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Tag: fear

“Oh, Matron” (in the voice of Kenneth Williams)

This is a progress report for the “get over boarding school” project. If you’re here looking for some technical sword stuff, I suggest going here or here.

I usually edit my posts quite carefully. Not this one, because if I do, I will end up deleting the whole thing. So please bear with me.

Shortly after posting the last instalment of this boarding school crap (if you haven’t read them, this post will make much more sense after reading The Price of Privilege and Dealing With It), I went to the UK with my wife and kids for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was a lovely family event, as you may imagine. While I was there, I went looking for stuff from my boarding school years, and, in a box in the attic, I found all my old school reports, and all the letters I had sent home. The first few would make you cry. Basically, “I hate it here, please come and get me”, repeated over and over, in my 8-year-old handwriting. That was ok; my wife was worried about the effect they might have, but I could handle it, mostly because I’m out of there now and don’t ever have to go back.

But part of me is still 8 years old, and waiting for Mummy to come and get me. And I have to rescue that little boy.

(I think I’ll transcribe the whole lot and publish them in some format; it might be useful for the psychiatrists working on the boarding school problem.)

I came home to run the Fiore Extravaganza seminar; you’ve probably read my update about it here. My wife and kids stayed in the UK to see more family and friends; they get back tonight. The seminar was great; really productive, and the students and I collaborated on creating a whole new pollax form. That kept the days occupied. I spent most of the evenings hanging out with friends, sometimes talking about this stuff, sometimes not. The major work was done yesterday; I went to an old friend’s place, someone I love and trust, and talked and talked and cried and talked and listened and talked and stalled and talked and set up distractions and listened and cried and talked. I had been dreading it the whole week. My brain is very good at avoiding pain, and I knew that this was going to be really, really hard. I have rarely been so scared. The closest was when my second daughter was born (that was way worse, because she and my wife nearly died that night). But in terms of distress, this was comparable.

That’s the problem with the things that really work. They often hurt. Surgery. Training. Therapy.

And the shit just boiled out. The things I am having the hardest time coming to terms with are the abandonment, the sheer mercilessness of it, and what we might call the Matron Effect.

Let me gloss over this in bold strokes. Picture a big scary old house in the country, populated by 200 boys aged 7-13. The adults are mostly men granted the power to beat you at will, a few women teachers, and half a dozen women, mostly in their twenties, all wearing nurses’ uniforms, and all wielding absolute authority. The Matrons. It is a well established fact that boys are pretty gross. They tend to wash only when coerced into it. So showers were supervised by said matrons; 4-10 naked boys at a time, all under the watchful eye of an attractive older woman? One who could send you off to the headmaster for a beating at any time? Dear god, it’s like they were trying to raise a generation of perverts.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with adults getting up to all sorts of mischief with fellow adults, so long as it’s all informed and consensual. I really don’t care what floats your boat in that department. And I don’t suppose you care what floats mine.

But I very very strongly object to a system that punches holes in said boat while it is being built.

I think this is why the Mark Vorkosigan story arc Lois McMaster Bujold’s books Brothers in Arms, Mirror Dance, and A Civil Campaign is so powerful for me. A boy was deeply fucked up by the adults in his life, and over the course of the books gets some pretty stellar revenge, and finds not only his true family, but also a girl who can handle the quirks that he’s left with.

Moving on…

One obvious consequence of all this is that I have a profound distrust of authority. I simply cannot trust anyone in authority to have my best interests at heart. One of the questions I am asked most often is why I never joined the Army. There it is. I was a) determined never to set foot in an institution again, b) I just knew that some wanker of a commander would get me killed for his own advancement. The only hierarchies I can abide are the ones I’m at the top of. Anything that even smells the tiniest bit like somebody being in charge of me: just fucking no. Except my wife, obviously 😉

I’m planning a separate post, something along the lines of “Renegotiating my Contract”, to look at how this stuff has impacted the way I have run my school, and what I’m doing about it. Why, for instance, I never wear all black these days. [Update: that post is here]

I have also figured out why I’m blogging about all this. Partly, it’s easier to go through it all if I have a means to make it useful to other people who may have had similar issues. “If Guy can do it, so can I.” But also it’s to keep me on track. It makes me accountable for progress. Because a large part of my mind wants this whole mess back under wraps where it slept for so long. My students have been keeping me honest in the salle for years. My readers here are doing the same. That’s you, recruited into Team Guy. Thanks for stepping up.

I had a bad night last night. I slept very little, and woke up still scared and tired. I cleaned the house a bit, to settle my stomach before breakfast, and while I was making coffee, suddenly doubled over like I’d been punched in the stomach and howled my eyes out.

I did it again in the middle of writing this.

I’ll keep doing it, until it’s done.

I expected this. It’s ok, it’s part of the process. All sorts of stuff will come up, and most of it will be bad enough that my mind had to hide it from me for over 20 years, until I was ready to handle it.

I’m ready now.

Balls of steel. Literally.

There is a rather stupid convention common in the upbringing of boys and men: because we are supposed to be strong, we ought not to acknowledge our weaknesses. As any weight-lifter could tell you, that is totally counter-productive. If you realise that your biceps are not as strong as they should be, you can adjust your training to make them stronger.

Obvious, huh?

Towards the end of last year, I was flirting more closely than usual with complete breakdown. I had a persistent cough, exhaustion, and my elbows hurt. I went to the doctor about the cough (I have a deal with my wife: I go to the doctor when she tells me to. Which means about 8 times more often than I would if left to my own devices.) While there, I didn’t mention my elbows. My wife was horrified and sent me back.

The doctor examined them, could find nothing wrong, so sent me to an ultrasound.

I’d never had my elbows ultrasounded before, and frankly, it scared the shit out of me. But I went, and you know what? It was fine. Didn’t hurt a bit. I was way more scared of that than I was of eg training with sharp swords, or fighting Lois with a pollax.

They found nothing wrong, and then I was off to Italy and a complete rest. That fixed the cough, the exhaustion, and the sore elbows.

Now, go back through this post and replace “elbows” with “testicles”.

See? It is totally illogical, but totally normal, for one body-part to be ok to talk about, and another not. Especially illogical when you’re talking to doctors. Dammit, any part of the system can break down. And their job is to help you fix it.

But it’s really hard to do. Cultural conditioning and all that.

I say bollocks to cultural conditioning. Two of my friends, Phil Crawley and Bill Ernoehazy, have recently survived testicular cancer. I can’t imagine how much more difficult their treatment was than my piffling little ultrasound, and it was their example that really pushed me over the edge and made me drop my drawers and show my doctor my nuts. Bill recently got the all-clear, which inspired me to write this post.

So, on the principle that one good example deserves another, here’s me, a bloke, telling the world that once upon a time I had sore balls, and went to the doctor. If I can do it, so can you.

That shouldn’t really be necessary, but observation and experience suggests that it is.

So, Bill and Phil, I salute you both. Balls of steel, gentlemen, balls of steel.

Orwell Park School: doesn't look too bad, does it? Image credit: James Appleton, 2010.


Oh my, what a week it has been.

I was scared of hitting “publish” on my last post, for obvious reasons. I am a big bad scary martial arty swordsman, or at least that’s how a lot of people seem to see me. And now anyone who reads my blog can see me as a great big cry-baby if they so choose.

I had to be ok with that before I published. The risk was entirely about how people regard me. Who wants a swordfighting lesson from a wimp?

But here’s the oddest thing: the single most common response I’ve got has been “you’re brave”. Because, and this is the heart of it, everybody who has lived at all has taken some kind of damage in the process. Some has healed completely, some has left scars, and some is still a big gaping wound. And everybody knows that it can be very frightening to face it, and even more so to expose it to others, because it feels like they could use it to hurt you more.

Because everybody has some experience of trauma, and of being scared of it, so long as the person you’re talking to is actually a decent human being, you get no criticism or contempt at all for opening up about something like this. It’s really not that risky.

Think about that for a second.

Of course, this would be a million times more difficult if I had any shame about it; if I felt that it was my fault, or if I had behaved appallingly. (Which I have at times, but it wasn’t my fault I got sent away.) Likewise, I have no crimes to confess in this process; nothing that might get me sent to jail, anyway. The only thing I risk is my ego. So there’s no real risk, because my ego is not in the hands of the general public; it’s in the hands of my wife and kids, family and close friends.

This is still a very new situation for me, but I thought I’d update you all on what seems to be working for me, and what I see the pitfalls as being. I am moving very fast on this, because that’s how I approach problems: I attack them with a vigorous blow to the head. To give you an idea of how fast: this all came up in such a way that I realised it was a real problem on Tuesday last week. I wrote and posted “The Price of Privilege” on Wednesday. Since then I’ve had three counselling sessions. None with conventional psychotherapists (yet), but the sessions have been incredibly helpful. Perhaps because it means setting aside specific times in which the only thing on my to-do list is deal with this shit. And these lovely people have made me feel safe enough to really go back there and dig. I think that finding the right person to talk to is probably much more important than what therapeutic discipline they practise.

[‘“Therapeutic discipline”, eh?’ I can hear the back row snickering. Fine, laugh it up! Nothing like a good dose of the swishy cane to bring up childhood memories, what? See what I mean about the “naughty club” references in my last post? If you want to know what happens to beaten children, I recommend both Roald Dahl’s Boy and Tall Tales by Ian Kendall. And if you think beating children is funny, it’s not me that needs help.]

Amongst the general outpouring of affection and support that I have received this week, for which I will never cease to be grateful, there were also quite a few contacts from people who also went to boarding school, and some who went to mine. It is very clear that I am not at all alone in this.

Now, things to watch out for. This is an aide-memoire for me; I absolutely am not speaking for or about anybody else. But these things might bite me on the arse, so I’m sharing them here.

1) Trauma explains much, but excuses nothing.  Sure, I can point to several occasions in my life where I am 99% sure that my boarding school experience lead me to treat somebody badly. But it’s still my responsibility; I’ll go further: it’s still my fault. I am not responsible for my feelings, but I am 100% responsible for my actions. Unless or until I am certified insane, that remains the case.

2) It’s not a competition. One of the things that held me back from posting about this is knowing so many people who have gone through so much worse experiences. Boarders who made no friends; combat veterans; rape survivors; domestic abuse survivors; the list goes on. What happened to me is utterly trivial next to what has happened to them. It felt like whining, until I realised that even relatively minor wounds can turn septic. In fact, the most dangerous injury I’ve sustained in 15 years of professional swordsmanship was a splinter I got while woodworking. I took it out, but it went septic anyway; without modern antibiotics I would probably have lost my hand. Ignoring it because there are people out there dying of worse infections never occurred to me. Likewise, my experience was empirically worse than some other peoples’s. So what? There is no prize at all for being the most injured. Exactly the reverse.

3) Attention is addictive. It’s really lovely to get such overwhelming messages of support. I can quite see how Munchausen Syndrome develops. This could lead me (especially given the attachment issues that are part of “boarding school syndrome”) to hold on to the damage to keep getting the attention. That would not be good. But I’m aware of it, as are all competent therapists, so it shouldn’t be such a problem. I intend to purge this, heal it, and move on. I have no interest in defining myself as “that kid who was fucked up by boarding school”. I'd rather be a master swordsman, excellent writer, great dad, adored husband, and much-loved friend, thank you very much.

I hope my experiences are useful to you. This is what I’m for, after all. At root, I am by nature a teacher. I can’t quite see the point of mastering a skill if  I’m not going to pass it on; and it’s much easier to allocate the necessary time and energy to this problem if I think that my example might help somebody else. If that's the case, please do let me know. It makes such a difference.

You might be wondering what effects this problem has had on me. Well, there are dozens, some of which I don’t intend to share just yet, and some I may never share outside of counselling, but here’s a big and obvious one.

I have no sense of home being a place. Home is people. Originally my parents, of course; now my wife and kids. The only exception to that is a negative: in my head, England ≠ Home. England is the place I was sent to that by definition was not home. Anywhere else on the planet could be home, but not fucking England.

But rationally, England ≠ boarding school. There is a whole ton of great stuff there that I have shut myself off from. This would have been different if my family had lived in England at the time, of course, and perhaps if I had got into Cambridge University (Edinburgh was my second choice, more fool me). We lived in England until I was five years old, then we moved to Argentina (’79-’80),  then Botswana (’81-’86), and then Peru (’86-’92). They were home. My family then moved to Scotland, which as anyone who has ever been there knows is very much NOT England. And since then, I’ve only lived in Edinburgh and Helsinki (if we don’t count 3 months in lovely Lucca).

Why does this matter? Because to my wife, only England will ever = Home. And I have twisted and turned in a totally irrational way to avoid giving her the chance to live there. Not fair. I realised this when after we got back from Italy, and saw that the School thrived without me (as it should), we decided to go to England for a significant period, from the middle of next year. This is a perfectly rational move to make. And it was my suggestion. But it made me absolutely miserable, and I didn’t know why, until all this boarding school crap bubbled to the surface. So when I have cleared it, the aversion to living in England for any period, or more precisely, calling England “Home”, should clear with it. This should give my wife a fair crack at living in England, as she has wanted to do for the last decade.

I’d say that was worth a few tears, wouldn’t you?

I intend to keep posting about this; to keep it separate from the usual sword-specific stuff I've created a new category, “boarding school”. I think my next post on this topic will be about the people who made being in boarding school much easier than it might have been. [Update: that next post is here.]

We often duck and dive to avoid something, when our interests would be better served by meeting it head on. Sometimes it's better to just take the hit.

By the time they are a few weeks old, most babies have mastered the art of the double-dump. Inexperienced parents react to the first load: a stinky nappy (diaper for my American friends) requires immediate attention. So we jump up, change the nappy, and then with a smug little grin, the infant fills the fresh one too. With experience comes patience; leave the nappy on for another 5 or 10 minutes, just to make sure she’s done, then change it.

My eldest daughter was a master at this pretty much from birth. On one particular occasion though, aged about 3 months, she excelled even herself, with a perfectly timed double-dump. I was changing her nappy, on the changing table in her room. With her legs in the air, all cleaned up and right before the clean nappy went on, she let go a squirt of liquid baby-shit, right at me, from a range of less than a foot.

Only my trained swordsman’s reflexes saved me.

There is a technique in swordsmanship, which is especially common with thrust-oriented weapons like the rapier or smallsword, of swinging your back leg round behind you to void your body out of the way.

Ridolfo Capoferro calls it the “scanso della vita”,  the avoidance of the waist.


(You can see the action on video on my School's Syllabus wiki page here.)

Domenico Angelo calls it the “Demy Volte”, or half turn.

I have been training to use this kind of avoidance for many years, but have only ever pulled them off in freeplay a handful of times. It’s really hard to get the timing just right, and it depends on a full, deep attack from the opponent.

But somehow, my deep lizard brain reacts better to a stream of shit than it does to a sword-thrust, and even at that close range, I effortlessly, immediately, and perfectly, avoided the attack, while keeping my right hand on the baby. (You never, ever, leave a baby on a changing table without contact. Because if you do, that’s the moment they’ll learn to turn over, and roll themselves off.) Not a drop of the vile stuff touched me. No, it went everywhere else but on me. At that elevation, under that much pressure, it travelled about 6 feet.

So instead of only having to change my t-shirt, I had to clean the floor, the wall, and the armchair.

I should have just taken the (s)hit.

Fear management is the key skill underlying all martial arts. If you are not afraid of getting hurt or killed, there’s something wrong with you. But if you are frozen in place by that fear, prevented from acting, then your training has failed.

As you may have read, I am a great big fraidy-cat, and so am always on the lookout for ways to practise handling fear. And there is nothing scarier than the dentist. I have sensitive teeth, which doesn’t help; that metal spike thing they use to poke and scratch around your teeth feels to me like sticking splinters under my nails. But in my mouth. In addition, and for no good reason, people prodding about in my mouth has a similar shudder-inducing effect on me as scraping nails down a blackboard. Seriously, if you want information out of me, don’t bother with the waterboard; the threat of dental torture would break me in no time. Not like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man.

Laurence Olivier setting up a generation of moviegoers for a phobia of dentists.
Laurence Olivier setting up a generation of moviegoers for a phobia of dentists.

This irrational fear is of course excellent and very useful, because as a responsible parent I have to set a good example and get a check-up once a year. I went the other week, and was horrified to hear that an old filling was cracked and needed replacing. Which meant THE DRILL. We made the appointment for the following week, and I had seven whole days in which to build up a profound sense of dread.

What can I say about the drill? Except that if it doesn’t terrify you, with its hideous shriek, happening inside your head, and the promise of pain (which never comes; what an improvement in oral anaesthesia since I was a kid!) then there must be something wrong with you. Really. It’s just a nightmare made flesh. It’s actually worse than the anaesthetic injection, and, to me, a hypodermic syringe is an object of terror. I loathe and fear those things. When someone is giving an injection on TV or in a movie, I close my eyes. It’s just wrong on every level. I spend my professional life working on ways to NOT get stabbed, and you want me to let you stick a spike in me? Are you mad? When someone comes at me with a syringe, it takes all my willpower not to disarm them and stick it in their eye. Which is also totally irrational, but there you are. Knives, swords, and guns? Not scary. The tools of modern medicine? Fucking terrifying.

Let me point out here that my dentist is a lovely, kind, and expert woman, gentle and professional. But she’s still a DENTIST. Indeed, all my dentists have been good, and gentle, and caused no unnecessary pain. This is a totally irrational fear.

So there I was, as my dentist started to work… and actually quite relaxed. Pulse under 80 the whole time (well above my normal 55 or so, but manageable). Manual dexterity ok. Maintaining full use of my rational faculties despite gibbering terror.


I chose to focus on something else.

I experimented in the chair with several different approaches, and the one that worked best was to place my attention on my breath. After every ten breaths, I went through a manual dexterity drill (finger wiggling, to the uninitiated), then back to my breath.

The hard part was staying still; every now and then I had to bring my attention up to my neck, because the effort of not moving my head was causing stiffness. Relaxing my neck was harder than keeping my pulse down.

I was hugely pleased at one point when she stopped to ask me something, and I hadn’t immediately noticed that the drill had stopped. That was a major success.

So, how do you cultivate the ability to choose your focus to this degree?

The answer is meditation. It is the best and fastest way to develop focus, because it isolates focus and works on that to the exclusion of all else. The routines I use vary hugely, but the one I used in the chair was a variation on this very simple exercise:

  1. Set a timer, for 5 minutes or so.
  2. Sit or lie somewhere safe and comfortable (before you try this in the Chair of Terror)
  3. Breathe normally.
  4. Pay attention to the sensation of breathing in and out.
  5. Count each in-breath.
  6. When you get to ten, reset to zero.
  7. When you get distracted and lose count, start again at zero.
  8. When your mind wanders, bring it gently back to your breath.
  9. Keep doing this until the timer goes off.

Repeat daily; or more often; do it for longer if you like. The point is that your mind will wander, and you then return it to your chosen focus. The enemy is frustration or annoyance with yourself; it's a distraction (and a powerful one at that!). Be gentle with yourself, and remember that the exercise is not the paying attention to the breath, or getting to ten, the exercise is controlling your wandering mind despite its tendency to wander. Distinctions of “success” or “failure” are irrelevant. If you absolutely must have one, here it is: do this diligently for 5 days in a row, and I hereby declare you successful. Does that help?

And now for something completely different:

A couple of years ago, after a particularly intense dental hygiene session, I wrote this on the way home:

To my dentist and her team:

I sit in the torture chair,

My mouth is open wide.

A highly trained professional

Pokes around inside.

Carefully she grinds my teeth

Carefully she scratches,

Polishing the grime away,

It comes off in batches.

Black coffee, chocolate, and the red,

Red wine leave their trace,

But what is life without them,

Is this not the case?

Teeth are there to be of use,

To strain the fiery brew,

Is it really tooth abuse,

To smile drink gnash or chew?

The dentist though, I hear her whine

D’you think you’ve gone too far?

With coffee, chocolate, red red wine

And the odd cigar?

I do it just to keep my team

Active in their profession.

If I only did as I was told,

There’d be no future session!

I am writing up the Fear section of my new book, Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. This particular section seemed like a useful snippet. About half the book is blog posts from here, so cannibalising a section of it to make a blog post seems, well, fair. Here goes.

“One of the many things that martial arts training can teach you is the ability to deal with fear: the ability to control your autonomic responses, the ability to choose all your actions from a position of confidence and strength, rather than just react out of fear and dread. [At this point I tell stories about the many times I have been variously anxious, frightened, terrified, and gibbering in panic, in hospitals, schools, fencing arenas and the mean streets of Sydney (yes, the Spider story) and Edinburgh.]

In addition to fear management strategies, it is also useful to actively practise handling fear. For this you will need one irrational fear inducing activity, ideally one that requires little cash or preparation, and a commitment to daily practice. One easy option is cold showers; not ideal, because most people are not actively afraid of cold water, they just don’t like it. But having the nerve to turn the tap all the way to cold and let it hit you, is a good start.

I personally have a wildly irrational fear of hanging off things. Especially upside down. I’m ok hanging off a pull-up bar by my hands, but jumping up to catch hold of it in the first place gives me a heart attack. In the back of my mind I am completely certain that if I miss my catch, the contact of my fingers on the bar will flip me upside-down, and I’ll fall on my head. Yes, really.

But I know that it isn’t so; the forces at work just cannot make that happen. My rational mind overrules my irrational body, in this case. So every day, I jump and catch the bar. And every day, I nearly die of fright. But it is much easier to handle now than it was a year ago. I can feel the dread building as I approach the bar, and steel myself to jump and catch. It’s horrible. But useful. And good practice.

Hanging upside down by my knees is another one. For the longest time, I could not do it. In my heart of hearts, I knew that if I let go with my hands, my legs would straighten, and I would fall. As if my legs were not under my control at all. And as if the teeny little muscles in my grip were somehow able to generate more force than the ginormous (in comparison to my forearms at least) muscles in my thighs.

My cousin is a professional aerialist (she organised the Mary Poppins’s at the London Olympics opening ceremony), and way back in 2005 she was performing in Berlin, doing scary-as-hell rope tricks. You can see her in action here:

I flew over to see her and while I was there she invited me along to their training hall, to have a go on ropes and trapezes. It was fantastic good fun. While she was teaching me to get onto a trapeze, I managed to get my legs over the bar, but I could not let go with my hands and hang down. No way. Instant fall onto head. So she shinned up the rope next to me, laid her arm on my shins and said “don’t worry, I won’t let you fall”. (The physics do not work, of course. She was about half my weight, and hanging off a rope. But irrational fears do not require rational solutions.) And so I let go, and after a moment, she could take her arm away, and there I was, hanging by my knees upside down for the first time ever.

Unfortunately, trapezes are quite tricky to find round here, so I didn’t do it again, until this summer. We have a climbing frame in our yard, and my eldest daughter and I were playing on it, and I did Katherine’s trick of holding her shins (though in this case the reassurance was backed up by physics!) and in short order, my 7-year old turned into a monkey, as regards hanging off stuff at least. So I decided to join her, and had my wife hold my shins, and I let go with my hands. After a few reps of that, I could do it without her. And now it’s easy. Scary, but easy. I still know in my bones that I’m about to fall, but I still do it. When that stops being scary enough, I’ll have to find something else to be frightened of. Because the benefits of daily overcoming terror are way too great.

photo credit: Sarah Frechette of Pikku Arkki.
photo credit: Sarah Frechette of Pikku Arkki.

So, give it a go. What are you afraid of?

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?


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:


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!”


(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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