A friendly jiujitsu match

On combat as the pursuit of wisdom.

Jerry Yao

November 21, 2023

A response to The Harper Review’s autumn 2023 proposition, “Friends should share your values.”

Dear editors

Friends don’t have to share your values. Finding an intellectual sparring partner is important.

Let’s begin with a unique angle: the zodiac. My zodiac sign is Cancer. Cancers are known for caring about others’ feelings. In particular, we don’t like to engage in conflict due to its typically undesirable consequences. In an argument, people often get angry and say nasty things to each other. Physical conflict is even worse—naturally, most people want to avoid it at all costs.

In some rare cases, however, people pay others so that they can get beat up. I did this myself when I signed up for Brazilian jiujitsu, a form of mixed martial arts. I started as a white belt, the lowest level. After a few weeks of training, I felt that I was ready to take on a challenge, so I decided to take on my black-belt instructor, thinking to myself, “What if I’m a prodigy?”

In a six-minute sparring session, my instructor defeated me five times. That’s one loss every 1.2 minutes. But by holding a career record of zero wins and five losses, I became better. I learned what not to do in a fight. The larger lesson I learned was that we mustn’t disdain all conflicts. A friendly jiujitsu match, while it might hurt you, motivates you to learn and helps you become smarter. This is what I call a controlled conflict: one in which both parties know that the goal is to learn rather than to humiliate each other.

Becoming smarter academically is surprisingly very similar to becoming a better practitioner of jiujitsu. One may accomplish the former by deliberately inducing controlled conflicts in a discussion. Here is why and how.

Why. Our minds are lame when they are at peace and need catalysts to activate them. One of these catalysts is emotion. Verbal conflicts can intensify people’s emotions and motivate them to think and fight back. A discussion fueled by conflict provides efficient feedback for both parties, allowing them to reveal each other’s biases and reach higher-order insights that no one could arrive at on their own.

How to induce conflicts. In a discussion, make your statements strong and concise. Don’t try to cook up a verbal essay by adding tons of qualifications and dispelling all potential objections in advance. This wastes the very benefit of a discussion, the productive back-and-forth. You should make an argument, provide reasoning, and leave it to your intellectual sparring partner to respond. This motivates them to identify your biases and come up with good objections. Motivated by the objections, you argue back, and the stairway to higher-order insights comes into sight.

How to control conflicts. We don’t want conflicts to go wild. One tip for avoiding conflicts that get out of control is to stay away from personal attacks. If you want to argue against someone, instead of saying, “You are wrong,” say, “Your view is wrong.” Another tip is to find the right intellectual sparring partner, such as a trusted friend or a professor you respect. Tell them in advance that you see conflict as a learning process.

If both you and your friend recognize the benefit of controlled conflict, your friend doesn’t have to share your values. A controlled conflict is a collaborative effort in the pursuit of wisdom.


Jerry Yao

Jerry Yao is a master’s student at New York University studying mathematics.