Purple Belt Perturbation

November 12, 2017

 I was promoted to Purple Belt in Jiu-jitsu a week ago. (I got though the Blue Belt Blues, and my window of quitting has passed. I have to see this through now.) Honestly this was a bit of a surprise. I kind of stayed in a state of denial until the last minute. But I trust my professor's judgement. The belt was too long. This is the perfect symbolism for me having to grow into it. The other Purples were promoted to Brown, and I have big shoes to fill; I have my work cut out for me.

 I started out with MMA (funny enough, I had a striking background but all my wins came via submission) and had my first no-gi competition back in 2009 before even putting on the gi and training actual Jiu-jitsu. I had a non-consecutive run at White Belt, as I moved locations around 8 times for the next 5 years and was never able to stick with one gym long enough to get more than 2 stripes. When White Belts get frustrated (as they often do) I tell them I was a 6-year White Belt; my white belt was so old and used, it was almost a shade of gray-blue, so I don't want to hear it.

 I was promoted to Blue Belt in 2015 by professor Rinaldo Santos of Carlson Gracie Central Florida. It didn't dawn on me to make a big deal out of it; I'd been able to hold my own against Blue Belts, and people had already been calling "bullshit" on my claims of being a White Belt during no-gi. It just felt like a formality; I felt comfortable in it. It still felt good though, as I could compete in local tournaments without being a sandbagger, arm-barring White Belts left and right. And the blue belt went really well with my blue Fuji gi.

 Being a small guy, I never really figured out the small guy game. I still mostly rolled like a big guy, which seems to work in competitions when everyone else is my size or a bit smaller, but gets me crushed in day-to-day training. White Belts still give me trouble when they're particularly talented or particularly spazzy (the problem is they can never tell the difference).

 

 A promotion always feels like a huge target on one's back, and you feel extra pressure to defend your new belt. Coming from a recent shoulder fracture and a groin pull that has been bothering me for 6 months now (which the VA just gave me some painkillers for), I am not particularly sure how I'm going to deal with the young hotshots who would jump at the rare opportunity to take out that 135-pound relatively-inexperienced Purple Belt.

 

 I always spoke about how great it is to be a Blue Belt--the sham belt. You didn't have a lot of expectations, but you weren't treated like a child either. It was like the Specialist (E-4) rank in the Army--a rank I held for almost 4 years. Big boy rules applied most of the time; sometimes you're put in charge but technically you're not supposed to be. The transition from Blue to Purple was huge to me--one I liken to the transition from Specialist (E-4) to Sergeant (E-5)--the first actual [common] leadership rank. While a lot of your peers are at the previous level and still see you as the same guy, you are presented with what seems like an overwhelming amount of both opportunities and responsibilities you never really saw yourself undertaking. Things are expected of you now. And while some really want you to succeed, others seem to be closely watching for you to fuck up.

 

 I had a particularly bad experience as an E-5 in the Army. I was pretty good as an E-4, definitely on paper, and leadership thought it fit to send me to the E-5 board, which I of course smoked because I had a stacked ERB and for some reason had obscure stuff like the Stryker Creed memorized. (This of course is like promoting Tom Brady to coach because he is such an excellent quarterback, but that's for another time.) I thought it was just bad timing. This was about a month before I was to be transferred to the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg--a unit with a completely different culture and set of standards than the one I was used to, and doesn't really seem to take well to outsiders. I truly wanted and tried to do well, but needless to say I immediately messed-up a lot and was voted worst NCO in the Platoon almost unanimously within a few months, was transferred twice, assigned to a lot of shit duties, and was recommended for administrative demotion. As the saying goes, I was promoted to the level of my incompetence. It made the decision of whether or not to ETS so much easier.

24-hr duty for Christmas, New Year's Eve, Thanksgiving, Daylight Savings? I know just the guy for that...

 

 Was I actually ready to be a Non-commissioned Officer? I didn't think so, but a lot of other people seemed to. I graduated top 6 in my class at the NCO Academy, shot Expert on all my assigned weapons, maxed-out my APFT score, had a college degree and pretty high ASVAB scores, and was older and more experienced than the other lower enlisted guys. Perhaps I was, I just happened to be assigned to the wrong place at the wrong time. I have been known to procrastinate a lot--I went to college as an attempt to avoid adulthood for as long as I could. I'm also a constant victim of Impostor Syndrome, and very self-conscious of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

 

 In summary, this purple cotton belt feels really heavy. I feel the constant pressure to perform while suffering crippling self-doubt; and you can't outperform your self-image. But I suppose the awareness of these phenomena should tell me to not trust my own appraisal of my abilities, because virtually nobody is capable of evaluating oneself. As Neil Gaiman once said [assuming the moon landing was not faked], "if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for." Perhaps the only thing I CAN do is to just show up doing my best while trusting the experts' judgements. Like a good White Belt.

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