Untangling Complex Situations: Stay Calm and Overcome Life's Obstacles

(Clark Gracie remaining cool under pressure | John Lamonica)

(Clark Gracie remaining cool under pressure | John Lamonica)

"Every battle is won before it’s ever fought."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

While being crushed by a training partner in a sparring match, I was reminded of how the martial arts has helped me to understand tough situations. Life is a series of patterns; though seemingly distinct, under the surface, they function under the same rules: What is my problem and what is my solution?

Life can get complicated, strategies help you overcome them.


The capacity to gain an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of a person, thing, or idea; to see what is invisible to the eye.

Visualizing the Abstract Into Physical Reality

If the conditions were clear, it would cease to be a predicament. When I am lost in one of life's situations, it helps me to visualize the situation as physical reality. To pare it down to the most primitive because it is nearly always primitive: This matters to me because of food, shelter, love, security (which can also be ego and fame), and money (which can help me meet all my other primitive needs).

The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in so far as it stands ready against the accidental and the unforeseen, and is not apt to fall.
— Marcus Aurelius

And often, it feels like we're tangled up like a pretzel in a wrestling match. And if we were tied up, these are the questions we should be asking:

  • How do I get out of this?
  • How do I stop this from happening again?
  • How do I get myself to a better position than I started?

Gaining Ground

Strategy is a form of territorial procurement: Gain new pieces, protect old pieces, and accumulate. Often, this is incremental; in the case of jiu-jitsu: Acquire all of your opponent's territory until there is no other recourse but to submit. If jiu-jitsu were a board game, your body, and your opponent's body would be the two halves of the board.

But board games are unrealistic in that you get turns. In real life, you do not necessarily get that luxury. All your turns can be taken from you; you have to fight like hell just to get a turn. A hard-learned lesson from my judo days: If your opponent gives you the opportunity, take it. If they don't, then make the opportunity and take it.

Whatever the given situation, do not expect fairness. If fairness is present, consider it a bonus, but don't plan for it. Instead, prepare for the possibility that it will not be fair. Accumulate ground, slowly and methodically. If opportunities come quickly, let it be a matter of course. If you are greedy, you will rush, leading to poor decisions and avoidable mistakes.

A Race Is the Worst Analogy

Imagine that your goal is to lose weight. You will rush if you consider it a race. However, you cannot go backward in a race. In that way, nothing in life is like a race. In nearly all circumstances, you can lose ground; in a race, because there is no concern for losing ground, the only concern is speed. The goal is to end it as quickly as possible, to get to the definitive end. That is the illusion; most aspirations have no definite end; you keep doing it daily, and then, perhaps, pass your intents to someone else to keep it going.

From Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art:

Once in Granada ... we stumbled into a towering old church that was being restored. The place, once majestic, was a dusty, debris-strewn construction site. We climbed over the sawhorses and began talking with the lone workman ... . He was stringing the church with electricity. ... He then said that after he fixed the lighting he was going to repair all the stonework; then all the woodwork; then he was going to repaint all the frescoes. ... I said to him, ‘That should take you quite a long time, yes?’ He answered he could work at it every day until he was ninety, and if he didn’t finish it, someone else would.
— Stephen Nachmanovitch

The Long Middle

Since you can gain your weight back, or even more weight than before, and there is no point when you will ever be done with eating, it is, therefore, nothing like a race. It is a strategic lifestyle where there is no other conclusion than death. Therefore, the objective is not the end, but to prolong the middle for as long as possible. That runs counter to a race, where you rush through the middle to get to the end, which is why a race is the wrong analogy.

Maintain the course for the rest of your life. The more daunting and overwhelming that sounds, the better because the increasing of the "rest of your life" is what you are after. If it were easy, then the race to the end is a short one. Life should be a slow indefinite climb.

First Ask Yourself

Rather than: When is this over? Ask yourself: What do I have to gain? What can I lose? How can I keep this up? Can I build momentum? Furthermore: What do I need to accomplish this objective? What pieces must I accumulate? What is the most vital component in overcoming this obstacle? To get to the next steps, what do I need to do first? What is the most efficient path? And finally: How hard am I willing to fight for this?

What is the Center

No matter how alien the situation, the keystone to victory is controlling the center. Whether it is the ring, a map, or in the case of jiu-jitsu, the hips. The center is the fulcrum where actions create leverage. Then you must know better than anyone, what are your central values? If you are an entrepreneur, what are the fundamental values of your business? What is your core product? The expression of your values can change, but your core values are what gives future ideas the ability to pivot. The business must have a soul; it is the platform for creativity that gives all endeavors purpose.

The key to good technique is to keep your hands, feet, and hips straight and centered. If you are centered, you can move freely. The physical center is your belly; if your mind is set there as well, you are assured of victory in any endeavor.
— Morihei Ueshiba

Case Study: Lego

The behemoth known as Lego was once bleeding millions of dollars a day. It had lost its soul, its core values, its core product, and lost its touch with its core audience. It had stores, clothing lines, theme parks, and products unrelated to its puzzle pieces. In 2004, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp took over as CEO and directed the company back to its core product, the puzzle pieces, and its core value of making a cohesive toy universe.

Lego is now the world's top toymaker, setting record profits. All of their other ventures push their core product: the puzzle pieces. What is the Lego Movie? A brilliant two-hour long Lego commercial.

Case Study: Pivoting

Lisa Maki started a health start-up called PokitDok — a doctor in your pocket. The premise was to create a better doctor-patient relationship, improving channels of communication, transparency (especially with billing), and ultimately, more efficiency in the disorganized backend of medicine. They began with a product geared for consumers, but consumers had trouble understanding the product. Maki had to consider, was this the most efficient path to improving the doctor-patient relationship? Was her first product idea living up to the mission of her company? She had to be honest with herself, and she knew this wasn't it.

PokitDok pivoted. Who would instantly understand her product? The healthcare industry. PokitDok spoke their language. Moreover, who controlled the patient experience? That was in the hands of the health care professionals. When Maki pivoted to business-facing, her little start-up took off. It makes sense that a business that organizes messes would thrive when it was working with the mess, directly. PokitDok was finally where it belonged.

Find your center, protect it, and never forget it. It is like having a compass and knowing where the middle of the map is, at all times.

From the Other Perspective

The philosophy of the dojo: If you want to best your opponent's strength, you must first get good at their strength. Like an FBI profiler: Know the point of view of the suspect, if you want to catch the suspect. To get past my opponent's defenses, I must understand what tools my opponent has available. To create strategies to stop my opponent from getting past my defense, I must anticipate my opponent.

Study their playbook. As masterful as Michael Jordan was on offense, he was just as skillful on defense. Mike Tyson, in his prime, would hit like a truck, but in defense, he was as elusive as a sports car. To only know your own playbook gives you no advantages.

It is difficult to know yourself if you do not know others.
— Miyamoto Musashi

If I wanted to improve my internet security, I would ask myself:

  • How would I hack into my own company?
  • How would hackers do it?
  • Could I hire people to try to break into my system?

Then I would take what I had learned and integrate it into my business. No different than a restaurateur who secretly dines in her own restaurant (as well as competing restaurants), to better understand the customer experience.

If I wanted to be healthy, I should ask myself: If I wanted to be unhealthy, what should I eat? Then I would avoid all of those foods. It would also become more apparent whenever I was working against my own intentions.

If I wanted to live a more fulfilling and happy life, I would ask myself: How would I ruin someone else's life?

  • I would mess with their finances.
  • Trick them into spending too much.
  • Tell them to live a selfish life.
  • Make them avoid social interactions.
  • Add unneeded stress.
  • Tell them to avoid building resilience — to avoid hard work and only do what they like.
  • Sabotage their education.
  • Tempt them with unhealthy habits and indulgences (drugs, excessive alcohol).
  • Do everything for them then one day abruptly stop, setting them up for defeat.
  • Anything to make them blind, stupid, and deaf to the world — making certain that their personality would deter anyone from helping them.

Then to live a more happy life, I would cultivate all the opposite traits — becoming a contrarian to suffering.

Life decisions can be confusing, seeing it from the opposite perspective can make clearer the advantages and disadvantages. When I think through the opposing motivation, I can see choices that mortgage long-term happiness for immediate gratification, that I would not normally see.

Cautionary Tales

There is no need for strategy if there are no restraints or possible negative outcomes. You do not need a strategy to get a drink of water. You go and get it. If someone were blocking you from getting that water, well now you need strategy. Success stories inspire you, but cautionary tales teach you.

I either win, or I learn.
— Nelson Mandela

Learning happens in error, in trial and error. Emotions gain from success; the brain gains from failure. And if the task is particularly challenging, there may only be cautionary tales (until the first person accomplishes the task).

Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.
— Sun Tzu

Win before a move is ever made. Make things better before they have had a chance to get worse. It becomes easier to know what to do when you already know what not to do. If you look from the opposite point of view, you can predict what might go wrong. However, that only makes it less difficult, which is why grit, determination, and improvisation are essential.

Motivation is Cheap

Motivation is cheap and plentiful; knowledge is rare and powerful. What we so often lack is practical knowledge and planning. We think throwing more motivation at a problem will do something, but motivation is like a multiplier for knowledge. If knowledge is zero, then zero times ten is still zero.

We all have things we want; what most of us are missing is how to get there. Every prize fighter is motivated to win; the job of the trainer is to give them that much-needed instruction. Wisdom is the combination of knowledge and experience, execution and know-how.

Remaining Calm

Avoiding strategy and preparedness begets anxiety. Those who remain calm under pressure are those who anticipate the unexpected. We all want peace and happiness, and nothing can surpass the level of peace one gets in knowing they have done everything in their power to meet the challenge. Thinking only of the bright side temporarily creates relief in the absence of confidence. But if you have confidence, that there is nothing more to be done, then you will have no need for motivation and positive thinking. Those are attempts at strengthening belief, but confidence comes from knowing.

Be comfortable with the uncomfortable. This will come with experience. The fear of discomfort is worse than the discomfort itself. Motivation is helpful initially but do not fall in love with it; motivation is like training wheels when you lack experience. Training wheels help when you fear falling off, you take them off when you know you won't.

Reverse Engineer and Deconstruct

A fighter may come up with a new technique that confuses everyone and takes them by surprise. The first step in solving this new puzzle is to reverse engineer it. In jiu-jitsu, this is commonly known as a breakdown. Start with the final product, then figure out all the parts involved and the steps to get there.

In detective novels, the writers often start at the end, the impossible situation, then outline a feasible way to get the protagonist to the outcome. Sprinkle in foreshadowing and clues; the audience holds their breath until the very end.

You cannot control luck, but reverse engineering a process can help you gain an understanding of the meaningful. What is needed? Why did this succeed? And why did this other thing fail? Where do I want to go? What are the essential steps to get there?

I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.
— Steve Jobs

When I look at someone I admire, I look at their reading list, the books they read, rather than looking only to the book they wrote. I want to know their influences. A young man asked me if reading a book by a famous samurai would make him more like that samurai. I told him no because that samurai did not read books about samurais; he studied philosophy, poetry, and art. Can you be like Steve Jobs without knowing Socrates?

Deconstruction illuminates the invisible sap that binds success. Is there a mystery? Deconstruct it. Are you puzzled by a situation? Reverse engineer it. The hard part was putting it together. You have the easier task of taking it apart and finding the answers you seek. Problems give way to formula.

Case Study: Apple

Apple is now the most powerful company in the world. What are their core products? The iPhone and iPad. What are their products like? A screen with one noticeable button. (Which, now, every other competitor mimics.) What is exemplified by this simple design? Rather than focusing entirely on function, they paid particular attention to who they wanted to use their product. Initially young people (they would spread it to everyone else and continue to use it as they aged), for lovers of simplicity, minimalists, utilitarians, and those who wanted to break away from the status quo of technology, which, at the time, was overly complicated and targeted for the most technical of users.

Apple injected much-needed design and marketing. Now most of us can use tech without having to understand it, blurring the line between technophile and lay. Technology is no longer exotic but ubiquitous.

Now, more than their products, people know Apple. People buy Apple because it's Apple, not because they need the product or know how it works. That is trust. That is branding.

In reverse engineering, you figure out the key components. Someone else already did the heavy lifting for you. But do not fall in love with the specifics. Now everyone knows the importance of design. What Apple did was fill a void. Rather than doing what everyone else is doing, figure out where your talents would best be served? Where are the gaps? Find them and bind them with sap.

Collective Power

Someone uses a new move at a tournament to devastating effect; thousands of schools and millions of individuals will study the technique, working on their own solutions. Not all of them work. Not all of them are good. Many will get weeded out; some will get improved. Then the remaining few get refined and polished. Eventually, the best solutions appear in small tournaments, this is the social proof, the tipping point. Then it proves itself in the big tournaments, everyone is doing it.

Just as the original technique spread in popularity, so does its counter. That does not mean the original technique is useless, as it, too, will continue to be sharpened. This is learning on a massive scale; millions of computations that would have taken an individual countless lifetimes occur in a matter of weeks.

There is no one master; don't trust any one authority. The difference in science and pseudoscience is in the proof. Once a pseudoscience collects enough scientific evidence, it will no longer be considered a pseudoscience; it will just be science. This requires a collection of truth seekers; pseudoscience only needs one truth seeker (and their word becomes the truth).

Brazilian jiu-jitsu teachers are known to say, they will learn from a white belt (and there are times that they do). When the question is: How will this move work in an infinite amount of situations? Then every individual in a school can add to the data — their unique insight and creativity (albeit not all equally). What is already known adds nothing to the mix.

Go For It

No solution can rise to the top unless people go for it. Fear of failure stifles progress and innovation. What is beta-testing? Finding flaws for the next improvement. What is the lesson of failure? The flaws for the next improvement. Beta-testing and failure are one and the same; they accumulate information. From this information, we gain understanding. When we get fixated on ideas in the absence of evidence is when it turns superstitious.

Just as college degrees are helpful, modern companies are also looking for resilient applicants who can operate when conditions are imperfect. To have a successful idea is to risk being wrong and the willingness to learn from it.

Perfectionists neither make good leaders nor team players. They want the world to conform to their ideals.  Strategists adapt ideas to match the world. Not "my way" but "the best way."

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.
— Voltaire

Do Not Get Paranoid

Be willing to share ideas and learn. Yes, there's a small chance someone could take your idea, but no one can take your execution. Was Facebook or Uber the best ideas? Were they the first? It does not matter. They were the easiest to use, the most convenient and reliable. That could not have happened without constant testing.

If you keep your ideas to yourself, it will never get better. Like a prisoner with travel plans; he will never go anywhere. Create a team (or support group), test ideas and get feedback. Improve. Get more input. Improve some more. In Japanese, this is called kaizen, the philosophy of continuous improvement. If you do not, I am reminded of a motto shared in both biology and mixed martial arts: Evolve or die.

Paradoxically, the man who has failed and one who is at the peak of success are in exactly the same position. Each must decide what he will do next, choose the course that will lead him to the future.
— Jigoro Kano

If an idea does not work, learn from it. Learn as a group. People are not your rivals; they are your best assets. The world needs people to keep trying so the best ideas can rise to the top. The more you try, the more you associate with others who try, the better your odds of success — the better your odds of having a better idea.

Be Efficient, Tenacious, and Humble

Control what you can control and forget about what is not actionable. If it is broken, fix it. If it is not broken but can work better, fix it (because nothing lasts forever). Do not distract yourself with goals, focus on improving methods. Can you streamline? Can you delegate and outsource? What is the current system? If there is no system, create one.

Be many things at once. Like water and a rock: free flowing but hard when you need to be. Make things easier without expecting things to be easy. If things are easy, that is a blessing but be prepared in case it is not.

When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you until it seems that you cannot hold on for a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time when the tide will turn.
— Harriet Beecher Stowe

When we stick to only one way, one type of insight, when we cling to our ideas, we become out of balance and extreme. (Only water or only a rock.) This creates an environment of sameness — a perfectionism of sameness. This only leads to the oppression of new ideas.

In science, it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should because scientists are human, and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
— Carl Sagan

Improve your ideas, improve yourself, improve your system, then listen to others and see it from a different point of view. Prepare to compete against other approaches and see which is better, and why. If theirs is better, adopt it. And if you see a way to improve this method, then do so.

Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.
— Miyamoto Musashi
Pavel Bojar from the Czech Republic competes against, and beats, the elite level in sumo

Pavel Bojar from the Czech Republic competes against, and beats, the elite level in sumo

How does a smaller man beat a bigger man? How does a bigger man lose to a smaller man? It is a difference in efficiency and tenacity. It is humility and process vs. ego and results. Always having to fight hard creates resilience; never having to fight hard creates fragility. The one who wins is the one who keeps a cooler head; he has the advantage of knowing he has been here before and has survived it.

Create Your Own Manual for Success

Understand the things you need to accumulate; learn from the perspective of the other, reverse engineer it and break it down. Use their manual to write your own, then try multiple solutions and figure out what works, gather sufficient data, then refine it and fight for it. Scrutinize your process then come up with better solutions.

The nature of trying is a balance of knowing and uncertainty. The more you know, the more you will see how there is more you do not know. Knowledge is like a door, and every time you open one door, you will see further than before, but you will also find more doors. Even when you do everything right, a situation can still remain unclear. This is neither right or wrong; this is life.

If you understand, things are just as they are; If you do not understand, things are just as they are.
— Zen Proverb

Strategies help, but there are no guarantees. Luck is no small part of success, but you will never get lucky if you never try. These are attempts to save you time, but learning happens in the attempts.

Act without expectation.
— Lao Tzu

Strategies for possible outcomes creates preparedness. Practice and evolving methods create readiness, and experience builds confidence. The unexpected for others will be the expected for you. While others panic, you will remain calm, ready to provide answers and possible solutions. You will not look to be a leader, but others will look to you for leadership. Situations like these are plentiful in life. Prepare yourself.

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