Fight, Write, Love
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Fight, Write, Love

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Gone with the Flow

Stakeholders change their minds on what they want. A big project requirement is missing in the final deliverable. A vendor misunderstands the specs and builds something different from what was briefed. Something gets lost in translation with a team member overseas. The site goes down on the biggest sale date of the year.

After five years of working full-time in retail technology and being at the mercy of larger corporate dynamics as well as smaller team dynamics, you’d think I’d be more unfazed by sudden changes and comfortable with ambiguity. I’m not.

To use a less business-example: my whole Tex-Mex (Mex-Tex?) trip has been an exercise in confronting and managing through the unexpected in big ways and small ones. Gym hours changed on account of COVID curfews in Mexico, forcing a change in training schedules. The scale I’d been using to check if I’m on weight mysteriously disappeared from the fitness center of my hotel. The venue of the American Nationals tournament changed at the last minute to a more distant venue — forcing a total shift in Texas hotels and car rentals and overall weekend planning. I ordered a cappuccino but was misheard by the barista and ended up with a focaccia (and not a gluten-free one). One of the great, refreshing things of this trip is not being alone in having to solve the problems and navigate uncertainty — I’m in the company of fellow problem-solvers who are also expert improvisers.

While things not going to plan is a part of life on earth, I absolutely hate when things don’t go according to plan. Positively hate it. I make a living by planning well, by being good at identifying risks and safeguarding against them — having to re-plan feels like a failure to have done my job. As I’ve said more eloquently in other posts, my job done well is to put structure around chaos, to be the planner around the gnarly and unplannable thing — and to be the fixer when things go wrong. Like many people Type-A people, I’d rather be proactive than reactive, to have planned well rather than to have to triage later.

My favorite ‘fixer’ on television: Olivia Pope from ABC’s ‘Scandal,’ with her trademark catchphrase.

In many ways, jiu-jitsu teaches me the things I most need to learn in other areas of my life. This is one of the reasons that I continue to stick with the sport: it shows me — plainly, bluntly, and without any gentle filter — the things I most need to work on as a person. If there is one thing that has been consistently true in my last three-plus years of training, it’s the belief that if I figure out the thing that is most eating me in jiu-jitsu, I will become a better person on the other side of solving that problem, both on and off the mat.

One of those big things that has eaten at me over the years is adaptability — relinquishing control, being able to go with the flow, and (gracefully, if possible) handling any bump, bruises, and hiccups that life throws at me at every turn.

Any progress I’ve made on being adaptable in my professional life is attributable to jiu-jitsu, because the need to be adaptable effectively defines the sport.

Some of my educators in adaptability while in Mexico City — from my final training session in Mexico on December 1, 2020

Jiu-jitsu constantly puts you in physically — and mentally — uncomfortable situations. Your control of a position can disappear in the blink of an eye. A well-timed reaction of your opponent sabotages your best-plan to a finish. Your opponent gets out of your perfect chokehold (or so you thought). You get squashed with an immobilizing cross-face from side control. You get your back taken and or your arm armbarred. A sore neck or injured knee forces you to change the way you move and play your game.

The competitors who game plan well and drill a lot and work to dictate the terms of a match — by their first grip, by their first move, by their setting of pace — tend to do well, but it’s still not a guarantee of their success for these reasons. So long as there’s still time on the clock, there’s a chance to turn the tide. One move and a few seconds can shift an entire match into a completely opposite and unexpected direction.

Competitions aside, the need to adapt still applies in the training room — arguably more so when there’s less control for weight, gender, age, size, and skill level (which a tournament tends to control for and regulate a bit). Your opponent could be bigger, stronger, more explosive, more experienced, and more athletic than you. Your opponent could be smaller, quicker, more flexible, more technical, and more agile than you. It doesn’t matter either way — you have to find a way to use your own characteristics to get an edge and reach a dominant position.

I’m not fluent in adaptability. At best, adaptability and I are about as chummy and comfortable with one another as two middle schoolers at a dance: an arm’s length apart, awkwardly stepping in nervous rhythm together. Maybe a year or two from now, we’ll reluctantly embrace each other and become able to dance a simple, studied waltz. Five years from now, perhaps, we’ll be dancing the tango, bending and swaying through ups and downs with fluid, artistic ease. One day, I hope to reach a full state of comfort in improvisation with adaptability — like Margot seems to in every movement of her game and her life.

Until then, I focus on managing the few things that are truly within my control: myself and how I react to a situation, striving toward being incrementally more graceful in both, and with an eye toward eventual mastery of the life-defining dance.

Bonus: another creature in life who serves as an education in adaptability: Snickers, who is being expertly beloved and cared for by Buggie while I am on this adventure. More content about Snickers in this first post here and this second post here.

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A personal capsule newsletter from Erica Zendell

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Erica Zendell

Erica Zendell

Quitter of the corporate grind in favor of the open road, a writing career, and a whole lot of jiu-jitsu. Currently writing from San Diego.

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