Fight Club Moments

February 18, 2007 — 15 Comments

“…When that point of realization comes, that sudden enlightenment, it will all be worth it. Most don’t ever try. Those that succeed understand its necessity; the deconstructing of a world based on illusion and skewed priority. Too often, it is horrific. Consistently, it is Zen-like sudden. Usually, it comes from an unexpected slap in the face, usually from someone who’s judged through a transparent and insecure appearance. It’s a traumatic experience, but one that can yield dividends and ultimately lead to true self-esteem and awareness.” —Shawn Shahani

One of my buddies wrote that in a column a few weeks ago, and I’ve been meaning to write about it. His piece came from a theory we’d been talking about a lot lately, namely at 3 in the morning over carne asada fries in shady Mexican restauranta. That every great or significant life change comes from an event in which a person is thoroughly demolished, and everything they thought they knew is proven untrue–and from there they have to decide whether to get back up or stay on the ground. We call them ‘Fight Club Moments,’ an allusion to Jack’s apartment explosion. It was the catalyst in his life change, one that he was too afraid to make himself. At the end of the book we find that Jack created Tyler out of that fear–to pull the trigger on the decision he was petrified of making.

As we discussed it, each of us could pick one, if not two or three moments, in which we had been utterly destroyed, in which our lives had fallen to ruin and disarray. Through comparison we found a few distinct similarities, 1) They almost always came at the hands of someone else. 2) They involved things we already knew about ourselves but we’re too scared to admit 3) From that ruin came great progress and improvement.

I remember mine distinctly: Getting dumped on the phone from a nearly 4-year relationship. It was one I knew I needed to end, but too comfortable to leave. The one that locked me in an unproductive stasis for the majority of my teens, deluded me into mediocrity and forced me to compromise on things I shouldn’t have. And so while I knew the breakup was necessary, I hated every second of it. In retrospect it’s easy to sit back and act like you accepted the change on its face. I didn’t at the time. I fought it every day. It was my apartment explosion, everything was taken from me–all the things I’d collected together in a perverse effort to create a ‘life’ for myself on someone else’s terms. It’s definitive and life-changing in the way that only painful things can be.

Or to bring it back to Rudius, in my first few weeks on the job, I made some idiot mistake. I opened my mouth when I shouldn’t have, and I ignored my instincts. It brought this from Tucker:

“You are a college fucking sophomore. You don’t know shit. No one is asking you. You are here to do gopher work until you have enough experience to contribute to the discussion in a meaningful way. I know you think you know what you are doing–I thought I was the smartest person on earth when I was your age–but I didn’t know shit, and neither do you. Your job here is this: Shut up. Do what we ask. Listen to what we say. LEARN. The only things you should feel confident about giving opinions about are these things: [this space intentionally left blank]”

And though I totally deserved it, or even knew that my ego was at times out of control, to have a hero tell you it so directly is crushing. The words threw me back slouched in my chair, speechless and dumbfounded. The shock that comes when you asked to be “punched in the face as hard as [they] can. That kind of self-awareness doesn’t come naturally, it has to be forced upon you. We’re too delusional to head off and acknowledge our own flaws. If we’re to ever overcome them, they need them to be illuminated–brutally–by a second party. And the fact that this came just days after my first Fight Club moment…

Since I read the column, and really became conscious of the idea, it’s been on my mind constantly. Then I read the biography of John Boyd by Robert Coram, where he discusses Boyd’s seminal paper: Destruction and Creation. When I read this passage, it all sort of cleared up for me.

“He called breaking the domains apart a ‘destructive deduction.’ (Today some refer to such a jump as thinking outside the box. But Boyd believed the very existence of a box is limiting. The box must be destroyed before there can be creation) He challenged the audience: ‘How do we construct order and meaning out of this mess?'”

When I was dumped, all I had left was the question Boyd posed. How do I rise from these ashes? How do I make sense of this? How do I move onwards, upwards? With Tucker it was the same. I’ve hit bottom, now I can improve. Someone told me my problem, so how do I fix them? Maybe it’s that beat downs lead to self-reflection. Because I hate them so much, that I let an impulse wrest the reigns from my hands, I instantly turn inwards. How did I let this happen? How can it never happen again? Of course there is a distinction between a deserved whipping and a gratuitous one. But the reaction should be the same. Internal. Inward. How have I allowed myself to be in a position where they think they can talk to me this way? How can it never happen again?

And now I see both events as two of the best things to ever happen to me. What I think you ultimately take away from this is: “it’s only after we’ve lost everything, that we’re free to do anything.” Like Durden says, “it’s not a goddamn seminar.” Hitting bottom is as brutal as it sounds. You’re not supposed to enjoy it, just realize that the difficulty pays off tenfold in freedom. But the best part, is once you acknowledge the necessity, you can see them coming.

I could be totally wrong about “Fight Club Moments,” and perhaps the path to greatness isn’t paved with their horror. I hope that I am. I hope that somewhere, someone made it through without ever having to hit bottom; without ever having their life torn apart and their deepest imperfections dissected before their own eyes. But I doubt it. That sort of pre-emptive self-awareness just isn’t possible. And in the end–as cliche as it sounds–the only way you can appreciate the progress is to stand on the edge of the hole you’ve dug, look down inside it, and smile fondly at the bloody claw-prints that marked your journey up the walls.

Edit: Copy editing is not my specialty. Bart hooked me up.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

15 responses to Fight Club Moments

  1. I notice that I’m usually one of few who comment on your articles, and just out of curiosity what do you want out of the comments section? People to chime in on your theory? People to relate their own experiences to it?

  2. Fight Club Moments sound really flashy, but sometimes you just get to a point where your own needs clash with your own wants and desires. We long for security and are afraid to take risks to break that security. When we enter something that provides us temporal comfort, then we want to keep at it. It’s a natural human emotion, a progression in our learning. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, we’ve all gone through it at one point or another.

    Criticism comes in all shapes and forms. There is no right way to achieve a higher state of self-realization, but ultimately the desire to change needs to come from you. Although a sharp elucidation might be the most vivid way to illustrate mistakes, I’m sure you can think of other times and other points where you’ve had similar insights and beliefs, and certainly could have gotten them confirmed in a less pointed manner. You dwell on these attacks rather than acting to correct yourself.

    To provide an example, my father had always been my biggest critic about my work performance in high school and early in college, my inability to communicate properly, etc. etc. But I was resistant to follow his belief that I should pursue what it is that I treasured, instead drilling down a career path that I really wasn’t sure I wanted to follow. Then I careened down a path of utter misery and self-isolation that I realized I was just not paying heed to the things that I needed to provide myself purpose and happiness. So I started thinking about what made me happy (hard work toward a particular goal) and went about trying to mirror that image for the present, and after months of searching for that goal, I’m slowly anchoring out of the pit and beyond. It’s hard to even describe how things are now. Just…liberating. The view towards self-awareness can come from without, but the change has to come from within.

    It’s astonishing how much you can change when you stop worrying about every little nook and cranny, micro or macro. We’re humans, we’re flesh, we fuck up, we move on. Where we end up, who knows. All we know is when we’re in a place we don’t want to be, we want to get out. And we do eventually. Usually alive. If we are, it’s just a matter of how long and how wounded.

    So anyway, take what you’ve learned and keep on going at it. Think about the times when you were at your happiest and most confident and try to replicate how you went about your life then to the here and now, and adjust accordingly whenever you trudge upon discord. You’d be amazed how far you can go.

  3. Good post. I like to say that “nothing teaches like failure.” I had to fail three MAJOR times before I was able to fix my flaws and finally succeed.

    There are a few spelling mistakes, btw, go through and fix them. Not a big deal, but better to correct the problem.

  4. I definitely like this idea, and I liked it when I read it in Fight Club. The problem is how to get this to happen. Like you said, it often comes from another person (whether real, like Tucker, or imaginary, like Tyler Durden) or from your own failure. You can’t set out to fail and you can’t have any power on another person piercing into your soul and outlining your problems.

    So how the hell do you nudge these “fight club moments” along? Or do you acknowledge that maybe you don’t have a Tyler Durden, within or without, that can do it for you, and like anything else, it must be done yourself. This is where I run into trouble. I need the kick in the teeth from reality, and either conquer my flaws or die trying.

  5. You know how people will sabotage relationships they’re in because subconsciously they want to get out but are afraid to? Fight Club Moments are the same way. You can’t just walk up to someone and say “eviscerate me.” The key is to spend time with people who challenge you, who won’t take your crap, who are better than you. You nudge the moments by balancing on that razor’s edge. Be friends with people who aren’t afraid to kick you in the teeth. I think I wrote about this before, I was drawn to Tucker’s work initially because it made me feel inferior. I felt like it was calling me out, and knew eventually he literally would.

    You’re never going to have your Fight Club Moment if you hang with mediocre people.

  6. Courtney Wong June 22, 2009 at 1:07 am

    Gonna get started on a book anytime soon, friend? People like me would appreciate it.

  7. I just had my first professional Fight Club moment. I actually can’t stop shaking. I didn’t know what to do, but this was the first thing I came to. Ryan, your words are really comforting.

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