The Tough Guy & Morgan Freeman


When I was 9, something happened that would influence the next 15 years of my life.  I got into a fight.  Not a childish scuffle, a fistfight.  And I won.

The kid was older and bigger, but didn’t land a shot.  In all honesty, it was obvious he didn’t want to fight.  He wore it all over his face.  The whole thing was orchestrated by my older brother and his friends, who just wanted to see a scrap.  I didn’t even understand why we were fighting; something about these kids encroaching on “our part of the woods.”  Stupid.  I’m ashamed of it now.

But at the time, it felt good.  I felt like a hero.  My tough guy brother beamed with pride, and couldn’t wait to tell my tough guy father all about it.  I was quick to puff out my chest that summer, and just as quick to boss my friends around.

I got into a lot of fights after that.  In high school I’d fight for my friends, who despite being small had, let’s say, “big personalities.”  They certainly deserved a walloping or two, but I wasn’t having it.  In college, my days as a bouncer/bartender resembled Roadhouse– and Dalton for sure would’ve canned me the first day.  I wore flips flops, a popped collar, and a smile as I went looking for trouble.  (Roadhouse: think Dirty Dancing meets Bloodsport.  An American treasure.)

I seized every opportunity I could to fit the image.  I welcomed confrontation with open arms, because I derived a sense of self from being the tough guy.  The hero.  Braggadocio, perhaps the most off-putting of all personas.

Thankfully, that facade came crashing down shortly after walking into Ricardo Almeida’s academy for the first time.  Dante Rivera choked me 19 consecutive times, and couldn’t be bothered to remember my name the first 5 times I met him.

Once I picked up the pieces of my shattered “tough guy” identity, I was grateful.  Relieved almost.  The story had gone on long enough, and now the slate was wiped clean.  It’s much easier to navigate this world without dragging a massive amount of bullshit around.  You tend to trip on it.  And it smells.

Though I didn’t escape the trappings of identity after that,  I at least conformed to more high-minded ones.  My role as a leader, for example, has been the most growth-inducing experience of my life.  Pete and Professor Pete weren’t always the same person.  Professor Pete was a bit more idyllic; virtuous, disciplined, and kind.  The role demanded it in ways my private life didn’t.  But over time, by constantly striving to become something better, someone worthy of the part, the gap has lessened.

Identifying with certain things- attributes, images, virtues– isn’t always bad.  But if what you identify with becomes your identity, you close yourself off to personal growth.  You’re immediately pigeonholed, like Morgan Freeman as the altruistic sage that time in every movie ever made.

Pigeonhole: a category, typically an overly restrictive one, to which someone or something is assigned

We all know people who put arbitrary restrictions on what they can or cannot do.  Oh, I don’t have the discipline for that.  Are you kidding?  You’re human.  You can thrive in the jungles of the Amazon, and the snows of the Himalayas.  You’d eat a dung beetle off the sidewalk if Chipotle was closed.  You’re the most adaptive creature on the planet.  So get out of your own way.

Some use identity as a crutch, a way to condone behavior.  I’m just a type-A personality.  Interesting, all I hear is I’ve given myself an excuse to be an overbearing asshole.  Don’t pigeonhole yourself.

“I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am ” -Thomas Cooley

We live in a black and white culture, with very little gray.  It’s human nature to define things, to put them- and people- into categories.  Ourselves included.

And we all have an inclination towards allowing other people’s ideas of who we are shape our self-image.  We’re mindful of that when dealing with kids, but less so with adults.  Have you ever told a kid, maybe one who’s prone to eating play-doh and sticking forks in outlets, that he’s incredibly smart and gifted?  I have.  We’ve all told white lies like this, because we understand the power of our influence; the kid will believe us.

And if you haven’t, you’re a sociopath and need a hug.
But it’s a lifelong pursuit to truly understand yourself, and virtually impossible for someone else to begin to understand the nuanced intricacies of your character.  So why on Earth would you let someone’s idea- a snap judgement- of who you are shape your identity?  Because you’re fighting millennia of biological evolution that produced the ego… but that’s for another day.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Winston Churchill

What we’ve done is not who we are.  Who we are is fluid, and remarkably complex.  Identity is ephemeral; we’re constantly in a state of change and growth.  At least we should be.  Deriving a sense of self from physical attributes is a fool’s game.  Strength, speed, beauty, they’re all fleeting, and no amount of steroids or botox will stave off the effects of time.

Your wins and losses do not define you.  Failing does not make you a loser.  Quitting, maybe.  What truly defines you is your character.  Accomplishments mean absolutely nothing if your character is crap.

Fighter, writer, teacher, leader… these are different hats I’ve worn.  And though these identities have all contributed to who I am, they certainly don’t define me.

But I often wonder, if Mike Popadokus had put a whooping on me that day in the woods, where would I have ended up?

author: Peter McHugh

Professor Pete McHugh is the owner and Lead Instructor of McHugh BJJ in Mt. laurel NJ. He is a black belt under BJJ & MMA legend Ricardo Almeida.


Leave a reply