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Tag: failure

One of the most destructive forces in the world we live in is the “talent” mindset. I mean that literally. It underlies not only millions of minor miseries, but also the core of human evil.

In short, if you believe in innate talent, you believe that some people are inherently better than others. It is a short step from there to believing that some people are therefore subhuman. And we all know where that leads.

The stimulus for this blogpost was reading Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, on the recommendation of my friend Devon Boorman. In short, her work in psychology has demonstrated that belief in fixed traits leads to the “fixed mindset” which creates all sorts of problems, which are solvable by switching to a “growth mindset”, a belief that things can be learned. Go read the book. The bit that struck a chord in me, and literally woke me up to what went wrong when I was growing up, was where she wrote that, for “talented” kids, effort equals failure. And that is exactly the problem I had growing up. I could not work at anything, anything at all, because if it did not come easily, then it threatened my fundamental identity. Because only duffers have to try. So I only ever did the things that came easy, and shied away from anything that demanded actual work.

I hope the utter foolishness of this is apparent to all my readers.

I was a star pupil at school. Clever as hell and everyone knew it. I got all the way up to University entrance without ever once revising for an exam or doing a stroke of work beyond the essays or homework set by the teachers. I was a shoo-in for Cambridge, and had been told so from the beginning. My younger sister (every bit as clever as me but actually industrious with it, a year younger but in the same academic year) and I both applied. She got in. I didn’t. I was absolutely furious. I had been betrayed. I was supposed to be super-talented. But Cambridge, I imagine, could spot a dilettante when they saw one and didn’t need one more arrogant and entitled little shit clogging up their colleges. I got into all my other University choices, and chose Edinburgh (‘cos it’s the best). I then managed to get all the way through University on a combination of luck and blather, but by then, I actually had no choice: I did not know how to study.

Yup, I had no idea of what people actually did in libraries across the campus. I read a lot, and wrote essays when asked (never more than one draft), but I had no idea how to actually work through difficult problems, come up with solutions and test them against the evidence, all that sort of thing. Rhetoric, logic and grammar, yes; I could write a decent argument. But nobody had ever taught me how to work things out, how to wrestle a body of knowledge down from unattainably complex to I know this. It wasn’t thought necessary to teach me this, because I was “clever”. And I would have resisted it anyway, because it was equivalent to failure.

Please note that I don’t blame my teachers or parents for this. It was genuinely believed back in those dark ages that praising kids for their attributes was good for them. It wasn’t until Dweck and others started running actual studies that it was discovered to be so counter-productive. Remember; as late as the sixties, some doctors thought smoking was good for you. In years to come, people will say with similar disbelief “they used to praise attributes not effort!!! How dumb must they have been!” (and yes, they will attribute the mistake to an inherent trait: that is how deep this cancer of the mind runs).

One advantage of all this not-studying was that it left me with lots of time for training martial arts; I was doing T’ai Chi, fencing, karate and kobudo in my first year, and through fencing got into looking at historical fencing sources. But even then, my interpretations of historical sources were all about making it fit with what I already knew (parry quarte with a longsword, anyone?) and not a true interpretation of the source.

So how did I escape from this quagmire?

Swordsmanship.

In the year 2000, thanks to some crazy-ass training shit that I am still not ready to write about, I came to realise that the truth of the art was more important to me than my own identity as a “talented” person. Suddenly, being wrong was not such a problem. My inflated ego got out of the way enough that it didn’t feel like I was risking my very self to admit “I don’t know this” and “this is hard”, and I gradually learned how to study. How to break problems down, how to enjoy a challenge, how to embrace failure as a necessary step on the way towards mastering my field. Now when someone hits me in the face with a sword despite my best efforts to stop them, I am elated by the learning opportunity. Really. The result was a massive increase in the speed of my improvement.

I could dwell on the decades of wasted opportunities, created by my stuckness in the quicksand of the talent mindset. But that would lead to bitterness, not growth. Instead, I relish the feeling of my feet being free to run, to trip and sprawl, and to get up again.

As a teacher, then, I have no interest at all in the apparent level of talent in my beginners. None. I am not looking for someone who will win tournaments for me in a year or two: I am looking for students who will grow in their study of the art, from whatever their starting point. In some respects, those who have most trouble learning in the beginning are the most rewarding to teach, because their development is that much easier to see. I sometimes catch myself giving fixed-mindset-inducing praise, and stab myself in the eye to make it stop (that may be a slight exaggeration). I try instead to praise effort over attainment, and whenever students find the things I give them to do difficult, I tell them that I would not waste their time on something easy. The message: Easy is a waste of your valuable time. Effort is what matters.

This is also why I dislike most sports and other physical pursuits. They tend to require a particular body shape to get to the top, such as in ballet. Got stumpy legs and heavy bones? You will never be a top-level ballerina. Sorry. It makes me furious that someone with short legs will never be picked for the solo, because of the aesthetic of the art. Fuck that for a load of fixed-mindset arsery. Likewise, combat sports with their weight requirements, and so on. In these fields, some fixed attributes (like height in basketball, weight in judo, and so on) actually matter. This is so utterly stupid and anti-growth it makes me boil, and in my eyes makes these pursuits fundamentally less worthy.

Swordsmanship is perfect in this regard. There is no ideal body type. Whatever yours is, you can fight on equal terms, so long as you take your relative sizes into account. Sure, tall people can reach further: but their arms break easier. Wrestling with people who are bigger and stronger is really hard (and therefore a great learning environment). But if you can gouge out their eyes, as Fiore would have us do, then the strength difference is less critical. Think little folk can’t take giants apart? I give you the Gurkhas.

It is true that “natural” talent in certain fields appears to exist. In some sports, there are people who do astoundingly well for a short while, with little effort. But actually, if we were to plot performance over time between the plodder (someone with no actual handicaps, just an apparent lack of talent but who is willing to work hard) and the natural, the graphs look like this:

talentvworkgraph

Depending on the activity, and the degree to which genetics play a part, the point at which the lines cross can be at the beginners course or world championship levels. But cross they will. Early performance is simply no predictor of long-term achievement in any worthwhile field. This has been demonstrated over and over, in books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Matthew Sayed’s Bounce, and Anders Ericsson’s work studying violinists (which spawned the much misunderstood 10,000 hour rule. As this article explains, 10,000 hours of practice is not sufficient, unless it is mindful practice. Plus you also need luck; no career-ending accidents, for example).

That by itself should be enough to get people to drop this talent nonsense, but it goes deeper than that. For some reason probably related to sabre-toothed tigers and an evolutionary quirk in human cognition, we prefer to believe in inherent traits over learned skills. Think of the utter nonsense of inherited power, which is based on the idea that the inherent trait of being descended from the current ruler makes you the best candidate for being the next one. (Don’t get me wrong; I’m a monarchist through and through: there is just no fun in the republican way; but there is no good reason for monarchy to be hereditary.)

So why do people continue to believe in talent? For two fundamental reasons:

1) We tend to praise attributes over effort, and attribute results to innate factors, rather than processes. It’s the outcome over process problem all over again. So kids grow up believing that some people are just naturally gifted. Which is partly true, but wholly inaccurate, and wildly counter-productive.

2) Attributing success to talent gives us an excuse to fail. He did well because he’s a natural; therefore my failure is not my fault. I am just not naturally good at it.

Make no mistake about it, this is toxic thinking.

Praising talent makes less glamorous kids feel like failures before they even try. And it makes the stars associate effort with failure. It is disastrous for both groups. One gives up, and the other cannot work systematically to improve. I know this because it happened to me.

As a parent, I have had many, many, moments of heart-swelling pride in my kids, and a very few moments where I felt I was a good-enough parent. One such moment came while watching a really good ballerina on TV with my younger daughter, who was then four years old. She loves ballet, and was in awe of this ballerina. And she said in tones of wonder:

“She must have practiced really a lot!”

sword-school-items-4

(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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