#46: Think for Yourself [Podcast]

Welcome to Episode #46 of the Fight for a Happy Life podcast, “Think for Yourself.”

Are you a leader or a follower? Do you go with the flow or think for yourself?

Be warned—these are two very different ways to live your life. For me, only one will lead you to success in the martial arts and beyond. Let me tell you how I figured that out.

To LISTEN to, “Think for Yourself,” you can either:

Think for Yourself poster

To READ along, or if the player won’t play, you’ll find a full transcript down below.

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Thanks for listening! Keep fighting for a happy life! 🙂

Think for Yourself


Today on Fight for a Happy Life… think for yourself.

Welcome to Episode #46 of Fight for a Happy Life, the show that believes a little martial arts makes life a whole lot better.

 Ando here and if you could see me, I’ve got a big, stupid smile on my face today. That’s because since the last time we were together, my YouTube channel hit two million views. [CLAPS]

Yup. Thank you. That is crazy. I mean, I never thought I’d have a million of anything, let alone TWO million. So, if you’ve helped me in this, if you’ve ever watched one of my videos over on YouTube or on SenseiAndo.com, thank you for proving to me that anything is possible.

And if you don’t care about the videos, you prefer the podcast maybe, well, thank you, too! The podcast was actually my first love. I started this podcast more than a year before shooting any videos. Before the podcast, when I started babbling about the philosophical side of the martial arts, most people would either fall asleep, walk away, or just tell me to shut up.

It really does take a special kind of person to put up with my babbling. Which means if you’re listening to me babble right now, you, my friend, are a special person. And I thank you for that. When this podcast hits two million downloads, I’ll let you know. But for now, let’s get to today’s topic.

Surprise! We already started. I just pointed out that you are a special kind of person. First, because you’re probably a martial artist. So, that puts you in a minority group right off the bat. Second, you’re listening to a podcast about the philosophical side of the martial arts. That puts you in a minority group within a minority group.

Which leads me to ask—what’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you like everybody else? I mean, you realize that most of your friends and your family think you’re a whacko, right?

You probably do know that, don’t you? But you do what you do anyway, which not only makes you special, it makes you cool. Cool because you think for yourself. And in my experience, thinking for yourself is the key to success not only in the realm of martial arts and self-defense, but in everything you do. So, let me babble about thinking for yourself a little more right now.

[03:11] Imagine this—you are confronted by someone aggressive. It could be at work. It could be on the street. Some jerk stares you down, calls you a name, and gets in your face. Maybe this jerk even gives you a push. Now you’re wondering, “Am I about to be in a fight or not?”

To me, this moment is the most difficult part of self-defense. Punching and kicking is easy compared to figuring out when you should start punching and kicking.

Does this guy intend to hurt me or is he just blowing off steam? Did I do something wrong or is he crazy? Should I apologize or push back? Should I run, throw a punch, or wait to see what happens?

Sure, sometimes, it’s easy to figure out. If somebody kicks in your bedroom door in the middle of the night, hey—you’re in a fight. If someone stands up next to you on an airplane with a box cutter, yelling, you’re in a fight. Now, whether you’re emotionally and physically prepared to take action in those moments is another question, but at least you know you should take action.

But what about this jerk who’s yelling in your face? Or those two punks who seem to be following you? Or that weirdo who keeps staring at you? If you run, are you overreacting? Will your friends laugh at you? If you throw the first punch, will you be justified? Will you be sued? Will your friends visit you in prison?

It may sound crazy, but even when I’ve been sucker punched, I mean, literally punched in the face, I wasn’t always sure if I was in a fight. Back then, when I had no martial arts training, getting punched in the face just confused me. Pain, fear, denial, shock… any of those reactions will freeze you from thinking clearly.

Later on, when I had some martial arts training, getting punched in the face wasn’t confusing—I knew I was in danger—but I was also way better at keeping my cool. I could take a punch and not freak out. I was mature enough to think, “Whoa— this person has lost control… but that doesn’t mean I have to lose control.”

I didn’t take the jerk’s aggression personally. Which meant I could take my time to consider my options. And doesn’t that make me sound wise? Well, don’t be fooled, because saying that I could take my time is just another way of saying that I was stuck up to my waist in the swamp of indecision.

So, whether you’ve trained yourself to take a punch or not, you can still end up wondering, “Is this a real fight or not? Should I run, fight back, or wait to see what happens?”

It would be so much easier if someone would just tell you what to do, wouldn’t it? “Run! Fight! Push back!” Of course, sometimes, people DO tell you what to do, but then you’ve got to figure out whether you should listen to them or not. And that’s not always easy.

The bottom line—no matter who you are, or who you have in your corner telling you what to do, or what experiences you’ve already lived through, in most cases, the biggest issue holding you back from making the decisions and taking the actions that will lead you to success is the courage to think for yourself.

Why is it so hard to think for yourself? Why does it sometimes feel like your own brain is holding you back from taking action, even when you’re under attack and in danger of losing everything?

There’s really no mystery here. We’ve talked about it before. We fear making a mistake. We fear failure. We fear looking foolish. We fear standing alone. You know all that.

But here’s the confounding part— you also know that letting someone else make decisions for you can be a mistake. You know that hesitating to make any decision can also lead to failure. You know that even if you listen to the wisest teacher and follow the smartest crowd, you can still end up looking foolish and standing alone.

So, what are we supposed to do? Lead or follow? Step up or step back? I have the answer. I’m not saying it’s the right answer for everybody, but it’s the answer for me. Let me tell you how I found it.

[08:08] When I was 20, I jumped out of a hot air balloon. Don’t worry—I was attached to a bungee cord. I was down in North Carolina for an Aikido summer camp and was catching a ride back to the airport with a fellow student. At some point, he cut through a country road lined with tobacco plants.

hot air balloonsUp ahead, sticking above the giant leaves, a hand-painted sign called to us: Bungee Jump. $50. And sure enough, hovering above the green fields, we saw a hot air balloon. So, feeling invincible after surviving the Aikido camp, I asked my buddy, “You want to do it?” My buddy said, “Yeah, sure!”

Now, to be clear, this was not a professional amusement park or the type of establishment that would ever file for a business license. This was just a dude who somehow got his hands on a hot air balloon trying to make a little extra money. There was no safety net or crash pad or any evidence that a safety inspector knew what this guy was doing. But did that stop me? Heck no! Did I mention I was 20?

So, we drove up and found this dude and his girlfriend hanging out by a balloon. When my buddy saw how bare-bones the operation was, he bailed immediately. But did that stop me? Heck no! I hopped out of that car and I gave the dude 50 bucks.

He told me to step into a harness and then stand on a wooden ledge that was sticking out from the side of the basket. The outside of the basket. The ledge was only, I don’t know, five or six inches wide, which meant you had to turn around, set your heels on the ledge, and then reach back to hold on to the basket.

Can you picture that? Okay. So, he fires up the balloon and we lift off. At about 20 feet up, I sensed that the pressure on the harness was tighter on my left leg than my right leg. So, I said to the dude, “Hey, I think the harness is loose.”

Balloon Dude leans over, takes a look, and says, “Oh.” That’s it! Then he reaches over and tightens the buckle. Yikes! Talk about a confidence booster! But did that stop me? Heck no.

So, up, up, up we go. Soon enough, the balloon reached the end of its tether and we stopped. It was dead silent. It felt as if the entire world had stopped to watch me jump. Then the dude mumbled, “Anytime you want.”

And that was it. The moment had arrived. It was up to me and me alone to make the decision to jump off that ledge. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy.

It would have been so much easier if the guy had just pushed me. Or if the wind had blown me off the ledge. But he didn’t push me and there was no wind. It was just me. Me, the dirt below, and my thoughts.

“Why am I doing this? What if the bungee cord breaks? Is there a hospital around here? Would everybody think I was a coward if I don’t jump? Would I think I was a coward if I don’t jump?”

Ultimately, I decided to jump. And because I was raised on cartoons, I decided to jump high up in the air and swan dive off the balloon in a long, graceful arc.

So, here we go. I bent my knees and jumped. But there was no swan dive. It turns out gravity doesn’t work that way. Here’s how gravity works—3… 2… 1… jump—AGHHHHHH!

The second your foot leaves that ledge, you’re dropping headfirst. But not for long. A moment later, I was dangling upside-down, seeing stars. The freefall itself was exhilarating. Hanging upside-down like an idiot while you wait for the balloon to descend, not so much.

So, was the jump worth $50? Yes. Absolutely. As it turned out, that jump was the most difficult and thrilling moment of my entire life.

[13:00] Okay. So, now let’s jump ahead 10 years or so. I was in Las Vegas with my family on vacation. My step-dad found a brochure advertising parachute jumps over the desert. He was excited by the idea, I think it was on his bucket list, but nobody wanted to join him… except for me. I wanted to feel that thrill again. The thrill of standing high up in the air and making that decision to jump. So, we drove out to the airstrip.

Unfortunately, it turns out they won’t just let you jump out of an airplane on your own. No. You have to do a tandem jump. That means you have a professional jumper strapped on your back. He gives the countdown… he makes the decision to jump… he pulls the cord… he steers you back to earth. You’re just along for the ride. Which ruins everything.

Believe it or not, jumping out of the airplane was not thrilling at all. The hot air balloon was only about four or five hundred feet off the ground… and I screamed. The plane was thousands and thousands of feet high, but my pulse never quickened. You know why? Because I didn’t jump. The parachute pro jumped. I just fell.

Once the freefall was over and we were just floating around over the desert, the pro said to me, “You can scream if you want to.” I said, “Nah. I’m good.” What a disappointment.

And just in case you think the Vegas jump was a fluke, maybe my belly was so full of buffet food that I was too tired to care, I actually tried another tandem jump just this past summer in Georgia. I thought maybe things would be different. Nope.

Now, don’t get me wrong— free falling and feeling that cold wind blasting you in the face is fun. It’s better than sitting on some air-conditioned tour bus, that’s for sure. But for me, the tandem jump was nothing compared to the bungee jump. Which taught me a valuable lesson—

The greatest thrill in life is thinking for yourself. Making your own decisions. Jumping on your own.

But forget about adrenaline for a minute. Let’s talk strategy. Let’s talk about thinking for yourself on the mats. Like when you spar, for example.

When you square off with your opponent and you hear the word GO, you have a choice—attack or counter-attack. Take the initiative or go with the flow. Do what you want to do or react to what they want to do.

Of course, to be a master fighter, you should be competent at both skill sets, but I would like to acknowledge that they do not feel the same. I would say that acting is rooted in a completely separate part of your soul from reacting.

There is a huge difference between creating and managing. Scrapping and controlling. Taking what you get and getting what you take.

For me, the goal of an advanced student is to manage a bad situation and turn it to his or her advantage. The goal of a master, however, is to design situations and make them come true.

But you don’t have to wait 30 or 40 years to start fighting like a master. You can start designing situations right now. Or at least try. In my experience, it’s better to try to make your idea come true than go with the flow of someone else’s idea.

When I’m sparring or rolling against someone who’s better than I am, the worst thing I can do is wait to see what happens. If I wait to see what happens against someone who’s better than I am, then all I’m going to see is me getting beaten to death. That’s because you can’t counter-attack if you don’t recognize the attack. Or if you don’t have the skills to stop the attack.

[17:28] Everybody loves to talk about going with the flow, but listen to me, my friend—there is no advantage to going with the flow when the flow is leading you to your death. If you can’t ride the tides, you’re going to crash on the rocks.

Instead, you should focus on starting your own flow. You want the other guy reacting, defending, countering, and going with the flow. Your flow. Which means, when I face someone who’s better than I am, I think for myself and I attack. I may still lose, sure, but I was going to lose anyway. At least now I do it on my terms and I give myself a chance to win. If I follow the path that he’s laid out, I’m going to die for sure. I’ll give you a quick example.

photo by Justin Posey

A few weeks ago, I was rolling with a much stronger and more experienced grappler. I quickly ended up in a position where the right thing to do would be to curl up like a possum and wait. It was such a bad position, you could only defend yourself. The only other move I could have made was to sit up and turn my back, which is a huge no-no. So, that’s exactly what I did. I sat up and turned my back. Not out of fear, but on purpose.

My partner was shocked. He actually said, “Now, why in the world would you do that?” Think about that for a second. Up until that point, we hadn’t spoken a word. I didn’t even know the guy. But when I broke the rules, when I stepped off the path of predictability, when I thought for myself, he stopped.

And that is the first step to beating someone better than you. I disrupted his game plan by breaking an expected pattern of behavior and creating a new situation. The second step is to know how to take advantage of that new situation. In this case, I didn’t. I still lost. But it’s a start. At least I was smart enough to know that going with his flow meant losing his way. By thinking for myself, I started my own flow and changed the situation.

To be clear here, I’m not saying you should only think for yourself and ignore the advice and experiences of other people. Not at all. If you just run around doing whatever you want, whenever you want, well, that makes you a sociopath. Worse, you’re an ignorant sociopath.

If you refuse to listen to teachers and people who have gone before you, you will severely limit how much you can learn. I’m just saying you should never limit your learning to what you learn from others. That will also limit how much you learn.

Instead, always allow yourself the freedom to go beyond what you’ve been told and shown. When you choose to heed someone’s advice or follow someone else’s path, fine—just be aware that you’re following. Don’t be led blindly. Don’t be tricked into thinking someone else’s thoughts are your thoughts.

As much as you listen to others, make time to listen to yourself. Your feeling. Your instincts. No matter how much you respect someone else’s experience, no one’s journey is yours. You’re on your own. Think and act accordingly.

It’s a difficult balance in the martial arts, because we have to have faith in our teachers and in what we’re being shown. Without faith, why would you keep going to class? Why would you keep practicing?

Look—don’t waste time and energy reinventing the wheel or figuring out how to make a fist. So, listen to your teachers and practice what they tell you. Take advantage of the headstart they can give you.

But as time passes, ask yourself if what you’re practicing is worth it. Does it work? Does it work for you? Will it get you where you want to go?

Make no mistake, we are insecure creatures. So, when your personal experiences match up with someone else’s experiences, it’s a beautiful moment. It feels good. It builds confidence. It upholds a tradition. But we can’t let the rush of finding affirmation in others cause us to give up the thrill of finding affirmation within ourselves.

[22:29] Does this all make sense? I fear like I’m babbling, so let me sum this up.

The hot air balloon jump was the most thrilling moment of my life. Why? Because it was my idea. I did it by myself. The decision to jump was mine and mine alone. The tandem parachute jumps were a group activity. I followed along. The decision to jump was not mine. I was just along for the ride.

What about you?

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re living your life in one of these two ways. Are you jumping on your own or are you just along for the ride? Are you choosing your own battles or getting pushed into fighting someone else’s battles? Are you doing what you want or have you been persuaded to do what everybody else is doing?

Are you the artist or the fan? The general or the soldier? The leader or the follower? The original or the copy?

I warn you, these are two very different lives. In one life, you are pushed and pulled, floating through circumstances, hoping things will work out the way you want them to.

In the other life, you do the pushing and pulling. You shape circumstances to match your vision of how you want them to be. If you float at all, it’s because you choose to float. Otherwise, you take control and you make the decisions.

You accept the stress that comes with thinking for yourself, but you also enjoy the fulfillment that comes with it.

The more you embrace each moment of decision and make it your own, your life will transform from boring to thrilling. Ordinary to extraordinary. Forgettable to memorable.

So, I hereby challenge you to think for yourself. To take the initiative. To create. To jump.

Don’t wait for someone to push you. Don’t wait for the winds of fate to shake you. Don’t go with the flow. Don’t play someone else’s game.

No matter how you live your life, there is always a chance you will fail. There is always a chance you’ll end up lost and alone. But there’s only one way of living that will thrill you. That will make you proud. That will put a permanent smile in your heart. That will give you give you a chance at making your life exactly the way you want it.

Think for yourself.