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5 barriers to success, and my solutions to them.


(Edited to expand on point 5 and add hyperlinks)

There are many reasons why people are afraid to begin training swordsmanship, or indeed choose to follow any path, and many reasons why those who have begun the journey may quit. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but it contains some of the more common problems that I have encountered, and my own solutions to them. These worked for me (so far); your mileage may vary.

1) Fear of failure. Perhaps the biggest step I have ever taken in which fear of failure was a major issue was opening the school. My friends at the time could tell you that I projected two possible outcomes to my mad move to Finland. One, I’d be back in six months with my tail between my legs. Two, it would fly. I chose to view the whole thing as a lesson. In other words I was going to Finland to learn something. I did not know what the lesson would be. If the school failed, if I failed, then that was the lesson. I comforted myself with the knowledge that no matter how badly it failed, so long as I was honest and gave it all that I had, the worst possible outcome (other than serious injury) was bankruptcy and embarrassment. The culture and time I was lucky enough to be born into would not allow me to starve, nor would I be hauled off to debtors prison. Really, there was nothing to fear except my own incompetence.

2) Fear of success. At its root this is a fear of change. If I succeed in the thing I am setting out to do, what then? What if I actually become the person I wish to become, who am I? My solution to this was to set up my school and my training in such a way that success was impossible. There is no end goal or end result. There is only process. My mission in life is deliberately unattainable: to restore our European martial heritage to its rightful place at the heart of European culture. Of course that cannot be achieved alone, and there is no reasonable expectation of it being accomplished in my lifetime. There is no question that European martial arts have come a long way in the last decade or so, and my work has been a part of that, but another excellent aspect to this goal is even if we could say it was accomplished in my lifetime, nobody would ever suggest that I did it. So fear of success is not a problem, as success is impossible.

3) Putting outcomes ahead of process. The most common problem I have had in my career choices to date is putting outcome before process. When I went to university to get my degree, I was more interested in training martial arts than is studying English literature, and so though I got my degree, I didn’t at the time get that much out of it. I wanted the outcome, not the process. As a swordsmaship instructor I am a much better reader than I ever was as a literature student. Then when I went to be a cabinetmaker, again I was interested in having made the furniture more than in actually making it. Sure, I enjoyed parts of the process very much. But I did not have that dedication to perfection in process that marks a really good cabinetmaker. Ironically, now that I do it for a hobby, I enjoy the process of it a lot more. In a similar vein to step two (fear of success) teaching swordsmanship is the only thing I have ever done where I have truly been more concerned with process them with outcome. Which is why I am a much better swordsmanship instructor than I ever was a cabinetmaker. Writing books is another process/outcome issue. I enjoy writing books quite a bit. I absolutely hate the editing and polishing and publication process. Hence the errata. By that point outcome is everything— I just want that fucking book done and out. This is why I don’t think of myself as a writer. When I write, good enough is good enough. In my swordsmanship, good enough is shit, perfection is the minimum standard. Never got there, never will, don’t care, get it perfect anyway. It truly bugs me when my left little toe is in not quite the right place when I am waiting in guard. So far, in the thousands and thousands of hours I have put into it, there have been perhaps 3 whole minutes where it felt perfect. But that’s only because my faculties of judgement were not developed enough to spot the imperfections. So, while I am deeply dissatisfied with the outcome, i.e. my current level, I am actually quite pleased with how far I have come: the process so far. Being a swordsmanship instructor is the only thing I have ever done (other than parenting) where I am emotionally capable of perfectionism. (I will never be satisfied with my parenting skills, but am eternally satisfied with the outcome, my angel children, because of who they are, not anything they may or may not do.)

4) The external validation trap.  This is related to the outcome/process problem. External validation tends to come from outcomes rather than processes. People bringing me one of my books to sign is hugely gratifying, and validates the outcome of all that work. But if you only write books in the hope of people asking you for autographs, the books are likely to be crap. And who wants an autograph on a crap book? I get around this problem by thinking of my books as steps towards the overall goal of establishing European martial arts at the heart of European culture. This makes even the production of books part of a larger process. And because they are mission-oriented, I have the emotional energy reserves to demand a certain standard in them, if not quite the standard I demand of my basic strikes. (For the gold standard in books, see here!) The external validation trap is one reason why I tend to prefer martial arts that have no belts or ranks, as it is too easy for me to care about the next belt rather than actually mastering the art. Ironically, the best outcomes are usually the result of the best processes. So the best way to get great outcomes is to forget about them and focus on the process.

5) Time and attention. It is not enough to want to want it. I wanted to be the sort of person who was a great cabinet-maker, but I wasn't, and didn't want it enough to become so. I only have a certain amount of energy to give, and it is what I actually choose to do that indicates what is truly important to me. The only currencies that actually matter are the ones you can’t make more of: time and attention. How one spends these vital currencies is of course influenced by the problems outlined above. My priorities are: family first, school second, then everything else. Within “school” it goes: teaching, research/writing, training, admin. As I see it, the school is the emergent property of the students, the teachers, and the syllabus coming together in a suitable space. My students make it all possible, they are the base, so their needs come first. The research and writing is for them, so we have an art to train. The training I do is so that I have something to show them. Admin, running the business side of things, is so far down the list it’s pathetic. I only do it so the school can keep running. Because it’s the school (students, research, and syllabus), that actually further the mission. But as has happened more than once: if the shit hits the fan at home, I abandon the school to take care of itself, and put all my attention on the family. Of course. My mission as husband and father outranks my personal mission in life. So, the solution to the problem of insufficient time and attention is to prioritise. Decide based on what you actually spend time doing what is truly important to you, and focus on that. It is ok to give up things you don't care about. And ok to have hobbies you just fool around with. It is also ok, admirable even, to take an indirect route, such as becoming a banker to make tons of money to put into a noble cause. But don't squander your life on stuff you don't care about. “Follow your passion” is often bad advice, but “commit to the things you are willing to spend the time getting really good at because you believe they are fundamentally important”, is not.

This post has rambled on long enough, but clearly I need to write up “the perfectionist’s survival guide” and “mission-oriented thinking” and “why 50% of my income goes on having a salle” and of course, “I am fearful, so I study boldness”. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

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