Thoughts on Practice, and on Swordplay

Posted: October 7, 2011 in Braak
Tags: ,

You guys may or may not know about this, but I’ve been having some troubles in life lately.  They are, I think, rooted directly in a quirk of my psychology that I want to write about a little bit here, because…well, because I think it’s worth writing about, at least, and anyway it’s better than watching TV.

The basic problem that I have is that I am lazy.

Calvin Coolidge famously said this:

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan, ‘press on’ has solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race.

And I think that’s a pretty good point. I agree with that, in principle, and I’ve got plenty of admiration for people like Steve Jobs and his invincible single-mindedness that made him very successful.  Oh, sure, he did a lot of things, but when he had one new idea, he just grabbed it and pursued it relentlessly until it was done.

Of course, that’s the basic thing.  That’s how it works.  You get good at something by practicing it over and over and over.  Great.  Problem solved, if I want to be good at things, and I want to get things done, all I have to do is practice, right?  JUST DO IT.

The thing of it is, as anybody who knows me can attest, I have a lot of ideas, and I get bored with them easily.  I pick them up, all excited, and start to work, and then I get distracted by some idea that I think is even better and I put the old one down to go after the new one for a while. This is a habit that infects basically everything in my life, and it’s the root habit of my many troubles:  anybody can be successful if they just devote themselves to a thing, but I can’t figure out a thing to devote myself to.  My education was haphazard, which limits my job prospects; my writing is haphazard, which makes breaking in to any particular industry problematic — I mean, sure, if I’d spent the last four or so years writing nothing but comic books, or novels, or plays, or blog posts, then by now I might have made a career for myself as a novelist or a comic book writer or a playwright.  Except I spent the last four years writing novels AND plays AND comics AND short stories AND TV show pilots, and none of the work applied to any one of these forms is especially applicable to any of the others.

But worse than that is that I don’t finish things, and I don’t finish them because it’s easy to give up, and so when I get bored, I do.

The problem that I have isn’t that I’m not good at things, it’s that I’m not good at practicing things.  So, how do I GET good at it?  Obviously:  practice.  Well…shit.  Sometimes I wonder if there is something fundamentally wrong with me, some missing element to my psyche — like my brain is an engine running on three cylinders, or something.  Sure, I could get things done, but I don’t and WHY DON’T I?

What the hell is wrong with me?

Also, what does this have to do with swordplay?

I’ve decided that I’m going to learn ten forms for the “jian”, the Chinese straight sword.  I am going to make a project of this — since I don’t have much of anything else going on right now — which I will document here at Threat Quality.  I will add a page over at the side, and occasionally update you guys, amongst my many other articles where I bitch about things that I like, and also Holland’s many other (inferior) articles where he bitches about what he hates.

Like the many other hobbies I have started and never finished, I’ll probably give up on this one, too, practicing it only sporadically when I find myself suddenly interested in it again.  So, don’t be surprised when, in a couple of months, you stop hearing about this idea anymore.

In the meantime… in the meantime, I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do.

  1. lowkey says:

    I am very often immensely unhappy with my job. And my wife, God bless her soul, is incredibly supportive, and always urges me to do what brings me happiness.

    The problem is, I don’t know what will bring me happiness. So.


  2. braak says:

    Yeah. It’s still a problem, though, right? I mean, sure, at least I’m not a subsistence farmer living on maggots and mud cakes, but at least then I’d know what the fuck I was supposed to do.

  3. Joe says:

    Nice post braak. I’ve had the same problem since childhood. A jumble of interests and no results to show for it. I’ve spent hours on TVTropes but can’t seem to give myself 30 minutes to study Python. I have all of these interests that I imagine I would be good at, but once I get started I realize how much it will take to succeed. So I stop and look for the next magic bullet. And on it goes. I wonder how much of it comes down to setting unrealistic goals and simple self sabotage. I have gotten very close to completion before, but I always psyche myself out just before the end, move on to something else, and then regret every having abandoned that first thing.

    Perhaps it comes down to setting more realistic and definable goals. Learning Chinese swordplay might be a little too ambitious. Make each of these accomplishments definable and instead try build on them. A day of daily practice is an accomplishment. Then three days. Then a week. Then a month. Hell, you can probably build a pretty cool personalized RPG out of it.

    Of course, I’ve had trouble following this same advice, so take it for what it’s worth.

    You do great work with this site btw. I’ve been reading ever since your post about the emergent mind of spambots spamming and friending each other on Myspace. Keep it up.

  4. RickRussellTX says:

    Universally reviled “tiger mother” Amy Chua had one surprisingly good bit of advice on this point. Almost all learners need a parent, coach, buddy or teacher to push them over the peaks of the learning curve. Because getting over that peak is not “fun”, and many people quit before reaching that new plateau of mastery. Once you are on that plateau, performance becomes fun again. Until the next peak.

    I’m a journeyman-level programmer, but every peak I ever jumped happened because I was expected to deliver product on a deadline. Without that pressure– from somewhere — few people have the reservoir of will necessary to make that final ascent to the next success. Those that do have the will become great masters at their task.

  5. Moff says:

    Yeah, I dunno, dude. I think I’ve said this before, but I basically had exactly this conversation with my therapist, back when I was in therapy (and I will just note for the record that while of course there are bad therapists out there, he was a solid guy), and he went through a short litany of observations, based on what I’d told him, that suggested I was not, in fact, lazy.

    I don’t know you super well, like on a non-electronic basis, but I’m pretty sure you’re not either, man. (Off the top of my head: Lazy people actually don’t finish and publish three novels. But non-lazy people with high standards do come up with reasons to discount that sort of accomplishment.) That doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem to solve, but you’re going to get closer to solving it if you’re really clear about what the issue is.

  6. braak says:

    I have stalled out in the middle of my third book, though. And I never GOT any of these books published.

    The problem is this: there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to write one of these books in three weeks. In fact, I did write the Translated Man in three weeks, not counting that week in the middle when I went to some thing for grad school. Imagine if I didn’t give up on doing anything that got boring after three or four days, HOW MANY BOOKS DO YOU THINK I COULD WRITE?

  7. Moff says:

    Sure, lots. My point is just: Your problem is that you need to get better at staying with projects even when you’re bored with them, not that you’re lazy. (And you didn’t get the first two novels picked up by a publisher, but you did still publish them, which takes work and is something lots of people talk about doing but never do, therefore providing more evidence that you are not, in fact, lazy.)

    Books about how to do art are only so helpful, since they’re inspiring but don’t actually do the work for you, but The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is pretty good inasmuch as one of its major themes is the issue of overcoming resistance within oneself. You could read the whole thing at B&N in about an hour.

  8. braak says:

    I think this is a semantic distinction. It may be that by “lazy” you mean something that I’m not, but if I’m castigating myself (and rightly so) for not being self-disciplined enough to get done all the things I know I should reasonably be able to get done, a legitimate word for that is “lazy.”

    On the other hand, I don’t believe in human conditions as much as I believe in human habits — am I lazy, or am I in the habit of laziness? Of course, the paradox is that the habit of laziness is the one thing that practice (which eliminates bad habits and creates new ones) is hard to apply to, since the habit of laziness interferes with all other habits.

    @RickRussell: Yeah, I think one of the problems I’ve always had is that I’ve never really found a mentor. I’ll admit that I haven’t looked particularly hard, and it’s also hardly fair for me to expect someone to WANT to be my mentor — I’m challenging, disrespectful, and lazy, after all — so I can’t hold it against anyone. But between all of the Zen workshops and the fencing and kung fu classes, between high school and college and grad school, between the dozens of other classes in various subjects that I’ve taken, I’ve never run into someone who was like, “Oh, yeah, you know what, Chris? Stick with me, and I’ll help you get good at this.”

    At best it’s that kind of impersonal, “Well, you’re paying $200 a month for kung fu classes, so I’m as interested in your success as I am in your $200,” and like I said, I can’t fault anyone for that. It’s a perfectly fair position, and it’s pretty unreasonable for me to expect that there IS anyone around with any kind of even casual interest in my success. But at the same time, it’s disheartening.

    Bodhidharma suggested that only one in 10,000 could understand Zen on their own, that everyone else needs to find a teacher. I need to find a really aggressive one, I guess.

  9. mbourgon says:

    Off Topic on the main topic, but On Topic for the sub-topic

    For what it’s worth, the Tai Chi sword form (which I think uses the jian) is very cool, but very counterintuitive. The point remains fixed in space, and the sword moves around it. Lots of wrist movement, and it’s very cool – but not very easy. And further OT: if you ever have a chance to see a Tai Chi teacher do the form at speed, DO. You’ll never look at old people again, when you realize that Peaceful Move #40 is actually to break the clavicle. Or the windpipe. Or the…

  10. braak says:

    One of the reasons I’m attracted to the Jian form is that a lot of the mechanics of it are similar to Western fencing — for a regular rapier parry, for instance, the goal is actually to keep the point fixed on your opponent while you parry with the forte of the blade. It’s challenging, but actually pretty intuitive when you think about it: the point of your sword is the only thing keeping your opponent from just coming AT you, so you don’t want to sacrifice that threat to pick up the parry.

    That said, the book that I have (James Drewe’s Taiji Jian) doesn’t have that many techniques that use a fixed point, since it involves a lot of cuts, also, and those are impossible to manage with a fixed point.

  11. Moff says:

    Well, to belabor the point, my thought is that self-castigation is maybe not a useful technique, and that “lazy” typically describes a condition and not a specific habit. Since you’re clearly not lazy, I’m not sure you’re well served by using the word. You’re looking for encouragement from another party in the form of a mentor; why would it be helpful for you to use a discouraging label in the meantime?

    Again, this is just something that has helped me, personally, incrementally, while dealing with pretty much precisely the same feelings. Maybe it’s just horseshit, but I don’t think it’s too far off from the sort of clarity Buddhism teaches one to strive for. BUT HEY, CALL YOURSELF LAZY IF IT REALLY MAKES YOU FEEL BETTER.

  12. braak says:


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