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, bypass, or workaround that increases productivity and efficiency. 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.

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 jiu-jitsu instructor, Rubens "Cobrinha" Charles Maciel, told me to be a good martial artist, figure out what's bothering you, then figure out a way to stop it and prevent it from happening again. Cobrinha is one of the most accomplished grapplers in the world. As a teacher, even the seemingly simple is time-consuming and complex. Perhaps this is what makes him so technical. Explain it simply, but train it technically. Rather than emphasizing simplicity, be so technical that the complex is made to look simple.

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.

Simple and easy are often ineffective in the world of objective reality—known as combat. What might look easy often takes years of practice. Simplicity 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 a simplistic novice and the simplicity of the expert. Through experience, I have learned these things are not the same.

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

As an advanced student, I had come to believe that if something was difficult, I was doing it wrong. Enough previous teachers had said as much—and it's true, but within reason. I remember a time when I was having difficulty with a particular move. Technically I was there, but it wasn't seamless or smooth—or easy. I asked Cobrinha for help. He asked me to show him the technique, so I grabbed my partner who was giving me the hardest time with the 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 to 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, and it worked a lot better. And eventually, it became second nature.

What Can I Control?

What's in my control? What's actionable? If it's not actionable, I shouldn't use surplus energy worrying about it. I need my mental stamina for other decisions. I must prime my mind for the things that matter, those take priority. If I'm out of mental stamina, I'll put it off. But there is no procrastination, we're deciding not to decide, and that's still draining.

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 Rocky's character—lacking in everything else, even the faith of his trainer, Rocky falls back on tireless effort.

Hey, kid—you ever think about retiring?
— Mickey
— 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 sucked (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)

There is a common message among a variety of classical cultures: "Burn your boats," "Burn your bridges," "Burn your homes." The common theme? If you save something for retreat, you will perish. You must triumph.

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

I had a habit of always saving something for my trip back home. It's about opportunity, and sometimes there won't be a chance to fight another day. You either stay and fight or you run and die. If you win, you live. But you can't win if you don't fight. Unlike the training hall, in real life, sometimes we only get one shot. Second chances matter... if you're lucky enough to have them.

Practice is supposed to make life easier. I was practicing in a way that systematically diseased my spirit. Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent. I was cultivating my technique but ignoring my character. I was making weakness a permanent feature of who I was. 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 a fight, when you're much better than your opponent, they'll give you openings you can exploit. That's evolutionary efficiency: 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'll have to fight for everything. You'll have to earn success.

Looking Down on Effort

We look down on effort and praise perfection. "Why are you trying so hard?" I believed perfection was about being effortless. That perfection was innate, and the things that took effort were unnatural, and therefore inferior (this was the thinking of my diseased spirit). We get stuck in these faulty models of thinking. In school, we believed compliments about ourselves were valuable, and compliments on our "efforts" were insults. You're not special if you achieved something through effort. Anyone can do that. We want to know that we're immutably better than others. "No contest. I'm better, and that's it, and it doesn't matter what you do." We believe what we want to believe, and who wants to believe you become special when you can believe you were born special? We want the path of least work. That's the rub, that's our ego talking, it makes us fall for a dangerous lie, the lie of effortless perfection. However, effort implies that what we do makes all the difference. Our lives are in our control. It kills ego, but it gives us something better in return—hope.

A martial artist isn't born special, they become special—through practice. When you start on your journey, effort is your only tool. It's the thing of value, it's the thing within your control. What is perfect technique without heroic effort?

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

In mythology, a hero is the one who puts up the greatest effort. It's a universal story, it's in our DNA to appreciate it. Man or woman, banker or janitor, it's why the analogy of the fight makes sense to us on some intuitive level. It's not about violence, what we relate to is the effort. 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, "How will you react when you know things aren't going to be easy—that things can get scary and uncomfortable?" We understand, sometimes our only option is to try harder, and that is noble. This does not negate being smarter, but that's a given. Humans look for efficiencies, that's what we do, often to avoid the work. Hard work is what needs to be added back in.

A Sparring Match Is Objectivity

Why do martial artists spar? It's instant feedback and trial and error. It's the same reason labs run experiments and companies run tests. There are ways to fast track, there are tricks and hacks for every situation. Better and quicker, that's efficiency. And without efficiency, a small martial artist could never beat a large martial artist. However, the student who always looks for shortcuts tends to lose the majority of the time. Author George Leonard ironically calls these students the "hackers."

Quicker is only good if it's better but sometimes slower can be better than quicker. In the stock market, the right moves always beat the quick moves in the long-run. And in the game of life, we're all in it until the end—and eventually, all the wrong moves come to haunt us. If you've ever played a video game, it always makes sense to spend more time going for the better weapons than to go for the easy, quick weapon. In a war game, one nuke might take longer to build, but it'll beat your opponent's fifty machine guns. In the game of life, spending the beginning properly learning the fundamentals (regardless of the subject) will save you the most time later on. This is an advantage because most other people will have to redo their work and relearn the fundamentals.

In the context of mastery, hacking would be something to avoid. In a short time frame, hacking has its benefits.

Mastery – pouring all my energy into doing the thing.
Hacking – pouring all my energy into avoiding doing the thing.

And for the sake of speed, it is sometimes necessary to avoid doing the thing. Imagine a project where you are short-staffed, but you are a week away from the deadline. It would have been better to have started with a bigger staff, but with only a week left, even if you were to get the extra people you needed, it would cost you more time to train them than they could save. You have to find a workaround to get the project done with the people you have. Decisions are not black or white, you must decide for yourself what is appropriate. But mastery is the rule, and you must first understand the value of the rule before you break it. And if you break it, break it like a master and not as a fool. And a master determines his constraints before deciding on the best outcome.

But in an objective head-to-head match, it is the master who 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 are we looking for shortcuts because we don't want to work? Are we looking for methods that have real life effectiveness under duress, or do we like the idea of shortcuts regardless of whether they work well or not?

Hacking can sometimes be based on poor reductionism: looking at an event through a fragmented prism and trying to identify the key factors. Sometimes we reduce it down to the wrong thing or assume it's one thing when it's multiple things. Or we look at the unintended consequence as the key factor, e.g., thinking hacking sleep down to three hours will make you a genius, because some geniuses sleep three hours. (A misguided form of hindsight bias.) But less sleep is often an unintended consequence of work. In fact, they are so smart, in spite of poor sleep, they maintain much of their mental bandwidth. (ER doctors aren't better doctors with less sleep, less sleep is an unintended consequence of their work.) When we do a three-hour sleep hack, rather than producing genius work, we make slop and reduce our life expectancy. This only creates more work. Following the incorrect path just because it exists is intellectual fool's gold, and it causes more problems than it solves.

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

For the sake of pride, we improve things that don't need improvement if it is easy. If improvement is challenging, we avoid it. Effort takes vulnerability, and our pride won't let us be vulnerable. Because when we fail without trying, we can tell ourselves, "Even though I wasn't successful, it says nothing about my talent since I wasn't even trying." And if we somehow succeed without trying, we can say, "I'm a genius! I was successful even without trying!" Without effort, you get little done, leaving it all to chance, but the ego remains firmly intact, to kill you again another day.

Leaving it to talent is still leaving it to chance. Perhaps you have talent at math, so you don't study for a test. But whether you pass or fail, the difficulty of the test is completely out of your control. You're at the mercy of the authors. In a martial arts tournament, the brackets are randomized. Even if you're good, if you don't prepare for the tournament, you're completely at the mercy of the draw. Think of inborn talent as a dial, but it's locked. You can't touch it. Effort is the only dial you can touch. If your talent is anything of value, you would know to crank effort all the way up. Life is a series of wagers. If you try, you lose nothing, and you increase your odds of success. If you don't try, you gain no advantages. One wager is clearly better than the other.

As we hack away to find what works, we unknowingly hack off pieces of our spirit. As a martial artist, it was easier to blame the technique—then it wasn't my fault. If I admitted that I wasn't trying hard enough, then I would be admitting that I was the problem. I'm the bottleneck. My judgment was clouded. 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'll regret, but we'll never regret having more strength, more determination, more willingness, more spirit, more resilience, and more character. Everything improves with effort, but it 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 improvement, how do we hack the human spirit? How do we hack excellence? Experience? Intangibles? Mistakes and life lessons? Childhood? Teen angst? First love? Unintentionally funny gifts and snow globe souvenirs? How do we hack happiness, fulfillment, and moral dilemmas? And all the friendships along the way? The unintended consequence of obsessive improvements is the lowering of overall life quality. We get so fixated on finding the easy way, we can sometimes lose sight of the obvious way—just doing it.

We want to avoid being there but don't. Just be there. In that moment.

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


Perseverance and effort are callings few will embrace. The lesson I've learned from martial arts is that efficiency is only important if it is effective. Not efficiency but effective efficiency is what matters. Practice, be technical in your endeavors and learn the proper systems and strategies. Then prepare to fight like hell. Practice is about increasing capacity—not only for technique but also for effort. Efficiency has its uses, but it is not a code of living.

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