One of my former fencers at Piedmont Crew, still fencing and coming to HFC, interviewed me for some school report. He got a lot out of me, but his teacher wasn’t happy with it so I figured I’d stuff the pipeline and let them sort it out on their end:
The mental skills I have acquired in fencing include the knowledge that I can control circumstances as they develop and that I can, with hard work, become significantly better at something and that there is a time to talk and a time to keep quiet.
Managing relationships turns out to be a highly complex effort and there are multiple ways fencing has helped me become better at those relationships. It took some years, but I learned that I had to interact with my fencing opponent in such a way that I could maneuver them into doing what I wanted so I could take advantage of that position to score against them. By the same token, as I grew in my profession as a writer, I learned that I needed to position myself in such a way that my appeal as writer for an editor’s project was presented to them on terms they were comfortable with.
In a bout, one not only has to maneuver the opponent into position to score against them, one has to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of the referee and event organizers. Thus there are three human factors to manage at an event: the organizer—better to have a club owner friendly than hostile or even neutral; the referee—one has multiple referees throughout the day so managing each relationship is a moving target; the opponent—this person changes with every bout and psychology plays a huge role in the bout, so managing that relationship begins with the first time you fence a person and continues from tournament to tournament. The person who wins the first bout between a couple of fencers has that edge going for them in subsequent encounters; the person who loses that first bout must mentally overcome the loss to both get some wins that same day and to become a better fencer in order to beat that person in the future.
I have fenced now, for 29 years and have been fencing a handful of the same people for 20 of those years. I have known many other, younger, fencers for 10 years. Now, as I fence my old acquaintances and new fencers appear, I use my knowledge and experience to control the bouts as they come up—as much as one can when the other person is also trying to control the bout in the same way. As my perspective has lengthened with the years, I have become more automatic about managing relationships and have learned to use the same techniques in my business and personal lives. I identify people who I have to work with, cultivate those relationships regardless of my personal feelings about that person, and adapt to their influence within my life such that I achieve my own goals within those of the organization.
Improving Through Hard Work
I’m not that good of a fencer, but have managed to accumulate 94 medals swords and other trophies, along with a couple of titles: I was twice the three-weapons champion of San Francisco and am currently the California Senior Games State and Bay Area Champion and it has taken an tremendous amount of effort to both continue to win medals and to earn my current title. I have taken hundreds of lessons from my coach, spent a thousand nights in my club and a thousand more at the gym cross training and doing physical therapy in order to continue fencing as I age. By working hard to stay in shape, by training on a regular basis with an eye towards cycling my skills up to a peak prior to an event, and by putting a tremendous amount of mental activity towards both overcoming the fears every athlete deals with and in mentally rehearsing actions particular fencers have used successfully against me I do pretty well all the time and periodically have a really good day—often enough so that I know at least some of my peers view me as a successful fencer.
By the same token, I have achieved a modicum of success as a writer—not an easy row to hoe—using the same techniques. I trained at journalism school, I worked at a newspaper while going to school, and I used the contacts from that job when I began freelancing to launch my career. I wrote tiny 50-word stories, I wrote thousand-word features, I wrote 10 stories for special publications and I had to vary the tone and other facets to make the stories palatable to my editors. As time went on, I leveraged my writing skills into a full time position with a top company where I learned a lot about marketing writing within a company. When it came time to look for a new job, I had learned better how to write to satisfy communication managers’ needs and was able to continue in my profession with success. At my current employer, I started as a writer, was lead writer a year later, assistant editor the following year, news editor the year after that and am now managing editor for news and information responsible for a quarterly magazine, 500-post per year online news site, populating the schools’ facebook and twitter feeds and managing some video production. I’m having the time of my life, but I kept my eye on the ball all the way, turned articles in on time, sweated over each one, sought to interest audience members according to the article and always checked facts. Hard work.
A Time to Talk and a Time to Keep Quiet
One of the things I have learned is to keep quiet at moments of high stress to find the proper way to express myself when needed. Patience is a virtue, but I wasn’t born with much. I had to collect it as I aged and fencing taught me how important it was to watch, to assess, and then and only then, to act decisively. I am a bold person by nature, and I have never had an issue chucking myself into an attack. But I was unsuccessful in my early fencing days as I did not assess my opponents. I took care of my equipment—I’m good with my hands; I took care of my body through cross training and practice, but spent almost no effort in assessing on an individual basis the fencers I fought time after time. Only in my mid-30s did I start to see that there were only a few types of fencers and if I could categorize what kind of fencer they were, good on defense, always attacked, good a only one type attack, but very good at that, etc., I could easily develop strategies to beat them.
The value of watching was really driven home while I was deeply involved in administering to the fencing community through division, sectional and national offices. I rapidly was made aware of the competing factions, sometimes single clubs, sometimes allied clubs, and to sum up, the political scene was not unlike a bout. There were often two groups working against each other for resources and the neutral parties (referees) were the unaligned clubs whose vote had to be earned to maintain power within the division or section. In the administrative arena, as division chair, I needed to manage my fellow administrators like arms and legs to overcome my opponents often adept efforts to gain control of the division. It was during this era that the usefulness of the mantra “never disclose” became apparent. This mantra is exceedingly valuable in the myriad encounters one has with administrations, bureaucracy, strangers and rivals in other circumstances. It would be nice, in life, if we did not have to guard ourselves so closely, and to apply the non-disclosure rule in one’s personal life is problematic, but the truth is, in our public life you have to be careful what you say about anyone in an adversarial situation, you have to be careful not to spill to much information in a job interview, you don’t want to confide too much personal information to strangers, and the hard world of intelligent, focused fencers working towards their own administrative goals was a tough world that taught me some tough lessons that serve me well to this day.
In the big world, I learned to keep quiet until I know where I stood. Rather than speak up with my immediate thoughts at a meeting, I now wait a bit, see if anyone else has the same thought or if my ideas will end up being not practical as the discussion progresses. I am, as I noted, not a shy person, so I have had to train myself to be a bit restrained and it has been a valuable skill. When in the company of administrators, they know now when I speak I will be worth listening to. The practice of waiting and listening has helped in everything from negotiating with auto mechanics to managing job interviews. I recently had one of our cars worked on at the dealership and was careful to let the four service reps I dealt with do as much talking as they wanted. The result was I was told several different versions of what was wrong with my car and I elected to not have the car repaired at that facility due to the obvious desire to soak me for as much as they could regardless of what repairs were actually made. Turns out the car was running perfectly by the time I got it, so that was the right call, there.
In the job interview for my current position, I was careful to do as much listening as possible to the hiring manager—my boss. By listening to her, I could try to learn as much as possible about what she was looking for in a writer and shape my answers to satisfy her specific needs. It must have worked as she has continued to increase my responsibilities and my authority.