How to Overcome Risk Aversion and Develop Skills in BJJ, Baduk,* and Business (The Dao of Danaher pt. 1)

This post is the first of at least two posts inspired by John Danaher.

If you find yourself in an alleyway confronted by a limping bald man wearing a skin-tight rash guard and a fanny pack… run. That man is dangerous. That man is John Danaher.

The greatest mind in martial arts?

In addition to being the jiujitsu community’s best meme, Danaher is also the leading coach of modern sport jiujitsu. He has coached many of the top names in mixed martial arts and grappling, including Georges St-Pierre, Garry Tonon, and jiujitsu’s most dominant athlete, Gordon Ryan.

Danaher is known as a great systematizer of jiujitsu. He provides his disciples with an “If This, Then That” roadmap for any given grappling position. Over the last couple years he has published that system chunk-by-chunk in a series of instructional videos called “Enter the System,” available in a bundle for the immodest price of $1,000.**

But Danaher is not just a (now wealthy) jiujitsu savant. He is a polymath. He recently appeared on Lex Fridman’s podcast. Fridman, best known as an artificial intelligence researcher, is also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blackbelt. Fridman and Danaher spoke for three and a half hours––mostly about martial arts––but also about life’s meaning, death, psychology, A.I., chess, and baduk.

With that, you should no longer be surprised to be reading about John Danaher here.

Two ideas from the podcast made strong impressions on me:

1. Danaher describes encouragement of risk-taking as a neglected but critical aspect of jiujitsu skill development.

2. Danaher compares drilling in jiujitsu to partner dancing. (This topic I feel unusually qualified to speak to. It will be part two of this series.)

Interlude: The Moment Before Sparring

That’s me on the left during open mat.

For anyone who has never trained jiujitsu before, I want you to understand that––at least in my experience––students feel anxiety every single class. There’s actually a certain comedy to it.

A typical jiujitsu class includes a warm up, instruction, drilling, and ends with an open mat. Open mat means sparring. And sparring means “really fighting”––a simulated one-on-one fight to the death between classmates that ends with a “tap” or an expiring timer.

Sparring rounds are initiated when a pair of classmates make eye contact with one another. One of them will then typically say a variant of, “Wanna roll?” And they’re off.

The comedy is that it is completely natural to avoid making eye contact with certain people. I am thinking of a certain brown belt at my gym who weighs well over 200 pounds and wrestled at the Division 1 collegiate level.

Even though I know the guy and trust him not to kill me, I still find myself averting my eyes from his gaze during open mat. Nothing makes me feel so primal. This brings me back to John Danaher.

Risk-Taking in Jiujitsu

One central tenet of Danaher’s jiujitsu pedagogy is his emphasis on encouragement of risk-taking to facilitate skill development. Now, this is almost a tautology: It is of course necessary to try new things (take risks) in order to learn new things. But things become interesting, Danaher points out, when you consider the findings of behavioral and evolutionary science. It is not so simple to take risks.

Danaher cites the work of Amos Tversky in particular. Tversky’s work on “loss aversion” shows that someone who loses $100 will lose more satisfaction than the same person will gain in satisfaction from a gain of $100. This loss aversion is rooted in evolutionary biology: Humans are “survival machines.” If death (extreme loss) is a possible outcome of an action, we don’t like to take it. Applied to jiujitsu, this is precisely why we don’t make eye contact with giant wrestling brown belts during open mat.

And so we arrive at Danaher’s pedagogy with loss aversion in mind.

First, Danaher teaches beginner jiujitsu students to defend themselves and escape from bad positions before teaching them to attack. The idea here is that the more confident a jiujitsu fighter is in his ability to escape from a bad position, the more likely he is to try a new technique.

Coincidentally, I wrote about this exact concept as an afterthought in my essay on learning to play jiujitsu’s turtle position:

“One nice thing about having a good turtle is that it takes away some of the risk of experimenting with new moves. I want to go for that triangle? Maybe they stack me and I have to turtle. I want to shoot a single leg? Go ahead, sprawl on me––see what happens! Make my day.”

I should really give myself more credit.

Second, Danaher encourages students to spend most of their sparring time training with people who are worse than they are. Again, if you are confident that you can beat someone, you will be more inclined to to take risks and try new techniques.

Risk-Taking in Baduk

Perhaps because Danaher and Fridman discuss baduk in their interview, I was inspired to consider how loss aversion bias might be affecting my learning in baduk. I have two hypotheses here:

1. Loss aversion is stifling my progress in baduk in the same way it affects my jiujitsu learning.

2. I suspect that players in general put an inordinate amount of emphasis on saving threatened stones.

Unlike in Brazilian jiujitsu, there is no risk of injury or death in baduk––barring, perhaps, accidentally inhaling a stone or slapping oneself in the face. That said, I still accept the first hypothesis as true. This leaves the question: “So what?”

I’ve actually already implemented Danaher’s second suggestion: I am doing most of my sparring (game-playing) with people who are worse than I am. The Online Go Server allows players to select a specific rank range for opponents (see below). I allow a broader range of weaker opponents than I do stronger opponents, assuring that most of my games will be against weaker ones.

I also play regular 9×9 games against a small group of baduk-newbies. Playing against brand new players means experimenting comes with close to no risk.

The second hypothesis is less obvious and more interesting. In my experience it is also almost certainly true. As a kyu-level player observing A.I. and dan-level play, I am often struck by players’ willingness to sacrifice stones and territory. For me, the sacrifices and trades in high-level play are often impossible to understand.

One ironclad and legible example of this comes in a joseki continuation favored by modern high-level players, but scorned by kyu players. The variation involves the sacrifice of the corner territory in exchange for outside influence. It is seen here:

Compare this to a recent game of mine versus a 7-kyu opponent. My opponent spurned the variation not once but twice, leading to a board position greatly favoring white due to tremendous outside influence. My opponent just could not bring himself give up the corner territory. (Warning: The colors are inverted from the above example.)

A common theme of kyu-level play, conversely, is an overzealousness to defend weak stones. Weak kyu players will jump and jump and jump to protect a single weak stone, ignoring an opponent’s simultaneous territorial gains.

Each game of baduk, therefore, is an opportunity to recognize and combat your own cognitive bias: Recognize that you are biologically predisposed to place an inordinate amount of emphasis on not losing your stones. How should that impact your play?

Risk-Taking in Business (and Life)

If you’ve stayed with me thus far, you’ve earned the punchline: One of the main tasks of the personal, life, or executive coach is to help clients combat the exact same cognitive bias.

Prospective clients come to coaches with the same symptoms of stuckness and stagnation––only it’s not that they’ve been stuck at blue belt or double-digit kyu for years. Instead, they are facing frustration of personal, relational, career, or business development. This is without exception. 100%. Absolutely universal.

The personal or business coach therefore faces the same situation that John Danaher faces: How do you get a human “survival machine” to take risks in the face of tremendous cognitive bias? In business and life, solutions do not appear to be as elegant as “beat up white belts and double-digit kyu players.”

Right about now is when an expert marketing copywriter would write, “contact me to find out more!” So let’s pretend I’m an expert copywriter and leave it at that.

*From now on I am referring to the game of go by its Korean name, baduk. “Go” is just about the world’s worst search engine keyword. Forgive me if I slip up and write “Go” instead of baduk.

**The bizarre behavior of the instructional video economy is a different story that I may visit someday.

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