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Four Life Lessons From Swordfighting in the Mountains
Sword-fighting as a Metaphor for Life
Sword-fighting as a Metaphor for Life
A few months ago I went to visit Jamie Combs in his home in the north Californian mountains. My goal was to speak with him about his mental model FourGame Dynamics and figure out how to make content and other projects for it. I was prepared for my usual routine of long strategy sessions, tons of writing, research, and design sprints. We did none of that.
I arrived at his ranch with @ liber_rex and when we asked to discuss these topics with Jamie he told us to build and decorate a punching bag in his gym, then meet him tomorrow for sword-fighting - and that’s how he would answer our questions.
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“Oh cool, so this work trip is actually gonna be ‘The Karate Kid’”
We built the punching bag that day. It came out pretty good! (check out the time lapse here)
Then we met him the next morning for a 3 hour sword class. And surprise, surprise, it turned out to be one big metaphor for life! Karate Kid indeed!
I actually had experience with sword before - when I did martial arts growing up I had a chance to practice “Iaido” style Katana forms. This was tons of fun - but was purely for demonstration, art and mental discipline. I went into the session thinking “I’ve never learned how to fight with swords - this is gonna be crazy!”
And it was.
Here’s what Jamie showed me - the four dimensions of Sword-Fighting.
(This post is not about swords).
Positioning is Fluid
The first thing Jamie told me to do was to put my arms out straight. He said “This is your midline. All of sword-fighting is one simple rule. Don’t let an opponent through your midline.”
He put his arms out in front of him and said “try to get past my midline without letting me past yours. Your goal is to hit anywhere in my body that isn’t my arms, but you mustn’t let me hit you.”
At first I started trying to swing with my arms to hit his ribs and realized that was a bad idea. Attacking head-on meant he could block me by pushing my arms away, and then counter attack.
Jamie stopped me and said “your arms are on your midline, they aren’t your midline.” He was right, my arms weren’t the only thing on my midline. My feet, knees, hips and eyes were as well.
”You are also more than your midline. You have four quadrants too.” He tapped my left shoulder, right shoulder, and then pointed at my left leg and right leg. “If you get past my midline you’ll be hitting one of these quadrants. Don’t focus on my arms so much and focus on which quadrant I’m exposing.”
I could move my feet to change how my eyes saw Jamie’s midline and quadrants. I could bend my knees and rotate my hips to dodge, hide my weaker quadrants and find an opening.
This is when I realized that Jamie was about to bring me through the most “Mr Miyagi” shit possible and that I would be drawing all kinds of life lessons from Sword-fighting 101.
If you approach a problem, think about how you’re going to overcome it and how to avoid being damaged by it. Sometimes this means changing your physical state, location or point of view to get a better position. It’s also important to focus on the actual goal, not on the danger.
This life lesson seems obvious because people talk about it all the time. But how often do we have to embody that lesson in a literal way?
I used to teach mountain biking at a summer camp in town. Kids learn the phrase “if you fall off the bike, get right back up!” not from hearing it repeated on Twitter, but because their parents or counselors said it to them everytime they fell off their bike. To further the metaphor, when kids stop focusing on handlebars and peddles and start focusing on projecting their body towards a specific location that they begin to make progress learning to ride bikes. This is focusing on the open quadrant.
Our life lessons need to be learned through repetition of physical behavior, not endless theory or discussion.
All of that occurred to me at once while flopping my hands trying to smack a guy in the head. I had a profound insight about life six minutes into swordfighting class and I didn’t even have a sword in my hand yet.
It was about to be a strange day!
Gadgets Are An Extension Of Your Body and Your Mind.
Next Jamie gave me a longsword.
Having a sword in my hand again took some getting used to, but it felt a lot more natural to be trying to hit Jamie with a sword than straight-arm bitch slapping him. He said “Your whole world just changed.” And it did. First off, I felt more natural with the sword in my hand. Second, I now had reach. I could swing at Jamie without having to be exactly an arm’s length away.
We sparred for about 15 minutes. We moved at a slow pace andd practiced those basic sequences (dodge, block, attack a quadrant) about 100 times.
Then, Jamie took the longsword out of my hand and gave me two daggers. He said “notice how your mind just changed?”
The three previous variables (midline, quadrants, and reach) all changed immediately! Instead of blocking then thrusting, I can block with one hand and stab at the same time with the other hand. Instead needing to clear Jamie’s midline so much, I can stay closer to him knowing he needs more room to make use of his long sword and I can cause damage up close.
It all sounds obvious - and that’s because our brains change our thinking automatically when we put new tools in our hands. What’s in your hand matters. Tools are an extension of yourself, and your brain can actually adapt to this by changing how it thinks.
If you ever played a lot of Metal Gear Solid V and you couldn’t go outside without thinking about how to steal things with a fulton balloon then you’ve experienced this!
Another video game example: If you’ve ever played Portal then you learned a new way to think (”thinking with portals”). In Portal you get a “portal gun” you can shoot 2 different portals, a blue one and an orange one. Whenever you walk through the orange portal, you emerge through the blue one (and vice versa). One usecase of the portal gun is to shoot a portal on a wall near a high ledge with a object you have to grab to open a locked door, then shoot the other portal on the floor next to you - then you just drop through the floor to pick up the object! Even if Portal Guns don’t exist in real life, this digital version was enough to change how people think enough (well enough to be quantified).
This simple tool is something that nobody on Earth had experience using before the game came out, so everyone who played the game had to learn a new tool, and a new way to think.
The tools we use can define how we see the world, or which actions seem possible. If you’re always holding a hammer everything looks like a nail. If you’re always holding your phone everything looks like fodder for an instagram story.
If you’re feeling stuck in an endeavor, consider trying a totally new tool - especially one you DON’T know how to use yet. Ignorance is a gift here. Using new tools gives you a chance to think about a situation in a new way, rather than retreading common ground.
You Are Always In Control Of Your Tempo
Once we got the basics down, Jamie said “so who has control of this fight right now?”
I said “well neither of us, we’re both just taking it slow and I’m learning the mechanics.”
I was half right… because Jamie said “if you say so… how about now?” and he threw several rapid cuts my way while advancing towards me.
I caught myself backing up and blocking a lot. Jamie asked again “who is controlling the fight?”
”You are, you sped up and now I’m on the defensive.”
He said “Sounds like you gave agency to two people. Just because I sped up doesn’t mean you have to be defensive. One person may initiate change in the fight or put the other in a position they can’t escape - but both people control the tempo.”
And so I started swinging back!
The tempo of life can change very quickly. Unexpected events happen, deadlines change, traffic jams can make us late - and pandemics can shut the whole economy down for prolonged periods of time.
Some circumstances are out of our control - like world events and how other people behave - but that doesn’t mean we lack control.
Some people say “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” The principle of “tempo” is about that, but it’s also about mindfulness and presence. Tuning into the present moment, noticing what forces are exerting influence, and then choosing how to respond is a super power we all have access to.
Experiment With Frame And You’ll Win Every Game
After another half hour of training Jamie paused and said “okay, enough sparring, let’s change the context.”
He handed me a pair of headphones and walked me over to a punching bag. He said “I’m going to play a song, and you’re going to practice all the moves I just showed you in context of the song.”
He played the song “Eastbound and Down” into the headphones and at first I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing. As the song progressed I heard the lyrics “Keep your foot hard on the pedal / Son, never mind them brakes / Let it all hang out 'cause we got a run to make.” These lines made me think of how I was in the middle of a very long trip across the West Coast, I had some races coming up, and an even longer road ahead of new projects to start this year. I began practicing simple cutting moves from when Jamie had taught me about Midline. Over and over and over again. All the while I was grinning ear to ear.
I was thinking about all of the things yet to come and how short life really is. All I can do in the face of that is to just keep my foot on the gas and keep grinding away accomplishing one thing at a time and enjoy the process.
After the song finished, Jamie and I resumed sparring. I felt less rigid and concerned with performing the techniques well - and more focused on staying loose and in flow with Jamie’s energy.
When I thought about our sparring as “my first day with a new skill and a new teacher” I was rigid and overthinking everything. When I thought about our sparring as a fun journey that’ll be over before I know it I had better technique and enjoyed myself more.
This phrase is cliche at this point, but we don’t “have to do” anything (except for pay taxes) - we get to do things. Everything can be reframed. The greatest tool a swordfighter has is his mind. Our physical actions, our environment, tools and tempo all matter a lot - but so does how we think!
It’s All About Reps
So there we have it - these are the four dimensions of sword-fighting and of mindset - Positioning, Gadgets, Tempo and Frame.
Even when I was writing this post, I had a few spots where I got stuck. I began to worry “what if I can’t finish this post? what if it’s bad?” Then I reminded myself - slow down the tempo, change my positioning. I skipped the paragraph I was stuck on and began to brainstorm ideas for the next one. This helped me figure out how to finish the part I was blocked with.
Those small reps in small moments really add up.
Anyways - I recorded a full discussion with Jamie about these principles, which you can listen to here:
If there’s something you’re stuck on or having trouble with in your life, try to approach it with these four principles. Let us know if you break new ground!
And remember to think fun, have fun, and get things done!