Find What You’re Afraid of and Go Live There

Going through the battle and just trembling because of the adrenaline running through my body. Being in pain. That’s fucking being alive, man.” -Carlos Condit, UFC Fighter

Wake up. Get dressed. Get in your car. Drive to work. Drink a cup of coffee. Check your email. Drink a cup of coffee. Go to meetings. Drink a cup of coffee. Work through the problems you’re paid to solve by your employer. Get in your car. Sit in traffic. Get home. Eat dinner. Watch Netflix. Go to sleep. Repeat.

Some people find comfort in routine. They carefully remove as many variables from their day as possible in order to establish a predictable life without too many highs or too many lows. Who can blame them? Almost everyone does it to some extent but if you’re not careful the walls you erect become a double edged sword. You lose control over the guards in the towers and the walls that once made you feel safe are the same walls that keep you locked inside a life that you no longer find satisfying. The longer you’re inside the harder it is to leave.

Like many prisoners inside of prisons with real walls and real guard towers I loved to read. I loved to read stories of adventurers . I also loved to watch modern gladiators compete inside an octagon cage, risking serious injury, for a small chance at glory. I loved to watch people wear their emotions on their sleeves and make themselves vulnerable to a live audience in order to entertain and make that audience laugh. I romanticized the idea of being one of those people but at the end of the day I retreated to the safe, predictable routine of my every day life. Who could blame me?

Then, like many people in their mid to late twenties I went through an existential crisis. The habits of thinking I picked up began to build up like a dam in a river, blocking my ability to change and grow. I spent all my time day dreaming about being the hero of the stories I read, the person in the cage or the person on the stage, but I never took the steps necessary to become that person. I began to see myself in a negative light. I realized my fear of the unknown and fear of failing was holding me back. Then I realized I was letting fear control my life. I felt like a coward .Naturally, this lead to depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety became part of my routine and before I knew it, I was stuck in a cycle that proved to be incredibly difficult to escape.

I was stuck in that cycle. I started to grasp at anything that might bring me out of it but I didn’t quite know where to begin. A friend of mine who is the antithesis of who I was at this point in my life exposed me to an author, Scott Peck, who had a quote, “If you do not value yourself you will not value your time. If you do not value your time you will not do anything productive with it.” Reading that quote was like a punch in the stomach. It was hard to breath. I thought I valued myself but I was wasting my time. Something had to change. I needed to shock my system.

I wasn’t quite sure where to start but I realized I needed a shot of confidence so I decided to sign up for a membership at martial arts gym. I wanted to start training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). I was a fan of mixed martial arts, especially the UFC, and I wanted to get a taste of what it was like to fight. Men are born to fight. It might not be necessary in American, bourgeois society but its built in to our DNA. It feels good. The way you feel after a few mins of grappling with another person and forcing them to submit (tap out) for the first time is rivaled by only a few other things. That probably sounds barbaric and silly to a lot of people but martial arts was the catalyst for positive change in my life. I am not a particularly large or imposing person so stepping on the mat with those types of people was terrifying at first. Having no skill or experience, my first few months were rough. It was exhausting and it hurt like hell but after an hour of BJJ I felt more alive than I had felt in a long time. The next day, normal movement was difficult but I would take some Ibuprofen and head back for more. I was hooked.

Slowly, I began to hone my technique and with each passing day my confidence increased. BJJ is not just a physical challenge, its also a mental challenge. It takes over your mind and you become obsessed with how you’re going to win your next roll. It’s also incredibly humbling, of course. You cannot be cocky or full of yourself when you’re grappling with a 200 lb black belt who can render you unconscious in a matter of seconds. You learn how to conquer your fear and maintain your cool under intense amounts of pressure, both physically and mentally. What you learn about yourself on the mat carries over in to other areas of your life. Whenever I experienced a bout of anxiety or nervousness I would go back, in my mind, to the mat. I began to step outside of my comfort zone a lot more often. I started to break down the walls. More accurately, I realized the walls weren’t real.

The next hurdle was something I wanted to do for a very long time. I wanted to give stand up comedy a shot. I have watched endless hours of stand up comedy live, on Netflix, and on line. I have always been fascinated with a comic’s ability to take every day life and create an intricate story. They do not just tell you a story, they make you feel like you’re living the story. They captivate you not by telling you something new but by telling you something you already knew but from a fresh, humorous perspective. Good comics take you on a journey, sometimes it lasts a minute, sometimes much longer. When they’re successful they get genuine laughter out whoever was in their crowd and making people laugh is one of the best feelings there is.

Many people are frightened by public speaking but performing is a whole new level of intimidating. You’re not just presenting information you are standing in front of a group of people and saying, “This is me. This is the art that I have created. I hope it was worth you taking time out of your life to come see.” If you suck, its because YOU suck. BJJ breaks down the physical aspect of your ego. Stand up comedy breaks down your very sense of who you are. Failure can be catastrophic if your ego is already fragile.

The first few times I went my anxiety was so high it took all my inner strength not to run out the door before they could call my name. I ordered double gin & tonics like a relapsing AA coin holder but they barely took off any edge. I would shake and even throw up in the bathroom before taking the stage in front of sometimes less than 10 people. But every time I would start to get the feeling of “RUN!” I would go back to the mat. I would control my breathing and find my center. I didn’t always succeed in making everyone laugh but I always learned. I learned to slow down. I learned to pace myself and fix my timing. I learned what other people found funny in the stories I would concoct in my mind. I gained more confidence.

A few weeks ago I competed in my first BJJ tournament in Kansas City. Competing in a tournament was something I never actually envisioned myself doing when I signed up to start training. I wanted to just spar with people I trained with each day. Nobody is out for blood in your local gym. Tournaments are a different beast. You do not know the people you are fighting. They don’t care about you as a person, they just want that gold medal and they might very well be fully willing to snap your arm in half to get it. One of the guys at my gym who was near my experience level asked me one day if I wanted to compete in the tournament and I decided I would just go for it and see how it went. I trained hard all summer and lost 25 lbs in preparation for the event.

When I got to the venue in Kansas City the morning of the event the reality of what I was getting myself in to started to sink in. I was going to compete in front of a large group of people including my parents and teammates and if I wasn’t fully prepared, it didn’t matter; I was fighting anyway. The tournament began and only moments later my name was called by the time keeper letting me know I was on deck to fight next. I stood on deck, adrenaline coursing through my veins, and I was starting to get tunnel vision. Only during my first in-flight emergency during a combat sortie over Afghanistan when I was in the Air Force had I ever felt that much adrenaline. One of my teammates stepped behind me and started rubbing my shoulders and telling me to breathe. I was gasping for air with hundreds of possible scenarios about what would happen once that match started going through my head. I wasn’t even watching the two competitors going at it two feet in front me. They might as well not have even been there. Then it hit me. I realized this is what it means to really feel alive. I wasn’t thinking about stress from work, relationships, or my future. I was fully living in the present, as cliche as that sounds. I wasn’t a spectator on the sidelines watching life happen. I was an active participant.

I didn’t win. I came in fourth. I was in a totally new situation and let my nerves dictate my breathing and pace. Next time I will have better control over myself and my emotions but I learned about myself and gained strength and confidence which will undoubtedly aid me in the future.

If your routine is designed to be safe and boring, so to will your life become. You can’t keep doing the same things each and every day and expect your life to get better in 6 months or a year. The pattern of thinking you develop and subsequently the way you see yourself cannot change without a shock. Then you realize a punch in the face isn’t the end of the world. That’s when the world starts to get bigger. Bigger for you, anyway. I embraced the anxiety and channeled that energy in to something positive which has had an immeasurable amount of positive impact in my life. Next time I find myself being scared to go after what I want I will just go back to the mat, breathe, and dive in head first. Who can blame me?

*Title is a quote from Chuck Palahniuk

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