Getting Medieval on Your Career

In longsword fencing there exists the concept of the bind.[1]

Two fencers in the bind, swords crossed.

The bind is a moment of risk and of opportunity.

The bind is a moment of vulnerability and of truth.

The bind is when your sword and your opponent’s sword are in direct physical contact, blade to blade.

This is not the same picture. This is not the same bind.

Before the bind you are in a position of uncertainty.

There are some things that you cannot know. You may believe them, and you may be right, but you cannot know them. A skilled opponent can deceive through their eyes, their hands, the motion of their blade…

…but in the bind this deception falls away. In the bind you know your opponent’s location, their momentum, their pressure, their strength, their weakness.

A skilled swordsperson can read all of this and more in an instant, because of what your sword is telling their sword.

There is risk inherent in the bind.

Entering into the bind can be scary. What if you’re not ready? What if the know what you’re going to do, and are prepared and waiting? What if…. what if a thousand things.

This fear is the product of uncertainty. Before you’re in the bind, you can’t be certain. You can only feint and position yourself and hope and prepare.

Evaluate, act, change the bind to your advantage.

But once you’re engaged, that uncertainty is gone. You can meet strength with weakness and fluidity. You can meet weakness with strength and aggression. You can exploit the opportunity that the moment represents, in the moment, before it passes.

Because you know.

You know, and because you know, you can act.

Use that advantage to make additional progress towards your goals.

And then you act, and act, and act again, because this is a dynamic constantly-changing dance of steel, and the bind might last only for the briefest heartbeat before the opportunity is lost.

And this is where the work part of this work-adjacent post comes in. This isn’t really about longsword fencing. This is about the risk and opportunity that comes from being in direct immediate contact with other people, other teams, or other organizations.

Most interesting problems are people problems. The technology will work itself out, but who the hell knows what human beings are going to do?

What happens when I send that broad email or meeting invite?

What happens when I share my work in progress?

Will it be this 👇?

Preparation can help ensure that you avoid unfortunate consequences of entering the bind.

There is a time for training, for planning and preparation.

As that time comes to an end, and the time for action approaches, it is natural to be nervous. It’s human to be afraid.

But the time to act always arrives, whether or not we feel ready.

Three to one?

I like those odds.

 

When you send that email, schedule that meeting, have that difficult conversation…

When you release the preview and let the first users work with your hopefully-ready-enough product…

When you share your work in progress for input…

…then you know.

Then you have certainty.

Because you are now in the bind.

Just like when fighting with a longsword, there comes the moment where you no longer need to worry about what they’re going to do, because they’re doing it.

You no longer need to wonder how you will react because you are already acting.

You receive feedback, you respond.

You receive agreement or praise, you proceed.

You receive criticism, you withdraw, or you remise.

But either way, once you are in the bind you are acting, and acting, and acting. Acting with certainty.

Most importantly, you’re acting with a certainty that was impossible before you entered the bind.

Blade to blade, person to person, team to team, the direct contact and engagement tells you things that you otherwise could not possibly know.

That step away from uncertainty and the illusion of safety to  certainty and risk is never simple or easy.

When you ask “what’s the worst that could happen?” you might respond with some truly awful outcomes.

Sometimes the snoot gets booped in the bind.

This is why you train.

This is why you practice.

This is why you study.

And this is why you do your best to operate in an environment with a safety net. An environment with a culture of shared goals and where the right kinds of failure are rewarded, not punished.

Whether you’re training with swords or training for the business world, you’ll practice with and learn from people who have your best wishes in mind. You’ll take on increasingly difficult challenges, but you’ll do it while working with coaches and mentors and teammates long before you compete for real stakes.

And because you’ve prepared and practiced and trained and studies, you’re confident. You may not know what will happen, or that you will achieve the outcomes you desire, but you are confident that when you enter into the bind you will be able to respond and act.

And act…

Ok… I didn’t really know where this was going to end when I started, and I’m not sure if I’ve gotten where I wanted to go with this analogy. I guess I’ll stop connecting dots that probably only make sense to me, and speak more clearly.

For much of the past year, my work life has been full of these moments. It’s been filled with people[2] who are uncertain, hesitant to move forward, not knowing what will happen if they take the actions they know they need to take. Also people who are moving forward rashly, taking risks that might pay off against an unskilled opponent, but which could lead to dire consequences if they’ve misjudged the encounter.

These days I’m in a position where people often come to me asking for advice and guidance. I’ve been hearing “but what if” more lately than usual in these conversations.

I’ve asked “but what if” more than once myself.

In most cases, my advice has been to enter the bind. “You can’t know what will happen until you take that step – so take it and see where you are, and then figure out what to do next.” “You cannot know what THEY will do until they do it, and they can’t do it until you act.”

Another part of my response has been to remind people that they are not acting alone. They’re taking some significant action for which they are responsible, but they’re doing it to help achieve some larger shared goal.

Because of this, they have a safety net.

When in doubt, act. Strike while the iron is hot.

Spend your time proactively preparing, training, practicing, learning… so that when the moment comes you can act and choose the best possible course of action.

Don’t act rashly. Don’t rush in blindly. But when in doubt, act. If you don’t act, then someone else will act and the moment of opportunity will have passed.

I’ll close with an apology to all the longsword practitioners out there who might take offense with my questionable definition of the bind. I had to be flexible to make the analogy work. I acted. Fight me.

The punta falsa. There’s nothing quite like it.

Fiore de’i Liberi wrote some advice that applies to more than just violence in the preface to the manuscript from which these pictures were taken.

Be audacious in violence and young at heart. Have no fear in your mind; only then can you perform.

Words to live by. ⚔️


[1] This is going to be a work-adjacent post more than a sword post. My week has been full of examples of these concepts at play, so I decided to resurrect a long-deleted Twitter thread and share these thoughts with the world once more. Buckle up.

[2] Some of these people have been me.

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