Yes, getting my BJJ black belt is really “halfway there”. Four years ago, I wrote that as a purple belt I was halfway to halfway there. Purple marked the midpoint of getting to the coveted black belt. On an intellectual level, I was correct, but it was not a great leap of logic to listen to what black belts told me about their experience.
Now, looking back on the path to here, the years of effort are somehow compressed, as if it weren’t all that much effort to get here. In reality, it was a lot of work, various mild hardships, and eight years of constantly looking for what’s next. Every obstacle was overcome, every responsibility was fulfilled to the best of my ability, and every opportunity to learn what I wanted was explored.
The single biggest factor in getting a black belt is dedication. Without dedication there can be no accumulation of knowledge, and without an accumulation of knowledge there can be no real world performance. Dedication must be applied to all aspects of jiu-jitsu, from showing up to learning to implementation. As Chris Haueter says, “It’s not who’s good, it’s who’s left.” I personally had to have seen hundreds of people start and quit jiu-jitsu. Many were more physically gifted than me or picked up techniques faster. Whatever advantages they had in jiu-jitsu were erased when they quit. It’s important to know that it’s not just about keeping a goal of the black belt and showing up when others don’t. It’s also about looking at training as something you will do for the rest of your life.
With a long term perspective, things like colored belts and stripes lose their impact. It’s harsh and discouraging, but reality is that the black belt is the only belt that matters in the jiu-jitsu world. All the other belts are useful only to you. The black belt is a marker with various meanings, but above all it means that you are a true student of the art, ready to explore and contribute in a skilled manner. Everything up to that is just practice. It’s not so dissimilar to education towards a profession. The awards, the diplomas, everything that is meaningful to you is nothing more than a series of steps towards actualizing your education in a given profession. Lawyers must pass their bar examination. Nurses their NCLEX. Others just need to be hired to start to do what they were trained to do. That is when the true practical experience and growth in the profession starts.
Everybody will have a different path to the black belt, and they will also have different goals after they get their black belt. There isn’t a single path we all must take. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is too unconstrained and too vast to make any presumptions about how an individual will grow once they have their black belt. There’s nothing at all wrong with aiming to just have fun after the black belt.
What is most interesting to me in my personal jiu-jitsu journey is that getting the black belt gave me a renewed sense of purpose, despite no defined next step to take. “Next level” is a poorly defined concept, but a very real aspect of what it is to become better as a black belt. I can see multiple levels of practitioner ahead of me, some on the performance side, some on the teaching side. I honestly have no idea what level I can get to, especially considering I started jiu-jitsu late at 37. For now, I’ll do the same thing that I tell my students to do. Obtain progress through knowledge, dedication, and performance. Have a clear path towards a goal, no matter what it is, then execute a plan.
The black belt is nothing more than my new starting point. I’ve already started building the foundation for getting to a level above just being a black belt. Ambitious goals are being set, resources are getting lined up, and I am mentally prepared to aggressively pursue some goals I may never achieve. Chasing after perfection, no matter how impossible it is to grasp, creates some of the most amazing things humans can achieve either alone or together. Even if I am not able to be amazing with my jiu-jitsu, at least aiming for the top will help ensure that I am at least a positive influence on those around me and maybe they will be amazing. Chasing impossible perfection though intermediate steps worked for getting to black belt, and I know it will work for the remaining half of my jiu-jitsu.