Beyond Hacking: Why Trying Harder Matters

(Rocky and Mickey facing the great Apollo Creed)

(Rocky and Mickey facing the great Apollo Creed)

"O, do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks!"

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

A Brief Introduction to "Hacking"

Hacking – 1. any trick, shortcut, novelty method, bypass, or workaround that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life. Evolving over time; the usage now indicates ways to accelerate workflow and self-improvement. 2. the obsessive want of shortcuts. The dream of effortlessly perfect efficiency going mainstream.

No, maybe I can’t win, maybe the only thing I can do is just take everything he’s got. But to beat me, he’s gonna have to kill me, and to kill me, he’s gonna have to have the heart to stand in front of me, and to do that, he’s gotta be willing to die himself and I don’t know if he’s ready to do that.
— Rocky Balboa

Beyond Hacking

My instructor told me: to be a good martial artist, figure out what's bothering you, and then figure out a way to stop it and prevent it from happening again. My instructor is one of the most accomplished grapplers in the world, but with him, even the seemingly simple is time-consuming and complex. Perhaps this is what set him apart from other teachers.

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

In the world of combat, simple and easy were often ineffective. What may look easy often takes years of practice. The "simple" takes a countless number of steps. It is the expert who can see all the invisible rungs up the ladder. This is the difference between the simplicity of a novice and the simplicity of the expert. Through experience, I have learned they are not the same.

If Something Was Difficult, I Assumed I Was Doing It Incorrectly

I was having a challenging time with a new move. Technically I was there but it wasn't seamless or smooth — or easy. I asked my instructor for help. He asked me to show him, and I grabbed my partner who was giving me the hardest time with this move and we demonstrated. In mid-move, my instructor stopped me and asked, "What's bothering you?"

I considered our position and realized my partner had a grip on my left arm that was impeding my progress. My instructor told me to remove the grip, prevent him from getting the grip again, and then proceed forward.

I was looking for some trick, a way to bypass the problem. He wanted me to take the time to address the leakage, plug it up, and then go back to my original course of action. If it's not bothering me, then ignore it and keep moving forward. It made everything longer, it made everything a bit harder (until it became second nature), and it worked a lot better.

What Can I Control?

What's actionable? If it's not actionable, I shouldn't spend my time worrying about it. I need my mental stamina for other decisions. I must prime my mind for the things that matter, those take priority. There is no procrastination. We're deciding not to decide, and that's still draining — on us and our time.

It Won't Be Easy, You Have to Fight for It

Early in the first Rocky movie, the gristly trainer Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) has this exchange with down-and-out club fighter Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). It highlights the Rocky character trait; lacking in everything else, even the faith of his trainer, Rocky falls back on his tireless effort.

Hey, kid — you ever think about retiring?
— Mickey
No.
— Rocky
You think about it.
— Mickey

They'll resist you, your mind will resist. When I was new to jiu-jitsu, I told a black belt I was having a hard time with a move. He asked why. I said my opponent wouldn't let me do it.

He said,

Of course he wouldn’t let you. It’s a fucking fight! You have to fight for it!

I thought I was missing something, and I was, but it wasn't a technique or some secret sauce — it was the willingness to do what it takes even when it stings. (The will to fight!) I wanted things to be easy because I was naturally good at martial arts. But on numerous occasions, I was beaten by people with inferior technique, by opponents who were willing to save nothing for their trip back home.

O, do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks!
— Phillips Brooks

My Problem Wasn't Technical; It Was Spiritual

(Fire Man | Paul Chaloner)

(Fire Man | Paul Chaloner)

Burn your boats! Burn your bridges! Burn your homes! — The same message from multiple cultures: if you save something for retreat, you will surely perish. I had a habit of always saving something for my trip back home. Unlike the training hall, in real life, we seldom get more than one shot. Second chances matter but not nearly as much as the first.

Put them in a spot where they have no place to go, and they will die before fleeing. If they are to die there, what can they not do? Warriors exert their full strength. When warriors are in great danger, then they have no fear. When there is nowhere to go they are firm, when they are deeply involved they stick to it. If they have no choice, they will fight.
— Sun Tzu

Practice Makes Permanent

Practice is supposed to make life easier. I was practicing in a manner that was systematically weakening my spirit. I was cultivating my technique and ignoring my character. I had the wrong mindset, and it transferred to my regular life.

What if you’re practicing wrong? Then you get very good at doing something wrong.
— George Leonard, Mastery

In martial arts, when you're much better than your opponent, they'll give you openings you can exploit. That's efficiency in the evolutionary sense: Use all of your advantages and exploit the disadvantages of your opponents.

What happens when they're as equally skilled or better? They won't give you anything. You have to fight for it. You must earn it — with grit, sacrifice, and hard work.

Looking Down on Effort

I believed perfection was about being effortless. That perfection was innate, and things that took effort weren't nearly as good. We get stuck in these faulty thought cycles. In school, we believe compliments about ourselves are of value, and compliments on our "good effort" are insults. Anyone can apply effort, we can't use that to say we are immutably better than someone else. That's the rub; that's our ego talking — effortless perfection. I was missing the whole point. A martial artist isn't born special; they become special through practice. Initially, effort is their only tool. Then that is the thing of value. Perfect technique coupled with all-out effort is the aim.

The Analogy of the Physical Fight Make Sense to Us on Some Intuitive Level

How do you genuinely know yourself if you've never been in conflict? A fight is objective reality hitting you in the face and asking you, "How will you react when you know things aren't going to be easy, that things can get scary and uncomfortable?"

A Sparring Match Is Objectivity

It's instant feedback and trial and error. There are many tricks and "hacks" in martial arts just as with everything else. There will always be ways to make things better and quicker. It's efficiency and martial arts practicality is based on efficiency. Otherwise, a small person would never beat a large person. However, the student who always looked for shortcuts, tended to lose the majority of the time. Author George Leonard ironically called these students the "hackers."

In the context of mastery, hacking would be something to avoid. In the context of getting paid for done, people love hacking. But in the objective realm of a head to head match, it is the master who always prevails over the hacker. The hacker finds glory being better than the beginner, if there is any glory there to be had. Hacking in a sense is anti-practice. Do we need to practice everything? No. Many things aren't worth practicing, hacking gets us to the vital parts of the nonessential. Then what should we practice? The essential.

Are we looking for shortcuts because they work better or because we don't want to work at something? Are we basing hacks off of real life effectiveness under duress, or are we looking for them just because we like shortcuts? Whether they work well or not. (Hacking can often be based on poor reductionism, looking at an event though a fragmented prism and trying to identify the key actors. Sometimes we reduce it down to the wrong thing or assume it's one thing when it's multiple things. E.g., we may try to "hack" sleep to 3 hours a night because some geniuses of the past slept 3 hours. And rather than producing genius work, we may find we've just reduced our life expectancy. So we follow one incorrect path just because one exists, sometimes causing more problems than it solves. Intellectual fool's gold, the false promise of a better way.)

Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.
— Peter Drucker

Do we improve the things that don't need improvement because they are easy? And avoid the things that are challenging to protect our pride? "Even though I wasn't successful, it says nothing about my talent since I wasn't even trying." And if the gamble pays off: "I'm a genius! I was successful even without trying!" And the ego remains firmly intact in either scenario, saved to fight another day. As we hack away to find what works, we unknowingly hack off pieces of our spirit and character. In my example, it was easier to blame the technique — then it wasn't my fault. If I had to admit that I wasn't trying hard enough, then I would have to admit that I was the problem. Hard to see when ego clouded my mind. My ego was my worst roadblock, and I had to learn to burn it.

My opponent is my teacher. My ego is my enemy.
— Renzo Gracie

Beyond hacks, tricks, tips, coping methods, and different perspectives — there is life and it must be lived. There are an infinite amount of techniques, and not all of them will work. Some of them we will regret. We will never regret having more strength, more determination, more willingness, spirit, resilience, and character. Everything improves with these attributes, but they will not be easy to curate. Expertise is over techniques. Mastery is over yourself.

People ask if I hate my opponents; I don’t. I love them. They are the ones that actually make me bring the best I have.
— Renzo Gracie

If hacking is the quest for improvements in all walks of life, how do we hack the human spirit? Experiences and quality? Moments and intangibles? Mistakes and learning lessons? Childhood? Teen angst? First love? Unintentionally funny gifts and snow globe souvenirs? How do we hack happiness, fulfillment, purpose and moral dilemmas? And all the friendships we make along the way? The unintended consequence of improving everything, is to lower the overall quality. That's the rub, that's the irony. In overall improvements, we diffuse our effort. We get so fixated on finding the easy way, we can sometimes lose sight of the obvious way — trying harder.

Sometimes taking time is actually a shortcut.
— Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Summary

Warriorship by nature is a calling few will embrace. It's going to be difficult and full of challenges. The lesson I've learned from martial arts is that of effective efficiency. Practice, be technical in your craft and endeavors, and learn the proper tactics and strategies. Then prepare to fight like hell. Practice is about increasing capacity. Capacity not only for technique but also effort. Productivity has its place, but it is not a code of living.

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