“Unprecedented” is undoubtedly the word of the year that characterized the tumultuous 2020–from the COVID-19 global pandemic to social unrest that rattled the U.S., many of us have witnessed things that we’ve never experienced before. As a society, we learned the vulnerability of our health care system, the brevity of human lives, and the fragility of social harmony. On the flip side, 2020 has given us a deeper appreciation for life and the everyday normalcy that lots of us used to take for granted.
Instead of traveling during this holiday season, I let my mind wander and used this opportunity to reflect on a year unlike any other. I realized in this unprecedented year, I have also done many things “unprecedented” for me personally: first time surfing, moving to New Year City, taking martial arts classes, becoming a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries, managing a summer intern at work, becoming a product manager, investing in my first multifamily real estate deal… Each of these first-time experiences was filled with memorable moments, and each has taught me something unique. I hope to summarize a few lessons that hopefully will be valuable for my future self and others who are in similar journeys as me.
Surfing: falling is part of the game; pick your waves.
Surfing is one of those sports that always seem glamorous to the outside world. We’ve all watched videos of pro surfers having a blast while surfing overhead waves, but what we can’t see from these viral videos is the number of failed attempts in each successful shot and the water temperature surfers have to sometimes endure. While on my 2019 Christmas/2020 New Year vacation, I took a surf class in San Diego. Even though I wore a wet suit, I still found my body shivering and teeth chattering after the 90-minute lesson. After my body temperature returned to normal, I realized that surfing is probably the best sport to learn what Julie Bowden once said, “Success is getting up one more time than you fall down.” Each wave only lasts so long, so you will almost always fall–sometimes after the wave subsides but often in the midst of it. What do you do when you fall? You get back up on the board and try again. Unlike other sports, in which you get from point A to point B, surfing always takes you back to your starting point, the beach. I came to appreciate that in this sport and in life in general, it’s not about “getting somewhere,” it’s all about the journey. Fall is almost inevitable, but as long as you are willing to stand back up, the more you fall, the better you become.
Surfing is also a unique sport in that the external environment matters tremendously. There will always be waves, but they aren’t created equal. You need to watch out for the wave coming up and decide whether to give it a go according its size, direction, etc. Understanding the external environment and macro-trends sounds awfully familiar to a business nerd like me. In a McKinsey research article, “Strategy to Beat the Odds,” the majority of the world’s 2,393 largest corporations made almost no economic profit (“the total profit after the cost of capital is subtracted”) from 2010-2014. Simply put, most companies’ performance did not beat the overall market performance. So how does a company beat the market? It turns out 50% of that is driven not by “how you play” but rather by “where you play”–the industry of a given company matters, a lot. In surfing, we need to closely observe the ocean to pick the waves to get the best rides. In professional endeavors, I believe in addition to understanding our own resources and competencies, we need to pay attention to the macro trends (social, economic, technological, etc.) to decide what industry to work or even start a company.
Learning Jiu-Jitsu at an MMA Combat Academy: “Don’t take anything personally”
In January 2020, I relocated to my company’s New York City office so I could collaborate in person with colleagues in the Data Science Center of Excellence. NYC, “the concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” has a special place in my heart as it is the first major U.S. city I ever heard of when I was a little boy in China and the first major U.S. city I visited when I moved to this great country at age 17. From wandering around the city to admire awe-inspiring buildings to attending meetups and conferences to expand my network and knowledge, I enjoyed every single bit of my experience there before I moved out of the city when COVID-19 descended upon us in March. Among these novel experiences, the most special one has to be my martial art classes.
A personal development enthusiast, I always look for ways to grow my body, mind, and spirit. I believe martial arts is one of those things that can help me grow in all three areas, so when I learned there are many world-class martial arts gyms in Manhattan I couldn’t resist the urge to sign up. Not sure what to expect, I recruited a few friends who are also fitness enthusiasts to try out both Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai at a few different gyms. Filled with a strange mix of excitement and fear, I felt out of place when I first stepped on the mat in the gym. Although I got bruises from almost every single class, it was a transformative experience.
When I reached out to Radical MMA, I got the following warning in its email reply, “We are 100% a fight gym: Radical is a full-contact combat academy, not a fitness program. We teach you how to fight, plain and simple. We are very beginner friendly, but we are a serious gym for individuals interested in real world, practical combat training.” It sounded intimidating, but I was also excited by it. “I want to learn the real stuff!” I told myself.
My first class there happened to a lesson that included Rear Naked Choke, a basic submission hold in grappling. During the sparring session, I felt very self-conscious about the idea of choking someone, so I positioned my arms around my sparring partner’s neck but never exerted force. He said to me politely, “Harder! I will tap you when I feel it.” Still nervous, I gradually flexed my muscles and squeezed my arms. Finally, he tapped. What a relief! “Don’t hurt him” was the only thought in my mind. Then it was his turn. Before I realized, I was threw to the ground and got trapped in the choke hold. Felt extreme tightness in my throat, I tried to use every drop of my energy to break free from this position, but nothing worked. Soon enough I found myself unable to breathe. Tap, tap! He immediately released his arm lock and asked if I was okay. During subsequent rounds it quickly became apparent that my sparring partner, although a polite gentleman probably in his 40s, showed no mercy to newbies like me. But should him?
On my way back to my apartment, I still couldn’t believe what just happened: I tried to choke someone, and someone tried to choke me! We were very polite to each other, but when it’s time we each tried our hardest to put the other person in that choke hold, and we didn’t let go until the other person tapped, a sign of defeat in grappling. I realized this process is nothing but part of the training. We had 0% desire to hurt each other, but we had 100% desire to improve our skill through practices. All of a sudden, Don Miguel Ruiz’s classic, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom came to mind. Although expanding the author’s original intent with it, its Second Agreement concisely summarized the attitude I learned that night: “Don’t Take Anything Personally.” I gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of this agreement: “Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”