James is the author of Paleo for Fighters
Muay Thai isn’t the first difficult thing I’ve learned, but it is the most difficult. I’ve worked with my mind before. I finished college and graduate school, learned a foreign language, and started a business.
And I’ve labored as well. One of the most wonderful and positively transformational times in my life was when I spent a summer working as a landscaper in the countryside of northern Delaware. The time allowed me to shake the cobwebs of a sophomore year of college lost to drugs and alcohol and learn what it meant to work with my hands for not a lot of money.
I was a line cook for several years. In fact, cooking was almost what I ended up doing with my life—I decided on a whim, after returning to college, to study abroad in Japan for a summer, and ended up staying for seven years. But, quite differently from the studio-chef cooking show world of TV, the restaurant kitchen is hot, fast, and extremely physical. Even Kitchen Nightmares is a joke compared to the reality of a restaurant line—some of the names I was called aren’t fit to repeat by a long shot.
But I did leave that life, and after many years of twists and turns ended up in the marketing department of a financial company in Tokyo, in a world of words, thoughts, long hours, Power Point presentations, and less-than-exciting meetings. Yet I would eventually leave that too, burning out again from overindulgence in vices that originated from a place deep down inside me that I had yet to master, or even full come to grips with.
I was going on thirty when I had my first experience with Muay Thai—ironically, after coming back to the states from Asia. When I visited Thailand for fun while living in Tokyo, I was too scared to even go to a Muay Thai match, because I had heard that the crowd was made up of mostly gangsters.
That first experience was at an MMA gym. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, only that it was something exciting, and something that wasn’t just throwing weights around in a gym. I remember the naïve thought that went through my head when I started, that since I went to karate twice a week for a year in Japan that I had my stand-up game and all I would need would be a bit of Jiu-Jitsu to be an MMA fighter…
Having trained nothing but Muay Thai for the past four years since then, the only thought in my head now is how much “stand-up” I have left to learn.
I think the reason Muay Thai has engendered such deep humility in me is that the art of eight limbs tests your entire being—it is as much physical as it is emotional and intensely intellectual. You can have the athleticism but not the technique. You can have the technique but not the fitness. You can look like a Greek statue and still freeze like a deer in the headlights once you step in the ring.
There was no comparison to anything I had done before in my life. Learning Japanese was similar mentally in the sense that there was a lot to memorize, and you had to actually use and practice it to acquire it, but I didn’t have to take pristine care of my body, go to bed early, or eat the right foods to do it. There was also not competitive aspect to it—I didn’t have to have a Japanese battle with other foreign speakers to prove I was worth my salt.
Cooking was a bit more similar physically, and chefs and krus occupy a very similar space in my mind, but the individual skills in cooking aren’t nearly as hard as those in Muay Thai. Anyone can learn to make really good puree de pommes (French-style mashed potatoes) in a week or so with the right instruction. I’m still working on the nuances of my jab after four years, and that’s a technique you literally learn on day-one of your Muay Thai training.
Physical combat also lays bare, like perhaps nothing else, what you do and don’t know, in the starkest way possible. If you put a layman in the ring with a trained fighter, you could imagine the outcome.
And yet the “real world” is full of fakers. There are plenty of people who make it through an entire professional life with no tangible skills. In an office setting, you can hide the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing behind others work, bureaucracy and the walls of your cubicle.
The corollary of this is that most of the best entrepreneurs, business owners, and, for that matter, creative people I know are martial artists. They understand that results come through hard work, have the discipline to do that hard work, don’t lie to themselves about what they do and don’t know, and are always willing, and eager, to learn new things—and, most importantly, to fail.
I would go so far to say that if you’re not willing to fail, you’re not willing to learn. I have been blessed enough to be able to teach a Muay Thai class. My classes focus on the basics, because that is what I am capable and comfortable with teaching, and basics are, as we all know, are what win fights—they’re the best practice for anyone.
But for some of the newer students, those basics are of course still new, and when they’re trying something for the first time or trying to improve part of a technique they already know, they can become self-conscious, even embarrassed, that they’re not getting it right away. I know I certainly feel that way often myself whenever I’m working on something new.
But, I embrace it, look for it even, and have encouraged my students to do so too. “It’s ok, you’re learning right? Try it again!” If you are going through sessions comfortable that you know everything and nothing is hard, then that’s complacency, not study. If you’re not failing, you’re not learning.
This cultivates a mindset that allows you to be forever young. If you’re always calmly accepting of the things that you don’t know and willing and happy to improve them, you can spend your entire life in growth and new discovery. I would encourage you to actually seek out your own ignorance for this very reason. Every piece of knowledge you don’t have or skill you don’t possess is an opportunity to better yourself, and, just as importantly, to enjoy life—what greater joy than new discovery? Take an idea you think is utterly ridiculous, and read a book about it. Take a skill you think is “just not you,” and take a few days to learn it, even just the basics. Place yourself in a setting where people know more than you, or one filled with things you know nothing about.
What Muay Thai, and I think martial arts in general, offer, is a complete means of practicing this process of self-evaluation and self-discovery: physical, mental, and emotional. You can then take that same process and apply it to all aspects of your life and watch them flower.
Two and a half years ago, I didn’t know anything about building a website, much less earning a living from one, much less still, earning a living from one in a way that also helps other people. Now that’s my job, my own business, and I directly thank my study of Muay Thai for that accomplishment.
“How hard can it be to build a website?” = the willingness to challenge new things. “Ok, this is a lot of work, but so is anything worth doing” = the discipline required to put the hours in toward a result. “These things are working, but these really aren’t—how can I fix them?” = the drive to be completely honest with your ability and results, and seek to better them by refining technique. There is more strength, more results, and more accomplishment through humility. Ego equals nothing but stagnation and suffering.
As I write this, I am in the midst of a sharply bittersweet move to a new town—away from the Camp I have called home and family for the last four years, but toward a life with the person who I love and long to be with. The move comes almost exactly four years after I started Muay Thai.
I’ve trained 4–6 days a week for all of those four years, only missing a couple weeks here and there for a fractured collar bone and dislocated shoulder, and even then, I was present at Camp. I’m 2-3-2 fighting, which isn’t spectacular on paper by any means, but to me it meant I could come back from wrecking my life to do something most will never experience, finally be able to be competitive in a sport I loved, create some of the most positive human relationships of my life, and foster a mentality of humility and self-improvement that has made literally every aspect of my life worlds better.
I woke up early this morning. I’ll be taking my last class at Cool Hearts at 10am, finishing just as I started, in Saturday morning class on a beautiful, sober spring day. My grandfather used to love birds, and every once in a while, when I’ve heard birds chirping during meaningful times in my life, I’ve felt a guiding presence that I thought was him.
As I woke up this morning, I heard the beautiful chirping of a finch outside the window, mixed with the warmth and sunshine of a gorgeous early spring morning. I thought back over the last four years: the hundreds of hours of classes, private lessons, long Saturday fight camps, my own fights, those of my campmates. At first, it seemed like a long time, but then I just let go of that limitation entirely, and told myself, “I can do this forever, if I simply choose.”