Embrace the Constraints


“The Folly of the Journeyman”


So, here’s something I’ve noticed this the last few times I’ve been in a classroom atmosphere *not* as a teacher – I’m becoming something of a bad student.

I’m moving into the stage of my life where the times I’m a teacher are equalling or sometimes outnumbering the times I’m the student. And being a good student requires beginning from the premise of “I don’t know better, I should listen,” which is hard when the rest of the time you’re teaching from the premise of “I know something worth sharing, I should speak.”

This whole post was inspired by a student moment I just had last week, but I’ll go back to an older one, first.

When I lived in Queens, the only renaissance martial arts group I could find was the Martinez Academy of Arms, which has a *very* different learning culture than the one I was used to in the SCA. At the Martinez Academy, you do what the Maestro says, when he says it, and nothing else.

Problem is, I knew enough about fencing already to want to move past the basic stuff and get on to the other, cooler bits. The Maesto had me start with several weeks of stance, walking, and completely constrained plays, despite the fact that I’d been a competitive renaissance fencer for five years. I got no special treatment due to having a background. Yes, I’d already studied historical martial arts. Yes, I’d had success as a competitive fencer. None of that changes the fact that properly lead drilling where the objective and process is well-explained is an important way to develop skills in isolation to later integrate into your overall approach. The Maestro’s way was not my way, and I was paying for the Maestro to teach the Maestro’s way.

The lesson I had to learn there was to stop trying to jump ahead, and to let my focus dwell on the constraints and the focus, not on what might come next. There is value in going over the basics, and I struggled against those constraints, depriving myself of the best learning experience.

And just last week, I was doing a writing exercise in a group class and wrote past the constraint, instead of keeping the constraint in the forefront of my mind. In this case, it was a small violation (we were told to show emotion from a character POV and only use three sentences. I used four), but it was still a failure to embrace the constraint, to let that one variable dominate.

Isolating variables and focusing on constraints is, I think, a great way to develop a specific part of a skill set, whether it’s in writing, martial arts, or whatever. If you can make time to do those admittedly artificial exercises, where you know that it’s not how thing usually work, but you’re doing the drill because it lets you form good habits, I think it can have a great effect. It’s not something I’ve ever been too good at as a student, even though I teach it as an instructor. My brain wants to roll everything together, to always be integrating everything at once.

I need to be better about embracing constraints so I can up my game, both in writing, martial arts, and in training myself into better professional behaviors, interpersonal behaviors, everything.

What constraints to you struggle against that you could be embracing? How do you check yourself when that happens?


One thought on “Embrace the Constraints

  1. Michael, I totally agree with you. I used the concept of “I don’t know…I need to pay attention” when I attended the Writer’s Conference at GenCon this year. I’ve been a professional writer for over 15 years at this point, but I had always worked for someone else. Now, I’m trying to start my own business, and I’m finally taking the plunge to try and enter the world of fiction writing/editing.

    Despite my years of writing experience, I knew I was entering a realm that is unfamiliar to me. So, I decided to pay attention, take reams of notes (and boy, did I ever!), and learn from people who know their business.

    It paid off! I got lots of great information and advice for starting my freelance writing business and awesome tips for improving my writing. Maintaining the student mindset worked well for me.

    By the way, love your writing! Keep it up.

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