The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action
PREFACE I remember how difficult philosophy seemed when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley. I was taking epistemology with Barry Stroud at the time and, feeling a bit disheartened one day, went to his office and asked, “Does it ever get easier?” No, it doesn’t, he told me, since as you grow as a philosopher you work on increasingly difficult problems. Although this was not the response I wanted to hear, it made sense immediately, for I was entering college directly from a career as a professional ballet dancer. Ballet, I knew, never gets easier; if anything, it gets harder because as you grow as a dancer, you develop both higher standards for what counts as good dancing and your ability to evaluate your dancing, finding flaws that previously went unnoticed. Just as in Plato’s dialogue the Apology, where
Socrates is wise because he knows that he is ignorant, it is, among other things, the ability to recognize where there is room for improvement that allows expert dancers to reach great heights.
The ability to see room for improvement, however, is not of much use unless one also has a strong and ongoing desire to improve. And it may be that, more so than talent, it is this desire to improve, an attitude the Japanese call “kaizen,” that turns a novice into an expert. I certainly had kaizen in abundance, as did most every professional dancer I knew. It was ingrained in my mind and body to the extent that every class, rehearsal and performance was in part aimed at self-improvement. And improving, especially after you have acquired a high level of skill, typically requires an enormous amount of effort. Sometimes this effort is physical—and it certainly involves more physical effort than philosophy—yet it also involves concentration, thought, deliberation and willpower.
The idea that performing a ballet typically involves tremendous effort, however, is contrary to the widely touted view that great performances, in ballet and elsewhere, are intuitive and effortless. Although practice may be hard work, it is thought that when performing, an expert just lets the movement happen. Indeed, thinking about what you are doing during a performance is, if anything, thought to interfere with expert skill. This book is about why that contention is wrong.
It was during the spring of 2003 that I began ruminating over the standard view of the relationship between expert action and thought. I was being interviewed for an assistant professor position at City University of New York and had just given a talk about how proprioception, which is our nonvisual sense of the positions and movements of our bodies in space, provides insight into the beauty, grace, power and precision of one’s own bodily movements, and how dancers, by focusing on their proprioceptive experiences, can have such insight. The typical question and answer period ensued, during which the faculty unrelentingly tries to test your mettle, whereupon the philosopher Bob Child, who happens to also be an avid golfer, asked, “but doesn’t focusing on what you are doing interfere with performance?” Child, it struck me then, was right, for I had often heard the admonishment “you’re thinking too much,” coupled with the advice to just let it happen. So I ended up vacillating a bit, as philosophers do in the face of apparently devastating objections, before timidly suggesting that perhaps a dancer on stage would need to settle for enjoying whatever experiences of beauty just happens to bubble up to consciousness, rather than actively introspecting her proprioceptive phenomenology during a performance. Fortunately, Child seemed satisfied; I wiped the sweat off my brow, and I got the job. Yet I didn’t stop pondering his question. And the more I thought about it, the more I reflected on my own experiences both as a professional ballet dancer and as a philosophy professor, the more I talked to others about their experiences of performing at their best in their area of expertise and read up on the psychology and neuroscience of expert skill, the more I realized that the correct answer to Child’s question should have been no. These pages recount the journey I went through in arriving at this answer.
During the years of working on this book, it has often seemed to me that the gruelingly difficult process of writing it should be an emblem of my view that expert action often involves effort and thought. Although I have told myself time and time again to stop fretting and just get to work, this was more of a call to stop all the useless chatter in my head about how I will never be able to accomplish my goal, rather than a command to ease up and let it just happen; letting it happen, for me, would have led to nothing happening. Of course, part of the reason the process has been so difficult is that it has involved learning about new topics; although there are aspects of this work that I have been thinking about for over a decade, some of it represents more recent sallies unto the breach. Be that as it may, writing, whether it is about topics new or old, is never easy for me.
In explaining what it is like to write a song, Billy Joel said “I love having written; but I hate writing.” And for me as well, writing is more conducive to the type of happiness that results from looking back over your life and accomplishments with a sense of fulfillment, what the ancient Greeks referred to as eudaimonia, than to the type of happiness we associate with the moment by moment pleasure of, say, a good meal. Nonetheless, despite its grueling difficulty, it would be wrong to characterize the task of writing this book as all work and no play—all work and no pay, perhaps, but play has certainly been an element. Possibly, this is in part because philosophers and ballet dancers have something in common: they enjoy suffering. But more importantly, it is at least sometimes also true that writing, like dancing, can allow one to experience the exhilaration of learning, improving and creating, and I hope that in the upcoming pages I have conveyed not only my view that expert action involves both thought and effort, but also some of this joy.