The Cornered Cat
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Repetition and habit

Repetition builds and reinforces neural pathways. It makes routine actions basically automatic, requiring very little concious effort. This is a good thing!

When we do an action that we’ve already repeated many times before — think about grabbing the gear shift on your car as an example — we can easily be thinking about other stuff while we do that thing. You don’t have to consciously, carefully look for the gear shift and then consider how to get the car into gear. Instead, when you get into the car, you just pop it into the correct gear and off you go. Easy peasy.

There are two places where repetition can trip us up.

1) When something changes, either with our gear or our environment, so those earlier repetitions don’t match the new situation. For example, if your car’s gear shift is on the steering column, but you borrow your spouse’s car that has the gear shift between the seats, there’s a chance that your well-practiced, repeated action of popping the car into gear from a lever on the steering column will instead turn into an embarrassing situation with the windshield wipers.

2) When we practice doing the wrong things, or practice doing them in the wrong way. Repetition works just as well to reinforce bad behavior as it does to reinforce good behavior. It works just as powerfully to build ineffecient or unsafe habits as it does to build solid, safe habits. This is why it’s so important to get good training from experienced, qualified sources and then practice the things we learned.

Practice always builds habits that last — good or bad.

Not long ago, I saw a guy at a gun store take an “unloaded” gun and absent-mindedly press its muzzle against his own left palm as he pressed the trigger while he was talking to the clerk. I have no idea what he thought he was doing. But what he was actually doing was reinforcing a dangerous habit of not paying attention to or caring about where the gun was pointed.

That habit could (and very likely will!) reach up and bite him some day — and when it does, he will also likely join the ranks of many, many people who say stuff like, “Well if you just check to be sure it’s unloaded…” But the problem isn’t the loaded or unloaded status of the gun. It’s the deeply built-in bad habit that was caused by repeatedly doing something dangerous with the gun until that motion became something the shooter did without conscious thought. It became a habit.

The “unloaded” status of the gun is the final layer of safety, not the first or only one. The first layer of safety is the shooter’s own good habits.

  • Learn safe, efficient ways to handle the gun.
  • Practice those actions often, so they become good habits.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings so you notice when the situation has changed enough that your built-in habits need your conscious attention.
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SHOT Show 2016

Over the next few days, I’ll be posting more often than usual on my Cornered Cat Facebook page, with pictures and descriptions of products that catch my eye. As always, these are not reviews or recommendations, just a quick snapshot of things that might interest you. (When I write a review, you can trust that I have used and worn the product for a significant time — daily carry for two weeks is my baseline for holster reviews — because I’m committed to being honest with you. Anything less than that would be dishonest.)

In other notes, it’s probably time to revisit the Holster Safety and the Four Rules article and the related piece on How to Choose a Safe Holster, both of which are worth a read if you haven’t seen them before. It’s amazing how many unsafe and downright foolish product designs are out there, so today’s a good day to think about that if you’re following me on Facebook.

More soon!

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Mass shooting survival

After an event, there’s always a lot of coulda-woulda-shoulda from both people who were there and from people who were not. It’s very easy to get caught up in the idea that we know what would have happened if this or if that. But we really don’t. Hindsight is every bit as limited as foresight. It only does (and only can!) tell us what actually happened, not what would have happened if things had been different.

But even with that, we can figure out some very broad principles based on what has happened at multiple events. For example, we know that most of the time, the attacker will quit (often killing themselves) at the first sign of effective resistance. We also know that this is not always true — and that when it is untrue, it can result in the death of the would-be hero who has rushed in to save the day.

We know that hesitation kills or sometimes cripples the would be good guy. (See here for one example.)

We know that sometimes, heroes — even unarmed heroes — save lives. (See here for one example.)

We know that a well-trained person who is armed only with a handgun can sometimes stop multiple, determined attackers who have long guns. (See here for one example.)

We know that most survivors of any mass event are the ones who simply left at the first sign of trouble. They didn’t wait around to indulge their curiosity. They didn’t wait to meet up with friends or family. They may have grabbed others on their way to safety but they didn’t stay to argue if others wouldn’t come. They simply left.

We know that many survivors hide from trouble and don’t get found. We know that some “play dead” so the attacker will shoot other, living people and leave them alone. We know that sometimes this strategy works.

We know that would-be survivors who are hiding and are found are often sitting ducks for the attacker. We also know that sometimes, attackers repeatedly shoot the fallen bodies of their victims, to make sure they are really dead. We know that “playing dead” sometimes turns into real death and that when it does, the victims literally have no chance to change their minds about the strategy they chose.

We know that most experts recommend: Run. Hide. Fight. — in that order. There’s a reason for that.

We know that it makes sense to set up a tactical ambush, so you are prepared to fight from your hiding place.

We also know that in open areas such as shopping malls and large stores, the victims may be able to see the killer actively murdering people from a long way away.

For me, I’ll take the “run, hide, fight” thing. The best thing I can do to survive and help others survive is to get out of the area and deny the killer a chance at more victims. But I’ll also carry a weapon that I absolutely know I can use effectively at up to 100 yards, to hit a man-sized target at that distance. And yes, I’m talking about my everyday carry gun, my little Glock 26 — because it’s not about the guns we carry. It’s about the skills we have to use those guns.

I’d hate to be in a place where I could see murders happening at a distance, but couldn’t trust myself and my equipment to take that shot if necessary.

I’m not going to run to the sound of the guns; I’m going to leave if I can. But if I’m there, if I can’t leave, and if I can see what’s happening well enough to gamble everything I own and everything I am on getting it right — I will do whatever it takes to stop that threat before it gets close enough to kill me and the people I love.

***

Edited to add: Some folks have expressed skepticism about pistol shots at 100 yards. It’s doable, with appropriate training and good practice; and it can be trusted, with appropriate training and good practice. But I was wrong to use a specific distance, especially a distance that seems so unlikely to so many shooters, because the point really wasn’t about the specific distance nor was it about what I personally can do. It was about knowing — absolutely knowing, not believing, not hoping, but knowing — what we can do with the equipment we carry. Whether it’s 2 yards or 10 yards or 27 yards or far more than that, doesn’t matter nearly as much as knowing what we can trust ourselves to do.

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“Why are you breaking my kayak?”

Every once in awhile, I run across a video that beautifully illustrates an important self-defense concept. This one has the virtue of being kind of hilarious, too.

For the best laughs, be sure to watch the entire thing.

Lately, I’ve been playing with the difference between social violence and non-social (or asocial) violence. The difference between these two types of violence is one thing this video illustrates in an annoyingly hilarious way.

Social tactics … ftw?

Note how the woman tried to solve her problem with the bear by using tactics that would appeal to the bear’s sense of social fairness and good manners.

  • Placation: “Thank you for not eating my kayak.”
  • Threats: “I’m going to pepper spray you in the face. That’s what I’m going to do to you.”
  • Complaints: “You’re breaking it! You’re breaking my kayak!”
  • Questions: “Why are you doing that? Why are you breaking my kayak? What am I gonna do?”
  • Ineffectual Demands: “Bear! Stop that! Stop that, bear!”
  • Pleading: “Pleeeeeease! Please stop! Aaaah, why are you doing that? Please stop! Bear, please stop, bear!”
  • Recrimination: “It’s the end of September. Why are you here? You’re supposed to be asleep!”
  • More Pleading: “Bear, stop that. Please stop that, bear. Please stop that. Please stop that, bear. Please stop. Bear, please stop…”
  • Appeal to Justice: “Please stop breaking my things. Please stop breaking my things, bear.”
  • Appeal to Logic: “It’s not even food! It doesn’t even taste good! It’s just plastic!”
  • More Threats: “I’m gonna bear spray you. Please stop!”

Her attacker wasn’t in a socially-compatible place, and thus all her appeals to his sense of justice, fairness, and logic fell flat. Social strategies were not going to solve this problem.

Here’s the lesson.

Some criminals attack their victims for social reasons: ego, status, fear. Or to educate and correct perceived ‘misbehavior’ from others.

Other criminals attack for non-social reasons: because they enjoy the process of harming and humiliating their victims, or because they view their victims as little more than a walking ATM where they can grab some quick cash.

Like bears, criminals who attack for non-social reasons are generally immune to social pressure. The problem can be solved, but it won’t be solved by whiny appeals to justice, logic, and the attacker’s sense of fair play.

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Irresponsible Gadgets

But let’s face it, once you’ve grown bad-ass enough that you can take out a guy with your car keys and a rubber chew toy, you can pretty much use whatever happens to be laying around and don’t need to make a special purchase. – Rodion Medvedev in “The 13 Most Irresponsible Self Defense Gadgets Money Can Buy

This, right here, is why I get upset when people peddle silly little keychain doodads as ideal self-defense tools ‘for women’. It’s not that the gadgets don’t work, or can’t be made to work. It’s that they require so much skill to use effectively that it amounts to criminal dishonesty to hand that type of tool to an untrained person and tell the untrained person that simply having this thing will keep them safe.

Having a tool that we don’t know how to effectively use might make us feel safer, but it won’t actually make us any safer than we are right now without it. This is key.

I love, love, LOVE the idea of having lots of self defense options, especially including lower levels of force. Every tool and technique, from every single part of the force spectrum, comes with benefits and drawbacks. Every one of them has things they require from their users and things their owners need to know about using them safely and effectively. No exceptions!

That’s why it’s so very important to be honest with ourselves, and with each other, when we suggest people arm themselves with any tool, deadly or not so deadly. We always need to how what this particular tool requires of the user — in terms of physical skill, commitment to act, personal awareness, safe handling, and so on. Those are important things to know!

The particular challenge with contact tools is that people may — without good training beforehand, almost certainly will — use them to remain engaged with the assailant in circumstances where remaining engaged would be the very worst possible response. In other words, it’s not just the tool itself that we need to know how to work. It’s everything surrounding its use: good awareness, smart tactics, legal and practical understanding, de-escalation and disengagement skills, and on and on. Selling people on the idea that we can shortcut that process is … problematic. No matter which tools we’re talking about. (And before you ask: yes, that absolutely includes firearms!)

If someone tries to sell you a defensive tool that they say doesn’t require any work or learning on your part, or a tool that can be used safely by you as the defender but that can never be used against you by the attacker — they are LYING. They may mean well, but they are not telling the truth. You might decide to buy the product, if it fits your goals and plans and commitment to act. But don’t buy that story, because it’s a lie.

The rule of thumb is this: the simpler and less potentially damaging the defensive tool is, the more work it takes to learn how to use it effectively. Put another way, force multipliers really only work well when there is already some force to multiply. Learning to generate that force takes work, and that’s before we even include all the surrounding skill sets and knowledge bases.

Buyers beware…

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Dabbler

I’m a dabbler by nature. Have a long string of casual hobbies. The list includes rockhounding, fishing, mural-painting, camping, hiking, gardening, and more. (Shooting used to be a hobby of mine too, but I found it so satisfying a pastime that it soon became an avocation and eventually a true vocation.) I own a ceramics kiln, and enjoy making wheel-thrown pottery and decorating my creations with my own glazes. I like to do Sudoku puzzles and crosswords, and when I can find someone who’s willing to play one with me, I enjoy word games such as Scrabble. At one time, I was going to learn how to sew, but it turned out that the idea wasn’t nearly worth the aggravation it caused. Somewhere between my injured fingers and the tangled threads and crumpled patterns, I realized that off-the-shelf clothing would keep me just as warm.

To be honest, I’m not particularly skilled at most of these endeavors, and haven’t put a lot of work into most of them. We enjoy picking up pretty rocks as a family, and I can tell you a tiny bit about how agates are formed or where you’re most likely to find snowflake obsidian or why thundereggs are so cool. But don’t ask me to identify most rock types at a glance, or tell you more than the most rudimentary facts about any rock’s chemical make up. I haven’t worked at it; I’ve only enjoyed the first few steps along the pathway, and stopped learning more when the effort stopped being worth the rewards I could experience at my low level of skill. Still, I can honestly claim that I know more about rockhounding than most people do, and that I’ve learned everything I know about it without much effort or discomfort.

Handmade pottery, by a dabbler.

Handmade pottery, by a dabbler.

That’s pretty much the way most people are, with hobbies. There’s nothing wrong with that, and much that is right about it. We can’t throw all our energy and all our passion into everything we do, unless we decide to become very narrowly focused indeed. Sometimes a general picture of the idea is all we need.

But.

There’s a level of joy, of wonder, that’s never available to the casual hobbyist. A level of delight that most don’t even realize exists until they’ve already done the work it takes to get there. And it’s most visible in the areas of physical skill. There’s a wild sense of elation, even abandon, that goes with struggling through a tough spot and reaching the other side successfully. That’s a type of joy that mere dabblers never can feel even though they, too, might be having fun doing the same basic activity.

Think of a small child at a skating rink. She pleaded with her mom to let her go skating with her friends. She’s only been skating a few times before, if ever. The skates feel heavy and weird on her feet. You can see a fierce look of concentration on her face as she shuffles along, holding onto the guardrail with both hands and trying desperately to keep her balance. As she slowly makes her way around the arena, she finally manages to let go with one hand long enough to wave to her friends across the room. Finally she manages a complete circuit of the floor, and she’s grinning from ear to ear. “I did it!” she calls to her mom. “I can skate!”

She’s definitely having fun. She has enjoyed every bit of her learning process so far, even though she was clearly afraid that she would fall on her bottom if she let go of the guardrail. She stepped (or shuffled) at least a little way outside her comfort zone, but she barely noticed it because the reward of being able to move along on skates felt so good to her.

We dabble at making gingerbread houses, too.

We dabble at making gingerbread houses, too.

Even though our very young lady might not believe this if we told her, she isn’t having nearly as much fun at the skating rink today as she will a year or two from now, when she’ll be gliding easily through the crowd and making up games she and her friends can play together on skates – assuming she doesn’t move along to another hobby entirely between now and then. She’ll have even more fun when she learns how to skate backward, so that she can hold hands and flirt with her boyfriend as they move through the crowd together. Or when, after much effort and many failed attempts, she finally nails a perfect double axle.

Here we get into some results of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Lots of people think they’re “good” at their hobbies, and have gotten so without any hard work or unpleasant effort or anything that takes them out of their comfort zones – not even the minor discomfort of falling on their bottoms as they learn to skate. But really, it’s not until we’ve put a lot of effort into something that we realize how lacking our definition of “good” once was, or how badly we once overestimated our skills. 1

The little girl’s mom smiles indulgently at her daughter as she completes her circuit around the rink, and calls back to her, “Wow! You skated all the way around! Good for you!”

She doesn’t mean the little girl is done learning to skate. But she can share in her daughter’s joy, because she too was once a beginner. And she can look forward to the day her daughter will really learn how to skate.

What does all that have to do with us, or with firearms?

Juggling for the joy of it.

Juggling for the joy of it.

Just this: somewhere after the beginner’s grin, if shooting is nothing but a hobby to you, you may stop wanting to improve; or rather, you may start to feel that getting better won’t be worth the effort it takes to improve. You might get tired of thinking about it and decide you don’t want to learn anything more. Like me with rockhounding, you might decide you’re good enough. That’s okay, when it’s just a hobby; because, with hobbies, the joy of doing the activity itself should always outweigh the effort we’re putting into them.

And that’s okay. It’s natural. There’s nothing wrong with being a dabbler, when dabbling is all we intend to do. Please don’t read more into this than I’m really saying. For some people, learning to shoot is simply a hobby, nothing more, and that’s okay. People sometimes dabble in firearms just as they dabble in any other hobby.

On the other hand, if – for you! – shooting is more than a hobby, more than just something you do on Saturday afternoons, but is actually something that you believe might someday be used to save your life or the life of a family member, then it’s very likely that at some point past the beginner’s grin, you will find that you need to put in more effort at this than comes naturally to a dabbler. You might find that in order to move beyond the beginner’s world, you need to grit your teeth and keep going. You may need to force yourself over an effort-filled bump in the road, the one that pretty much stops most dabblers on the spot.

Being able to do this on demand is more fun than missing!

Being able to do this on demand is more fun than missing!

That might sound discouraging. It’s not, really. Because remember — there is a level of pleasure and joy in the thing itself, that the casual dabbler won’t be able to experience until she’s put in the work it takes to get there. The joy comes back again, stronger than ever, when we’ve forced ourselves to do the work that needs to be done. It’s not all grim determination, forever and ever without reprieve. It’s just a speed bump.

To get past that speed bump, you’ll probably have to do what a serious athlete does in order to reach a higher plane of performance (and joy). Your ultimate goal probably isn’t available to the casual dabbler anyway, and the shallow happiness of doing what feels good to us right now can never rival the deep joy we feel when we finally nail it after working hard to get there. Like a serious athlete, even though you will still enjoy shooting for its own sake,  you’ll do more than fiddle around with it just for the immediate pleasure you feel in the moment. Instead, you’ll cast your eyes toward a reward you can’t yet completely see, and you’ll make the conscious decision to work hard for that reward. Just like the Olympic athlete, you sacrifice your own immediate pleasure in order to learn skills that aren’t instinctively comfortable to you.

To be more than a dabbler, do more than the dabbler does. Let another type of joy drive you: the long-lasting pleasure of knowing that your skills will help you take care of yourself and the people you love.

Notes:

  1. From the original paper: “In essence, we argue that the skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain—one’s own or anyone else’s. Because of this, incompetent individuals lack … the ability to know how well one is performing, when one is likely to be accurate in judgment, and when one is likely to be in error.”
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For the joy of it

Yesterday, I told an untruth. It wasn’t deliberate, but it was an untruth. Here it is: “Doing things that are hard and even unpleasant is the only way we improve as humans.”

The mistake was using the word and. Should have used or instead, for clarity’s sake. 1 That’s because hard things aren’t necessarily unpleasant things. Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not; and that was the sense I meant to convey by using the word even. Doing hard things is a given. Finding them unpleasant is often a choice.

But there’s more.

Doing hard things is not pleasant in the same sense that lying in a shaded hammock on a summer day is pleasant, but we can still feel a very strong sense of joy in doing them or in having done them. Hence the popularity of near-cultish, abusively exhausting exercise programs. The high that follows such hard work feels very enjoyable, and worth the effort it takes to get there. More than that, the effort itself, even before the successful conclusion of the work, can feel amazingly pleasant to those who have the right mindset.

Try mowing a full acre of lawn on a hot summer day with a push mower. It’s hard work and you sweat and you itch and the sun beats down on you and maybe you’d rather be lounging on the deck with a cold glass of your favorite beverage. It’s easy to quit, because there are other ways to get the reward of having a good-looking lawn. You might hire a neighbor’s kid, for example. But as you strain with the effort of pushing the mower around the yard in the hot sunshine for hours on end, you might find a fierce joy in it, and find the pleasure of doing it yourself just as rewarding as your final goal of having a manicured lawn.

In fact, the harder the work, the more pleasurable it can be in that sense. If you’ve been cooped up all winter and spring with a painful joint injury, being able to do such work brings a joy all on its own. That’s a particular flavor of joy that can never be felt by someone who hasn’t faced a similar injury. For the rest of us, even if muscles and joints ache with effort, being able to move them effortfully can be a pleasure of its own. That’s the root of the old saying: “Hard work is its own reward.”

Another little side trip here, the point of my message yesterday: sometimes, we might not feel like getting out of the lounge chair and firing up the old lawnmower, but the work still needs to be done, one way or another. We grow as humans when we force ourselves to do the work that needs to be done, when it needs to be done. Joy often comes while putting in the effort, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an effort. And that’s a type of joy that can only be felt by someone who got out of the shade and went to work.

Just keep swimming.

We can’t ever learn to stay afloat until we take the risk of sinking.

There’s something else here, something big that I’ve been struggling to articulate for awhile now. Will take a longer stab at this sometime soon, but meanwhile: it’s easy to gain a little bit of skill at most things without any real struggle, without pushing your own limits, without any discomfort at all. But as far as I can tell, it’s impossible to get truly good at something without doing the hard things – which is sometimes unpleasant and always takes you outside your existing comfort zones. That’s why I said that we improve as humans only by doing the hard things. We can take a few baby steps down any given pathway without much effort, but the road always turns uphill at some point. To refuse the uphill climb is to refuse to grow in that area.

Think of the adorable little guys splashing around in the kiddie pool. They are having fun. Many of them are hollering to their moms: “Mommy! Mommy! Look at me! Watch me swim!!!” They demonstrate their swimming prowess by lying on their tummies in three inches of water, splashing all fours as their bellies and knees hold them above the waterline.

Can those kidlets really swim? Or do they just think they can?

Can they ever become more skilled at staying above water, unless they first let go of the bottom of the pool?

Can anyone become a good swimmer without getting out of the kiddie pool?

Notes:

  1. Some people took issue with the word only, but I’ll stand by that one even though any editor will say that sentences with always in them are always wrong, that only is the only word we should not use, and that an unqualified never is never correct. Phooey!
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Growth

This past weekend, I did something that was hard for me to do. Doesn’t matter too much what it was, at least not for our purposes here – the point is, I did it. Even though it was hard. And even though I knew that on Monday, my body would have to pay for the weekend adrenalin rush.

Doing things that are hard and even unpleasant is the only way we improve as humans.

Want to grow stronger? You’ll have to pick up things that are slightly too heavy for you to lift with ease right now. You have to do that repeatedly while your muscles and lungs complain about doing the work. Afterward, you’ll have to cope with achy muscles as they recover from the work you made them do. Worse, you can’t push your limits just one time and then brag about how well you did, mission accomplished. Nope! In order to get stronger, you have to make a habit of going through this uncomfortable process on a regular basis. You have to push your limits over, and over, and over again.

Want to grow intellectually? You’ll have to force yourself to follow someone else’s logic, to read books that are slightly too advanced for you, to do mathematical puzzles that make your brain hurt. You have to somehow bring new knowledge into your head and force yourself to remember it. Then you need to tie that information together with the other things you already know, so that you can actually use the stuff you just learned. It’s an uncomfortable process, but there is no other way. And to keep the process going, you have to keep pushing your limits.

Want to become better at interpersonal relationships? You’ll have to put yourself in social situations that are slightly outside your comfort zone, and force yourself to interact with others even when you’d rather not. To get better at small talk, you’ll have to engage in small talk and cope with the inevitable little stumbles and bumbles everyone makes. It’s uncomfortable and it takes work and you have to keep doing it over and over again in order to get better at it.

Want to become better at public speaking? The only way to do it is to take on public speaking assignments that scare you, that have an audience too big for you to feel quite comfortable with, in venues that make you a little nervous. Keep pushing those boundaries and keep honing your skills, and one day someone will accuse you of being a “natural” at public speaking. But you will know exactly how much your expertise cost you, and how hard you worked to learn it, and how uncomfortable it felt to push your limits over, and over, and over again.

So … do you want to be better at protecting yourself and the people you love?

Do you want to be a better shooter?

Do you want to be better at identifying danger? And better at avoiding it?

Do you want to have a more solid understanding of the legal realities of self defense?

How far outside your comfort zone are you willing to move, and how long are you willing to keep pushing through your limitations?

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