There’s a martial arts school next to my gym that I pass by every day. A few months ago I walked in on a whim, and somehow ended up with a judogi and an enrollment in a two week course.
Since then I’ve been practicing the flying kicks and elbow strikes of Muay Thai, the joint locks and throws of Judo, the takedowns of Hapkido, and have amassed a colorful assortment of bruises to show for it.
Going through the movements of punching and kicking, I’ve come to appreciate a certain beauty in delivering the perfect strike, which transcends the violence it was meant to employ. Practicing the steps involved, starting from the legs, shooting through the hips, moving to the shoulders, and ending at the fist, you start to get the sense that immense power emerges not from brute strength, but from a calm, calculated refinement.
Although the striking arts has helped rekindle some of those fond childhood memories of pretending to be Bruce Lee, it is the tamer ground fighting art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) that has really got me thinking about pursuing a black belt.
If you’ve never seen BJJ before, it looks like two people hugging and rolling around on the ground, which unfortunately deters many people from trying it. But once you learn the basics, it becomes this fascinating, never-ending chess of two bodies trying to gain dominance over the other, vying for better positions as opportunities open up, and eventually ending in a submission. If either player reaches a checkmate through an arm bar or choke, their opponent taps out, and the match is over.
A Brief History of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu originated in Japan as Judo, which was introduced to Brazil in 1914 and later modified by Helio Gracie to create the style we now know today.
Helio was originally just an observer in the Jiu-Jitsu class his brother taught, until one day he found the opportunity to teach a class. Although he had memorized all the techniques and understood the moves theoretically, he did not have the physical capability to carry out many of the techniques required by Jiu-Jitsu.
Helio began adapting a Jiu-Jitsu which better suited a person of his physical ability (Helio was frail and not particularly fast), maximizing mechanical leverage wherever possible, and thus minimizing the brute force required to execute a technique. If a move had any inefficiencies, he got rid of it or modified it, and eventually created a Jiu-Jitsu which could be learned by anybody – smaller, slower, weaker, man or woman.
Helio went on to become one of the most recognized figures in Brazil, with 19 professional fights and only two losses, defeating most of his opponents (who were often more than twice his size) by submission. He was so certain of the effectiveness of the Jiu-Jitsu he created that he made it his life mission to spread the practice of BJJ, and prove to the world that it was the most effective martial arts ever created.
In 1993, Helio’s oldest son Rorion Gracie created the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in order to identify the most effective martial art in a real fight. Fighters from all disciplines – Boxing, Tae Kwon Do, Wrestling, Muay Thai, BJJ, Karate, Sumo – flew to Denver to engage in a no holds barred fight, with no rounds, no weight classes, no time limits, and no rules, to prove to the world that their discipline was superior.
Rorion appointed his younger brother Royce gracie to represent the Jiu-Jitsu their family had created, and entered him into the tournament. Although not as strong or big as his other brothers, Rorion felt Royce would make a better example of the effectiveness of BJJ in defeating larger and stronger opponents.
At only 175 lbs, Royce went on to win 13 fights in a row, defending the title 5 times and holding the record for the most submission victories in UFC history with 11. By defeating opponents far bigger than him, he drew attention to the importance of ground technique, and gave rise to the popularity of BJJ. In subsequent competitions, fighters began adopting techniques from more than one discipline, helping to create the fighting style now known as mixed martial arts (MMA).
Today UFC is one of the fastest growing sports organization in the world, and practically every MMA fighter must know at least the basics of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in order to compete effectively.
To learn more, I recommend watching these documentaries:
Helio Gracie Documentary (47:44):
Helio Gracie Interview:
Part 1 (7:36): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGNAVHzelLk
Part 2 (7:59): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEVp4h6C1aQ
Part 3 (9:59): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5uJ-ppGX0c
Falling In Love
Every once in a while, when a hobby like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu captures my fascination, it takes me by surprise. Since I’m usually interested in more things than I have time for, I tend to be very selective of the hobbies I take up. When I find myself falling in love, I take a cautious step back and start asking questions.
Why have hobbies like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, programming, and bodybuilding captured my fascination, when others have lost their appeal? What do they have in common, if anything? Why BJJ but not Muay Thai? Why computer science but not engineering?
In a world full of options and not enough time, often the hardest decisions are not what to do, but what not to do.
It occurred to me that my love-at-first-sight attraction to BJJ was more than just serendipity. BJJ, and its underlying principles, are a perfect representation of the kind of philosophy I’ve internalized. If I could compress all its wisdom into one motto, it’d be this: Spend your time and effort on where it will make the most impact.
In other words, focus your time and energy on high leverage activities (HLAs). An activity has high leverage if it makes an enormous impact on your life, relative to other activities. It’s usually something that you can continuously get better at, produces value both internally and externally, and improves your life in multiple ways.
HLAs, when you find them, don’t just appear. They take over your life. They change your thinking, reshape your goals, and ultimately become an indelible part of who you are.
My first experience of high leverage was in high school when I learned to program. I used to play calculator games in math class, until my brother one day taught me a few programming concepts. After showing me how to use a for loop, store variables, and display sprites, it occurred to me that this was all knowledge I needed to create my own game.
I started designing and publishing my own games, and soon found myself far more interested in making games than actually playing them. It’s hard to justify spending hours fighting orcs and leveling up, when you know behind the scenes you’re really just circling around a game loop, watching sprites oscillate at a specific frame rate.
I remember feeling an overwhelming sense that I could create anything – summon alien invasions, invent fantasy worlds, clone Game Boy games, hack the operating system, build my own tools — all with just a few commands and simple logic.
When I learned to program for the web, this experience of leverage was even greater. After launching my first website in college, and seeing how easy it was to share with friends, I could not stop thinking about all the possibilities of what I could create and distribute. I felt this enormous creative power just tingling at my fingertips, ready to be unleashed onto the world, and felt deep down that something special was about to happen.
After all, I was working with the most powerful technology ever created (machines that make billions of calculations in fractions of a second), leveraging the largest network ever created (with the ability to instantly send data across the world at almost no cost), and learning to control it (through programming). With all this leverage, able to be wielded by a single person, it’s a mystery how anybody studying computer science could not take advantage of this enormous power.
We are living in an age where a college kid can create a website from his dorm room and turn it into a multi-billion dollar business years later. Where a nobody in China can hack into secure government websites and gain access to sensitive information. Where a person in India can pull themselves out of poverty by outsourcing their virtual services to U.S. buyers.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has a similar quality in that once it’s been shown to you, it changes your whole perspective of what fighting really is. What used to look like an unstructured chaos of wild swinging, now looks like a series of opportunities to gain dominance, move to better positions, and setup for an arm bar or choke. This newly refactored perception will make karate and kung fu seem like tawdry displays of pretty kicks and flips, and you’ll begin to see why BJJ is more often compared with chess than it is with fighting .
Just like how there are natural leverage points in the body which BJJ exploits (an extended arm, an exposed throat), there are also natural leverage points in life which can be exploited to produce enormous impacts. Cultivating a Jiu-Jitsu mindset involves learning how to identify where these leverage points are, and how to position yourself to take advantage of them.
Although the specific leverage points will differ depending on who you are and what you value, there are a few that almost everyone can identify with.
The most obvious ones that come to mind are HLAs that generate high income. Finding your life passion and generating a high income from it is essentially the armbar of life – it has the highest potential to completely change your life.
As much as we’d like to hate or deny the importance of, money controls a huge part of our lives. It determines what we do with our time (for most people this means spending 40 hours a week working), where we live (somewhere close to work), what we choose to study (a subset of marketable skills), and who we mingle with (people in similar social strata).
If you are shaking your head in denial, telling yourself that you chose all those things with complete autonomy, chances are you are either completely unaware of the invisible shackles money binds you to (or frees you from), or you are sequestered on an island somewhere where coconuts and fish are the primary tools of leverage.
The difference between having absolutely no money, and having all the money in the world, is larger than any other asset you could obtain. But as we’ll discuss later, there are low-leverage ways of obtaining it, and high-leverage ways of obtaining it.
So what makes one activity higher leverage than another? Although the answer will vary from person to person, I’ve identified a few common properties that all HLAs share:
1. They produce value internally
Activities that produce value internally are those that are autotelic, can be continuously improved upon, and help build portable values like discipline, creativity, and adaptability, which help in other areas of life.
Singing and traveling are examples of autotelic activities – they are enjoyable in and of itself, and its purpose is itself (rather than a necessary step to achieving some outcome). If someone’s ever asked you why you like doing X, and the only answer you could think of was “Because it makes me happy”, chances are it is autotelic. Activities that are not autotelic include things like filing taxes, and working an unfulfilling job (even if the money you earn fulfills you in other ways).
Consumptive activities like watching TV or fine dining can also be autotelic, but they cannot continuously be improved upon. You cannot master the art of watching TV or eating food. HLAs tend to be those where performance standards can be internalized, and skill levels can improve through deliberate practice.
Learning an instrument like piano or violin, or playing a team sport like soccer, are activities that help build portable values like patience, cooperation, and inner confidence (they are also autotelic and can be mastered). This is why tiger moms are so obsessed about their children becoming virtuosos by the age of five. In contrast, activities like gaming (Starcraft, World of Warcraft) are autotelic and can be mastered, but don’t usually build values that are applicable in the real world. Tiger moms frown upon games.
2. They produce value externally
Activities that produce value externally make the biggest impacts. These are activities like programming, writing, acting, and entrepreneurship, all which produce external assets. The best assets are ones you can control, don’t deteriorate over time, and spread easily to others.
Websites and businesses are assets you have total control over, but friendships and your professional network are assets that are not completely in your control. Networking and socializing, although still HLAs, produce assets that have the potential to disappear completely.
Assets should ideally not deteriorate over time (or do so at a very slow rate). These are assets that don’t require heavy maintenance to keep its present value, and ones where the value doesn’t depend on an evershifting environment. Creative works (art, music, ideas) and digital assets (code, photos, videos) require little maintenance to retain their value, while an asset like good looks requires lots of maintenance. Celebrity knowledge, and a level 60 Barbarian in Diablo III, are assets that lose its value as the industry changes, while math and science live in environments that never change.
Assets should spread easily to others, which means ideally they should be distributed through a near-frictionless medium of exchange. Knowledge and ideas have traditionally been the easiest assets to distribute (through HLAs like writing and teaching), but since the advancement of manufacturing, distribution, and technology, assets that used to be difficult to distribute or had limited reach, like services and products, are now enjoying the same advantages that non-physical assets have .
3. They impact multiple areas of life.
There are many HLAs that naturally impact more than one area of life. Exercise is a great example. Although keeping fit in many ways is a huge drag, often requiring a lot of maintenance (particularly if you’re trying to keep muscle), it improves so many other areas of life that I would still consider it a HLA. It keeps you healthy, improves productivity, boosts energy levels, makes you more attractive, builds confidence, and changes how people perceive you. It’s only when you focus so much on exercise that it becomes the only thing you are good at, and you don’t allow it to impact or enhance other areas of your life, that it becomes a low leverage activity (this is why people get labeled “meathead” or “gym rat”).
Analyzing My Own HLAs
Given our criteria of what HLAs should look like, let’s take a look at some of my present and past activities and see how they fare (note that this is just my own opinion / experience):
|Autotelic||Can be mastered||Builds portable values||Assets controllable||Assets don’t deteriorate||Assets spread easily||Impacts multiple areas of life|
|Spending time with friends and family||Y||Maybe||Y||N||Maybe||N||Y|
|Internship in college||N||Y||N||N|
It turns out that activities I’ve been most dedicated and passionate about meet every criteria I laid out above. Activities that don’t meet any of the criteria I tend to avoid doing, almost to a detriment, and have weird ways of working around them.
For example, because I dislike shopping so much, I will often buy several pairs of the same shirt and pants to last me for the next few years (to avoid shopping in the future). Unfortunately this also means my friends often see me wearing the exact same thing every weekend, which impacts me in other ways (i.e. the perception that I have no style).
Bodybuilding, although in many ways is the ultimate high-maintenance activity (eating every 2 hours, working out five times a week, being sore all the time, can’t eat out), has improved my life in many ways. It started with this thought: how many meals in our lifetime do we really remember eating? If I think about it, only a couple. The other 99% of meals I completely forget about. I realized that although I enjoy food at the time I’m eating it, most of the time it doesn’t add to my long-term happiness. I figured since I was already working out 3-5 times a week, by coupling it with a strict diet I would progress faster, feel healthier, look better, and ultimately turn eating into an investment. I ended up dropping my cholesterol by 60 points, and transforming my body.
By far the highest leverage activity I’ve ever done was building Clockspot, my current business. People often ask me “How many employees do you have?” When I tell them I only have one, the reactions are usually a mix of surprise and disappointment. What most people don’t realize is that they are staring at a behemoth built of pure leverage…while asking the wrong questions.
Generating over seven figures a year with very little overhead costs, just one employee to run customer support, and 30 minutes per week of my time to keep the business growing, it’s really leverage (programming) leveraging leverage (the web) leveraging leverage (sales automation, aka Google) leveraging leverage (hired employees).
I’m convinced entrepreneurship is the ultimate HLA. Working a job, even if it’s a high income job, is the karate of making money. When you punch and kick, your output scales linearly with effort. You can still learn to maximize your output through technique, but its power is still confined within the natural limitations of a punch. When you work a job, the money you make scales linearly with how much effort you put in, and it is capped by the supply for that job.
Just remember, it doesn’t make fiscal sense for any company to pay you more than the value you produce. As an employee you will always be on the losing end of the bargain, because you will always get paid less than what you are actually worth to the company.
Entrepreneurship is the Jiu-Jitsu way of making money. You spend your time on where it makes the biggest impact – building assets that generate value, rather than generating that value yourself. If you need to increase sales, you spend your time either building a sales team, or automating sales through channels like affiliate marketing and Google Adwords (building assets that generate sales), rather than doing the selling yourself. You work directly with the natural leverage points of the market, rather than work within the bounds of a job position created by someone else.
Getting the Most Out of Your HLAs
If the HLA you are interested in doesn’t fulfill all the criteria I laid out above, don’t worry. There are many ways of getting more out of the things you are already doing.
1. Pair complementary HLAs
Often when you pair two HLAs together, you generate far more value than if you had just done them separately. Blogging and traveling are good examples. Traveling generates value internally, but naturally does not produce any external assets (aside from interesting anecdotes). By pairing it with blogging, you externalize your travel experiences for the world to see. They both help each other – blogging makes your travels more memorable and impactful, while traveling makes your writing more interesting.
Other natural complements include bodybuilding and photography, reading and writing, and programming and entrepreneurship.
2. Extract useful principles
For any activity to impact your life in other areas, you have to allow it to. People often pigeonhole themselves so that the things they do define and confine, rather than enable and empower.
When I started my first business out of college (Qaboom.com) I saw myself primarily as a programmer, not a business person, and spent a considerable amount of effort looking for a person to handle the “business” side of things. It wasn’t until I changed my mentality that I realized that my analytical and creative thinking could be applied in business as well.
To be good at a lot of things, you have to be able to abstract the lessons and principles you learn from one activity, and learn to apply them in other activities. Constantly ask yourself questions like “What is the greater lesson to be learned?”, or “How is X similar to Y?”, to get the most out of the things you do. When you get into the habit of doing this, you’ll start to see things that others will miss .
3. Get beyond 80%
You may have heard the saying that 80% of results come from 20% of the effort. While the pareto principle (or any variety of 4-hour-workweek mentality) can be useful in the right context, it often allows people to justify being mediocre at the things they do.
As is the nature of an investment, at some point HLAs will yield far more value relative to the effort you need to put in. It may be better to double down your efforts, rather than stop trying once you get to 80%.
Part of why getting beyond 80% is important is because it opens up opportunities that otherwise would not have been available.
I’ll use bodybuilding as an example . Initially it is extremely difficult, and most people will quit within the first month. But after overcoming the inertia of having to change your eating habits, adapt to the training intensity, and be comfortable bringing your food everywhere, you’ll start to feel healthier, look better, and actually enjoy the process. You’ve reached stage one, cashflow positive, where you start to see that exercise is improving your health and physical state.
If you progress even further, which doesn’t require any more effort than what you are already doing, a whole new set of opportunities open up. Now people are starting to notice your physique. You get the occasional compliment, and you notice that people respond to you differently. You have more presence in a room, which boosts your confidence. You’ve reached stage two – you’re starting to see that bodybuilding is improving your social life.
You’ve internalized the various changes that came about through your body transformation. Your dating life is better, you feel more energetic, and you’re up for trying things you never thought you’d be good at – Jiu-Jitsu, dancing, mountaineering, half marathons. You decide to take it one step further and try competing. So you hire a trainer, who helps refine your knowledge and technique even more, and eventually enters you into a local bodybuilding contest. To your surprise, you actually place among the top 5! It’s a great night, your physique is at the best it’s ever been, there are a ton of pictures and videos which you’ll one day share with your grandkids, and your girlfriend and family are extremely proud of you. You’ve reached stage three – you’re starting to generate external assets (pictures, videos, awards, stories) that immortalize your experience, and more opportunities have opened up as a result of your improvements.
Fast forward a few years, you’ve kept up with bodybuilding, competed in many more shows, and you now have a huge fan following on Facebook. You’ve signed with a few corporate sponsors, your physique is noticed everywhere you go, and you’ve inspired thousands of people around the world. You’ve reached stage four. You’ve managed to generate an income from your passion, and you’ve become a thought leader in the industry – the things you do, tweet about, and post on Facebook affect thousands of real people.
Finally, many years pass, and you’ve become one of the top bodybuilders in the world. You enter the Mr. Olympia…and win. Overnight, you become a celebrity in the industry. Every sponsor is vying for your endorsement, and you go down in history as one of only 15 men to ever receive this prestigious award. You’ve reached the final stage. You’ve mastered your craft, which has given you a lifetime of purpose and fulfillment, and your achievements have helped shape the industry you love.
If you had stopped at 80%, you would have only experienced improved health and looks. But like all HLAs, as you reached higher levels of mastery, new opportunities opened up, uncovering huge reserves of value that you otherwise would not have been able to tap.
Life After Leverage
I’ll end with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Venkatesh Rao:
A life that gets progressively more complex takes a good deal more philosophy and reflection to navigate. Success and failure become matters of perspective and interpretation rather than simple arrival. You may even find that the categories become less relevant to you with each arrival. (Read the full article)
When I first read this quote, it really hit home. As I’ve become more free, financially and geographically from being able to work from anywhere, and mentally, from learning how the world really works, I’ve found that life has only gotten harder and more confusing, not easier.
When you live a leveraged life, free of constraints and prescribed courses, you must come to understand yourself on a more veracious level. With no constraints to force you in a direction, no paths laid out for you, and no one to tell you how things are and should be, you’re left to pilot alone in the dark. Discovering the things that fulfill you, and being honest about the things you truly want, become a matter of survival. Without it, you risk a life of drift.
In a world full of possibilities, I’m often left wondering which is the greater tragedy – having not explored it all? Or having not explored all of one?
So if you have some time this week, join me for a bit of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and come experience the power of leverage first hand. Then take some of it with you. Who knows, this may be the armbar that changes your entire life.
 Punching is actually discouraged in BJJ. Whenever you attempt a punch, you come within range of the opponents punch as well, exposing yourself to potential injury.
 With 3D printing technology, we can now literally print bicycles, clothes, and even prosthetic limbs. Some day I may even enjoy shopping for clothes…which would involve downloading the latest clothing designs online, and sending them to my 3D printer to be constructed to my exact proportions, and colored in my favorite RGB values. Sweatshop workers would be a thing of the past, supplanted instead by warehouses of 3D printers, plugged in to the internet.
 Although I don’t play Starcraft anymore, the biggest lesson I learned from it was the importance of build order. In Starcraft, and often in life, having the right build order is the difference between winning or losing.
Starcraft is a real-time strategy game where players compete to gather resources, build up an army, and eventually battle each other to the death. A build order is a specific sequence of actions a player takes to win or lose the game. Often the best players in the world memorize 50+ steps of a specific build order, in order to execute a strategy flawlessly. When pit against a lesser player, who will make mistakes here and there, causing their opponent to gain a cumulative lead of a few minutes, it will often result in an early ambush and eventual defeat from the opponent.
I’ve used what I learned about build orders in Starcraft to be better at cooking (a big part of stir frying is learning when to drop in certain ingredients), more efficient at bartending, and to decide when to pursue certain ambitions.
 I like using bodybuilding as an example because in many ways, it is like programming. It’s a kind of greatness you can achieve all on your own, through your own hard work and persistence, eventually building an aesthetic of unbelievable refinement, just from a series of very simple steps.
Great read, Jason. The only question I have is how come I don’t see Reading on your HLAs list. How do you rank it?
I found myself must really like my job that even though the national cancer registry data shows statistically I may not see my 40th birthday, I still continue to get up and go to work everyday. At least I can answer the question that if I know ahead of time my life will be cut short, what would I do. So I am asking you this question now. Would you do anything differently if for some reason you might not have much time left on this planet?
Both Adam and I are savers so even though I might never be able to use a penny of it, I still max out my 401K. Why? Is saving money offer me “autotelic”? It must has. Well see what you made me question.
In any case, I though all four of you Ho brothers are all one of a kind. Leah and Dr. Ho must have done something right to raise kids like you guys. As a mother, this is my biggest wish in the whole world. Do you think any of your view about this world will change if one day you have your own children?
We will be in Macon this Thanksgiving. Hope to see all of you, too!
I definitely rank reading books very high on the list – It’s the natural complement to writing. There’s lots of research that shows non-musicians hear music differently than those trained in an instrument (who may pick up on tones or subtle nuances that no one else will notice). I think writing has done that for me with reading. I actually read differently now, and will pay attention to word choices and stylistic techniques that I never picked up on before. So reading helps you become a better writer, but writing also helps you become a better reader.
If I knew I didn’t have much time left, I’d probably go all in with something I’m already an expert at. I’m currently in my exploration / figuring-out-what-life-is-about stage, so trying various activities feels right. But eventually I’d probably double down on whatever I thought would make me happiest, and ignore the rest. It may be spending more time with my kids if I had a family, or if I had control over some powerful vessel for change, like a corporation, then I may do something with that. I think having a family would most definitely change my world view. I don’t know exactly how, but I think half the fun is figuring that out.
Happiness is a moving target, so whatever I say now will most definitely change later. I think the best we can do is sharpen our senses about what’s most important to us, which takes a great deal of honesty and introspection, then move towards where our insights lead us.
Amazing and creative article, Jasone!! I admire and appreciate your writing and absolutely love how you tied BJJ to everything in life. I truly believe that’s how we should view life — take what we love, ponder on why we love it and understand why it brings us such joy. I enjoyed the read!! =D
Hopefully will see y’all during Thanksgiving break!!
Great article and great writing. I really enjoyed reading it. I like how you’ve spelled out how to identify if an activity is a HLA and on how pairing HLAs together to maximize each of their values. I think of all the programming problems that are resolved by a Google search because someone has taken the 10 minutes to write a post (HLA 1) on how they tackled the same programming problem (HLA 2).
And I never realized the part about not remembering most of the meals in your life, but it’s so true. And the ones I do remember have usually to do with the event or the people.
Time to go crush my third donut of the morning.
You might be interested in Masahiko Kimura (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masahiko_Kimura). He was a judo practitioner who was so strong and technical that people would be afraid of sparring with him because he’d knock them out with the force of his throws. He was forced to practice his throws on heavy blocks of wood.
He fought Gracie in 1951 and ended up breaking his arm when Gracie would not submit.
I love this article and your concept of HLAs. I’m an avid BJJ practitioner and competitor myself, and looking to get into the programming scene. What languages would you recommend I put the most time into learning initially?