Insights

Return to insights

The Attention Span. "Murder Yoga."

‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions and taking stock of our habits. I wanted to share a brief love letter to a new obsession of mine. Although the hobby’s pretty niche, it’s a practical illustration of 3 foundational concepts.

A lazy holiday with my family also allowed me to catch up with a few excellent pieces of writing, below.



“Murder Yoga.”

[6 minute read].

“The test of all beliefs is their practical effect in life.”- Helen Keller
Source: Stable Diffusion 2 AI Image Generator

It sometimes seems like life is deliberately testing me to see if I follow my own advice.

One concept that seems to be slowly emerging at the core of my research into wisdom and flourishing is “relevance realization.” This is akin to how effectively we learn to navigate the world. Three key activities that seem to help with this are:

  1. Embodiment practices,
  2. Flow-state generators,
  3. Infinite games.

Over the last few years, I’ve identified a few tools for harmonizing conscious and unconscious. I believe that if you get a clear message from your unconscious during or after those activities it should be taken extremely seriously.

I have the flexibility of a brick, so last Christmas I decided to try establishing a yoga practice (for about the fifth time). I know I need it, but I just don’t have the patience. However, at the end of one session I had an overwhelming impulse to resume my training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ).

BJJ is a controlled form of wrestling with a virtually limitless combination of moves and positions. My friend Dan McMurtrie recently got me a hilarious shirt that calls it “Murder Yoga.” BJJ has come to dominate Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and popular culture. The popular podcaster Joe Rogan is a BJJ obsessive and black belt. Part of the meteoric rise in BJJ’s popularity is that it seems to answer the drunken dorm room question of which fighting discipline is most effective. An early bout in the Pride Fighting Championships literally pitted a 600-pound sumo wrestler against a 170-pound kickboxer. But as MMA has become vastly more popular, it’s clear that the combination of BJJ and striking is devastatingly effective.

For normal, relatively un-athletic people like me, this popularity means there are now a lot of places to try it out. I first started five years ago during my descent into a full-blown mid-life crisis. A combination of spiraling depression and niggling injury saw me quit after about six months. But I learned it was hugely enjoyable. My nagging conscience told me I had to go back every time I walked past the gym close to my apartment

I’ve been back again for most of this last year. As a lowly, uncoordinated white belt, I am always the worst person in my class. I’ve already torn the meniscus in my knee and contracted a grisly staph infection. But I’ve never had so much fun in my life. In only a few weeks my strength, fitness, and general sense of life-satisfaction had changed quite radically. I believe no legal drug can have the same effect as an hour of BJJ. This leads to a lot of this kind of BJJ evangelism. Like a Harvard graduate, vegan or CrossFit enthusiast, you can spot a BJJ practitioner by how quickly they will crowbar it into any conversation.


But let’s assume you have absolutely no interest in BJJ, how does it help illustrate the concept of relevance realization?

  1. An embodiment practice: Obviously your entire body is involved. If you can’t rapidly prioritize your reactions, you’re in trouble. If you’re so focused on your legs you fail to react to the hand slowly creeping across your neck you’ll be tapping-out in a couple of seconds. Relevance realization is also about the correct application of force; the sage makes a seemingly-tiny intervention with huge impact. This is a concept that’s central to most martial arts. As someone who is consistently pretzeled by men and women 40 pounds lighter than me, this seems to be the key difference between a novice and a black belt. The murder yoga angle is maybe more than a joke too. In Bessel van der Kolk’s viral sensation The Body Keeps the Score he says the most effective form of chronic embodied trauma release has been “rolfing.” This is an [unproven] form of intense deep tissue work. That’s also a side-effect of being squished underneath a 250-pound man (see more on the “trauma” topic below).

  2. A flow state generator. BJJ perfectly meets the three conditions for flow: clear information (yup), tightly coupled feedback (yup) and that errors matter (hoo boy they matter). This results in a total presence in the moment I’ve never experienced in any other context. Flow states also result in insight cascades, something that’s abundantly true of BJJ. I have had many fresh breakthroughs immediately after sessions.

  3. An infinite game. A core principle is that the ability to find “positive-sum games” is closely correlated with flourishing and happiness in life. BJJ is an incredibly good example of an infinite game. It’s overtly competitive, with a clear winner and loser. But both parties get stronger, fitter, and more skilled with every “roll.” Unlike boxing, which I did for 15 years, sparring doesn’t involve repeated blows to the brain. There’s no striking, it’s only relatively bounded grappling. The combination of moves and countermoves is virtually infinite. The analogy to “physical chess” is a good one. The difference between BJJ and every other form of exercise I’ve tried is that your progress is so obvious and immediate. You can learn a new move and successfully implement it that same class in a roll. Few things are more satisfying.

As I’m into my 40s, I’ll keep getting injured. But I take great comfort from the fact that more than half of my class is older than me.

A central theme of my work is the importance of pursuing what you love, of “following your bliss.” But BJJ helps illustrate that this path is intrinsically challenging. You take a lot of beatings, both literal and metaphorical. But it’s the joy that keeps you coming back.



Related Reading.

  • Read. Institutional Failure: A Future of Finance Worldview by Dave Nadig (21 minute read)

  • Why read. VettaFi’s Financial Futurist Dave Nadig wrote a superb piece on the polycrisis and relevance realization. The polycrisis is a term recently coined by Adam Tooze to describe the overwhelming cascade of crises we’re currently facing. But, unlike most doomers, Dave shares my optimism that the pursuit of wisdom can act as an antidote to overwhelm and nihilism. He expertly pulls together three of the voices I think are most important; John Vervaeke, Iain McGilchrist, and Brett Andersen (see podcast below).

    • Put another way: the meaning crisis is the result of a disconnect between what we perceive and what’s important. That cognitive dissonance messes us up at a profound level.

    • The good news is that it seems likely that relevance realization - and the sense of meaning that comes from focusing on what’s important - is observable and trainable. It’s both a way of better understanding a complex world, and acting in it more effectively.


  • Read. Thinking about how to think: Short-term vs long-term by the IGY Foundation (9 minute read).

  • Why read. My friend Eric Markowitz at Worm Capital flagged an excellent very short piece from Nick Sleep and Qais Zakaria’s IGY Foundation on long-term and short-term characteristics in business and investing. Essentially their views dovetail precisely with Dave’s work above on avoiding “multi-polar traps” as well as my own writing on why I believe the future is going to be dominated by more sustainable business models.

  • Read. The Truth About Trauma by Alexander Beiner (57 minute read).

  • Why read. This is a long read but on a fascinating topic. Bessel van der Kolk’s book on embodied trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, was a viral sensation during the pandemic. The word “trauma” has stormed the cultural lexicon but even reaching a consensus definition is proving controversial. Former speaker for The KCP Group, Ale Beiner, has taken a characteristically nuanced and thoughtful look at the topic.

    • This is the double-edged sword of increased cultural awareness of trauma. On one edge, it opens up more honest and vulnerable conversations about emotional suffering and mental health. On the other edge, it increases the narrative centrality of trauma throughout society. Considering we aren’t even clear what we mean when we use the word trauma, the result is a convoluted mess that presents potentially harmful views about mental health by overshadowing our innate resilience.

  • Listen. Infinite Loops with Brett Andersen, Ed William, Jim O’Shaughnessy and Tom Morgan, Ed William, Jim O’Shaughnessy and Tom Morgan. (1 hour 28 minute listen).

  • Why listen. Jim was gracious enough to have me back on Infinite Loops for a third time. But this time the deserved focus was Brett Andersen and his stunning essay Intimations of a New Worldview (the best thing I read last year). Hoping to do justice a 90 minute essay in a relatively short podcast format is naïve, especially as Brett’s piece introduces eight immense ideas. But hopefully it will encourage you to give his ideas, and their rabbit holes, the time they deserve. I was also pleased to have Ed join us too, as he wrote a synthesis of my entire work (!), you’ll notice he has incredibly insightful questions of his own.


[In case you missed them my “Idea of the Year" is here. “The Third Phase” our annual Investment Strategy letter from Tom Pence is here. Our Private Equity letter from Peter Teneriello is here].


Have a great weekend and a VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Tom

Sign up for updates