How to Stop Obsessing Over Promotions

How to Stop Obsessing Over Promotions

‘Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.’ -- William Munny, Unforgiven

Promotions run the gamut of emotion. There are those who feel they’re undeserving of their new belts, those who are elated to be recognized by their instructors, and those who are salty because they feel they didn’t get what they deserve. Maybe you know somebody who has fallen into that last category. Maybe it’s you. And maybe not getting that belt was exactly what you needed.

Jiu Jitsu attracts motivated people. From the outside, it appears strange, if not torturous. Those who feel compelled to step onto the mats often become enthralled with Jiu Jitsu’s complexity and its appeal to a latent, better version of ourselves. The problem is that Jiu Jitsu is difficult -- perhaps the most difficult thing we’ve ever done. Effort doesn’t always translate to progress.

That’s where this feeling of deserving comes in. When I hear the word deserve, it brings up a certain scene from a certain Clint Eastwood movie: a useful, if not chilling, reminder for the belt-obsessed.


The verb, to deserve, usually has transactional connotations. I did X, so I deserve Y. I completed the challenging project, so I deserve a raise. I exercised this morning, so I deserve this candy bar. I was with the baby all day, so I deserve some couch time. This logic holds up in some areas of life, but it does not, I believe, in Jiu Jitsu. 

Working hard does not mean you deserve a promotion. High potency of effort in Jiu Jitsu is not the exception. It’s the norm. If you aren’t working hard, you’re not doing it right. And therein lies the problem. Working hard has connotations of quantity. I worked hard means I logged a lot of hours. But you can log countless hours of wasted time if your efforts are misplaced. What we need in Jiu Jitsu are quality, high-potency hours.

This quality/quantity disconnect causes a lot of anguish in Jiu Jitsu, especially around promotions. Some of it, I believe, is generational. If you’re a Millennial like me, you probably remember T-ball games that nobody ever won, and football seasons that ended with trophies, regardless of the team’s record. Showing up and going through the motions was enough. Exerting yourself, even a little bit, got you noticed.

Some of it, I think, is also cultural. America is and Americans are quantity-obsessed. It’s in the praise that gets heaped on the employee who logs extra hours, for example. The employee who might produce the same volume of superior-quality work in half the time might be looked down on when they leave the office promptly at 5 p.m.

A principle-based approach

For the quantity-inculcated grappler, not getting the belt they feel they deserve can be a real inflection point. Particularly if a quantity mindset brought them success in other arenas of life, such as their careers. The situation can teeter on a crisis of identity. Who am I if working hard doesn’t get me what I want? Who am I if I can’t out-work the competition to earn a purple belt?

Ironically, I’ve noticed that the quantity-obsessed grapplers respond to this crisis of identity with … you guessed it, more! More footage. More open mats. More seminars. More frustration. More stalled progress. More quitting. So, what do they need instead? As a hobbyist grappler and occasional competitor with a wife, baby on the way, and a career, these two principles serve me well:

  • Internal orientation: The idea that markers of progress are self-created and self-regulated. You have created your own milestones and your own processes for meeting them. These processes become more meaningful than their outcomes. Outcomes in the external world, such as earning a new belt, mean less than your own internal standards.
  • Deliberate practice: The idea of training intentionally. Every round incorporates a specific principle or technique that you’re working on. You’re not just going out onto the mats to bang heads.

Now, let me clarify a couple of things. Jiu Jitsu requires a certain amount of external orientation. After all, you have an instructor who is likely worthy of your attention and respect. You can’t become a petulant tween and stop caring what they think. Furthermore, you can’t completely ignore the external feedback that Jiu Jitsu provides, such as getting submitted, losing advantageous positions, and generally speaking, getting owned.

With regard to the latter, what you can do is not let these external circumstances determine a “good” or a “bad” day on the mats. Internal orientation allows for new levels of objectivity. How did today’s training track with my internal objectives?, for example. You can and should co-create these internal objectives with your coach.

Investing in loss

The same applies to your deliberate practice. All too often, Jiu Jitsu classes transition from instruction to open training, and the lesson of the day is instantly forgotten. Everyone defaults to what they know and do best, and training becomes the head-banging scenario described above. Deliberate practice requires conscious effort: deciding what you want to work on and then emphasizing that aspect of your game in your training.

This means investing in loss. Unless you’re a fast learner, there’s going to be an adjustment period that lasts until you’ve integrated this new technique, until it becomes second-nature. This is where internal orientation proves to be especially helpful. With your self-generated markers of success and progress, you begin to see “losing” as an essential part of deliberate practice. It’s actually the thing you need to advance your game.

Combine these two elements, and you’ve essentially created a positive feedback loop for your training. With that feedback loop running, you’ll begin to see external signifiers of progress, like that belt promotion, as less important. What becomes more important is quality training time. You may even begin to see that deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.

Joe Hannan is a writer, consultant, and purple belt at Princeton Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. You can see more of what he’s up to here or follow him here.