You cannot try, but you also cannot not try; trying is wrong, but not trying is also wrong.
You can try hard, don’t mean a thing…take it easy, then your jive will swing.
From “Ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it” by Sy Oliver and James Young.
Do or do not. There is no “try”.
Master Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back
Most of us have been brought up to believe that success in life comes from trying. The belief is that, if you want to do something difficult, you’ll succeed eventually if you just put enough effort in. And there do appear to be some tasks where this is an effective strategy – I’m sure you can think of some examples for yourself. But in my experience, there are other spheres where this isn’t a great method – for instance in the worlds of leadership or public speaking.
We’ve all been in the presence of speakers or leaders who are clearly trying too hard. And it isn’t a very good look. It’s painful to be around these people. They are not particularly charismatic on the whole, and they are not the people that you want to listen to or follow. In the past, I’ve certainly fallen into this trap as both a speaker and a would-be leader. To be honest, there are moments when I still do.
I wouldn’t agree with the Chinese philosopher Suzuki, quoted above, that it’s “wrong” to try, but in my experience it’s certainly sub-optimal in many aspects of life. And yet, as Suzuki suggests, we cannot simply decide not to try. It doesn’t work that way.
So what to do?
Not trying isn’t not doing.
Let’s start with a distinction. Not trying doesn’t involve not doing. Right now you are almost certainly breathing. I don’t imagine you’re trying to do it. You’re just doing it. The same goes for walking, or eating.
You can even be expending a lot of energy without trying. Imagine an experienced marathon runner who is in training, running along at a steady speed. Their body will be burning a significant number of calories, but there doesn’t have a be a sense of efforting.
My tennis coach always told me that when I was trying to hit a good shot my arms would tense up and I would lose the feel required to play a really good shot. He’d encourage me to do my best to relax and allow the shot to “happen”.
Many of us who have played sport will have had that experience of being in “the zone”, where everything seems to flow, and action seems to happen through us. It’s almost as if we aren’t the ones doing it, although it certainly involves our bodies.
The ancient Chinese had a name for this state. They called it Wu-wei. It refers to a dynamic, unconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and maximally effective. It could be described as “effortless action”.
Not trying is charismatic
According to the ancient Chinese philosophers, the leaders who operated from a place of Wu-Wei tended to exhibit a quality they called “Dé”, which translates as ‘virtue’, ‘power’ or ‘charismatic power’. It is a radiance that other people can sense and makes them drawn to that person and motivated to follow them.
As a leadership and public speaking coach I’d agree. People are at their most magnetic, powerful and likeable, when they are simply being themselves and are not trying too hard.
So there is a direct link between not trying and being powerful, effective and charismatic. And as a bonus it’s also more relaxing to be this way, and also more fun.
Sounds good…how do I do that?
How do I stop trying?
So given that in many situations, not trying is optimal. And given that it is not effective to simply decide not to try, what can we do?
In his book Trying not to Try Edward Slingerland offers a number of strategies for giving up trying suggested by the Chinese philosophers.
I’d like to venture my own.
This suggestion is based on my own experience my studies with a number of spiritual teachers. It’s not a magic bullet, and certainly in my case it’s very much a work in progress, but this really seems to work for me and many of the people I teach.
Step 1 – Recognise you are in a domain where trying is not optimal.
We could have an interesting philosophical conversation about whether trying is ever truly optimal. And there’s a part of me that suspects that it is always possible to act effectively without trying. Yet, it’s probably clear to everybody reading this article now, that there are definitely certain domains where trying or efforting obviously does get in the way.
Step 2 – Recognise that you are trying.
In any given moment, if we are undertaking an activity, we are either simply doing the activity, or trying to do the activity. In other words, we are effortlessly doing the activity or we are adding some extra trying on top.
In any given moment when do you notice that you are trying, simply allow yourself to notice this with an attitude of curiosity and compassion.
Step 3 – Get curious about who is trying and why
I’m a big fan of the psychological theory that our psychology is made up of a number of different parts. In other words, our brain is not a unified consciousness, but a committee sitting round the table in our heads. After many years of exploration with myself, and with my clients, this is certainly the way it seems to me to function. In my experience, we can easily locate these parts and find out what they are up to simply by asking them.
Find the part of you that is doing the trying and ask it what it is scared would happen if you didn’t try. Then listen to the response.
Step 4 – Validate and reassure that part.
Tell the part of you that’s trying, with warmth and compassion that you understand why it’s trying and what it’s scared of. And tell it that you’re convinced that you can still achieve your goals without trying, and that it’s safe, right now, to let go of the trying.
This is a self-coaching or self-parenting approach. It’s like a more grown up or wiser part of our psychology taking a younger more vulnerable part of our psychology in hand and looking after it, so that it isn’t “driving the car”.
This doesn’t need to be long or complicated.
With practice, this doesn’t need to take more than a second or two. It can be shortened to the recognition (with warmth and compassion) – “Right now, I’m trying…and I don’t need to try” (Or “Right now we’re trying…and we don’t need to try”. You can use whichever seems to work better in your head).
And just in that moment, using this method, you can let go of the trying.
And in 5 minutes time if you notice yourself trying again, you can simply let it go again.
This isn’t going to completely eradicate our habit of trying too hard sometimes. Yet with practice, our bodies and minds can start to get into the habit of trying less and trusting more.
This is certainly working for me. There are certainly domains in my life where I now rarely find myself trying, where in the past I did. There are others where there is certainly more work to be done in holding the parts of me that don’t yet feel safe to let go.
And this does feel to me like the “right” direction of travel. At least for me.
Give it a go. (I hesitate to say “give it a try”). And let me know how you get on.