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Dueling, Dancing, and Mental Health, Oh My!

Jaymes O'Pheron, captain of the Fargo chapter of the Academy of Sage Heroes, attends a Viennese Waltz Class. He studies fencing and dancing as two ways to navigate failure.
Jaymes O'Pheron, captain of the Fargo chapter of the Academy of Sage Heroes, attends a Viennese Waltz Class. He studies fencing and dancing as two ways to navigate failure.

Do you feel tired and don’t know why? Are you having one more drink than you used to? Maybe you’re getting headaches, having trouble concentrating or managing your weight. You might be feeling anxious or sleepless. Those are all signs of burnout. May is mental health awareness month. Today Ashley Thornberg introduces us to a gentleman who had a career as a web developer…started studying dancing and dueling….and ended up with a career refresh.


Know thyself…a philosophical maxim James O’Pheron takes seriously.

I get the engineering type brain from the Germans. I get that kind of stubborn contentedness of the Finnish. I also have that whimsy and a bit of the fae to me from the Celtic, I think.

Web developer by training, he’s into a lot of other pursuits.

communication, leadership training…addiction recovery ministry. Personal development and growth. 

And it’s noticing those pursuits that lead him down a path he wasn’t anticipating.

I've put a lot of effort into calibrating my life and my priorities and my values to synergize with each other. I was originally a web developer, and I migrated from that as a result of burnout in a lot of different ways, because I was finding myself kind of unfulfilled and disconnected.

That really doesn’t work when you’re a freelancer.

I set my own hours, which meant that if I wasn't engaged in it, not many hours got spent, which hurt my income. 

But instead of doubling down on his workload

there is a natural drive I see on the masculine side to just grin and bear it, particularly in the Midwest, of just like buckle down, lock yourself in, and just drive and push and hide from all of the hardship and things like that.

he looked instead at his hobbies and most of them revolved around a skillset that’s hard to quantify, and harder still to do.

the ability to be aware of yourself, be aware of the people around you, and how to navigate through that kind of more complicated, what people call soft skills, but they're also the hardest ones to acquire, to be able to develop that in a meaningful way and apply it.

It lead to a career change, or at least a mindset shift. He started doing some professional coaching…

First, initially, coaching other developers, like helping them with mentorship, that kind of thing, which was really satisfying. And I leaned into learning coaching to help maximize that, because there's not that many engineers who have the emotional intelligence to do that.

It definitely wasn’t a bad idea.

It was a nice, leverageable skill. it's a big glass ceiling there for engineers if they don't have the relational skills to work with the team or grow past mid-level development, no matter how much technical skill they develop.

But ultimately, it wasn’t quite the right idea.

Instead of being a coder who coaches, why don't I be a coach who codes, and switch it around, and stop developing codes, start developing people more intentionally.

Ashley: Tell me a little bit more about what that means developing the person rather than their skill set. How does that make a difference in their ability to navigate life? 

Yeah, absolutely. So I like to define maturity as the ability to work through hardship and invest it in growth rather than failure, taking failure and learning from it. And if you are able to do that, you have that growth mindset, that intentionality, nothing life throws at you really will stop you, 

He likens that to martial arts, specifically jiu-jitsu.

you always turn everything into a strength, right?

But it’s actually something he explored through two very different kinds of movement.

(sword fighting noise)

First up – dueling

(sword fighting noise)

It takes mere seconds to show I have no idea what I’m doing.

(got me. Got me again. Again.)

It was fun. But I was more interested in the nuance. This was a friendly fight…as indicated by how we greeted one another.

one of the things that we do is we distinguish between duels for something, a duel for honor versus a duel for sparring. And the way we distinguish between those is that we always bow before a bout.

You can’t aim for the head, or the arms. And … we’re our own referees.

Jaymes O'Pheron

that also introduces a little bit of a moral dilemma for each person. So if I come in and I hit you here.

Ashley Thornberg

My right shoulder.


Jaymes O'Pheron

Is that your arm? Or is that your torso? Do you count that as a hit or not?


Ashley Thornberg

I would say it's my arm.


Jaymes O'Pheron

Right? So you wouldn't count it as a hit.


Ashley Thornberg



Jaymes O'Pheron

Now you could also say, that was an honorable hit. And you would count it.


Ashley Thornberg

And would that be sort of a degree of difficulty?


Jaymes O'Pheron

It's up to you.


Ashley Thornberg

Because I guess I would put the inside of the armpit is where the torso starts.


Jaymes O'Pheron

You draw your own lines and no one else can judge you for that.


Ashley Thornberg


And it's this subtle negotiation of honor that happens. 


This subtle negotiation of honor … he sees this type of sword fighting as a way to make each other better.

helping each other grow by means of challenging each other. And if somebody makes a mistake, you stab them out of the kindness of your heart. 

Pointing out mistakes, avoiding getting stabbed…helping people grow. That’s one way he navigates failure.

He’s also into this.

(waltz music)

Dance. Here he is at a Viennese Waltz class.

But in dancing, … if someone makes a mistake, you don't stab them, please don't, right?

Instead, you weave it into the dance, you make it into something beautiful. And these two ways of relating to failures are both necessary. One is collaborative, … nurturing, the other one is challenging.

Both are physical. Something that’s played into Jayme’s own mental health, and influences his role as a life coach.

You can't wish your way into a better life. You have to actually do the things that make you the kind of person who will have that better life, and that comes down to movement.
That is the direction you're moving in, the direction you're going to direct your identity towards. So any meaningful, realistic, transformative action has to actually be that, an action. The way you transform a person is through motion. 

That was Jaymes O’Pheron. In addition to coaching and web developing, also runs a group called, The Academy of Sage Heroes, a group interested in developing "holistic, impactful moral excellence through local, communal experiences drawn from yesteryear's wisdom."