Being the Smartest Guy in the Room Could Make You Stupid

Give Your Greatness to Others

A long time ago, I was a white belt who had just joined a new BJJ school that had moved to the area. Sitting in a circle after a technique was shared with the class, a student raised his hand and asked “how do you escape that move?” The instructor’s answer: “That’ll cost you $90 and take an hour of my time.” The joke, which wasn’t a joke at all, it turns out, was that the student could only learn that information by paying for a private lesson, and the student group wasn’t worthy of the treasured secrets of this genius. The first time I heard that response, I laughed. But my chuckle was cut short when I realized he was serious. Over time, I saw the same pattern that the other students had already seen. The student would feel like an idiot for asking the question, the private lesson would never happen, and the answer to the question never spoken.

What would you do if you asked the question? Would you be likely to raise your hand next time? Over time, the intended effect unfolded at the gym: people rarely asked questions of the head instructor. Since questions often shape curriculum, an absence of inquiry left the instructor to teach only what he wanted to teach. Students with questions would seek each other out for information. The questions didn’t go away, they were redirected to less qualified, but more helpful people. This was in the age before YouTube. This instructor had a stranglehold on information. Hearing him respond to a question with such an absurd evasion reminded me of working with an IT helpdesk guy who acts like his knowing how to install Microsoft Office was a birthright.

In a more recent example, a friend training at another gym had been keeping a nifty online technique notebook. Not a lot of detail, but very helpful perspective intended to feed the hungry Jiu-Jitsu diaspora. Their instructor caught wind of the website and was uncomfortable. The concern was that it might help competitors. The web site no longer discusses Jiu-Jitsu technique. Let’s say the web page was discussing what this student learned about executing a take-down. Can you imagine some morsel of information being divulged that would somehow alter the competitive landscape? Google “double leg take-down.” Tell me there could have been something truly original in the web site’s description of this technique that will harm this coach’s business. No, and that wasn’t the point of the website. Learning and communicating is a personal process that takes the student beyond the boundaries of the mats. This student was stuck in a stranglehold of censorship. These two situtions, separated by a decade of time and completely different instructor lineage, illustrates what is commonplace in this sport. Some instructors treat information like a valuable commodity in a world where it is already free.

Information isn’t power. In the information-connected economy, the kinds of businesses that can get away with treating information as a valuable commodity are rapidly becoming as old as your Dad’s Wall Street Journal curbside dropoff. And don’t get me into an ad revenue argument since it’s so far off the point.

Over the years on the mats, I’ve come up with some really sweet moves. I can find dozens of videos on the Internet of guys who have come up with the same moves on their own. They’ve given them their own silly names like “De-goitering the Goat” or “Feed the baby” but the moves are the same. This is a healthy sign of a exploding system with a spirit of innovation, expansion, and sharing.

Coaches: hide your secrets at your own peril.

Students are passionate about this sport and hungry for information. They’ll go get the answers with or without you. Be the leader and coach you are supposed to be and teach them what you know. By keeping secret techniques, you won’t be forced to learn anything new. Holding back your techniques makes you stale and dumb, not smarter than the rest of the crowd. Teach your students everything you know so they can challenge you to come up with new ideas. You were the smarty pants who figured those old secrets out to begin with, right? So, go make up some new ones.

I love witnessing the process in action. Every few months, I drop some new technique on my students that usually starts with all of them tapping and freaking out about “what the hell was that?” We cover it in class, repeatedly. A month later, some of them are starting to figure it out and execute it on their own. After 6 months, the technique is old hat: we’ve figured out 6 variations, mastered a few of them, and know 10 ways to shut it down.

Being the only person who knows how to execute the Biggie Slicer is as boring as playing Quake III in God mode. The splatter and spray of guts are fun for a while, but you are left wanting someone who can scare you into getting better.

Every time I get a visiting instructor on my mats, I make it a point to teach something I don’t expect him to know. By “liberating this technique into the wild,” I’m sure to have to get much better at executing it, discovering defenses, and variations. That’s how this sport keeps moving, and that’s how the best athletes in the sport keep growing. The smartest guy in the room is only as smart as the information he’s capable of teaching the group. Prove you’re smart: give it away, now.