.
    Why do I do it? On our local race site there is a saying from a guy that won a particular league that goes like this: “Because of these memories I will never be a grumpy old man” . Thats why I do it. Not for the results or particular acomplishments, but for all the joys that training and racing with other people gives me.
    I could say that Im pretty famous(better word is knowable) in my country. Im the first barefoot marathoner and ultra finisher in Croatia, and because my bare feet I quickly got popular in our running community. I think people like me because I dont brag about it and try to keep a low profile. Most of the champions, in my experience, are also like that.
    I dont think that I did something special and never talk about running if people dont take interest in it. If they do, then they must prepare themselves to a long monologue, because its in our nature to talk about things that we devote a lot of time and effort, isnt it?
    As for uniqunes of ultras or barefooting, I agree that anyone could do it, but I think that you underestimate the will power and devotion that envolves such feats. Thats something that I think that ultras definetly learned me and Im trying to incorporate that in all other aspects of my life. Someone could see same results from meditating or doing jujitsu(my martial art of choice is Ki Aikido,theres no competitions in it, altough there is a belt system), but it seems to me that there are some people, myself included, that cannot make these lifechanging stuff work without the masochism that doing ultras is. Im very happy for finding this way for beeing a better person, I think it suits my character perfectly :)