Applying the Belt System to Life & Success – Are You A White or Black Belt?

How often do you pat yourself on the back? Probably not as often as you do it for other people. Belts in martial arts give us a chance to look back and contemplate our achievements.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has a built-in milestone system: the belt levels. Over the course of many years, practitioners progress from white through blue, purple, brown and black belts, and a very select few are able to accomplish and live long enough to earn a red belt. While belt promotion is an imprecise science at best, it does go some way toward helping practitioners perceive where they stand in relation to other practitioners.

More importantly, to my mind, belt levels help practitioners perceive where they stand in relation to themselves. In other words, getting promoted to a higher belt level helps a grappler recognize how far s/he has come. Very often in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, as well as in life, we focus on how far we have yet to go. That dissatisfaction and anticipation of what remains to be done are two of the things that help us improve and evolve. They also help us stay in touch with our humility, which anyone who trains – or wants to self actualize in any facet of life – can tell you is a vital skill.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s appropriate to look back and contemplate what we have been able to do. And getting promoted to the next belt level is a logical time to do this. A belt promotion is usually a very big deal in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, particularly as you progress in rank. While it might be technically true that a person who was a blue belt yesterday is the same person who gets promoted to purple belt today, there are psychological and practical differences. Just as when someone gets married, hits the big 3-0, or otherwise experiences a shift in identity, it’s a good time to take stock.

This means giving ourselves credit for what we have accomplished, despite the fact most grapplers feel after a promotion that the target on their back has just increased in size. Although, as I mention, belt promotions are not cut-and-dried, they do give us a tangible marker of where we are relative to where we used to be. So, even if we are not exactly where we want to be vis-à-vis our training, and even if belts do not mean the same thing across instructors, a promotion signifies we are farther along than we were before, and that means we must have been doing SOMETHING better. We are better than we used to be.

Taking time for this contemplation doesn’t even have to wait for a belt promotion. For instance, I still remember the first time, many years ago, that I got the mount on someone. Of course, about two seconds later I got reversed because I had no clue what to do next. But it felt like a huge accomplishment, as evidenced by the fact I still savor the memory. My point is, in our quest to become better and better versions of ourselves, as grapplers and as human beings, it is important to remember that one of the reasons to become better is so we can enjoy the betterness. So we can look to our own lives for evidence that “it,” whatever “it” is, just might be possible, and we have come just a bit closer to “it” as a result of our efforts.

It seems to me that’s worth some kind of acknowledgment. And maybe a celebratory cupcake.

And then it’s time to get back to the work, which, of course, is never done.

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