Swimming with the Current: Thoughts on style, changing & innovating

One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Jefferson:

“In matters of style, swim with the current; on matters of principle, stand like a rock”

I have primarily concerned myself with the second half of this quote and the emphasis placed by Jefferson on not compromising ourselves for the sake of others. As an innovator and agent of change himself, Jefferson’s quote is a perfect fit for the concept I’ve been thinking about recently.

Recently, I turned my attention to the first half of the quote: “In matters of style, swim with the current.” We live in a rapidly changing world that demands that we are able to adapt, change and innovate. To keep our head above water, we have to learn to swim with the current: adapt, innovate and change to survive.

I believe that this concept relates to all disciplines, not just the martial arts. However, for the sake of context, I will predominantly discussing this concept through the lens of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.

One thing I have become acutely aware of in the gym (with many of my coaches or training partners) is that a person’s ability to innovate, adapt and accept change is directly linked to their ability to continue to improve in the art. At first, this seems like an obvious statement: of course if we are open minded learning will be easier, right? Wrong. It’s not that simple… Being open minded in itself does not lead to improvement. Yes, it may mean you learn a larger variety of techniques quicker, but learning which are the best for you is about accepting and adapting to change: learning not just about which way the current flows, but how best to swim with it.

We see this at the highest levels of the sport and art: the dominant champions and masterful teachers in Jiu-jitsu may know about any technique you could imagine asking them about, but they employ only their most favored when sparring or in competition. Through their innovation and ability to adapt, they have discovered a selection of techniques and moves that work best for them. We see this throughout physical and mental disciplines alike; it’s a question of adapting the breadth of what you have learned to a more narrow depth.

Here’s a working example from recently:

  • One of my training partners is very effective at forcing me into a bad position, from there he is able to execute a number of attacks that lead to him submitting me.
  • I identify that there is an issue here. They are much more proficient at attacking in this position than I am at currently defending from it. What should I do? I need to adapt. (Understand which way the current flows)
  • Next time, I do not allow myself to be forced into the position they favor. However, just because I have refused my partner the opportunity to attack, this does not mean I am now gaining the upper hand. How do I gain the upper hand? Now is time to innovate. (Learn to swim with the current)
  • Not only do I refuse to let my partner impose his game plan, but now I understand what game plan I should be imposing to gain the upper hand.

To conclude, the next positive step to take after adopting an open mind is to understand how to adapt and innovate. Just like the concept of biological evolution, our environment demands change from us, not just physical but mental too. We need to mentally adapt and learn to swim with the current if we wish to survive.




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