When You’re Not Tough Enough

Dust Mop Jiu Jitsu: The Expat Files: Chapter Seven: Grind BJJ-Burlington, Vermont

-On bullshit jobs, belt politics and not feeling tough enough to belong

This is Chapter 7 of what I’m calling the Expat Files. If you want to know more about what this project is, you can read more about it in the first article here.


Broadly speaking, I like to think about my Jiu Jitsu journey being in three main phases. 

  • The Expat Files: My experiences in Korea and the gyms I went to before settling in a stateside gym
  • The Combat Base: Here I stayed mostly with my gym Combat Fitness MMA in Winooski, Vermont. I still continued to travel but always had Combat as a reference.
  • The Pandemic: I would eventually leave Vermont and float around until eventually joining my current gym in Northampton, MA.

If you haven’t been reading my articles, this blog is a project to remember at least one thing from gyms that I’ve visited in my BJJ journey. The next two articles will be unusual because the following three articles will be about local gyms that I would choose between. They could have become my main gym, but these articles are going to be about why they didn’t. 

On January 1st of 2019, Rachel and I finally stopped our transient journey home from South Korea and made it to Vermont. It took a long time for us to settle on a U.S. City. We wanted a place that would feel like it was both of ours. We met in rural Vermont so we ended up choosing Burlington. We would eventually come to like it but moving somewhere in the dead of winter is a horrible time to make friends and get situated.

It’s close to Canada

Our apartment, although nicer, was even smaller than the one we had in Korea. No joke, we could reach the oven from the bed. But we had a bathtub and a laundry machine so we were relatively happy.

Rachel already had a job set up through a youth agency. Being in graduate school I needed to find a job that would allow me flexibility. I became a substitute teacher.

David Graeber in a brilliant article defines a bullshit job as employment so pointless that the person doing it can’t think of a reason for it existing. The people doing these jobs often suffer from an existential angst that they aren’t contributing enough to society. 

He was once asked if there were any jobs where people didn’t mind the fact that they were bullshit. “Yes! Substitute teachers.” The kids know it’s not teaching, the subs know it’s not teaching, it’s flexible hours and they often have other things going on in their lives aside from their work. Perfect for me at the time

The orientation was incredible. I’ll never forget our instructor asking us a real head scratcher.


Instructor: Who can tell me why you shouldn’t fall asleep in class as a teacher?

Us: (Silent. Either confused by the question or not wanting to dignify it with a response).

Instructor: Because the kids will take a video of you and put it up on youtube.


She proceeded to show us a compilation of 20 different substitute teachers falling asleep in class. The bar was set exceptionally low. 

You also have to understand what being a substitute teacher did for my ego as well. Here’s how it used to go when I told people my job.


2017 Me: I’m a wilderness therapy guide. I hike with people struggling with their emotions.

You: Whoah! Tell me all about that! How did you get certified? What’s your craziest story?


2018 Me: I teach English to kindergartners in South Korea

You: That’s wild! What are they like? How was Korea? Did you see Kim Jong Un?


2019 Me: I’m a substitute teacher

You: …Oh…


Picking a school to sub at is a lot like finding a Jiu Jitsu gym. You gotta find the right distance from your house, the time it takes to get there has to be worth it and you need to like both the students and the administration. For teaching, I ended up at Lyman C. Hunt Middle School. For BJJ, there were four schools, but I could only consider three of them.

I first tried Grind BJJ. It was fairly close to my house so I could easily walk there. Like CSA in Copenhagen, it was also part of a community center. There were yoga and art studios nearby. I remember getting in there and seeing some guys already rolling no-gi like they were training for ADCC. The owner got up to greet me with two bleeding cauliflower ears. “Yeah, I get weird stares at work but they never really go away so I’ve stopped caring.” Imagining the contrast between him and the nice ladies spinning pottery across the hall would continue to entertain me in my darkest moments for years to come. 

If you haven’t already seen it, Cauliflower ear is what happens when your ear gets irritated over and over again. It starts to look like a sponge. Or it can swell up in spots looking like there’s a marble growing out of it. This guy had both kinds. I kept picturing him making small talk around the water cooler with his coworker doing his best not to stare.

If you go to Grind’s website, it’s a bit like walking into their space: no frills. Their set-up is just mats and some thai pads in a community center right next to middle aged dancers and a pottery studio. Because we were next to a salsa class, there were some pretty cool beats coming from next door. I remember thinking it would be cool to spar listening to that. That’s until someone said, “fuck that noise.” They started blasting metal. I felt bad for the Salsa class. 

The man with the ears said, “Happy new year everyone, here’s your resolution. It’s that these (his hands) become hooks. Don’t think of these as being fucking hands, from now on they are fucking hooks.” From there we rolled live rounds for 20 minutes and I was getting mangled every which way. 

These guys were killers. I’m sure if I stuck with them, I’d be one too. But I didn’t feel strong enough to be a part of their gym. It’s also a vibe thing. These guys seemed like  men. With a capital M. I’m a goofy therapist who used to teach kindergarten. I couldn’t see myself meshing that well. 

The Dust Mop Takeaway at Grind happened on the way out the door. One of the guys was walking out the door and stopped to look at me. “Hey man, I noticed that you looked a little out of breath. Just to let you know, if you go fast, they’ll go faster.” 

He was totally right. In Jiu Jitsu, you can set the pace however you want. It’s an interesting irony that stronger people will go slower and people who have no strength max themselves out in thirty seconds. At that point, I was not putting any effort into my strength or conditioning. So I was slower, weaker and had less cardio than I do now. But that caused me to panic. One year later, I was rolling with a brand new white belt who was spazzing hard. I remember my coach at the time saying to him, “I guarantee you that if you go slower, Adam will too.” 

These days I feel better about my ability to keep up. I’d like to go and visit Grind if I ever get the chance. I don’t live in Burlington anymore. I’ve done a lot more for my strength and conditioning. It’s a great gym with fantastic rolls. But at that time, I knew it wasn’t a good fit for where I was on my Jiu Jitsu journey. 

These days, I’m a lot stronger than I used to be and wouldn’t mind going back to visit to see how it feels to roll there now. It’s possible if I stayed at Grind, that improvement would have happened quicker. But it’s also possible I would have quit faster as well. 

Years later I heard that Grind was founded out of desperation. Some of the guys were brown belts at a bigger place nearby. They were on the cusp of black chafing under the leadership of the one person likely to promote them. Eventually they were expelled but they weren’t willing to bend the knee to someone new. It’s not just their gym, it’s the entire system that holds people in academies they don’t want to be at until they get blessed with that black belt. 

Here I was, one year in scared shitless that I would never get my blue belt. Here they were ditching the whole belt hierarchy behind. They struck their own way.  That explained their website and their style. No kings, no gods, no bullshit. Just jiu jitsu. In some ways, this project is aligned with theirs. But I wasn’t ready to jump ship just yet. So I kept looking.

My goal is to visit 100 gyms! If you ever want me to visit yours and write about what it’s like to learn from you, feel free to reach out at [email protected] or follow me @DustMop_JiuJitsu

If you want to read my articles as soon as they’re published, you can follow me here.