Go Around

When I was working with the NY Genome Center from late 2011 through early 2014, I took the opportunity to drop in and train at Oishi Judo Club in southern Manhattan. It’s a great school filled with strong, friendly, skilled judoka of all ages and backgrounds. It was the perfect place to balance out the stresses of living in hotels and working at the edge of my capacity.

One of the people at Oishi, Paul Virtue, taught me a great life lesson that I apply frequently in my professional life.

The summary / mnemonic is: “Go around.”

Paul is vastly stronger and more experienced than me at Judo. He’s a lifelong athlete who competes internationally in several martial arts. He’s also a careful training partner – I was never worried that he would injure me. I always considered it an honor that he would train with me. One of the things that I love about the Judo community is that it is filled with people who are so generous and careful as they share their expertise and experience.

Anyway, Paul and I were grappling one day, and I found myself frustrated that I couldn’t get past his “guard.” I was pushing hard, tiring myself out, but to no avail. He was just too strong. Our different levels of physical conditioning meant that he was going to remain stronger than me as we both tired out. After a few minutes of this, he looked me in the eye and said:

“That’s never gonna work! Go around, man, go around.”

Note, he didn’t say “give up,” “you’re not strong enough,” or anything like that. He also didn’t make a point of flipping the situation around with a cruel, “time’s up, n00b.” Instead, he gave me exactly the tip that I needed at that moment – rather than either shutting me down entirely or encouraging me to continue on a hopeless path – he gave me permission to try a new approach – to be curious and experiment.

What does it mean to “go around?” It’s just that since I couldn’t move him from where I was – I had to move myself. with a new perspective, it was a different problem.

Note that this wasn’t a miracle cure. There was no rapid training montage where I was suddenly just as strong and as skilled as him. Instead, we rapidly evolved to a new stalemate – but then there was another and another. In that series of transitions I discovered a joyful new level of judo practice. It was no longer a test of strength on strength – being strong enough to beat the other person – but rather one of agility and flexible perspectives.

People say that training with the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, was like “fighting an empty jacket.” By the time you would bring force to bear, he would have already moved out of the way.

The best engineers I’ve worked with have had this same supple tenacity, turning problems over and around until they suddenly become simple enough to solve.

Recognizing when a particular approach is never going to work and adapting around it isn’t failure (though it frequently feels like failure at the time). Instead, this is the higher level of practice – whether you’re grappling with a gnarly technical problem or an experienced athlete.

It’s a lesson that I took back to my work at the genome center – the team worked around strange configurations of fiber in the street, remarkably complex construction delays, evolving funding sources and strategic imperatives, and even a hurricane that flooded southern Manhattan. In every case, “going around” turns out to have been much more effective and powerful than merely powering through.

If you can’t budge the problem from where you are – then you have to move yourself.

Go around.

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