Guy's Blog

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

Tag: success


(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!

One of the many joys of having kids is their charming misconceptions about how the world really works. For example, both my daughters love driving my car. When bringing them home from daycare, as we get off the public road and onto our parking area, I often take them one at a time onto my lap, where they can steer the car while I work the pedals and the gear stick. It causes howls of outrage when I interfere with their steering- but more often than not it is necessary to avoid collision with a tree or someone’s parked car. And when the car is finally parked in our spot, whichever little angel was last in command will proudly boast “I did it ALL BY MYSELF!” blithely oblivious of my input. In a three-year-old, it’s charming. In a grown-up, it’s obnoxious.

If I chose to edit out a whole lot of data, I could tell you this story about how I’m a self-made man. The company I founded and run operates on three continents, my school was built up from nothing by the sweat of my brow, and dammit, I did it ALL BY MYSELF.

Um, no. Strictly speaking, the first two statements are true: my company, my school, does operate on three continents. And there was a lot of my sweat involved in getting the school off the ground. But my role was actually not so different to my three-year-old deciding that she wants to drive the car, being allowed to do it, and actually working pretty hard to steer the thing.

Yes, founding the school was my idea. Yes, I am solely responsible for the quality of training, the syllabus, the development of the art. But from before the school was even thought of, I was getting an awful lot of help. My parents, of course, didn’t just keep me from starving or dying of exposure- they also went to enormous lengths to have me (and my siblings) educated. My country paid most of the costs of my higher education, up to degree level (I got an MA from Edinburgh back when tuition was free so long as you passed all your exams). This education was of course critically important for developing research skills, and giving me the freedom to train martial arts seven days a week. My interest in swordsmanship was supported and enhanced by the company of like-minded souls in the Dawn Duellists’ Society that I helped to found back in 1994. The first treatise I ever discovered and made publicly available, Donald Mcbane’s The Expert Sword-man’s Companion, I found in the State-owned and paid for National Library of Scotland, that had looked after it for a couple of centuries.

So, all by myself, right?

Then I decided to move to Finland and open a school. I borrowed ten thousand pounds from my bank, which my parents guaranteed. My girlfriend managed to find affordable training space for our first classes through the Helsinki city sports facilities. A friend of mine in England created a website for me, for free (thanks again, Andrew). Two of my best friends in Finland at the time (and still today, thankfully), were the best martial artist I had ever met, and the best blademaker in the world (at least I think so. He would disagree). So there was little real risk in setting up the school, as if it failed, I would still have learned something, and I would have the rest of my life to pay back my parents.

But I did it on my own, yes?

Then, on day one, there were students. Lots of them. People who gave me the benefit of the considerable doubt, and enthusiastically supported the school with their presence, their money, and their time. Some of them are still training today. A few months after opening the school, I felt the need to go to the USA to teach and train- my friends at ISMAC gave me a teaching spot, to begin building my international reputation, my newfound colleagues welcomed me with open arms and a ready blade, and back home a student who happened to have extensive prior martial arts training took on the responsibility of keeping classes running while I was away. Students who arranged to host and maintain the website, students who helped find our permanent training space, students who arranged demonstrations and other events.

But, dammit, all by myself, no?

As the school developed, and as my books were written (yes, mostly by myself, but if you compared the first drafts to the finished products, and could see the editorial work done by my peers, you’d realise how much of their success is owed to other people’s work), students from far and wide came to me for training, and help setting up their own local branches. I have never yet deliberately created any branch outside Helsinki- I don’t have the time or the inclination. But the widespread international character of the school, and its spread within Finland, is beyond doubt- and entirely due to the efforts of the local students.

Students have been pouring time and effort and skill into the school since it started. Ilkka created our current website. And took the photos for and laid out my second and third books. At the insistence of my students, I created a formal syllabus. I didn’t really want to, as it is a ton of work. But I am so glad they demanded it, as it has spawned one of the best projects yet: the syllabus wiki. I did not create the wiki. That was Jaana. I did not even buy the video camera. Dozens of people from around the world contributed to an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for equipment and other costs.

The associations that the school’s students have created, and which are essential to the wellbeing of the school, require management and entail legal responsibilities that the serving board members willingly take on. Without the associations, much of the grant money the school has benefited from wouldn’t be coming in.

But I did this ALL BY MYSELF!

I could go on in this vein indefinitely. But my point is: I and my school have benefited hugely from political and economic factors that we have done nothing to create, and since its inception the school has inspired hundreds of students to support the Art, and the school, in all sorts of ways. My job as I see it is to provide the environment in which training can happen, and to lead the research and development side of things. I take enormous pride in the school and its success. But let me be clear: I can’t take all the credit. I didn’t do it all by myself. I just happen to be the most visible element, the tip of an iceberg of good luck, goodwill and hard work.

There is a very interesting article in the New York Times on the sportification of kendo (thanks for Devon Boorman of Academie Duello for pointing it out) here: The Way of the Sword Is Too Complex for the Olympics –

For those of us engaged in recreating the killing arts, it seems odd that kendo would be thought of as a “pure” martial art: from our perspective, if it has World Championships, it must be a sport. But the kendoka I have met all insist on it being a martial art, and I've never really understood why until reading this article. The key is in the last few lines:

“Kendo is not a sport, it’s a martial art,” said Daniel Ebihara, who has taught in New York since 1958 and coaches the Venezuelan national team. “It’s not about how to win. How to be is more important.”

This is places the definition of martial art as they are using it squarely at the self-improvement pole (I think of martial arts being pulled towards five poles: killing, self-improvement, sport, spectacle and health. See pp 5-6 of The Swordsman's Companion for the full argument). The article continues:

Getting points and winning medals and becoming a champion are hardly the aims, Ebihara said, yet he sees kendo going in that direction. For him, victory entails something else.


“In kendo, the prime opponent is yourself,” he said. “If ippon is perfectly executed, the other side will bow to you and smile.”

I love this. It absolutely defines the nature of a good bout in our arts. Winning a tournament is of infinitely less value than becoming more than you were; and a great hit is wonderful to be a part of, whether you deliver it or receive it. If you weren't fencing at your best, your opponent could not pull off that stroke.

But this is fencing. The Art half of martial art. It leaves out the essential nature of what makes a martial art martial.


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