Guy's Blog

Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Tag: lifestyle

The New Year is upon us, and with it, a new opportunity to do interesting things, and a time to perhaps take stock and think about what's important. That would be lovely, except right now I'm totally overwhelmed with stuff to do. You might be to, so here's how I deal with it. First, let me take you back a few years….

When I was about 11 years old, I had to do a project on the Second World War at school. I chose British fighter planes. I had three weeks to prepare before I had to hand in my project and give a short talk to the class about it.
The day before the assignment was due, my tutor Mr Rawson found me in tears. I had put off even starting the project until the day before, and had absolutely no idea how to start or what to do. On finding out why I was crying, he pointed out that I’d had three weeks to figure it out or get some help, then showed me a couple of books in the library, and told me what to do. I had found the task too overwhelming to even start it.

I bashed something together, and gave the talk, and handed it in. I got an ok grade, but nobody was impressed.
As you can see from that story, my natural reaction to overwhelm is procrastination.

Overwhelm is a horrible feeling, like drowning in nit-pickery. So many little things, so many big things, all clamouring to be done, and only one me to do it all. Aaaaaaarghhhh! Run away and hide!

I get this feeling often. Right now, I have this list up on the wall by my desk. Lots and lots of different projects, and several continuous processes, all at various stages to be monitored, managed, and done.
The absolute worst bit is the final stages of publishing a book or a course. There are just a gadgillion little steps, and no clear playbook to follow to walk through them all. Again, aaaaaarghhhh!

The little poster on the left of my to-do list has the covers of all my published books and decks of cards (not the courses, they didn’t fit). Clearly, I can actually get stuff done, despite the overwhelm. So here’s how I do it, in the hopes you might find it useful.

1) Slow down. When it’s all piling up, and the to-do list is infinitely long and tedious and tricky and hard, the tendency is to rush. So I slow right down. I literally move in slow motion.

2) Self-talk. “Oh shit I have x y and z to do and only an hour!! Aaaargh!” (Again). This compresses time like no other technique. But I want to extend time, so I slow down, and say something to myself like “a whole luxurious hour. And really, not so much to do! Maybe I’ll take a nap in 30 minutes…”. This changes my perception of the time I have, and dramatically increases the amount I can get done in that time.

3) Do one small thing. The hardest thing, when faced with the badgillion bloody bits of bother, is to find the thread that will unravel the whole thing and make it easy. So I don’t look for it. I don’t spend any time thinking about which bit to do, I just pick one small thing and do that. Then the next, then the next, and so on. And nine times out of ten, it turns out that the first small thing is the magic thread that unravels the whole mess. The only real discipline involved is in not paying attention to the other things, big or small.

4) Productive procrastination. Sometimes I’m just not ready to handle the overwhelming stuff. So I find ways of procrastinating that are actually productive. Such as “I’m not ready to write The Medieval Longsword”. So I’ll build a writing desk.” (You can see it here: Productive Procrastination scroll down to find it). Or, I’ll empty my email inbox. Or I’ll do some training. Or I’ll write this blog post…

5) Break for breathing. Overwhelm is very stressful, and I find that I can break the cortisol spiral by going outside and doing breathing exercises, or push-ups, or kettlebells, or swinging a sword. It all helps. Five minutes or so of exercise gets everything back under control, and makes the process of slowing down and getting on with things easier.

Now that I have productively procrastinated, I’ll get back to the thing that was overwhelming me…

See you later!

If you liked this post, you might also like these others:

Project Management

Following my own advice

What should you spend your time on? My rules for prioritising what to do.

 

In “Following my own advice” I described how I try to get something important done every day before checking emails. In that post I rather blithely referred to concentrating on ‘creating assets’, and loosely defined assets as “anything that adds value to your life. Value in this case is usually either money, or reputation, or both.”
I’ve had a lot of interesting feedback on the post, mostly through my mailing list (feel free to join below), and one point that came up more than once is that I didn't define ‘assets’ clearly enough, so I thought I’d go through in detail what I think I should be spending my time on.
You spotted how I carefully did not say “you should be spending your time on”, right? As ever, take my advice with a sceptical mind, and discard anything that doesn’t work for you. One big caveat: being self-employed means I have a dick of a boss who never gives me time off or a raise, but I can choose literally anything to work on. That's both a blessing and a curse.
Here is the Master Asset List, my top three assets, in order of priority.

1) Mental Health
Every experience you will ever have is mediated and experienced by your consciousness. There is no experience so blissful that you can’t be miserable during it, and no experience so awful that bliss is impossible. Perhaps the best single resource on this is Sam Harris’ book Waking Up, closely followed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow. The key elements to my mental health are:
1. My relationships (primarily wife and children, other family and close friends, everyone else).
2. Meaningful work. Like writing this blog post. Or the next book. What makes it meaningful for me is its ability to transform other people’s lives for the better.
3. Meditation. I meditate every day, and have been doing so (with more or less regularity) for many years. The last year or so has been especially difficult (see here for an idea why), and one of my coping strategies has been to get a lot stricter about doing my meditation every day. It helps. I’ve written a short guide to getting started if you want to try it out.
4. Fun. Much underrated, but it is critically important to kick back and have fun often. Never underestimate the power of silly.

All the rest of these assets listed below are only relevant or useful because they affect my state of mind. It’s easier to be mentally healthy when you’re physically healthy and not worried about money.

2. Physical Health
“If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” Count Rugen was a villain, but he spoke truth here. Physical health rests on two foundations: what you eat and how you move.

Diet: I’ve written up my approach to diet in lots of places, including here, here, and here; and it can be summed up as:

  • learn to cook
  • avoid sugar
  • eat lots of vegetables
  • pay attention to high quality fats, and
  • fast every now and then.

That's a very big topic dismissed in a few lines, so do check out those links if you're interested.

Exercise: How you move… hmmm, I wonder what kind of exercise a professional swordsman would recommend… ok, start with looking after your joints (here’s a free course on knee maintenance), and carry on by finding any physical activity that you enjoy, and do it regularly. That could be walking the dog, ballet, rock-climbing, trapeze, anything. Some activities are better adapted for long-term health than others, but if health is your priority you can probably avoid most of the damage that might be done during the less conservative activities. I’m a big fan of breathing exercises, as you probably know; they are the foundation of my movement practice, and they are specifically designed and intended for promoting health.
An imperfect plan that you actually follow is way better than a perfect plan that you abandon, so it’s much more important to find something fun that keeps you moving, than it is to find the ‘perfect’ health-giving exercise. Moving your body should not be a chore.

Sleep: The best single source on sleep matters (and sleep does matter!) is Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep. In short, the more and better you sleep, the longer you live. Good sleep is really the ultimate time management strategy because it a) buys you more time because you live longer and b) makes your waking hours vastly more productive.  There are so many factors affecting sleep that it would take a whole book to go into them (like Dr. Walker’s!), but I’ll summarise the main things that have helped me:

  • Avoid caffeine for at least 12 hours before bedtime. Yes, 12 hours. I only drink coffee at breakfast. Caffeine kills deep sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol, or at least get it all out of your system before bed. Alcohol kills REM sleep.
  • Keep the bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.
  • Stop eating at least 3 hours before bed. A full stomach affects sleep quality.
  • Nap, but not too long or too late. eg 30-60 minutes at 2pm.
  • All screens off at least an hour before bed, and screens after 8pm are set to ‘Night Mode’, cutting down on blue light.

I could go on, but you get the picture. As with everything, experiment to see what works for you. I track sleep with the OURA ring, but you can use other tools, or just notice how you feel in the morning. Top tip: if you need an alarm to wake up, you haven’t slept enough.

 

3. Money
Once your mental and physical health are being attended to, then the next big thing is money. Money worries are truly toxic to your mental health, and can poison every aspect of your life. Think of those bankers jumping out of windows during the Great Depression, all because some numbers on a bit of paper were not the way they wanted them. Weird, huh? But real. Just choosing not to worry is an option, of course, but it's much easier for most people to actually do something to reduce expenditure and increase income. Incidentally, my favourite money blog is Mr Money Moustache. He's refreshingly unapologetic.
I should point out that I am by no means rich- I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of months since I became an adult in which I had enough cash in the bank to cover the next month’s bills in advance. This is because I have always, always, put time-rich ahead of money-rich, on the grounds that you can always make more money but when time is spent, it’s gone for good. My first salary as a cabinet maker was £6000 per year. I learned fast enough to double that in two years. Woohoo! And swordsmen these days don’t make much cash either.
In Finland, people’s tax returns are actually in the public domain- you can literally walk into the tax office and for a small fee get a copy of anybody’s. Let me save you the bother: here’s mine from last year in case you’re interested.
But, and here’s the big BUT. Since the beginning of 2015, I’ve been effectively living off passive income. My books and other assets generate about enough money to live on, month by month. People buy my books and courses while I’m asleep. And, given that I’ve never made a lot of money, I’ve never become addicted to a large and regular income, so it took relatively little time or effort to get to the point where my assets were generating enough income to cover all normal expenses. This means that I am now much freer to choose the things I spend my time on. Like taking all day Wednesday off this week because it's my daughter's birthday and she has stuff planned from dawn 'till dusk.

In short, my work priorities are:

  1. do I think it's important, in terms of serving the art?
  2. will it be good for my reputation?
  3. will it force me to acquire new skills?
  4. will it produce passive income?
  5. is it scalable?

Let's take those one at a time:

1. Serving the art: In my experience, every single time I've tried to be ‘businesslike' and put what should be a sensible business move in place it's gone horribly wrong. But when contemplating a course of action if I can look into my heart and say ‘yes, this will serve the art', then it's always turned out ok (even if it hasn't made any money).

2. Reputation: Not every asset generates income: some generate opportunity. When The Swordsman's Companion was published in 2004, it made me no money at all (there’s a story there, but after suing the publisher, part of the settlement included a mutual non-defamation agreement. Make of that what you will). But that book put me on the map as an instructor. I suddenly started getting invited to events to teach, which massively broadened my horizons. Students from all over the world started to get in touch, having heard of me because they found my book in a bookshop somewhere. My Singapore branch came into being because Chris Blakey and Greg Galistan stumbled upon my book in the Borders Bookshop there. And when the rights reverted to me in 2012, I self-published it, and now it pays the mortgage.

3. Acquire skills: Time spent working on skills is never wasted, especially skills that you learn for their own sake rather than for a specific objective. Because whatever skill you are learning, you are simultaneously learning how to learn, and, more importantly, if you’re learning for its own sake you are putting process over outcome. Let’s say I learned to speak German because I wanted a job in Germany. If I learned German but didn’t get the job, the time would have been wasted, and I wouldn’t take full advantage of being able to talk to Germans in their own language, to read German books and watch German films. But if I learned German for its own sake, and it happened to lead to a job, well that’s a bonus.
A skill become an asset when they add value to your life. I really cannot think of a single skill I’ve ever regretted learning. And I can think of several that I learned ‘just because’, that then turned out to be professionally useful. Martial arts being the obvious example- I didn’t even think of turning professional until 2000, and I had about 15 years of training under my belt by then!

4. Passive income: There is nothing wrong with being paid for your time. And nothing wrong with being productive. But even in the classic model of employment, you’re supposed to retire at some point and live off your pension. Your pension is created by investments that pay you a passive income. This is how people in professions like dentistry can end up retiring in comfort- they make a good income per hour, being paid by the hour, but use a big chunk of that active income to buy assets (such as stocks and funds) that produce a passive income.
A passive income is defined as income that requires no work on your part whatsoever. If you are packing and shipping your own books, that’s not passive income. If you have to be in a specific place, or awake at a specific time to get paid, that’s not passive income. When I am faced with a choice between producing something I can get paid once for (a woodworking commission, a writing commission, private lessons, seminars etc), or producing something that will generate a passive income stream, even a small one, then I will tend to choose the latter.
Perhaps the most outrageous examples of this choice comes from the original Star Wars movie. Carrie Fisher sold her image rights outright for a sizeable chunk of money. Over a thousand dollars, I think, way back in the 70s when that was worth something. Alec Guinness got paid royalties. Guess which one did better? There was a lot of luck involved, but if you don’t have passive-income producing assets that might go all Harry Potter on you, then it cannot ever happen.
Let’s put some numbers on this. The Swordsman's Companion makes about 10,000 dollars a year in income for me (it’s my best-selling book by a margin!). To generate similar returns, I would need at least 200k in traditional assets. Here’s an article on how that would work. If anyone wanted to buy that book off me outright, I’d therefore ask for at least 200k. Nobody in their right mind would offer me that much, so the book stays with me. Folk might stop buying it tomorrow. But folk might still be buying it in 50 years time. There is no way to know, and that is true of any asset. Stock markets crash like Italian drivers. There is no such thing as a perfectly safe investment- even cash loses value over time. My mother in law saved for a pension for 30 years- and just before she was due to retire, the fund (Eagle Star) crashed and she lost the lot. Nothing is safe, so the only sane course is diversification, which is why you can buy my books on any platform, in any format- so long as people still want to read about how to train with swords, they will be able to buy my books on the subject.

5. Scalable: A scalable asset is one which you create once, and can sell an infinite number of times. I have spent most of my working life producing non-scalable assets. Back when I was a cabinet maker, I would work for hours and hours on a piece of furniture, which was then sold. As a martial arts teacher, I would teach a class, which existed only in that moment. I got paid for that moment, but that was it. There is nothing wrong with this model if you have the energy to work full time forever, and never get sick. A non-scalable asset might produce passive income, but you can still only sell it once. A house that you rent out is a good example. It can be an excellent passive income stream, but you can only rent the house out to one tenant or group of tenants at a time.
A book is scalable- you write it once, and when it’s published people can buy as many copies of it as they want. You don’t have to write each reader a new book. An online course is scalable too; create it once, sell it as many times as you like.

Ideally, my most productive time is spent serving the art, building my reputation, learning skills, and producing scalable assets that produce passive income.

So, that's how prioritise my time; how do you prioritise yours?

This will be my last post this year, so let me close by wishing you a Merry Christmas, and a happy, mentally, physically and financially healthy New Year!

I just uninstalled the Facebook app off my phone.

Shock! Horror! How could  I do such a thing?

Well, yesterday I gave a class to some students on a professional writing course at the University of Suffolk here in Ipswich. The topic was time management, and my advice boiled down to the following key points:

  1. Distinguish between ‘urgent' and ‘important'. Most things that come in appear urgent but are not important. Many things that are important (like writing the next book) do not feel urgent. Prioritise the important over the urgent.
  2. Create assets. Assets are anything that add value to your life. Value in this case is usually either money, or reputation, or both.  A book is an asset if it boosts your reputation, or makes money, or both. (My first book The Swordsman's Companion made me precisely no money between 2004 when it was published and 2013 when I self-published it. But it put me on the map as a swordsmanship instructor.) In the case of the students present their degree would be an asset, as would a blog they maintain, or work they do that can go in a portfolio to show clients. Facebook status updates? Not assets.
  3. Put first things first. Try to get some work done on an asset before checking email or anything else. Your inbox is everyone else's agenda. Your assets are your agenda.

On Monday morning this week I followed my own advice to perfection. I got up and did my meditation, had breakfast with the kids and walked them to school, then came home and produced the final videos for my Footwork course (which is now complete, with students enrolled and everything), and edited some videos for my Medieval Dagger course (which is also now complete). After about two and a half hours of full-on creative and productive work, my computer was tied up rendering video, so I took a break. I did some breathing training, took a shower and got properly dressed… And checked my emails for the first time that day. My creative intention had not had a chance to get derailed.

Back in 2006, in the days just after publishing The Duellist's Companion and right before my wedding, the server that hosted the school website and my emails broke. Five years of emails, my entire inbox, everything, gone in an instant. At a rather busy time in a self-employed person's life. But you know what? I can't think of a single bad thing that happened because of it. Not one. Everyone who mattered (such as my future wife) had other ways to get hold of me. Every important email got sent again by the person who hadn't gotten a reply yet. The wedding went off without a hitch (she showed up and said “I do”. Everything else is a blur). There are two takeaways from this. 1. Backups are important for your important work, but probably not so much for your emails. 2. Very few emails are truly important.

Whenever I talk like this, people jump up and down about how critical their rapid email responses are to keeping their jobs. My answer is in the form of a book: Deep Work by Cal Newport. To sum up, firstly, your job probably doesn't genuinely value your rapid response, they just expect it. Most knowledge workers don't put “I respond fast to email” on their CVs. You can train your co-workers off treating email like instant messaging. Sure, I'm in an unusual position, but Cal is not- he's a Computer Science professor, with all the admin crap that goes with that, so read his book and take his word for it. But you might find my contact page instructive in setting expectations. I'll save you clicking and quote:

Hi! You can email me, which I prefer, or find me online on FacebookLinkedInGoodreads, and Twitter, or if you like, try this spiffy form. Whichever you choose, please bear in mind that I don’t have a secretary, but I do have family, students, books to write and a school to run. This means that I think I’m doing pretty well if I answer your email within three working days, and any social media message within seven. After that time has expired, and there is still no response, try emailing again!

Then, when I reply to someone's email in two days, their expectations are exceeded and we're all happy.

Secondly, do you really want a job in which your primary value is not doing deep creative work, but simply reacting to emails? Really?

Getting and staying out of a reactive mindset is critically important to getting serious work done. Reactivity is not creative. Sure, creative work is often done in reaction to something; protest art, for instance, but the process of creating that art is not reactive, and a wise artist doesn't let anyone see their work until the first draft is done.

This goes to one of the most important ideas for living a worthwhile life: expanding your circle of control. Mr Money Moustache (one of my favourite bloggers) has written an excellent article on this here, but let me summarise it for you. You should spend your attention only on the things you can directly affect. By doing so, you become better able to affect the things you care about. Moaning about politics is a classic beginner's mistake. Writing to your congressman or MP, voting, organising or taking part in protests, standing for office, are all much more effective responses. If you're not planning on doing any of those things, then you shouldn't burn any mental effort on thinking about it. And moaning about the weather? Come on. The weather doesn't care. Either wear the appropriate clothing, or choose to do something else. By paying attention to the things you can affect, you become much more effective and your circle of control grows. Expending effort worrying about things you cannot affect takes away from those things that you can, and you become less effective, and your circle of control will shrink.

What has all this to do with Facebook? Well, 99% of the stuff in my Facebook feed I skip over. Of the 1% I react to, 99% is not stuff that I can directly affect. This is incredibly inefficient. But this morning I found I had checked my email and my Facebook feed before doing my breathing practice or working on an asset. And yet I had just the day before spent an hour being an ‘expert' and preaching to these students about putting first things first.

The thing is, Facebook is staffed by hundreds of people who are way cleverer than me, and whose paychecks depend entirely on making the site sticky. They need our eyeballs on those ads or they are out of a job. They are naturally very, very good at getting and keeping our attention. The only way to win is not to play. Getting off the scroll-scroll-click dopamine drip is very likely to enable me to increase the value I put into the world. Of course I will keep my Facebook profile and pages- they are a useful aspect of my business and personal life, great for organising parties, keeping up with far-flung friends, and all of that. But by increasing the barrier to entry (taking it off the phone), I will only be able to get on Facebook on my work machine, which means after I've done some useful work (because, you know, self-discipline and all that. Lack discipline? Use an app such as Freedom that prevents you getting onto the internet altogether, or blocks certain sites until a time you set).

This is the great thing about teaching. You teach that which you most need to learn, and by being forced to set a good example to your students (because who wants to be a hypocrite?) you get better at the things you care about.

Right, that's 1300 words of creative writing done. What next? Should I open up Scrivener and get to work on the next book? Or dash on over to Facebook and see who's been getting up to mischief?

I loathe bureaucracy in all its forms. And I really don't understand why so many companies, organisations, and people feel the need to clutter up other people's houses with pieces of paper that aren't either proper letters (I'm a big fan) or nice cards (also a fan). As you may know I did a major blitz on paper before we left Finland; I bought a decent scanner and digitised everything that needed to be kept (or was just interesting), and binned about 15 years worth of processed dead trees. The only things I kept were either official papers (birth certificates and so on), or things that had sentimental or other value as artefacts (a concert program signed by Louis Armstrong, some of the fathers day cards my kids have made me, things like that).

The pile had grown to critical proportions over the last month, as you can see from this little vlog I did:

So, step one is to make a big pile of all the paper, and put it next to a paper-recycle bin, like so:

One pile, one bin.

Then go through the pile, and sort it into two: keep/scan, or straight to bin. Be ruthless. At my advanced level, I get to split the keep/scan pile already into keep no need to scan; scan; and check with wife, and I also do some sorting into source or type on the fly, because I've done this enough that that actually saves me time because the decisions are very fast. Here's the martial-arty-bit: the difference in reaction time between a single response (on signal, go!) and one with two options (on signal, go left OR go right!) is about a 60% increase. And it just gets worse the more options there are. So at first it's best to make every response binary: scan/keep or straight to bin. The pile is now a lot smaller; and there are actually only three on this table:

the piles.

 

 

Then it's out with the scanner. I'm using the NeatDesk, and it is amazing. The stuff just zips through.

Every time something is scanned, it goes directly into the “keep” pile, or it's ripped (to prevent remorse) and goes directly into the bin. And everthing is scanned straight to pdf, the file named, and filed in my documents folder (I use Neat's own archive system, which works well).

Then (and this is a critical step) all the ‘keep' stuff gets put away properly. Because everything is still a bit ad-hoc in the new home, this entailed quite a bit of sorting and rearranging, and in the process I set up the big computer. This meant that a couple of dvds of fencing books got loaded onto it, and the flurry of uploading fencing treatises for free can recommence.

Let's start that with something really gorgeous. Camillo Agrippa, 1553, Scientia d'Arme.


 

In other news, my course Recreate Historical Swordsmanship from Historical Sources went live over the weekend. It's got about a quarter of its content up so far, and I'll be adding more regularly. The idea behind letting students enrol before the course is finished is to allow me to take their needs and feedback into account as the course is developed. This should produce a much better end product than anything I could just create from scratch. If you're on the mailing list, you should have a 50% discount code; if you didn't get it, then let me know and I'll send it again.

And to recap:

  1. All paper into one pile.
  2. Quickly go through the pile and throw out as much as possible.
  3. Scan and bin what's left, keep only the essentials.
  4. Name and file pdfs as you go
  5. Put away all the kept items.

Done!

Tomorrow, I’ll pull the trigger on my latest venture: an online course. It is called “Recreate Historical Swordsmanship from Historical Sources” and by the time it is done, it will be a clear and systematic way for people to learn how to do the academic side of historical swordsmanship. You know, the bit that makes it actually historical. The course is by no means finished: my plan is to have enough material up to keep people busy, and to use the feedback from the students to guide my creation of the rest of the course. I cannot reasonably predict exactly what every student will find difficult, or need extra help with, so I will create the necessary modules as the need arises. I have a fair bit of content up already, including all the homework assignments (which will tell you what the goal of each section is; if you can do the homework, you have acquired the intended skills and knowledge). I have a stable map of what the course will cover, and how it’s broken down. But the specifics of “a pdf with examples of translation problems” or “explain how to set up a more advanced drill”, or “we need more explanation here”; that will be finalised, expanded on, and polished with the first batch of students telling me what they need.

Which is exactly how I run my seminars; start with a theme, ask the students what they need, and give them that.

When I launch it tomorrow, I’ll send a note out to my mailing list, with some 50% off discount vouchers. These are limited to a total of 45 students, because I want to keep enrolments small to start with, while I work on the course content. These vouchers are intended for people who really want to be beta-testers and co-creators. There is nothing stopping people signing up at the full price, but I hope it’s clear that the course isn’t finished yet.

Because the format is so different to what I am used to, this is a really hard process for me; writing books is, if not exactly easy, at least totally straightforward and familiar. But creating an online course is very different.  Once this one is properly up and running, I’ll get started on others, such as turning the content of my Medieval Dagger book into a course, and indeed, eventually, the entire School syllabus. Ambitious, much?

I’m writing this in the Atrium Studios space in Suffolk University; they run a “Jelly” networking meetup on the last Thursday of every month, so I came along and met a load of interesting folk. Explaining what I do for a living is a great ice-breaker.

I am also doing a daily vlog thing, partly because my daughters are totally into vloggers right now, and partly to help with goal-setting for creating this course. I’m in a totally new environment (Ipswich), and finding my feet here creatively. It’s hard to get into the proper zone, outside the really specific environment I had created for myself in Helsinki. Perhaps the vlogging will help. I’ve got 5 short clips up so far; you can find them on my personal youtube account (with almost 0 views, because it’s not my main swordschool account). But there may be stuff there you’ll find interesting. I’ve embedded day 1 here, though it’s way out of date! Nearly a week old already!

https://youtu.be/DYoyrmHDlc0

So, that’s what I’m up to in the land of Sword. How about you?

Creating a card game to teach the basic theory and terminology of a medieval combat system was really hard. Audatia is done though: four glorious character decks and two expansion packs; piled up on my desk they really look like we created something.

When people hear about it, the most common reaction is “wow, that’s cool!” or words to that effect. The next most common reaction is some variation on “but I had that idea!” Sometimes that comes with the feeling “I’m so glad somebody is doing it”, but sometimes I get the impression that the person felt that by having the idea they had somehow staked out that creative territory and were annoyed that I was encroaching on it. An idea that they had done absolutely nothing to bring into being.

The same is true with writing. I hear a lot of “I wish I was a writer”, or, “I want to write books too”. I don’t really get it, to be honest. If you want to do something, do it. 99% of the obstacles preventing you are between your ears. If The Diving Bell and the Butterfly could be written by Jean Dominic Bauby just being able to blink one eye, letter by letter, or my wife’s friend Roopa Farooki can manage two jobs, four children and a commute and still be a successful novelist, really what’s your excuse? Everybody can find half an hour a day to blast out text if they really want to. If they really, really want to. Because it is hard.

And I think that’s the crux of it. Having the idea is easy, costs nothing, and feels good. Executing the idea is often brutally hard, a marathon of sprints, exhausting, frustrating, painful and at the end of it all it might still fail or flop.

I often get what I think are brilliant ideas that I know for a sure and certain fact I’m never going to execute. Here are three.

The Writer’s Briefcase

I had this idea while watching my kids in the Piazza del Campo in Siena. Michaela and I were tag-teaming; she had gone off for a wander leaving me supervising the little artists.

Piazza del Campo. Great place for ideas…
The writer's briefcase. Every writer should have one…

And I thought how handy it would be to have a consistent work set-up, that folded away into a briefcase. I was inspired by the idea behind the Roost laptop stand. The key points are:

  • Easy access: you can pull the laptop out, plonk it on your lap and work, or open the case on a table and have at least your laptop, mouse and notepad to hand. Or you can spend a couple of minutes doing the full set-up with the Roost and all.
  • Modular design: if you need to take research books, an ipad, or whatever else with you, you can attach additional modules, like MilTec only in nicer colours. Oh, alright. We'll do one in black if we must.

This could be produced quite easily: find a bag designer, raise funds on kickstarter, have cool names for different models (by writing space “the garrett”, “the studio”, “the atelier”; by author “the Dickens”, “the Austen”, “the Shakespeare”), have young chaps with beards and tight jeans rave about it, and you’re over 100k in minutes. Really, luggage is so in right now.

The Tripod standing desk

Continuing the theme of writing set-ups (as my regular readers know, I’m something of an ergonomics afficionado): one reason I don’t like working in cafes and other public places is the utter lack of standing desks with keyboard shelf at exactly the right height, monitor at exactly the right height, and so on. The problem of a stable, strong, and portable vertical support has been solved for decades: the photographer’s tripod.

So how about a light, collapsible two-level desk (keyboard and laptop) that fits on a standard tripod mount? You could even have a tripod pouch on the “atelier” above. The base level would be adjusted through the tripod itself; the monitor/laptop level would be adjustable through how it fits to the keyboard shelf.

A standing desk you can take anywhere? Huzzah!

Genius.

The Bladebell

This is one project that I took all the way from basic idea through first production run, but then it stalled. In short, it’s an Indian club with edge alignment and sword-handling capabilities. They are actually really good; I use mine all the time. I was really careful to get the mass and point of balance just right so they stress the hand like a longsword. You can do all your grip changes, blows, and everything except actual strikes and pair drills with them, as well as everything you would do with a standard Indian club. I even shot some video of how to use them:

 

I made a couple of prototypes, and got the excellent chaps at Purpleheart Armory to make a batch of 12 pairs, which were sold at WMAW in (I think) 2011. They all sold, but somehow Purpleheart and I never quite got round to marketing them properly so they never took off.

Rather than keep these to myself, I would rather that somebody takes them and runs with them. Go ahead, make millions, and give me a lift in your Ferrari one day.  I recently let the url “bladebell.com” lapse; if you want it, it’s yours.

Give away your best ideas.

Seriously. Give away all your best ideas. It’s quite safe. The chances of somebody else having the grit to execute your vision is vanishingly small. And if they do, all it means is that your own execution was inadequate. In these cases, I’ve no interest in becoming a bag designer, writing ergonomics company director, sports equipment manufacturer, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with being any of these things, they’re just not me.

And I think that’s where the idea versus execution problem really lies. It’s in our nature to have ideas. It’s also in our nature to flit from one to the other until something grips and won’t let go. All of the skills around execution can be learned or hired. The one thing that can't be learned or hired is the sheer stubbornness to see it through until your idea is made flesh. You just have to want it and give up whatever needs to be given up to make it happen.

So, if any of these bite you in the arse and won't let go, take them with my blessing and execute the sh*t out of them.

Woodworkers, depicted at the tomb of Rekhmire, from http://www.osirisnet.net/tombes/nobles/rekhmire100/e_rekhmire100_06.htm

I like reading about lifestyles I have no intention of emulating, but might learn something from. Such as the “travel the world for ten years with only one pair of underwear” minimalist types. It's all very “I've got an ultralight laptop and that's all I need”. Which is fine if you're only a writer or programmer or something like that. But as a writer who is also a swordsman and even a woodworker, it's not really a practical lifestyle choice. To do the things I want to do, I need swords, and tools. But one of the many things I've learned from people like Tynan, Tim Ferriss, and other techno-nomads is the joy of travelling handluggage only. On my last two long trips (Italy-USA-Canada-Italy; Finland-New Zealand-Australia-Finland) I travelled with only hand luggage. No sword bag (bliss! there are swords everywhere I go these days, so bringing my own makes no sense), no suitcase, just what I could fit into a 10kg carry-on bag. It's amazing how much crap I used to lug about, and now don't need to bother with, and do not miss.

So of course, in the run-up to moving to the UK in a few months, I'm shedding stuff like crazy. I just bought a decent document scanner (NeatDesk, second hand from a friend), so I can bin almost all of my papers. I'll be clearing out some of my books (I got rid of 18 boxes-full in the last year alone: which made no visible difference at all. I am, after all, a reader first and writer second). But at the end of the day, some stuff matters.

My glue pot. It will outlive us all!

Take this glue pot for instance. It's made of cast iron, in a form that goes back to the middle ages at least, though this pot is only about 100 years old. I bought it from Fred Murray himself, proprietor of Murray's Tools, an amazing tool shop in Edinburgh, just after I completed my first month of professional experience in William Trist's antique restoration workshop, where I first encountered this utterly brilliant glue. Hot glue, scotch glue, hot animal glue, hide glue; it has many names. And an indefinite shelf life if kept dry, and is still holding furniture together that was made by the ancient Egyptians. Show me any other glue which has been product-tested for, oh, two and a half millenia or so?

Ancient Egyptian glue pot

I love this pot. It represents proper, old-school, traditional craftsmanship. It's been with me for twenty years. I bought it from a man I liked, who sold it to me at a lower price than he could have got for it because he knew I'd be using it for its proper purpose.

I'm not selling it, giving it away, or leaving it behind. It came over in my hand luggage about a decade ago, and it's coming back with me, probably the same way. From a practical perspective, I can do without it; I fixed a friend's sideboard with hot animal glue a couple of years ago, melting the stuff in a bain-marie improvised out of a plastic cup and a saucepan. I could buy a modern pot, with electronic heat control so the glue never gets too hot. But life should never be simply a matter of practicality, and sentimental value is vastly more important than financial value, I would say.

The things you own, own you, if you can't walk away from them. I could walk away from most of the objects in my life. Almost all my swords, for instance. I really do view most of them as expendable resources, things that wear out eventually, and are easily replaced. But the ones made for me by a friend, those are not really replaceable. Even if they are no longer useful. But the list of things I just don't want to do without is surprisingly short.

That glue pot? That's mine. Or am I it's?

 

During the Second World War, some tiny Pacific islands were suddenly strategically important, and inundated with Japanese or American service personnel and material. In the years following the war, islanders started dressing up like servicemen and doing parade ground drill with wooden rifles, carving headphones out of wood and sitting in control towers wearing them, lighting signal fires on the runways, and in short doing everything they could to bring the influx of material goods (“cargo”) back. You can read all about these “cargo cults” here.

Because they did not understand the underlying structures behind the sudden appearance of all this wealth, they simply copied the external behaviours that seemed to attract it. They mistook form for substance, and sure enough, the cargo planes did not come back.

Financial security: multiple income streams

A friend of mine recently went from being employed to being effectively a freelancer. We were discussing how having lots of separate income streams was actually much more secure than having just one, when she came up with the analogy for the way people can mistake the trappings of security (a big house, a smart car, a good job) with security itself. It’s a kind of cargo cult. And ironically, many of those trappings make us less secure. A mortgage (literally translated as “death grip”) is the very opposite of security. Your home is secured on the mortgage so the bank will lend you the money to buy it: the security is the bank’s not the borrower’s. And the bank will take your house if you fail to keep up the payments. This has happened to several friends of mine, in the UK and the USA, in the last recession. It is horrible.

Whenever a friend of mine gets laid off, my first reaction is to congratulate them. I have discovered that this can come across as me being an asshole, so I have learned to choke back the impulse to shake them by the hand, and offer condolences instead. But inside, my actual feeling is “you’re free!” Because while a job is no doubt one perfectly good way to spend much of your waking hours, and can pay well, and even at times be worth doing for its own sake, the one thing it absolutely cannot provide is security. No company, government, or any other employer lasts forever. Countries rise and fall, companies come and go, and if you rely on a single income stream, then your financial security has a single point of failure. It doesn’t matter if you have an iron-clad lifetime employment contract: if the company goes bust they stop paying you. There’s a saying in the military: “two is one, and one is none.” It refers to redundancy in any situation; you cannot rely on anything for which there is no backup in place.

The primary solution to this is to have more than one source of income. In my own case, my income derives from teaching in my school's various branches, royalties from my books, and seminars taught outside my school. I think three is a safe minimum. Any one of those streams could fail tomorrow, and we would still be able to pay the mortgage. Just. But none of them can fail instantly, because none of them rest on a single person or entity. My readers can fire me one at a time. But I have several thousand of these wonderful people. My branches and other groups can stop hiring me for seminars; but they are unlikely to do that all at once (more likely that some catastrophe would prevent me from being able to teach).

For most employed people though, running a side-business of any kind is problematic; if it’s within their field, there may be conflicts of interest, and if their job doesn’t give them much time to spare, then there may just not be time. Some friends of mine just do not want to run a business. Fair enough. So the approach then is to siphon off at least 50% of the income into income-generating assets. This theory is beautifully presented by one of my favourite bloggers, Mr Money Moustache. In brief; learn to live off 50% of your income (easy enough if you earn more than about 40k/year, something I have never done!), invest the rest in index funds, reinvest all the income from the funds, and keep doing that until the passive income from the assets reaches the point that it meets your current expenditure. Bingo, you’re secure. Or as Mr Money Moustache would put it, retired.

But…

Well, up to a point. Because the problem with money as a marker for security is that it is highly unreliable. When my family moved to Peru in 1986, my parents bought a new car, a Nissan Sunny, for 150,000 Inti. Three years later, a beer in a nightclub cost half a million. That’s an extreme example of inflation, but we all remember the recent bank crashes, pension fund fraud, and a host of other things that can strip you of all your savings in a heartbeat. War, for instance. The Soviets invaded Finland in living memory. The property I own here would become immediately worthless if that happened again, because I would grab my kids and run, leaving everything behind. Afghanistan in the 1970s was generally a safe nice place to be. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner has a lovely description of it. Some Europeans and Americans even retired there. Oops. Likewise Lebanon. Before the civil war, Beirut rivalled Monaco as a place for Europeans to footle off for a nice safe vacation. Less so since it tore itself apart. I don’t think it’s likely that Russia will invade Finland, nor that Europe will plunge into yet another maelstrom. But I’d be a fool to rest my sense of security on it.

What is safety?

So what is safety? Mostly, an illusion. You can lose everything, including your life, during your next heartbeat. Life is dangerous: everybody who tries it dies eventually. So step one in non-cargo-cult security is to make friends with risk. Everything is risky; if something feels completely safe, you’re wrong. Then learn to evaluate the real risk, as opposed to the perceived risk. Which is more dangerous: driving a car or eating candy?

Driving your car is very, very dangerous. About 36,000 Americans were killed in car crashes in 2012 (source). Eating too much sugar is much more dangerous. In 2010, according to the American Diabetes Association, 69,000 died from diabetes, with a further 234,000 whose death certificates credit diabetes as a contributing factor (source). In 2010, there were 25.8 million diabetic Americans. Only 1.25 million of those had type 1 (which is not caused by lifestyle). Type 2 diabetes is caused almost entirely by abuse of sugar. There are other factors, but in short, you can’t get Type 2 diabetes from a diet with no fast carbs. Here is a documentary that is worth a look.

I digress somewhat; my point is that human beings are very bad at assessing risk, and treat as safe things that are dangerous (eg sugar) and treat as dangerous things that are safe (letting your kids walk home from school). One very good book on this topic is Against the Gods, the Remarkable Story of Riskby Peter L. Bernstein. Read it!

So what's the answer?

So the question then is what is real security? I refer you back to this post. Love is vastly more reliable than money. I know for a sure and certain fact that no matter what happens to me or my wife, my kids will neither starve nor be homeless, because somebody among my family or friends would take them in. That may seem obvious to you, but at root, this is what security means: the freedom from watching your children starve. Those friends of mine who lost their homes? They had a couple of shitty hard years, absolutely. But their children didn’t spend a single night in the open or a single day hungry. Because they had friends, sources of income other than the jobs they lost, family to take them in until they got their feet under them again, and so on.

So here are my recommendations for actual security:

  1. Spend time connecting with the people you care about. If the shit hits the fan, they’ll be there for you.
  2. Diversify your income. Have more than one stream.
  3. Build up income-generating assets. An assets is something that generate income; your home is not an asset, unless you rent it out.
  4. And most importantly: understand and be ok with the fact that it could all collapse in an instant, life is inherently unsafe. If you feel completely safe, you’re wrong.
  5. Get some perspective. What, really, are the chances of you starving to death?

I anticipate that this post will ruffle some feathers, because people don't like to be told that their sense of security is based on illusion, or that they are not managing their money very intelligently (I have friends who have earned 150k or more per year for the last 10 years and still owe money to the bank. That is baffling to me). I'm sorry if I've hurt your feelings. But comforting illusions cause more trouble than they are worth, and it's always better to see what's really there.

 

Is this the most famous tower in the world? And is it perfect? Note the two perfect little artists in the foreground, supervised by Mrs Guy.
Is this the most famous tower in the world?
And is it perfect?
Note the two perfect little artists in the foreground, supervised by Mrs Guy.

I understand perfectionism. In some areas of my life, I can see every flaw in what I am doing, and so it feels like everything I do is not nearly good enough.

Good enough for me, that is. But usually, it’s plenty good enough for accomplishing its goal. Let’s take a basic sword strike for an example. My mandritto fendente right now is just a great big mess of inefficiency and flaws. Compared to what it could be, anyway. Compared to what it was five years ago, it’s actually not too bad. I certainly hit a lot of people with it.

That strike is the most common blow in all swordsmanship. What kind of swordsman would I be if I didn’t use it at all, just because it’s not perfect yet? Or if I didn’t expose it to feedback, in the form of resistant opponents or knowledgable peers?

As my writing career has developed, more and more people are coming to me for advice, and excessive perfectionism is one of the more common problems they want help with. It is very hard to let a piece of writing go out into the world when you know it could be better, even when you are well into the realms of diminishing editorial returns, so I thought I’d put together a blog post (laden with imperfect writing, alas) with some mental tricks you can use to make it easier.

Please note that this is intended to help people whose problem is excessive perfectionism. Not to justify sloppy editing or to support writers who let stuff out the door too early. Every published work needs at least two drafts, then editing by at least one, ideally more, external editors, then a final draft incorporating the edits, then proofreading (for typos etc.), then layout, then a final round of proofing, before it should be released. About 10% of the first draft of The Swordsman’s Companion made it into the final version. And I only changed about 5% of that for the second edition. About 90% of the first draft of my second book, The Duellist’s Companion, made it into the final book. (I’m working on a second edition now…)

1. This book is not the final product.

The published book is not the final product. Especially when we are talking about a really discrete work (such as a stand-alone novel, or an interpretation of a specific treatise), it feels like a finished thing in itself, which makes it especially hard to let it go out into the world. But think of this: by denying it publication, you deny it the possibility of perfection. Because you are witholding it from its most keen-eyed critics. The feedback you get from readers who have paid for the book will make the second edition so much better than the first. Look at the first edition as the final editorial pass; the necessary editing round before the second, better edition.

2. This book is only one piece of a larger whole.

Your work over your lifetime is the larger whole. As a training manual, my second longsword book, The Medieval Longsword, is so much better than my first (The Swordsman's Companion). Material I cover in my dagger book I didn’t have to repeat in Veni Vadi Vici. So the work is not finished anyway; any given book is part of an incomplete whole. This lowers the barrier to publication, because it makes each publication feel less of a major event.

3. This book is not the ONE TRUE BOOK.

There is no perfect book. Even a perfect book about swordsmanship, if one could exist, is useless to people who want to learn computer programming. So, this book is the next step in your development as a writer. And it cannot help you develop if it is never published. Because you learn more about what you should have done in it after it’s been published than you can possibly know before.

4. Am I doing my readers a favour?

If you can honestly answer this question with a yes, then publish. You owe it to them. Your book, however flawed, cannot change anybody’s life if you don’t get it off your desk and into their hands. If you’re not sure, then give it to a few likely readers (ideally not your close friends), and ask them if they think the book would be worth paying for. If yes, then go. If no, well excellent, ask them why and you just got another round of editing.

Yes, I just wrote yet another post extolling process over outcome. This is the key to surviving your perfectionist streak. Let every project go out as a work in progress, as a step in the right direction. At the moment of your death, if you have nothing more pressing to think about, you can then review your life’s work and judge it as harshly or as mercifully as you please. Because you will actually have a body of work to look back on, and, for better or worse, it will be finished.

My Mum holding a baby cheetah for hand-feeding, Kenya in the '60s.
My Mum holding a baby leopard for hand-feeding, Kenya in the '60s.

There are always at least two sides to every story, and usually many more. As historians, we do our best to take all the evidence into account, and tend to rely more on first-person eye-witness accounts than on secondary sources. But I have recently been personally involved in historical eye-witness accounts, and I’m here to tell you that even they are not 100% reliable.

Now, I know you knew that already. But it bears repeating. Eye-witnesses are always biased, and always have some kind of agenda (however innocent or benevolent that agenda may be).

What am I going on about, you may wonder? Simply this: My father has recently had the first volume of his memoirs published. More Sherlock Holmes than James Herriot: the Veterinary Detectives takes the reader from his childhood in the Blitz, through Veterinary school, and off to Kenya (where photo of my Mum holding the baby leopard was taken), Nigeria, the 1967 Foot and Mouth outbreak in the UK, [me being born in 1973 gets about 2 lines] Argentina, and Botswana. It is a really odd feeling to read the parents-eye view of events that I actually recall, and to find out so much more about the various grown-ups in my childhood; I had no idea that so-and-so was a vet, no idea that this other tall person was a senior government minister, and so on. Grown-ups were either cool (played with us) or boring (didn’t play with us). It makes me wonder what my kids are thinking and absorbing as a steady stream of world-class HEMA instructors come and go from our home.

And it is also interesting to note that there are stated facts that are clearly incorrect, and stories in which the best bits are missing. From my perspective, anyway. Take for instance the trip to Ghanzi, in Botswana, where the President, Sir Quett Masire, has his farm. My father mentions that Richard (my big brother) and I both arrived from boarding school in the UK, and as we set foot in the Gaberone airport, we went straight onto the Botswana equivalent of Air Force One (a noisy military propellor aeroplane), because we were being given a lift up to Ghanzi by the Masire family. So far so good.

I have always been very susceptible to travel sickness. And Lady Masire was very nice about it when I threw up in her lap. Does that get a mention? No. He says:

“Mrs Gladys Masire was kind to them during the flight, giving them fizzy drinks and sandwiches.”

Which is true, but leaves a lot out.

And she was even nicer about it when at lunch a few days later, Richard opened a bottle of Sprite that had clearly been shaken by someone beforehand, and poor Lady Masire got another Windsor dousing. Upon which subject Windsor senior is silent, though he does go into detail about the cattle he was treating. And he mentions the infamous breakfast incident. I’ll give you his version, then mine:

“Guy had distinguished himself that morning: he had woken long before Richard and went into the kitchen to find the president at breakfast and was invited to join him. To his horror Guy found out that it was grilled liver on the menu, which was a dish he could not abide. To his credit he managed to eat it all and even gave the impression of enjoyment. He was definitely born to be a diplomat.”

Hmmm. As I recall it, Richard was already up and out, and I was late getting up. I was hanging around in the garden behind the kitchen, for no real reason, when Lady Masire came out and asked me if I’d had breakfast. I said no, so she sent me into the sitting room, where to my surprise I saw the President sat on the sofa. I sat opposite him, we chatted about this and that, and then breakfast was brought in: grilled kidneys. Kidneys, not liver. Of that there can be no possible doubt. They are burned into my mind in all their ammonia-smelling horror. But I did eat it all.

Regular readers of this blog will also almost certainly dispute the notion that I am in any way diplomatic. Perhaps being in the back of a car with a rabid dog in Argentina has something to do with it? What am I on about? You’ll have to read the book to find out. But yes, my sister and I did play with a rabid dog.

Of the many things I learned from reading this book, not least was an idea of what my father actually did for a living (he is retired now); he was at least as much a microbiologist as he was a vet: for instance, he developed the first vaccine for Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia. Want to know what that is, and how the vaccine was invented?

Read the book!

And if you’d like a free copy, I have five copies of the Kindle version to give away in exchange for an honest review. Please email me at guywindsor@gmail.com with a) a link to a review that you have written of any other book and b) your promise to review this one, and I’ll email you the file.

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