Fight Club Moments

“…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.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.