Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Choking People Made Me A Better Designer

Some days I run out of work at 5 PM to go choke people. Not to be rude. I let them choke me, too. I am a student of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art that promotes the idea that a smaller, weaker person can beat a larger, stronger person through skill and technique. And yes, sometimes chokes. I love the art. I love the science. There is so much to understand and it keeps me fascinated. I often see the similarities between my 9 to 5 and my version of happy hour. My job as a designer at Amazon is challenging. What I do for fun is equally challenging. Work hard, play hard. There are so many lessons in fighting that are relevant to my life and to my job. But three in particular stand out for me.

Lesson number one: calm down. When I first started training, I would physically exert myself to the point I would burn out in a matter of minutes. Like pushing against a brick wall, all my effort was getting me nowhere. You’ll never learn to control other people if you can’t control yourself. Early on, my instructors told me many times to slow down. What they were actually telling me to do was to think more about the problem at hand. Take time and analyze the opportunities as they arise. So in time, with the right direction, I began to understand how to slow down and apply pressure only where there can be forward movement. Attack the weak spots and defend with minimal effort.

As a UX designer, I am sometimes pulled into conversations where someone has already framed the problem and is telling me how to solve it with their solution. I know an impulsive response when I see it. This is where I take a step back and consider all angles before deciding how to solve the problem, because I have learned that when you get in a hurry and allow someone to press you, you make mistakes.

When you’re tired and a 225-pound athlete is crushing down on you, trying to pull your arm out of socket, it’s easy to lose your wits and give in to the pressure. But I find that if you steady your mind, you’ll be better equipped to defend yourself. You focus on survival first, slowly working your technique to get back to a position of neutrality. Then you attack.

Lesson number two: seek efficiency. So often we hear this message. The idea seems easy enough to grasp, but often slips through our fingers. When fighting, efficiency is a matter of applying the appropriate leverage at the appropriate time. Anything else becomes a waste of your energy, the most precious commodity you have in a fight. Worse, inefficient movement exposes you to counter attack.

When designing an experience, our principal goal is to create an efficient experience. Any online task we ask a user to complete should contain the minimum number of steps they can cognitively manage. Sometimes there is an argument about needing to add more things to a design. But more often in my experience, I find people wanting to take too much away. There are essential steps you can’t combine or remove. Try cutting out a few essential steps in a Jiu-Jitsu technique, and you’re going to lose. Too few steps is just as inefficient as too many.

Lesson number three: learn to fight by fighting. When I was much younger and training in Karate, I thought I was learning to fight by punching the air. There were all these theories about how to defeat your opponent in a given situation. Yet, no one was regularly testing these techniques, and no one seriously questioned them.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu techniques can only be fully understood when you learn to use them on someone who is fully resisting. You find some things work for you and others that don’t. It is a test-based mentality. When something fails, you ask, “What did I do wrong? Are there details I am missing?” The challenge is that you are reacting to a living thing rather than just the air, and not everyone reacts the same way. So you adjust your technique and try again.

Creating a user experience is no different. It’s easy to get lost in a world of theory and opinion without testing and feedback. Even the most educated guess is still a guess. But seeing how people react to a situation will keep you headed in the right direction. I am fortunate that I practice two disciplines that pursue a higher truth through testing. For me, it’s a cornerstone of both.


I train at the Gracie Barra Ballard academy just north of Seattle. Stop by for a free intro lesson!