The little guy

Dear reader, 

In case you didn’t know, today is the second birthday of Phronetic. I hope you’ve enjoyed some of what’s been published over the last 700+ days. And I hope that in the years to come you continue to find something of value. Here’s to many more…

I’m a little over 6’ 3”, a touch more than 100kg (or 220lbs), and relatively healthy and strong. Because of this, when I train Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I’m not used to rolling with people who are both bigger and stronger than me. Sometimes one, but not usually both. 

Recently, that’s changed. There’s now people who are bigger and stronger than me. Which means I’ve finally got a taste of what it feels like to be the little guy. It means I can’t be as lazy with my technique and my decision making as I can be against smaller opponents. I’m at a disadvantage, so I have to adapt.

As uncomfortable as this makes me, it’s ultimately a good. To be at a disadvantage can be discouraging, or it can be a challenge. I try to see it as the latter. But it has got me thinking: in what other ways can we deliberately disadvantage ourselves so that we become better? In jiu-jitsu, rolling with bigger opponents forces you to rely on technical, rather than athletic, ability. But what about a generic skill? In what dimensions can you temporarily disadvantage yourself in order to gain a permanent gain in competence? Here are some possibilities.

Tempo. Work faster. Work slower. Work to a different rhythm than usual, or to a rhythm dictated by an entity that is outside of your control. Give yourself half the time usually required to do something, or double the time.

Tools. Use only old tools. Use only new tools. Use minimal or basic tools. Use no tools. Use your tools in ways they were not intended to be used. Use your least favourite tool. Use every tool once and only once.

Techniques. Use only ancient techniques. Use only contemporary techniques. Choose techniques that are not suited to the task at hand. Use techniques you’ve never used before, or rarely utilise. 

Senses. Restrict one or multiple, either completely or partially.

Environment. Work in a new place. Work in an odd place. Work at an unusual time. Work amidst noise. Work in utter silence. Work in the dark. Work with people. Work without people. Work outside. Work inside. Work listening to sounds you don’t like or find distracting. 

Pressure. Do something difficult. Give yourself an unnecessarily tight deadline. Make a public commitment. Institute a forfeit or sacrifice. Create novel constraints for each performance. Work while others are watching you, either in person or virtually. 

These are all ways in which we can deliberately disadvantage ourselves. I’m sure there are more, but the point is not to list them all. The point is to understand that as we ascend in ability, it becomes harder and harder to keep climbing at the same pace. What worked before stops working so well. Each minute, each second, yields less and each scenario taxes us in less minor ways. And the only way to combat this law of diminishing returns is to fight back with a willingness to challenge ourselves in new and interesting ways.