What If?

Lessons in Hacking Myself from Wushu

Starting wushu was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. I have a really fun way to express myself, keep fit, make new friends, reduce stress, learn more about my body… I keep finding new ways to appreciate this sport and have completely fallen in love with it. I get to learn swords, spears, and staff and I’ve always been fascinated by kung fu and swordsmanship.

I didn’t always feel this way. There were times along my journey that I questioned whether or not I was doing the right thing. I had a moment where I realized this was not going to make me a badass MMA fighter; it’s an exhibition sport (ok I never went that far, but I did expect it to be more of a contact sport). I’ve gotten ill and feared going back because of the loss of flexibility and endurance from nursing a cold on my ass for two weeks. I’ve questioned whether or not it takes time away from something more important that I need to do. I’ve questioned whether or not its just being selfish. I question myself a lot.

It was around the time I tested for my green belt that I started to get how wushu works (for me, anyway). I had been concentrating on the wrong things. I had my sifu, coaches, and peers telling me things to change to make my forms better. This was information overload to me—I could see the black belt students training and I could see my own results and the things they were telling me to correct were not the only things I was “doing wrong.” I quite often became frustrated by their input. It wasn’t that it was unwelcome, I just didn’t think I had the bandwidth to process it.

The epiphany tried to present itself multiple times but I wasn’t aware enough to catch it until I turned my first perfect cartwheel. That’s when I knew, without anyone telling me, I did it right.

It felt right. I landed it perfectly and stood there in self-stunned silence for a moment. I’ve stunned myself several time with this sport doing things I thought I could never do. No one could have told me how to do that, I had to learn the feeling on my own. They could guide me to doing it right, but I had to feel it to know for myself.

It was just that—the feeling.

Even wrestling in high school, I was never aware of the kinetic energy my body was carrying. I focused a lot on technique, found a few things that worked, and had a moderately successful Sr. year wrestling career. But in all that time, I had never felt the energy of a move. From the tips of my fingers through my arms, my torso, the rotation of my body, into my legs, and to my feet, I could literally feel the energy flowing through me. It was intoxicating.

I was hooked on that feeling instantly. As I began feeling each move, I could sense the kinetic energy flowing through my body, guiding it into the next position, and my control and balance directing that flow. I’ll admit, I felt a bit like a Jedi using the Force and can’t help but chuckle at my own nerdiness. I haven’t figured out how to Jedi mind trick yet or move objects with the Force, but who knows, right?

Almost immediately following, my mind flashed back to “wax on, wax off” and “jacket on, jacket off.” Was this really that simple? Do you really just figure out the right way to do it and then repeat that so many times it programs into your muscle memory? Could I really get better at this by just focusing on doing my basics perfectly, every time, as many times as I can?

… “actually, yes,” replied my body.

So that’s what I did, and by the time I tested for my next belt the improvement was astounding. Rather than focus on every single movement in the forms, I trusted the training of my basics, focused on the flow and sequence, and once again blew my own mind.

I was aware of what I needed to do, and I was building a strong foundation by creating the right habits.

I became much more receptive to coaching following that. Rather than focusing on everything I knew was “wrong” with the move, if I just listened to my coaches and focused on their feedback, I wasn’t trying to change so many things at one time. I was changing the things with the biggest impact so that I could train those into habit then focus on other aspects.

Contemplating this for the months following, I came to another realization about myself. I can’t speak for everyone on this planet, but my behavior in practically everything comes down to one of two things.

  1. I chose to do this.
  2. I have been conditioned to do this, whether or not I am aware of that.

I began reading up on the habit cycle, identifying triggers, behaviors, and rewards. I started questioning several things that I do, the reasons I do them, and sometimes could not come back to a good reason. Those behaviors were usually repetitive and (sometimes embarrassingly) predictable by those who know me well.

The first point is easy. Things I choose to do, I should make sure I’m choosing based upon the best information available and the proper motivation. That one didn’t need too much tuning as long as I want the right things.

The real hacking started coming into play when I realized I can literally program myself. Just like landing a perfect backsweep for the first time ever on Tuesday (I f’ing love this move), I started to think that I can program patterns of behavior, patterns of thinking, and possibly even patterns of feeling.

But some things need to be un-learned. Some things I did not train myself to do (or did so with false or incomplete information).

These are the hard ones. New behaviors, new habits, new patterns come easily to me because I made a choice to learn them.

Old habits require more attention, and sometimes require a second set of eyes. It requires being aware of the behavior and some things are just too deeply scripted for me to see it on my own. When was the last time I “thought” about putting on my shoes? Until a few months ago, I cannot recall. When I realized that I sit down, tie my shoes, then go on about my day I realized I did this completely out of habit. One of the fun things I’ve changed was to put them on standing up. I’m flexible and stable enough to do it and it gives me good balance practice.

Everything became fair game to hack.

Many of the “rewards” from the habit cycle are “something goes as I wanted it to go or makes me feel good,” so that’s pretty easy to identify most of the time. The behaviors are either self-observed or pointed out to me by others, and having others who will help point out these behaviors is absolutely critical in my experiences. The cues or triggers, however, can be much harder to identify.

Many of the ineffective habits I’ve identified—especially the ones of which I am least aware—the cue was “I want x to happen, so I’ll try y.” y worked, so why question something that works? This reveals tremendous opportunity to iterate on doing things even better—more efficiently, more effectively, more gracefully, more tactfully, more empathetically, etc.

Many of the bad habits I’ve identified, the cues have been “I was taught this is the way by myself or another, I was taught to fear an outcome, or I want to protect myself from harm.”

Fear is hard for me to unwire, but for me it comes down to an understanding. It doesn’t even require courage, frankly. Just knowledge and understanding. The more I learn about the things I fear(ed), the more I learn that there may be nothing to fear at all. There may be easy ways to mitigate the risk of an undesirable outcome. Some things should be feared and avoided. But most things, with the right knowledge and understanding, really aren’t that big of a deal.

It’s really something thinking I can program myself to do anything. I haven’t found any evidence to disprove this to myself yet, so I’ll keep on that until something proves me otherwise. I may not be able to upload kung fu directly into my brain (I think Elon Musk is working on this), but through becoming aware of my habits, the reasons for those habits, and making a choice of what habits I want to train, self-improvement is really similar to writing Python, PHP, or Splunk searches.

And I can code like a boss when I’m working on something that excites me.

The real fun begins when applying this to patterns of thinking, but like the lessons in core strength, balance, and wisdom, those are best left for another post.

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