In the late 1990’s, when I was still a law student at St. Mary’s University School of Law, one of my favorite ways to “unwind” was watching Ultimate Fighting Championship—back when the sport was just coming into its own. At the time, UFC was banned in more than 30 states, forcing viewers like me to watch through a black box (if you know, you know).
What I loved most about the sport wasn’t just the “no rules" rules but the incredible diversity of skills of the fighters themselves. There were boxers and jiu-jitsu experts; boxers and street fighters; Muay Thai and judo artists: people who were considered the very best in their respective disciplines. To see those modern-day gladiators going toe-to-toe, mano a mano, each looking for weaknesses in the other’s style, using their minds as much as their muscles—it was exhilarating. Even inspiring.
As a young Latina trying to find her way in the law, one of the world’s most highly competitive fields, UFC was both a release and a brutal reminder of how hard one must prepare, train and fight to stake one’s claim. It also taught me the importance of being graceful and dignified in defeat—to leave the arena (the Octagon for UFC fans) with your head held high, no matter the outcome.
I don’t watch UFC as often as I used to. To me, the sport has become too homogenous; almost everyone these days is a mixed martial artist (MMA), which is just a fancy term for “physically overwhelming your opponent and getting them into a submission hold as quickly as possible—typically with an arm bar or leg bar. I still enjoy UFC from time to time. Especially if it’s a world-class fight. And yes, those occasional displays of grace and dignity in defeat (and in victory) are a big reason why.
For many people, this past year has felt like being in the Octagon with Royce Gracie or Ken Shamrock. I know I feel that way. Between the still-raging pandemic, the recent social unrest and the ongoing economic and political turmoil, we’ve all been defeated to one degree or another. We’ve all been humbled. But just as UFC athletes live to fight another day, regardless of their win-loss record, we too must find the wherewithal to bounce back—to hone our skills and address our weaknesses. To become anti-fragile.
These days, and much like the modern UFC fighter, everyone is expected to be a “jack (or jill) of all trades.” Whether it’s tackling the latest technology or outpacing your peers and competitors with different skills. It’s fine to be highly specialized in one thing—at least at first. But you have to be willing to expand and amplify your knowledge, to go outside your comfort zone of experience, and find new skills to hone.
While many (if not most) of today’s UFC fighters are MMA athletes, with all the skills that discipline entails, each has his or her own strengths. For Joanna Jedrzejczyk, it’s her Muay Thai prowess and stamina. For Khabib Nurmagomedov, it’s his elite takedown ability. These are the skills that set them apart - distinguishes them - from the competition. But that doesn’t mean they can just ignore the other aspects of fighting. The trick is to find that balance between making your weaknesses difficult to exploit and honing your own strengths—to ensure the competition is always a few steps (or a few skills) behind.
Before joining SHPE, I was a trial lawyer and litigator by trade. Critical thinking; effective communication and advocacy; stealth-mode strategy: these were the skills I spent years perfecting. And I knew they’d give me a competitive edge. But being a CEO—much like being in the top tier of UFC—requires a much broader skillset. Vision. Transformational leadership. Organizational strategy. A sense of humor. If I had any chance of succeeding in this new role, these were the things I would need to sharpen. So I did. And I’ve become a more dynamic leader because of it. (Thank you, adversity!)
Did you know that a 2015 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average person has 12 different jobs between the ages of 18 and 50? It’s probably higher than that now. Whatever your chosen field, there will inevitably come a time when you’re forced to “level up”—to learn new skills and develop new ways of working (and thinking).
My advice: It’s never too early to start. Rather than wait until you’re thrown into the Octagon against someone with a totally different tactical approach, forced to rely on the same old skills, why not prepare accordingly? For SHPE members, it could be something as simple as tuning in to our latinxfactor webinar series; or as challenging as a new certification or advanced degree.
Much as the UFC underwent a seismic shift in the early-to-mid 2000’s, when athletes had to learn entirely new methods of combat, the economic, political and social transformations we’re seeing (which in many ways are being accelerated by COVID) require constant evolution and adaptation. It’s up to us to rise to the occasion—to meet this moment like a fighter in the ring. We won’t always win. But so long as we continue to broaden and bolster our skills, the better prepared we’ll be for the next competition.
To put it another way (and in the words of this excellent blog about UFC), life isn’t just about winning. It’s also about learning from our losses.
That is what makes a real fighter: It’s not whether you will fall (because you will from time to time) but how quickly you get back up and get back to it.