Bullish Life: What I Learned From Being Captain of My College Debate and Boxing Teams (At the Same Time!)

Jennifer Dziura writes life coaching advice every Tuesday here on TheGloss, and career coaching advice Fridays on TheGrindstone.

Sophomore year of college, I signed up for some kind of kicky little cardio boxing class. It was exhausting, but also kind of lame that we were wearing gloves (as a proxy for those little one-pound hand weights that ladies use in their prim little fitness routines) but not really hitting anything.

So, when I saw a sign for an actual boxing club, I switched.

The Dartmouth Boxing Club had ceased to exist when the US entered World War II and all the men went off to war. It was revived my sophomore year in college. We really did have timed bouts in which we wore protective gear but generally tried to knock each other out (no one was ever actually knocked out).

Our coach was an MBA student who then went on to recruit a “real” coach who had done prison time. Well, in Vermont, which isn’t really the most hardcore state in which to do prison time. But he did have a Mickey Rourke nose and many hand-scratched tattoos, and insisted — as boxers are wont to do — that his stomach muscles were SO STRONG that no normal ab exercise could affect him and that the only way for him to strengthen his abs was for him to contract them while we (mostly dudes) all took turns punching him in the stomach as hard as we could. Now that’s fitness.

At the time, I was captain of the college parliamentary debate team and often went on tournaments to other schools in little business suits. While I was not a talented boxer, there was a summer term during which all the talented boxers were away — my university had year-round school, but summer was still the least popular term — and I found myself captain of both teams at once. (What did I learn from being captain of the debate and boxing teams at the same time? I’m fighty! End of column. Okay, not really.)

Having multiple forms of combat available to me did teach me a few things.

Arguing Doesn’t Work if the Person You Want to Convince is Your Opponent

Let’s start with debate, actually. People who have heard that I have won debate tournaments have occasionally said, “I’ll bet you can’t convince me of something.” (Don’t do this. This is possibly even more annoying than asking comedians to “tell me a joke.” I mean, you don’t hear that someone’s an otolaryngologist and ask her to take a look down your throat.)

Of course, my response to “I’ll bet you can’t convince me of something” is, “Nope. I can’t!” To actually convince someone, you need rapport. It also helps if the person is completely unaware that you are trying to convince her of something. People mostly change their minds because they like to be in harmony with the people they like.

Arguing with someone does not convince that person. The purpose of studying rhetoric (and, today, applied neuroscience) is to deploy those skills when arguing against an opponent for a third party. Such as a debate judge, or an actual judge, or your boss, or some young people who haven’t yet decided what party to vote for when they grow up.

The price you pay for even very good argumentation is that, in exchange for possibly persuading a judge or audience, your opponent will only become more entrenched in his views.

A best-case scenario is that effective (and generally, calm and collected) argumentation will win over the judge or audience, cause your opponent to retrench and hold firm to his position in the moment, but in the long term, cause your opponent to rethink things (because, after all, he was pretty embarrassed when you bested him in an argument, and people are strongly motivated by avoiding embarrassment), and ultimately change his mind sometime much later when you are not around and he can save face by pretending that changing his mind had nothing to do with you.

Win Hard Against Real Threats; Win Softly Against People Who Are Not a Threat

I have often written about the lessons taught to me by my high school debate coach, most notably in Bullish: Social Class in the Office.

In high school debate tournaments, it was certainly generally true that the person with the best arguments (and persuasive speaking skills) won, but there were some exceptions; many of the judges were teachers who, when in doubt, would vote for the nicer person. So you didn’t want to argue too hard unless the other guy was much more of an asshole, or you were standing up for the defenseless in some way.

There was also the challenge that you wanted not only to win the debate, but to get a high number of points. Judges don’t like to give point splits that are too different, so in a high-quality debate, the winner and loser might get 28 and 25 out of 30, respectively, and in a poor-quality debate, they might get 19 and 21, for instance. Something about preserving the self-esteem of young people.

So, one day, I end up in a debate against a girl who had been completely unprepared by her coach, had never so much as watched a debate, and — after reading a brief prepared speech, being cross-examined by me, and stammering to answer even the simplest questions — ran out of the room crying.

At this point, I’ve won the debate, but… no one feels good about that.

I have often written that pretty much everything we are as adults is learned behavior, and there’s nothing wrong with being “fake” as long as you are making the world better. The last time we were “authentic,” we were drooling, incontinent babies. We’ve just been acculturated from there.

If I had still been my sarcastic, blue-collar, teenage self, I’d have hung around, shrugged knowingly, and tried to bond with the judge. Having had the benefit of my brilliant high school debate coach (the person who taught me to shake hands!), I said, “Excuse me,” and went and found that girl in the ladies’ room.

I convinced her to continue, ushered her back in the room, and very, very gently beat her at debate. Then we shook hands.

I got some really stellar points. That girl was not traumatized for life. I have thought of this anecdote often since then; there’s no point beating, dominating, or embarrassing anyone who was never a threat to you anyway.

As I wrote in Bullish: How to Run Your Career Like a Gentlewoman, “A gentlewoman is kind and generous to anyone who isn’t a threat or a serious competitor. A pep talk, interested question, or moment of mentoring in an elevator doesn’t cost you anything.”

Sometimes, the Letter of the Law is More Important Than the Spirit of the Law

This is specifically true when what you need is a symbol of having done a good job rather than necessarily having actually done a good job (although you can aim for both!)

I sometimes have to talk to smart teenagers who don’t believe in the SAT as a measure of anything important, but who need to take it anyway. And I say, “Someday, you will have a job, and there will be something that needs done and you will know the best way, but your boss will want it in Powerpoint. And, therefore, doing a good job will consist of doing it in Powerpoint. This is just like having a job. Sometimes, success is measured in the fulfillment of arbitrary requirements.”

Fulfilling arbitrary requirements well is a crucial skill for making a living. Even if you start your own business, you won’t be free of it; clients often have extremely arbitrary requirements. Even your life partner often has arbitrary requirements; it’s cool that you never make the bed, but if you leave the salt and pepper on the coffee table, it means you don’t love him/her. Success requires ferreting out those requirements and fulfilling them precisely.

I actually did win some boxing rounds. I mean, if you had been watching, what you would have seen when I “boxed” with a man a foot taller than me and 80 pounds heavier would have resembled one of those cartoon fights wherein the larger cartoon puts his hand on the head of the smaller cartoon, who then punches furiously into the air. My punches are sad little punches. No matter how much I mean those punches, my deltoids are made of thin strands of glittery tinsel held together by mere hope.

However, amateur boxing is scored on points. The gloves you wear are so big and puffy that knockouts are basically impossible. So you just want to land a lot of punches. I would use my low center of balance (hips are good for something other than babies!) to duck down and punch that big dude (lightly) in the stomach a couple dozen times. Points! Sad little technicality points, but points nonetheless.

Sometimes, the letter of the law is more important than the spirit of the law, especially when you are being judged according to a rulebook or any set of arbitrary guidelines.

Hormones are Destiny! Or, At Least, A Big Part of Our Personalities

The world of college debate is entirely student-run; there were no teachers smoothing out the experience. So it was really, really full of dudes, who would wheel and deal before the tournaments — rumors always swirled that Princeton got to win Yale’s tournament because, later, Yale got to win Princeton’s tournament. Furthermore, there were often long breaks in between parts of the tournament, during which the dudes would bond by playing football. That’s not even like golf; there’s no breaking into football. The women would just … stand around.

Obviously, boxing is also a deeply gendered activity. It has long been my observation that middle-class white women who box tend to spend more time writing memoirs about boxing than actually boxing. (Myself included, alas. Here’s the tale of my “biggest fight”, which was not that big).

One day at boxing practice, one of my teammates said, “I really need boxing to get out my aggression.” The other guys agreed. What would we do without this? WHAT WOULD WE PUNCH IF WE DID NOT HAVE THIS HEAVY BAG TO ABSORB THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT?

I gave a noncommittal nod. I wasn’t surprised, I guess. Of course dudes have aggression (especially the ones who self-select to join a boxing team). But I thought to myself, I have to work up aggression to even come here. Like, sometimes I pretend that you guys are really racist so I feel okay about hitting you.

I mean, I do have more anger than is usually attributed to women, but it’s always in response to something that would rationally anger a person who cares about justice (and competence, and children and kittens). I believe in direct communication. If someone made a mistake that could have risked lives or huge amounts of money, I support yelling. In response to certain offenses, I support punching. I have previously expressed that gang-raping warlords should watch out, because I majored in philosophy and am 100% comfortable with my position that, if given the chance, I would stab a gang-raping warlord in the throat. I am saying that I believe in righteous anger (see Bullish: In Praise of Anger And How to Use It), and in measured violence as a response to extreme violence, especially when other, more civilized solutions are not an option.

Years later, I donated my eggs (Bullish: What Egg Donation Taught Me About Being a Dude) and went through a round of hormones that sucked all the estrogen out of my body. I felt calm, cool, confident, and almost totally emotionally numb. I wouldn’t want to live that way all the time, but as a break from my turbulent mid-twenties, it was awesome. Maybe I’d have been a better boxer that way. Once, in boxing, I split a girl’s lip; I don’t think you can box if you have too-developed a sense of empathy. Like if you think (as most of us would!) about how it would feel if your own lip were bleeding all over your sports bra.

Just as boys and girls are (generally) different — moreso than I had ever thought before my pugilistic exploits (or foray into the New York dating scene) — you can also expect that some qualities you consider fundamental to your personality will change over time. If not soon, then during menopause, and again thereafter, when you become one of those old people who says, “Once you reach a certain age, things just don’t bother you the way they used to.”

While you can’t predict exactly what your future self will be like or want, you certainly can set her up for success. See Bullish: Breaking Free From Terrible Situations and Bullish: Extreme Advance Planning for Very Smart Women.

(Also, ladies, please do not ever take up boxing for self-defense. Your upper body strength is your worst possible weapon, worse than just stabbing rapists with your keys. Boxing is a gentleman’s sport; it only works against other people who are following the rules of boxing.)

If You Shave Your Head Because That Seems Cool for a Boxer, You Will Look Ridiculous in a Business Suit

Sometimes, we all have to make choices.

In the end, I quit the boxing team because I realized that most men have a bony eyebrow ridge that, together with their raised cheekbones, forms a protective bony structure around their eye sockets (think of a Neanderthal, but less so). I don’t have that. When I turn to the side, you can see that my eyeballs stick just as far out of my head as my eyebrows do.

Three-quarters of the way to a philosophy degree, I finally caught on that getting hit in the eyes is stupid. But, just as I’ve often spoken about doing hard and frightening things regularly to recalibrate your stress circuits, getting hit in the face a few times probably helped me deal with contract negotiations, lawsuits, intimidating jerks, and the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. (See Bullish Life: How to Bitchslap Performance Anxiety).

Sometimes, the answer is anger; sometimes, persuasion; often, something with a bit of both and a great many other humanistic skills.

Send in your questions to bullish@thegloss.com. See a Bullish archive here.

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    • Beth

      I love the debate references in your columns! I did parli in college, too. Awesome life-preparation experience.

      Incidentally, I also really enjoy your columns in general. They have been a great help in navigating my career, and I have several marked as favorites on my browser.

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