Give Yourself Permission to Suck (at Sword Fighting)

One of the first major workshops I ever taught internationally was entitled “The Art of Not Sucking”. This workshop ended up being so popular that it has become one of my most delivered (at well over a dozen). I would bring students through concepts I have honed over years of practice and teaching about how to learn, analyze, and improve yourself, particularly in the art of sword fighting.

In this workshop I present the Art of Not Sucking through a series of rules. Today I thought I’d share the first and most important one:

Rule #1: Give Yourself Permission to Suck

If you want to get good at something you have to get cozy with being bad at it. Like Jake said, “Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.” There is no time in your learning that there will not be gulfs of “sucking” to cross. In fact the more comfortable you can get at entering these challenge areas the more and faster you will learn. There are no exceptions.

The Talent Myth

One of the first things to banish from your mind is the idea that certain people are good at things because they are talented. This myth says that there are people who are innately good sword fighters, or dancers, or basketball players, and others who are not. There’s the notion that the cream of the crop we see on TV, or at our local clubs, or on the Internet, are that way because of genetics. This is absolutely not the case.

I recommend reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, or Matthew Syed’s Bounce, for great collections of studies showing over and over that any kind of natural talent is a relatively small influencer. The most important part of being good is hours of practice.

Often we see someone performing a skill in a seemingly “natural” way, but what we’re seeing is only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface lies potentially hundreds (or thousands) of hours of practice that allowed them to appear so. When I see two people come out to try sword fighting for the first time, one might appear more “talented” than the other. Yet what any observer is blind to is the related physical experience that the “talented” person has acquired before walking in the door.

Another way our idea of natural talent can be wrongly affirmed comes from the energy we gain from early success. A new participant can join your class or club and when they first step into sparring have some lucky breaks, or find an edge from a physical advantage, or have a brand of chaos that is just difficult for their practice partners to handle. This initial success gives them a bunch of positive feedback (“Woah! I’m good at this!”). With that positive energy they begin to practice and fight even more. A year later they’ve put in hundreds more hours than their peers, who joined at the same time, and are thus truly better than them. Yet we don’t see these hundreds of hours. What we believe we see is their “natural talent” realized.

Patience… Practice

Practice is the only thing that matters. If you don’t have the luck of those early breaks you must find your energy from the joy of the activity, the passion of learning, the feeling of growing, and from facing challenges.

You must not only accept that you are going to suck but you must give yourself permission to do so. Make your objectives effort-oriented (i.e., practice hours in) rather than results-oriented (i.e., how much butt you kick).

It takes thousands of hours to gain proficiency. Find joy in the hours and the results will come.

You’ll Never Stop Sucking

Even after more than 25 years of pursuing this particular martial art there are still tough areas for me, new disciplines yet to explore, and weaknesses I have yet to confront or overcome. The sucking (at least in some areas) continues. Along with my abilities has grown my ability to be critical about those abilities. I am more aware now of what I don’t know—and my potential for growth—than I ever was before.

Yet along with that ability to see where I lack, I have also grown tremendously as a person and as a martial artist. I am good at sword fighting now. I have a tremendous joy in my life in this passion, a connection with my body and movement that I relish everyday, and the ability to laugh at sucking and enjoy learning and sharing.

The key is to not get married to any masterful image of yourself. It’s best to affirm yourself as a hard worker, a persistent learner, generous in sharing, and a joyful practitioner. Form ideas of yourself that are not based on destinations but principles. Don’t be the master—be the person who isn’t afraid to suck. Then you’ll always be on the road of learning, growth, and joy.


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