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February 24th, 2023
The Fallen Dancer is a series here on Tinkered Thinking exploring a recent shift in perspective. The resulting framework appears to tie together many topics explored on Tinkered Thinking over the years such as resilience, struggle, patience, curiosity, emotional regulation, artistry, entrepreneurship, winning, honesty, and communication. This series will be an attempt to unify them in a cohesive treatment.
Part VII: Grappling with Circumstance
Ἡ βιωτικὴ τῇ παλαιστικῇ ὁμοιοτέρα ἤπερ τῇ ὀρχηστικῇ κατὰ τὸ πρὸς τὰ ἐμπίπτοντα καὶ οὐ προεγνωσμενα ἕτοιμος καὶ ἀπτὼς ἑστάναι.
How does an artist devoted to perfection grapple with inevitable imperfections, mistakes and setbacks in their work? Or in other words, how does a dancer get back up on their feet when they fall?
One way to answer these questions is to examine the differences between a plan and a strategy.
For our purposes, let’s imagine a plan as a static entity, like a blueprint that has been printed out and is intended to be followed.
One the other hand, let’s say a strategy is dynamic. It is like a set of guidelines that have been purposely designed to have flexibility in order to accommodate for unanticipated variables.
A plan imagines one future, whereas a strategy is something we use to navigate a plurality of possible futures. The main difference between hatching a plan and developing a strategy is that the mindset that develops a strategy is anticipating that some degree of the unknown will come into play. Whereas a plan seeks to eliminate all unknowns in favor of a completely determined future. This is why many people can get so bent out of shape when things don’t go according to their plan: they are suddenly face to face with the unknown and they don’t have a tool for dealing with it and they lose their cool. A plan is a type of story which limits perspective to notice only details that are a part of the plan. In contrast a well developed strategy will require a wider perspective, one that tries to imagine the unknown in general ways.
Another way to think about the difference between a plan and a strategy is to ask: when a dancer sets out a particular routine, do they plan on falling?
No. Of course not. Does a dancer have a strategy to deal with an unanticipated fall? Maybe. Perhaps they get up and try to catch up to the routine as fast possible, but regardless, the fall and the recovery will ultimately be a huge disappointment, a pock upon the performance, and even if the routine can be recovered, the fall will degrade the entire effort.
We must wonder: is there a type of dance where the dancer plans on falling? A type of dance that incorporates a strategy to deal with a fall in a way that actually helps the dancer and upgrades the entire effort? Is there a type of dance where a fall can actually be a type of hidden leverage?
Several years ago I found myself face-to-face with a guy whose biceps were about as thick as my neck. Personally, I’m not exactly a small, scrawny or weak guy - I’ve been a regular at the gym for years and my PR’s are far from mediocre. But this person I found infront of me was clearly far stronger than I was. The vein running down his bicep was as thick as my smallest finger, and I knew he could probably out perform me on every metric of strength.
But, within in about a minute, I had him down on the mat and forced him into a submission. He tapped my arm to signal that he gave up.
Within a few more minutes I had repeated the feat twice. Despite his overwhelming advantage of strength, I forced him into submission two more times.
The difference between the two of us wasn’t just one of strength: it was his first day at the Jiu Jitsu center where I had been training for two months. Just two months of training in the art of Jiu Jitsu had equipped me with the knowledge and the perspective that allowed me to swiftly bring down a guy far more powerful than myself. I had never thought much about martial arts, but Jiu Jitsu had completely changed my opinion on the subject. Jiu Jitsu isn’t about strength. It’s not even about knowledge of different positions or techniques. What I found so compelling about it is that is provides a different perspective: it’s a strategy of thinking. It’s a way and a practice of turning a fall into an advantage. The grappler plans on falling, and then uses it to their benefit. Brute strength is subservient to knowledge, skill and technique.
Knowledge, skill and technique sounds a lot like dancing, but unlike the performing dancer, the grappler has a larger perspective that incorporates setbacks and the unknown.
My next sparing partner that day was a young woman who was a foot shorter than me and perhaps half my weight. She tapped me out in seconds, and the belt around her waist was black.
Years ago I read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations but this was before my experience training in Jiu Jitsu. I didn’t pick up on the wisdom of a particular line the first time I read it, and when I reread the book with this grappling experience behind me, suddenly it lit up my mind in a profound way:
The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.
Again, the concept of luck is the best way to parse the difference here. Imagine for a moment a hypothetical: you place a dancer in a room with a grappler, and they are both told to perform their art with the partner they find in the room. The dancer tries to dance with the grappler but ends up knocked off their feet forced into submission.
Who is going to feel unlucky at the end of that exchange?
The premise is absurd if taken literally, but figuratively this is exactly what is happening to many people in life. The story that many people spin about the art of their life is more like dancing, and when they get knocked on their ass, they bemoan their bad luck. And yet, convinced that life should be like some kind of dance, people work up their courage to get back up on their feet only to be crushed by another event they can only label as bad luck.
Compare it to someone who looks at the art of life as grappling, wrestling or Jiu Jitsu. It’s not bad luck when such a person falls, it’s simply a change in circumstance, and the grappler knows that with the right perspective, that change in circumstance can probably even be used to their advantage.
At first glance it might be depressing to think of life as something to fight and force into submission, especially when compared to something as beautiful and enjoyable as dancing. But zoom out for a moment. Consider the process that took place for us to get to where we are. Evolution is a cut-throat process - the strong or the smart survive, and there are innumerable species that have gone extinct because they literally didn’t win the fight. What’s fascinating is that despite the abundant safety of civilization, if we pit the grappler and dancer mentalities against one another, the grappler appears to be far more useful, because even if you aren’t literally fighting for your life, you’re fighting against something else: regret. A life worth living is something hard earned, something that must be fought for, sometimes literally, but always figuratively. Even if it’s something as simple as fighting procrastination. A satisfying life requires effort, and it’s often a struggle. Certainly it requires a lot of effort to pull off a dance performance, but when it comes to navigating an unknown tomorrow, which mindset equips a parson better? Life as dancing, or is life a circumstance to grapple with?
Sam Altman once wrote “Resilience is so much more valuable than it seems. Get knocked down a bunch of times, get back up with more energy each time.” Who is more likely to get back up with more energy each time? The dancer or the grappler? The dancer is more likely to become demoralized, convinced they simply aren’t cut out for it. Whereas the grappler, who anticipates and intuits that falling is a vital part of the learning process can easily pop back up and start in on the next lesson.
Would you rather be like the young woman in Black Swan slowly going mad in the pursuit of perfecting an art? Or would you rather be like Muhammad Ali, effortlessly dancing around your opponent’s empty jabs? Ali was a dancer, but he was more than just a dancer, and he captured the distinction perfectly:
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.