I was walking back from a meeting with a colleague of mine one day. He had just received some rather hard-to-swallow feedback on the work that he had been doing from the CEO and some other senior executives over the course of that meeting, and by the time we got to the elevator he had settled into a mellow pout. Neither of us were really saying much; we were both letting his spanking kind of soak in. Until he spoke up:
“Hey, do you think could you beat [the CEO] up? Like, could you take him?”
I answered in the affirmative without hesitation. In general, the CEOs I’ve worked under have been tall and reasonably athletic, but never very skilled in hand-to-hand combat. I’ve been training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu since 2004, I worked as a boxing coach for a year, and I’ve spent a lot of time getting my ass beat by other mixed martial artists of various notoriety.
He was impressed by my quick response. “Wow,” he said. “You could just do that.”
Some of you reading this will think this conversation is the strangest thing ever — why would you ever even think to ask that question — and some of you will think it is the most natural thing in the world. It reminded me of another conversation I had about ten years ago, with some fellow Americans on a study-abroad program, where one of the more eccentric fellows was overheard talking about how he estimated that he was the “third strongest fighter on the study-abroad program.”
Again: Most of you will probably think something along the lines of “Who cares, and why are you sizing up each of your fellow students based on their estimated hand-to-hand combat abilities?”
My reaction was to wonder if he placed me at #1 or #2. Hmph. (For the fighting game heads out there: This guy was also a Virtua Fighter player.)
Why ask this question? Well, for my co-worker, it was obvious; he had been taken to task by the alpha male of the company, and his masculine pride was wounded. The conversation in that meeting felt like it might as well have been a brawl that he lost; in fact, it might as well have even felt worse. Losing an honest fight at least makes you feel like you were outclassed in some kind of actual, testable strength; getting spanked by a CEO is frustrating because, well, you probably could take him, and yet you’re sitting there getting dressed down. Business and work can be a proxy for combat the same way that football or soccer can be, and in that respect they can become even more vicious because they don’t have the built-in catharsis of actual fighting.
But I don’t, as a rule, walk into meeting rooms knowing I could beat up any given person in there, nor does that confidence empower me to swing my dick around in work environments, or with friends, or in any other situation. That’s the thing about strength and confidence born of training and hard work; you get there not by winning, but by losing. Losing over and over and over again to everybody. I’ve gotten my ass beat by professional fighters and professional lawyers and teenagers and middle-aged women. The wins are sweet, to be sure, but it’s the losing that builds confidence.
That’s because underneath the posturing and the sizing-up is fear. Fear that you will lose, and in losing become worthless. My co-worker was afraid that his worth and value had been diminished in that meeting; my fellow student was afraid that his group status was threatened by the presence of other, stronger people. But the thing that we learn in practicing martial arts is that losing that makes you stronger. Losing is not to be feared, it’s to be embraced.
I think about this in my relationships with other people, where I try to extend trust where others might be afraid. I think about this as an American, seeing our country try to drown our fear in guns, bombs, and bases. And I think about this as a biracial man trying to navigate my own privilege and politics.
My strength comes not from the confidence in knowing that I can beat anyone up; it comes from knowing that I can take a few (dozen) punches and I’ll still be just fine. And I think that’s the strength that brings me some personal peace and calm that I lacked as a younger man (and I suspect I’m not alone there). Because the secret about getting punched is that it doesn’t hurt that much! It’s the shock and the fear of getting hit that’s the scary part.
And so, to me, being strong and getting stronger is not about being able to dominate or intimidate people. It’s about being more graceful with others; about quieting the fearful voices in my head that interpret a challenge or criticism as disrespect; about freely giving others the trust and the space to do things that could end up hurting me, because I know that I am strong enough to be hurt.