I’ve long known I’m no good at paying attention to more than one thing at a time. Because of that, I try pretty hard to avoid even trying to multitask. Still, even having accepted that I’m crappy at this sort of thing, I’m a little frustrated at how it’s showing up in my longsword practice.
Generally I think I’m okay if I try to just do one thing. For example, I’d assume I could execute a single cut or a single parry. But, no. In fact, I can only do a piece of a cut or parry—because one of the things Meyer says is “Every cut gets its step.” So I’m not doing it right unless I do the sword action and the stepping action.
It’s not actually quite as bad as I’m making it sound. I can move into any of the guards. I can swing my sword in any of the principle cuts. I can step with proper form. I can even swing my sword and step forward. But as soon as I try to, let’s say, step to the side and swing my sword, my form tends to break down.
Longsword is called “longsword,” not because the sword is long, but rather because nearly all the cuts and parries are executed with the arms extended. (And this is actually crucial to being successful. If you have your arms extended and your body in the right position, you can parry any cut. Try that with your elbows bent, and you’re very likely to get hit with a sword.)
I can hold the sword in good structure, with my arms straight. I can execute a cut with it, with my arms straight. I can even execute a cut and step forward, with my arms straight. But when I try to do any specific cut with any specific footwork, my form starts to break down: I tend to pull my arms in. And if I focus on keeping my arms extended, I forget to take the step.
It’s very frustrating.
Fortunately, having learned taiji, I know the solution to this: Practice.
That is, proper “deliberate practice” à la K. Anders Ericsson, where you: perform an action, monitor your performance, evaluate your success, try to figure out how to do it better, and then repeat.
If I can only pay attention to one thing at a time, I need to break these sword moves down further. I need to practice keeping my arms straight during a cut, and then repeat that move (paying attention) over and over again, until I can do it without paying attention. Then I can add in the stepping, and practice cutting with a step over and over again until I can do both of those things without paying attention. Then I can start working on a longer phrase: cut while stepping, next cut while stepping. And so on.
I haven’t started practicing outside of class much yet. There are only certain things that can be done without a partner, but those things—stance, guards, footwork—are exactly what I need to practice.
And we will still be meeting over the summer, so I’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice the other things as well.
When I attended Clarion in 2001, Steven Barnes was my week-one instructor. Of course the class was about writing, but Steve talked quite a bit about martial arts in general and Tai Chi in particular—things that were important in his own life and in his own writing.
Although I had been interested in Tai Chi even before that, I didn’t get it together to find a class until 2009. But I managed to find a great class; one that made room for my idiosyncratic movement issues. It quickly became a daily practice that continues to this day. For several years I taught Tai Chi. I’ve retired from teaching it, but I still attend a group practice session in a nearby park several times a week in nice weather. (It’s free. Anyone is welcome. Send me email if you’re local or visiting and are interested in attending.)
All of which is to say that I was very pleased to find that Steven Barnes was teaching three Tai Chi classes at this year’s WorldCon.
Teaching individual Tai Chi classes is a fundamentally peculiar thing. I mean, if you’re trying to learn a Tai Chi form, you can expect to spend a year at it, if you take two or three classes a week. In that context, it’s kind of hard to know what to do with a single class, and the issue actually gets even more fraught if you’re teaching three classes, rather than just one.
Steve threaded the needle by focusing a large part of each class on talking about living well.
I started this post wanting to talk about all the great stuff that Steve covered—about movement and about life. But I hadn’t taken notes, and became somewhat daunted knowing that I’d skip all sorts of important bits. But, given the choice between documenting a few of the bits that stuck with me and documenting nothing, I’ve decided to go with the former.
I would like to emphasize that all these things are colored by my own thinking, so it is virtually certain that Steven Barnes would look at several of these things and go, “Wait a minute! That’s not what I said!” Don’t blame Steve for anything I get wrong. But this is how I remember it:
Purpose of life
On the first day, Steve mentioned that the Dali Lama said the purpose of life was to seek joy and to be of service. Steve used that statement to go on a short rant about being of service—how it’s the real motivation that gets most people out of bed in the morning. “Even if it’s just to feed the cat.” But on the third day he told a story that added some context.
Originally, he said, the Dali Lama said that the purpose of life was to seek joy. But people criticized him, saying that it sounded selfish to say that was the purpose of life. And the Dali Lama pushed back saying, “But as soon as you find joy, you’ll want to share it, and immediately find yourself drawn to be of service.” But people continued to complain, and eventually the Dali Lama conceded to the complaints and added the “and be of service” part.
And I think it’s good to tell the story this way, so that you get the context that “being of service” is an automatic urge, as soon as you find joy. It has certainly been my own experience.
People almost always reach a point while learning something, where they perceive themselves as no longer getting better at that thing, even as they continue to train. Different people will keep training for different amounts of time before giving up, but most people eventually give up, before becoming an expert.
That has certainly been my own experience. There must be a hundred things—playing chess, identifying birds, gardening, StarCraft—where I did it enough to get pretty good at it, then found that getting significantly better would be hard work, and didn’t make the effort.
Steve suggested that 100 hours of study or training will give you a passing familiarity with some topic or activity, and 1000 hours gets you good enough to participate in a conversation about some topic with an expert. He also made a passing reference to the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that it takes to develop actual expertise in something, but mentioned in an almost off-hand way the same issues with that idea that I talk about in my post on practice.
Three areas of life
One thing that I remember Steve talking about at Clarion was that he evaluated people as possible models for himself based on whether or not they were succeeding in each of three specific areas:
Financial success: Does the person have some sort of career or business that supports them and could support a family at whatever standard of living that person aspires to?
Family success: Has the person put together and maintained the sort of family they desire?
Physical success: Is the person fit enough and skilled enough to be able to do the things they want to do?
Steve specifically evaluates people on these standards when they offer unsolicited advice. If the person trying to tell him what or how to do or be has all three of these areas under control, then maybe their advice is worth listening to. Otherwise, probably not. (I gather he has a different standard for when he’s the one seeking advice or a service. He probably wouldn’t refuse dental care from a twice-divorced dentist or to fly on a plane just because the pilot was out of shape.)
When I taught Tai Chi I would begin the first class of each session by telling students that nothing we did in class should hurt. If anything hurt, they should make the move smaller, do a different move, and just wait until we went on to the next move.
Steve had a different perspective. He told students that any pain they felt while training should never go above a level of 3 (on a scale to 10).
I pondered that quite a bit since then, and I think Steve’s perspective makes sense in a way, especially for students who have chronic pain. I never meant to tell my students that they couldn’t take my class if they had pain; just that they shouldn’t do any move that made their pain worse. Another population for whom Steve’s standard probably makes sense is serious athletes or serious martial artists.
We probably spent half of each class moving, starting with a very nice mobility warm-up. It’s rather a lot like what I’ve taken to calling my morning exercises, but focused on working all your joints through their full range of motion, leaving out the muscle-activation stuff that I’ve added for my own purposes.
Steven taught us the first three moves of his Tai Chi form. The first move was roughly the same as the move called Preparation in the form I do, but Steve emphasized the breathing as the entry point into the move: You inhale, and the movement raises your arms (leading from the tops of the wrists), and then you exhale and your arms fall (leading from the bottoms of the wrists). The second move involved stepping forward, turning your foot, and then pressing forward with your hands facing one another (a move we call “ji” in our style). I’ve already forgotten the third move.
Martial art versus martial science
Steve made a distinction between martial art and martial science. Martial science is figuring out the best way to win a fight or battle. Martial art, like any art, is about expressing yourself, in this case through fighting or battle.
This is something I’ve just come to understand very recently—that the “best” or “most effective” martial art is very context dependent. If you’re going to be fighting a duel—hand-to-hand, with swords, with pistols, whatever—that’s very different from battlefield fighting, where you would find yourself with potentially any number of opponents, along with some number of compatriots.
As an aside, my own observation: Krav maga is an excellent choice of martial art, especially if you have a handful of opponents. It has downsides, especially if you have “opponents” who are not enemies. If your opponents are people that you wouldn’t be comfortable maiming or killing, Brazilian jiu jitsu would be a better choice, but perhaps not if you find yourself surrounded by four or five gang members on the street after dark.
The point Steve was making is that martial arts are only appropriate in the appropriate context. There are many circumstances where “fighting,” and “winning a fight” yields significant benefits, but they’re context dependent. He mentioned an important teacher he had who, upon being asked for instruction regarding the best move for some circumstance, said “You’re a primate. Use a tool.”
Being willing to die
Steve told a story about being bullied in school, about how when he was bullied to the point where he couldn’t take it any more, he crossed to the middle of the nearby busy street. Standing on the yellow line, with traffic zipping past in both directions, he dared the bully to come out there and fight him.
The bully realized that he’d made a mistake.
The line, as I recall it was, “You have to be ready to die, and ready to take him with you.” I think a whole lot of martial culture involves people who have reached that point.
Fighting to stay alive
One thing that got some pushback from one member of the class was the idea that anybody would fight to live: Even someone so depressed as to be suicidal, if you put their head in a bucket of water, would fight to survive. One member of the audience suggested that clinical depression was a matter of brain chemistry, which Steve did not dispute. But the student talking about it said that, when she was at her lowest, if you’d killed her she’d have thought you were doing her a favor. Steve suggested that, even if you’d think that way in the abstract, if you find your head thrust into a bucket of water, you’d do everything you could to to breath.
I have no doubt that Steve was right here. A person suffering from clinical depression might well wonder why they’d fought to hard to survive, but I very much doubt that they’d just breath in water and be glad to pass on, even if they were at the point where they might later that day have chosen to swim into the sea too far to be able to swim back.
Those are the bits I remember from Steve’s three Tai Chi classes. There was a lot more—probably other things that were more important than these.
I find myself a little surprised that the “three areas of life” stuff stuck with me the way they did. At Clarion I was doing pretty well in two of them—I had a career in software engineering that provided for my family, and I was in a successful long-term relationship with my wife. But my physicality wasn’t yet on point: I was somewhat fit; I could walk a long ways, I could even run a couple of miles, but I was overweight and unhappy about it.
I’m surprisingly pleased that I’ve managed to get all three under control. That same career lasted long enough (and I boosted my income enough with writing and teaching Tai Chi), that I’m able to support myself on my pension and my investments. I’m still married to the same woman I was married to when I went to Clarion. And since I was in Clarion I lost around fifty pounds while at the same time developing the ability to move in ways that would have been impossible when I was younger.
My Tai Chi practice was important to all those things. Perhaps it seems even more important than it was, because it was my entryway into moving better. Since stepping through that door I’ve explored a wide range of natural-movement practices. During the pandemic I (to an extent) switched back to an exercise- (versus movement-) based paradigm, but really just because exercise suited the circumstances. As the pandemic winds down, I expect I’ll switch back to movement rather than exercise as the focus of what I do.
Looking for a Steven Barnes link to use here I found this post in which he talks about the very classes I was in:
I was very pleased to be able to take another class—three classes!—from Steven Barnes. I enjoyed them, and I learned a lot.
A few years ago I made a shift in my thinking about fitness—a shift from trying to get enough exercise to trying to fill my days with movement. I haven’t changed my mind about that being the right way to go, but this year, especially since the pandemic started, has seen me step back into exercise mode.
I have to say that it has turned out pretty well for me this year.
One thing about exercise is that it gives you a bunch of metrics you can track, and on the metrics I’ve done pretty well. At the beginning of the year I could do 3 pushups and now I can do 4 sets of 12. At the beginning of the year I could do zero pull ups, and now I can do a set of 3 followed by 2 sets of 2.
Having the metrics is great for someone like me who’s a big ol’ nerd about tracking that sort of data, but it’s not just a matter of numbers. Those bigger numbers correspond to real-world capabilities. I’m definitely stronger than I was at the beginning of the year, in all kinds of ways. I’m also leaner. (I have more muscle, plus I let myself lose about 5 pounds in a so-far vain effort to be able to see the abs I’ve built.)
A lot of my fitness goals are related to attaining and maintaining specific capabilities. I want to be able to:
Pick something heavy up off the ground
Take something heavy off a high shelf and lower it safely
Clamber on top of a wall
Jump down from a wall
Jump over a ditch
Run away from danger (or toward someone in need of help)
That’s not a comprehensive list; merely a brief sketch of the sort of things I want to be able to do.
Even a quick glance makes it clear that many of them are skill-based activities. I’ve worked on some of them before (click through the parkour tag to see six or seven years worth of reports about my efforts in those directions), but I felt that my efforts were limited by a lack of strength. That probably wasn’t even really true—parkour is scalable—but to the extent that it was true, it’s much less true now.
The way to get better at a skill-based activity is to practice it. And most of that practice should not be practicing whole activities, but rather individual pieces of them.
There’s a word that means practicing all the individual bits that go together to make a larger move: training—something that’s been really hard to do during the pandemic.
The real reason I’ve switched to exercise is that during the pandemic, although I’ve been able to move, my opportunities to train have been limited.
I’m hoping to spend the summer training. I’m thinking parkour, but if I can’t get it together to do that, maybe I’ll go with rock climbing. (Indoor climbing would be a great winter activity, if the vaccines roll out fast enough that I feel like it’s already safe to engage in indoor activity before summer weather. But there’s no rule against indoor climbing during the summer either.)
It’s possible to do parkour training during the winter, as long as it isn’t too icy. I tend not to get out in the cold or wet to do so, but I’m working on overcoming that—with some success: I’ve been doing pretty well at getting out for runs, even during chilly/damp fall weather. But I’m at the point where I could really use some instruction in parkour, and that’s out-of-bounds during the pandemic.
In the meantime, I’ll go on doing my exercise, figuring it’s the best way to get myself ready for training, once circumstances align.
In looking for ways to fill my day with diverse natural movement, one tactic I keep seeing suggested is play. It’s a compelling idea. More play will likely boost both the diversity of movement (because play is like that) and the quantity of movement (because play is fun).
I’ve been hesitating, because I already struggle to balance my desire for diversity with the worry that maximizing diversity will make it hard to improve any of the many things I want to improve at. I worry that play will put a heavy thumb on that balance, toward diversity and away from focus.
It’s a big deal, because we know how to get good at something: deliberate practice, as described by Anders Ericsson in a 1993 paper that I’ve talked about before. (For reference: Deliberate practice is a cycle of performing your skill, monitoring your performance, evaluating your success, and then figuring out how to do it better.)
One of the points that Ericsson makes in that paper is that deliberate practice is very different from other activities like work and play:
Work includes public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards. Play includes activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable. Deliberate practice includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance.
I will grant Ericsson his point in the case of work: If you’re getting paid, you’re probably not going to be creating opportunities to focus on the areas of your performance that are most in need of improvement; rather, you’ll try to maximize your use of skills and abilities you’ve mastered, so you can produce your best work as quickly as possible.
In the case of play, however, I beg to differ. Or rather, I observe that when Ericsson provides examples of “play” in the paper, he’s mostly talking about competitive and especially team-oriented play. Just like with work, the conditions—trying to win, trying not to let your team down—similarly incentivize arranging things to maximize your use of skills and abilities you’ve already mastered.
Serious competitive play is only one kind of play, though. There’s a lot of play that is only notionally competitive, as well as play that’s explicitly cooperative. These other sorts of play are at least as common as serious competitive play.
In my experience, these other sorts of play are full of deliberate practice.
I once saw a kid trying to jump a skateboard onto a low wall. In the time it took me to walk past (a minute or two), the kid repeatedly rolled his skateboard in a big loop tangent to the wall, attempted to make the jump, failed, and set up to try again. I don’t know how long he was going at it before I arrived or after I left, but I’ve rarely seen a more perfect example of deliberate practice: He was performing his skill, monitoring his performance, trying to figure out how to do it better, and then trying again.
In my experience, play involving a group of people of various skills levels very often includes specific instruction and specific encouragement for the less-skilled players to learn and then practice a new skill. “You don’t know how to do a vault? Well, here’s one way. Try it a few times.”
So, I think I’m going to quit hesitating to emphasize “play” as a way to fit more, and more various, natural movement into my day. Like that kid on the skateboard, I’ll try to include some deliberate practice in my play. Of course, I still have my essential quandary: How do I thread the needle between focusing on one or a few things without losing the diversity? But that’s a problem for another day. My play can include as much focus as I choose to include.
Of course, if you read the actual article, that’s not what it says at all. What it says is that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to acquire expert performance.
A friend of mine once objected strenuously to Ericsson’s term “deliberate practice,” on the grounds that we already have a perfectly good term for this set of activities: practice. If you weren’t doing what Ericsson called deliberate practice—if you weren’t monitoring your performance, evaluating your success, and trying to figure out how to do it better—then you weren’t practicing, you were just dicking around.
Having dug up my copy of the original paper and looked through it again as I was writing this post, I’m glad I did. It’s a great paper, and it’s good to be reminded of what practice really is.
I often figure that the time I spend writing is practice for getting better at writing—and sometimes it is. Sometimes I do monitor my performance, evaluate my success, and try to write a sentence or paragraph better. But, of course, that’s not the fun part. The fun part of writing is when you get immersed in the world of the story and the words just flow effortlessly—and any thought of monitoring, evaluating, and improving is deferred to some future editing phase.
And, unsurprisingly, Ericsson was there ahead of me:
Recent analyses of inherent enjoyment in adults reveal an enjoyable state of “flow,” in which individuals are completely immersed in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Similarly, analyses of reported “peak experiences” in sports reveal an enjoyable state of effortless mastery and execution of an activity (Ravizza, 1984). This state of diffused attention is almost antithetical to focused attention required by deliberate practice to maximize feedback and information about corrective action.
In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance.
And yet, there can be a certain kind of enjoyment in practice.
When I’m writing and I’m not in flow state, but rather am struggling—trying over and over again to get something right—that’s practice. And, granted, that’s not much fun—except that pretty often I do manage to get something just right. (Or at least, get something that’s better than I can do on an average day.) That’s fun.
It is perhaps even more obvious in my taiji practice, especially the qigong practice, where we do simpler moves than the movements of the taiji form, and where we do the same move over and over again. Those exercises are (or at least can be) practice. Doing the same movement a dozen times, watching how the instructor does it, trying to match his form—that’s practice. Creating a small variation with a goal of improving some specific aspect—that’s practice. And yet, it can be fun, too, if approached with a playful attitude. (Today I tried to do some of my single-leg standing practice with my eyes closed. I picked the easiest of the various single-leg standing exercises that we do, and still wasn’t very successful—I almost toppled over a couple of times. But it was amusing in a way—and in the course of just a few minutes, I became perceptibly better at standing on one leg with my eyes closed. That was fun.)
Practice. It’s not just for getting to Carnegie Hall.
Very, very early on in the writing process I started thinking about setting and the specific locations that each scene would take place in. Then I sat down and wrote settingy stuff for those scenes first. Sometimes it was just a few lines, sometimes a paragraph or more, but, for example, when the protag was going to join her crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister in said sister’s room for some crazy mad science magic, I did not let myself run along with what they were doing until after I had put down some thoughts about what a crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister’s room would look like.
A great idea for adding description, but also a great idea for adding anything that you tend to under-write—because it is so much harder to add this sort of thing in later, when you’ve already got carefully crafted paragraphs, each one leading to the next, beginning with a great opening image and ending with a nice little cliffhanger.
And however great this idea is, much greater is her insight that people who are naturally good at something usually have no idea how someone who is not naturally good at it can get better.
I learned that fairly early, with my difficulties learning how to spell. Teachers tried putting me next to people who were good at spelling, in the hopes that their spelling skills would somehow rub off on me. This did not work at all, because people who are naturally good at spelling have no idea how to get better at spelling. (People who are naturally good at spelling tend to be people who see words in their head and then can just read off the letters and write them down. Since I can’t do that, I had to come up with a completely different way to get (barely adequately) good at spelling.)
I’m always on the lookout for people who do well things they aren’t naturally good at. They’re often hard to spot. (Spend thousands of hours honing your craft, and you too can look like someone who’s naturally good at something.) But there are clues—such as earlier works where the author or artist wasn’t as good, and works where some aspects are crafted like a masterpiece, while other aspects show merely a journeyman’s skill. Those are the people who might have some insight into how they got better.
With this sort of thing, it’s always useful to put it in terms of KA Ericsson’s model for the acquisition of expert performance. Just practice isn’t enough to get better at something—you also need to monitor your performance and evaluate your success—with help, such as a critique group, when possible. Then you need to figure out how to do it better—which Marissa’s post is a perfect worked example of.