I’m a big believer in the idea that your attitude shapes your life and the world around you. Perception is, in a very real way, the filter through which we interact with the world, and we can choose how to perceive it. Choose the right outlook and the right beliefs and the world will provide you with what you’re looking for — precisely because you’re looking for it. And when you have a growth mindset, you’ll find that there are lessons for you that can help guide and shape your life wherever you look.
Grant Morrison describes this as a form of chaos magick — choosing the beliefs that provide you with the best, measurable results, regardless of whether it’s “real” or something you can “prove”. Arden Leigh refers to this as hacking your confirmation bias — using your own psychological biases to help you find the results you want, instead of letting your own negativity bias drag you down. Bruce Lee’s version of this was to “absorb what is useful, discard what is useless.”
But regardless of what you call it or how you choose to approach it, the truth is that you can find guidance and inspiration in the most unlikely places when you look for it. This can be incredibly important, especially in this day and age when things feel chaotic and out of control. Knowing that you can find the guidance you need, when you choose to look for it, can be a valuable skill to develop.
It’s with this approach in mind that I want to talk about what you can learn from the reality show competition Forged In Fire.
Now it can seem odd to look to a television show about blacksmithing and forging knives for lessons on manhood and masculinity. After all, it seems fairly straight forward: four bladesmiths compete in three elimination rounds of timed knife-making, with the winning contestant earning a prize of $10,000. But — as with many TV shows and movies, the take-aways often sit just below the surface, informing what we see on screen. And, just as importantly, having concrete examples that we can look to can help us understand concepts that might otherwise seem too abstract or confusing.
So let’s look at what Forged in Fire can teach about what it means to be a man.
Lesson #1: Masculinity Isn’t Adversarial
One of the first and most striking lessons of Forged in Fire is how different the relationships between competitors — and the judges — can be, especially compared to other elimination competition shows. You would be forgiven for thinking that it would be The Man Show of Manly Men. After all, the fire, pounding metal, fully-functional weapons, sliced slabs of beef and decapitated dummies would seem to scream “who can be the most macho?”
For all that Forged in Fire drips in testosterone — the women who compete on the show are few and far between — the atmosphere engendered by the show is far more akin to The Great British Bake-Off. Much like the bakers who get invited to The Tent, the bladesmiths of Forged in Fire tend to be very respectful of one another, even friendly. It’s clear from the start that the smiths see each other as rivals, but not enemies; they’re competitive, rather than combative. They respect the capabilities of their fellow challengers and let that friendly rivalry drive them to work harder and challenge themselves. The most aggressive and adversarial competitors rarely win, or even make it to the next round.
In fact — again, much like The Great British Bake-Off — the smiths will regularly work together and help one another. When the challenges involve harvesting steel from an unusual source — like a bicycle stand, a car, or other unwieldy sources — smiths will often pair up to work more efficiently and make sure the others have equal access to the material. Other times, they’ll actively assist one another during the forging or finishing, especially when one of the smiths is having a technical issue. Whether it’s removing warps from the blades, helping another smith learn how to use a coal forge, or simply encouraging a smith to keep going and not give up, the competitors treat the Forge as a place of sportsmanship and honor.
That sportsmanship and love of bladesmithing even leads to the forging (sorry) of strong friendships. One of the best moments of Forged In Fire’s International Championship was watching the bromance form between France’s Julien Maniglier and Poland’s Michal Sielickij; before the first round had even finished, it was clear that they had become fast and lasting friends.
The judges equally represent a more tempered (sorry, I can’t help myself) and affirming form of masculinity. Their role isn’t to be loud, shouty or domineering. Will Willis — a former Army Ranger and Pararescue trooper — is calm, even-keeled, even joke-y with the judges and contestants. His admittedly impressive shouting is in service of being heard over the din of an active forge. J. Neilson, who was hired to be the Simon Cowell of the show, may be a harsh judge, but he is quick to compliment the smiths, even after catastrophic failures.
It’s also worth noting that Doug Marcaida, the most dangerous man on the set — who conducts the kill tests in the final round — is also the kindest and most soft-spoken. In fact, his catch-phrase isn’t “it will kill” but “it will keal” — that is, Keep Everyone ALive; this reflects his philosophy that it’s not about how many you can hurt, but how many you can protect.
Just as importantly, the judges very clearly have a great deal of respect for the bladesmiths. Whether it’s cheering on a competitor who’s pulling out an incredible come-back or celebrating a smith who’s persevering through hardship, they are rooting for everyone to bring their a-game.
One of the most important takeaways from this is that treating others as your opponents or enemies is inherently self-defeating. Not only are you setting up unnecessary and avoidable conflicts, but you’re also robbing yourself of finding potential valuable allies, teachers… and even incredible friendships.
Lesson #2: Don’t Let The Perfect Be The Enemy of the Good
One of the recurring issues with Forged in Fire is how often a bladesmith will suddenly discover they have a problem with their work. It may be that the blade warped or picked up cracks during the quench. Other times, they discover that they blew their welds during the forging of their billet and their steel is coming apart. They may have delaminations where forge scale kept their damascus from setting properly, or they may be facing health issues from the strenuous nature of bladesmithing and the hellish heat of The Forge.
However, even when facing seemingly monumental challenges, the smiths have one goal in mind: have something to show to the judges. It may be ugly. It may barely be profiled. The edge-geometry may be all wrong, the tang may be misaligned or they may need to grind the hell out of their blade in order to make it functional. But no matter what: they want to make sure that they’ve at least presented a hardened blade by the end of the round.
This was the lesson from the infamous “Bin-Gate” from The Great British Bake Off; having something to judge could make all the difference between moving forward and being asked to leave the Forge. Even an imperfect or mostly incomplete blade is still far superior to the one you never actually turned in.
Similarly, the contestants frequently find themselves presented with challenges brought on by circumstance. More often than not, they’re being asked to make weapons in unfamiliar styles or non-traditional materials. They frequently find themselves having to adapt to changing conditions. Their billet may not have enough material to make their blade as originally designed. They may discover a potentially catastrophic flaw in their steel. Or they may realize that the time crunch is upon them and they need to change their plans if they want to finish before time runs out.
Every moment on the Forge floor, they have to perform triage, deciding which mistakes are fixable and which they have to leave. Each mistimed stroke of the hammer, each blown weld or delamination becomes a matter of persevering, adapting and overcoming. Even the final challenge is just that: a challenge. Five days to forge their show-stopper weapon is often barely enough time and requires considerable compromise between the idea and the finished product.
This is important to learn, because, much as on the show, you will never find or achieve “perfection”. There will never be a “perfect” time or opportunity to make an approach or to ask someone out on a date. You will make mistakes trying to talk to someone you’re attracted to. You’ll have dates that go wrong — sometimes comedically, sometimes catastrophically. There will be days that wouldn’t go right if you held a gun to its head. And you need to learn to not just accept it, but to expect it, even embrace that imperfection. If slight setbacks cause you to quit — binning your baked Alaska, tossing your blade into the scrap pile, what-have-you — you will never succeed.
While you should never stop striving for perfection, you need to be able to take “good enough”. You don’t need to be perfect to win. Even flawed blades can still cut. In fact, bladesmiths who suffered catastrophic failures during testing often went on to become Forged in Fire champions anyway.
Just as importantly though, not obsessing about perfection means you have the opportunity to be flexible. You can fix your mistakes and make up for your imperfections. Warps can be straightened. Cracks and delaminations can be ground out. Even broken blades can be mended; in season 4, one contestant’s blade broke during the second round. Despite this setback, he welded the blade back together and managed to make it through testing and into the final. Just as they were able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, you can also pull out a win in the face of hopelessness if you don’t let imperfection throw you. Whether it’s an awkward moment while flirting, a date that doesn’t go as planned, even a fight with your partner… you can recover and make things better if you don’t let mistakes and imperfections shatter your confidence.
Most importantly though, is that embracing imperfection helps bring you closer to perfection. By letting yourself be imperfect and simply doing the work — whether forging steel, writing books, painting pictures, or approaching people you’re attracted to — you bring yourself closer and closer to success. With each imperfect attempt, you learn, you grow and you improve. To embrace imperfection is to learn to become stronger and more resilient.
Meanwhile those who focus on perfection… often end up not achieving anything.
But while we’re on the subject…
Lesson #3: Don’t Hang Onto A Mistake Just Because You Spent a Long Time Making it
Another common issue that the Forged in Fire smiths face is recognizing when a mistake is something they can fix… or when it’s a sign that they need to abandon their current work and start over. The strict time limits of each round mean that every moment is vital; deciding whether to keep going or start fresh can often make the difference between moving on to the next round or being asked to leave the Forge. It’s incredibly important that the bladesmith be able to judge which is the best option in that moment.
The problem is that it’s very easy to get caught up in the desire to pull things back from the brink, especially when you start to cross the halfway point. There’s an understandable urge to keep going and to try to find some way to fix it. The problem is: this is often a trap. Many times, the smiths are falling for the sunk cost fallacy, refusing to give up on something because it means that all that time you spent was wasted. Other times, they’re being unrealistic about the amount of time and effort that it will take in order to actually correct the problems, time they simply don’t have.
Of course, there’re times when the smiths don’t have a choice but to start over. Many times, those critical failures come during the quench or the fit and finish… and the blade snaps in half, shatters or develops deep fissures in the grain structure. But those moments when it seems like a flaw can be fixed are the times where the smiths have to rely on their own judgement. In those moments, it’s far better to be able to recognize a bad situation early on and drop it like fifth period French. Otherwise, they run the risk of chasing that mistake well into the point of no return, where recovery or starting over is impossible.
If we take this lesson off the Forge floor, then it’s worth looking at how often men get stuck in The Friend Zone1. One of the primary reasons why men find themselves “trapped” in The Friend Zone is because they don’t choose to leave. They become so invested in trying to chase a losing hand that they don’t recognize that the situation is hopeless. They would rather keep throwing time and energy towards someone who doesn’t like them that way, than admit defeat. Instead of stepping away, they continue to invest more in one person who doesn’t like them instead of starting fresh with someone new.
Similarly, people will often stay in bad or dying relationships because they feel like there’s still a chance to pull it out of the nose-dive. Even though everyone would be far happier in the long run if they called it quits, they’re determined to fix things because giving up would mean failing. And nobody wants to be a failure.
As much as starting over may suck, scrapping things and starting fresh is what can make the difference between wasting more of your precious time and being able to pull out a win. And to be fair: starting over often means having to make changes. Your original plans and goals may have to change. You may have to approach things from a different angle. What you end up with may be night and day different from what you intended. But winning in a way you didn’t expect is still superior to losing because you couldn’t let go of a bad hand.
Lesson #4: Your Comfort Zone Is Holding You Back
Every episode of Forged in Fire is has one purpose: to test the bladesmiths’ skills to their limits. After all, the point is to crown one competitor the Forged in Fire champion. You don’t find the best by giving them a task that they can do in their sleep; you find the best by challenging them to apply their skills in ways they’ve never dreamed of before. And so the judges test the contestants by demanding they pass smithing challenges that range from the unusual to the borderline absurd. The smiths may need to source hardenable steel from a junkyard. At other times, they’ll have to forge their billets from screws, nuts, springs and bolts. Or they will have to create a multi-purpose tool that goes beyond simple chopping and slicing.
And of course, at the end of the second round, their finished blades will face trials designed to test the strength and durability of their work… and the skill of the smiths who forged them.
Time and time again, the majority of the bladesmiths find themselves facing prerequisites that they have never attempted before.
Usually involving canister damascus.
In those moments, they have only one choice: to push themselves outside of the comfort of the familiar, trust their skill and rise to the occasion. And if they succeed, then they face a second, equally arduous challenge: to forge an iconic, fully-functional weapon from history in five days to exacting specifications. This, too, is inevitably a weapon they’ve never seen or forged before… pushing them further out of their comfort zone.
We tend to think of our comfort zone as the place where we are at our best. It’s the point where we often feel the most secure and most confident. But that comfort is a double-edged sword. When you spend too much time in your comfort zone, you inhibit your growth and potential. You often get complacent, prone to doing things one particular way. And while there’s the comfort and familiarity of the known, if you never push yourself past what you already know, then you lose your flexibility and adaptability. You make it harder to adjust to changing circumstances. You may even panic or freeze when you can’t rely on your usual ways of doing things.
This is why it’s important to not let your comfort zone become the limits of what you can do. By challenging yourself, forcing yourself to do things you’ve never done before — or to do them in new ways — you become a stronger and more resilient person. You’re better able to adapt to circumstances and face the unknown with confidence. You find yourself unfazed by the unexpected; it may be new and difficult, but you’ll have greater faith in your ability to change and go with the flow.
Just as importantly, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone helps you improve the skills you already have. By putting your talents or knowledge to work in new and different ways, you strengthen them like a muscle. You even find depths and reserves you never knew you had, talents that may have lain dormant until now. But none of that can occur until you’ve started to get out of your comfort zone.
However, it’s worth noting that your comfort zone is often not where you feel the most comfortable, secure or confident. Rather, it’s where you feel the least challenged and least anxious. For a lot of people, their comfort zone is simply the place where they feel they’re least at risk of failure — or at least the fear of failure and the discomfort of failure. For many people, the fear of that discomfort is what causes them to stay in their comfort zone, unwilling to take risks or attempt the unknown or unfamiliar.
But the truth is that there’s no growth without risk. Refusing to push yourself or test yourself isn’t security, it’s stagnation. If you want to improve, you have to be willing to take chances and be comfortable with the possibility of failure.
Just as the smiths have to push the envelope of their own skills, you need to expand your horizons and refuse to be defined by your limits. Especially self-imposed limits.
Yes, you run the risk of failure. Everyone does. But when you push past your comfort zone, you may also discover depths that you never expected.
But speaking of failure…
Lesson #5: It’s Possible to Commit No Mistakes and Still Lose. That’s Not Weakness. That’s Life.
One of the most important lessons from Forged in Fire is both the simplest and most frustrating: shit happens. No matter how skilled you are or how prepared you are, you can’t control for every possible variable. Random chance will be a factor in everything that you do, in ways that you simply can’t account for. That means that sometimes things go wrong; you have to be able to deal with it in the moment, instead of falling to pieces or avoiding all risk.
Forged in Fire is a master class in all the ways that things can go wrong. Blades crack and warp in the quench or fail to fully harden. Welds pop, scales break and pins come unaligned. Smiths are forced out by medical disqualifications and knives snap because of undetectable flaws.
Just as perfection is the enemy of flexibility and resilience, simply trying to avoid failure is the enemy of growth. Failing at something doesn’t make you a failure; how you respond to failing determines whether you’re a failure. The way that you fail and how you behave afterwards tells you what kind of man you are. Do you fall apart? Or do you pick yourself up and keep going?
The great paradox of life is that we learn very little from success. Your success, after all, could be as due to chance. Many of the bladesmiths in Forged in Fire advanced to the second and third rounds, not because of their own skills but because of the bad luck of their fellow contestants. Failure, however, is the greatest teacher. Failing shows you the areas that need work. It can reveal blindspots you didn’t know you had, or places where you rushed, cut corners or simply got too complacent. Failing at something can help you find the places where ambition simply outpaced ability, or where the thing that you attempted isn’t feasible. After all, many times, you haven’t failed. You merely determined that this method didn’t work.
Failure also teaches us who we are. It forces us to decide what our next steps are. Do we let failure defeat us or do we learn from it? If we fail, do we give up? Do we adapt? Or do we try again? Can you find the lessons to learn from this failure? Or is it simply the case that circumstances didn’t line up the way they needed to, through no fault of your own?
And it’s worth noting: you can fail at something and still succeed. There have been many times when two — or even three — smiths suffered catastrophic failures during testing. On those occasions, the fact that a blade broke after five strikes instead of two made all the difference. The fact that their work survived just a little longer gave them the edge they needed to win.
Other failures are what helped the smiths succeed. Many of the smiths had blades that seemed perfect, only to see them break during the forging process. And while those failures forced them to start over — often having to forge and finish a weapon at the last minute — that previous failure taught them what they needed to fix. That failure may have been daunting, but it was ultimately the reason why they won.
One of the truths of forging and smithing is that steel is finished by fire. Putting steel through extreme heat and pressure what makes it strong. Failure is, in its own way, the fire that tempers character. It’s never easy, but it is necessary. But when you pass through the flames and come out the other side… you’ll have the strength you need to thrive.
And that is possibly the most important lesson of all.
- Standard disclaimer: there’s no such thing as The Friend Zone, just people who don’t want to date or sleep with you. We use the term for ease of reference. [↩]