The Lion and the Shrimp: Turning Weakness Into Strength

(Lucha de Heracles con el león de Nemea | J.M. Félix Magdalena)

(Lucha de Heracles con el león de Nemea | J.M. Félix Magdalena)

Being called a "shrimp" is meant to mean we are weak, but learning how to use our weaknesses as our strengths is our greatest act of defiance.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Day one of martial arts, you lose a lot. If you can see from this the metaphor for control, you will improve by leaps and bounds. You can't easily control the actions of your opponents, you can, however, control your own actions. No matter how diminutive the beginner, if someone lays on top of them, they will try to lift them straight up. It's often futile, but attempting to control others is what occurs to most people. And if they can't control others, they feel like they've failed. Consider that for a moment, we only feel successful when we can control others and if we can't, we're failures. How debilitating is that? There will be many humbling lessons in martial arts.

The Shrimp and the Lion

If a rock fell on a shrimp, it would squirm to free itself. Its shape allows it to move in small spaces, to exploit any gaps. If a boulder fell on a lion, it will try with all its might to move the boulder, fighting like hell, until it died. We worship grit, but better problem-solving is also admirable.

How Can I Make This Better?

As the shrimp, you need to ask yourself: "How can I make this better?" The lions of our world don't have to concern themselves such things. If you're the biggest guy in the dojo, you can get away with poor technique. You can win matches even if your skills are inferior. The incentive to improve isn't urgent. If you're privileged or had everything handed to you, there may be no incentive to be resilient. If you're the "shrimp," lacking in resources (physical or financial), you must keep your wits about you. (I want to make clear, I am using martial arts as an analogy for effective thinking. What's useful about martial arts is, it's not theoretical, it's objective. There is no, "it might work or it might not." Either it works or it doesn't.)

Just as we would take financial advice from someone who made their money from scratch, in martial arts, the best teachers are often the smallest. Since the obstacles they overcame were greater, they have better insights into undervalued options, overlooked possibilities. This is how we must learn to think. We shouldn't have to be completely down on our luck to think about how to improve our positions in life. Sometimes it's by necessity, and sometimes it's because that's the better way to think.

When beginners are shown how they can scrunch themselves up and slide out, it's a light bulb moment. This technique is known as "shrimping." If given enough time to examine the position objectively, most people would realize that it would be easier for the smaller person to squirm out rather than moving the larger person on top. Yet this is not so obvious from the outset. From the position of being on bottom, we're scared, we panic, and when we panic, we make mistakes. We don't consider the differences between the actionable options from the nonactionable. We need poise to make clear-minded decisions. We must train our minds to see through the muck. What is actionable is you, not them. Change begins within.

What Is Fair?

(Skyscrapers | Unsplash)

(Skyscrapers | Unsplash)

A CEO of a million-dollar company told me how he got his start in the corporate world. He was a young intern at a prestigious company, among many interns. At the end of the internship, only one of them would get hired. On the last day, the company had a meeting with the interns. This question was posed: "How do we succeed in this hostile economic environment?" People raised their hands but the things they were saying weren't suggestions, they were complaints disguised as suggestions. "Well if the economy improves", "If peopled started buying more", "If the price of oil wet down", "If we elected a new president", "If people were more educated and schools were better," and this went on. The future CEO said this, "Well those are all things outside of our control. What we can do is look to optimize our own processes. Look to areas that we aren't so good in and see how we can make those things better." That's how he got his first job and that's the attitude he's kept as an entrepreneur. Yes, if all those things we wished would change did change, it would be a fair world. (Fairness, of course, is always subjective, usually based on our self-interests.) But this isn't about fairness. We are discussing, what we can do, not, what would be fair. If you're wrestling and you're the smaller person stuck on the bottom, what would be fair is no longer being the small person, or better yet, being the big person on top. Yes that sucks, but how is this helpful? How does this help us when we're in unfair situations?

If we listed all the things that need improvement, the list would be endless. If we narrowed the list down to only those things that were actionable by us, we would have a clear focus on where to spend our energies.

Think Like a Shrimp

(Walking | Unsplash)

(Walking | Unsplash)

In BJJ (Brazilian jiu-jitsu), instead of the being the lion, we're told to become the shrimp. Rather than ruling the jungle, rule yourself. As far as real life usefulness, a small animal that can wiggle themselves out of any situation, is more useful than an animal that survives through overwhelming power. (Cockroaches survived, dinosaurs did not.) Being called a "shrimp" is meant to mean we are weak, but learning how to use our weaknesses as our strengths is our greatest act of defiance. Isn't that the appeal of martial arts? The art of the shrimp defeating the lion? In the dojo, you're told to pretend every opponent is the biggest opponent you have ever faced. You're told to pretend you have no strength. Pretend you are exhausted. Pretend you are smaller than you are. What does that do? It exposes how well we have prepared our minds and our techniques. Is it up to the task? Your mind, your decisions are the most valuable. Prioritize those things first, because if we don't think about it, we may prioritize them last. (Which is why a teacher won't ask you to pretend to be dumber than you are.) We like knee-jerk response, first impressions, gut feelings, instincts, faith, love at first sight, natural ability. Anything we don't have to think about or work towards. But that's how we often make bad decisions. The ones benefiting from our missed opportunities are the good decision-makers. That's not fair but we chose that. And if we chose that, then it is fair. That's democracy.

The Lion Tamer

The "lion choke" in popular culture

The "lion choke" in popular culture

Many BJJ analogies revolve around beating the lion. The most dominant technique in BJJ is the choke from the opponent's back. We can attack our opponent and our opponent, no matter how large, cannot attack us back. This is the "mata leão," Portuguese for "killing the lion." This position is not attained through strength; it's gained through cleverness and redirection. It's easier to accomplish on larger opponents and tough to get on small "shrimps" who keep squirming. How the weak becomes the equal of the strong isn't by matching strength with strength. It is by redirecting the opponent's energy, using it against them, and striking when they are vulnerable.

In the wild, animals rarely fight larger animals. It knows better and if at all possible, it will avoid it. Even if it can somehow prevail, it's at great peril. Humans were able to defy nature and beat the natural order with their most significant advantage, their intellect. We can go beyond our instincts when we recognize limitations. Not only of ourselves but of our obstacles. When we ask ourselves, "How do we fix this?"

Heart of a Lion

The lion under the boulder will never give up. Its heart surpasses its abilities. It will try to move the unmovable to the point of death. No matter how futile, it's still inspiring. Learning how to do things — problem-solving — it's a skill. We can improve that. A character trait like tenacity is more elusive. We know it can only come from great struggle. This is why we respect it. It's why fighters fear opponents with iron wills. Sometimes big animals won't fight little animals if it's just not worth it. (A criminal picks victims who look like they won't fight back. A company will offer a refund rather than fight with a customer.)

Final Thoughts

(Urban | Unsplash)

(Urban | Unsplash)

The value of martial arts is converting our weaknesses into our strengths. It is not by coincidence many of our greatest innovations came from those who were physically weak. They constantly had to ask themselves: "How do I make this better? How do I make this work for me?" Not being blessed with brute strength or excess amounts of money might seem like a weakness, but what can grow from that is the ability to overcome. Rather than thinking, "What would be fair," ask yourself, "What can I do?" Recognize your limitations then figure out what to do with it. Don't focus on what you can't do, be the clever shrimp and focus on what you can do. Then like the lion, fight like hell for it!