Life Lesson: Surround Yourself With People Who Are Better Than You

This is the first in a series, Life Lessons from BJJ. Or “Everything I needed to know I learned in BJJ.”

Surround Yourself With People Who Are Better Than You

For the first couple of months, I was one of only a couple of new white belts that showed up with any regularity.  When I started sparring, it wasn’t all that uncommon for me to be one of two white belts in the class. The first two months of sparring were a blur to me. I was drawn to class, I had an internal burning to keep going, but I was basically a breathing rag doll to most of my partners. I wasn’t excited to go because I knew I’d submit someone. Instead, I was driven to go by challenging myself with little things like “Only get submitted once per match tonight” or “nobody armbars you tonight.”  The people I was rolling with were leagues ahead of me.  It felt like I was riding the bench on the JV basketball team, and I suddenly had to go 1-on-1 with Michael Jordan.

But here’s the thing. I went to those sparring classes where all these guys were better than me. I tried my hardest to go against them, and tried my hardest to learn from them. Sometimes it was easy to learn as they’d show me an escape, or help me see what I was doing wrong. Other times, I had to learn more on my own. For example, one night I got armbarred something like 8 separate times. After class was over I was able to see that when someone was passing my guard, I had a tendency to roll my back towards them, exposing my top arm. Just about everyone attacked that arm differently, but the end result was still the same.  Since that night, I’ve still been armbarred, but very rarely has it come because I rolled to my back and basically gave them my arm. If was training only training with people who were on my level (or, if possible, worse) chances are they wouldn’t have attacked that arm, and I might go about my life thinking I’m pretty good at avoiding armbars.

Fortunately for me, the variety of people at my gym, and the variety of their games, means that I’ll be training with people who are better than me until the day I die. We have big guys who can smash. We have slightly less big guys who like to have active guards. We have smaller guys that like to move like water or choke you from nowhere. We have closed-guard, spider-guard, or half-guard players. It is truly a wide variety of players.

Just as that’s true in BJJ, I find that it’s true in life as well. For example, in school, you don’t want to be the smartest one in your group. Sure it’s fun for a while when you get to bask in the glory of everyone knowing how smart you are (I’m assuming this is the case, I was never the smartest in my group.) But what happens when you get stuck on a problem, or you’re not sure how to do a lab experiment? Other people are looking to you, where do you turn in that case?

Or how about personal finances. Would it really be fun to be the best at managing your money among all your friends? Sure you might have nicer things, but when you want to go out you’re faced with the reality that either 1. You’ll be paying for everyone or 2. You won’t be able to go because 1/2 your group already blew their paycheck.

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn talks about this situation when he says “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” The people you surround yourself have a big influence on who you are. And it’s a subtle influence. You don’t always realize the impact that they have. At one job I was at, I was part of a group of 4 or 5 developers and in that group everyone else loved using the newest, latest technology. They were the guys who had used a product since it was in the alpha stage, and by the time it was released to production, they’d moved on to something else. Guess what happened, I started spending more time looking at whatever the “next-best thing” was in our field. In the end, that helped me tremendously in my field. It helped be a better developer and it helped me sharpen skills that I might not have been able to sharpen otherwise.

Just like I want to roll with the guys that have amazing guard, or super tight chokes, in life, I want to hang around with people who are better than me.  It’s the only way for me to learn and grow.