The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

Why have so many accepted the just-do-it principle?

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Why have so many accepted the just-do-it principle?

As we saw in chapter one, effortlessness and automaticity are not only the guiding mantras in many popular books on expert action, but also have deep roots in history, both in the East and in the West. Furthermore, as I just mentioned, experts themselves sometimes endorse it, if not by using the expression “just-do-it” or George Balanchine’s “don’t think, dear; just do,” then with, say, the oft-touted phrase in the world of jazz music, “when you’re thinking, you’re stinking,” or the comment that “you have to get in the groove,” where it is the groove and not your conscious mind that is thought to be directing one’s actions. Why, if I am correct and expert action is thoughtful and effortful, do many claim otherwise?

No doubt, part of the reason why just-do-it has captivated the general public turns on its role in the media and popular press. But why were the popular books written in the first place? And what accounts for the just-do-it acolytes among psychologists, philosophers, and others in the rather unpopular academy? One reason is that just-do-it is seen as empirically justified (a point which I have attempted to challenge); however, beyond this, it sometimes seems that such experiments are testing a view that they appear to already assume is correct. And quite clearly, the ancients who held just-do-it views did not have access to readily Googleable psychology research, and thus must have found their inspiration for the just-do-it idea elsewhere. What, then, made them think that the principle is true?

Sometimes just-do-it apostles aver that experts in various fields generally claim that when they are performing at their best, they are not thinking about what they are doing. I take this, as I explained in the introduction, as good prima facie reason to think that the principle is correct. But do experts generally make such claims? Or is the preponderance of anecdotal support in my favor? It is difficult to determine the answer to this question, at least without conducing a large-scale survey, and even then, asking neutral questions and interpreting the data would pose a significant challenge. Nonetheless, there are some who have aimed to conduct more-or-less systematic investigations of the creative process. What have they found?

Csikszentmihalyi’s (1997) ninety-one interviews with highly creative individuals, though still small-scale, reveals, as he lays it out, numerous examples of experts working in a state of what he calls “flow,” which is sometimes described as complete enjoyment or absorption in one’s activities. I mentioned in Chapter 9 that even though Csikszentmihalyi’s earlier research that led to his concept of “flow” is sometimes taken (by, for example, Velleman’s 2008 “The Way of the Wanton”) as intimating that expert action involves attenuated effort and thought, that research was aimed at uncovering the nature of optimal experience, not optimal performance. This more recent work (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1996) is aimed at understanding creativity. As he sees it, a creative discovery or idea often involves attention, but, when at its best, it is effortless attention, and although thinking also is essential, he seems to value the “the mental activity that takes place backstage” which, as he sees it, allows for something outside of the predictable more than deliberate, linear thinking(1996: p. 138). And when the creative idea arrives, he comments, it is sometimes in a flash. He tells us that most people interviewed, though not all, recall “with great intensity and precision a particular moment when some major problem crystallized in their minds” (1996: p. 103-104). So these interviews, as he describes them, do provide some support for the claim that great ideas sometimes effortless occur to an individual. Though as he also points out, “most lovely insights never go any farther, because under the cold light of reason fatal flaws appear” (1996: p. 104).

Albert Rothenberg (1990), who spent thirty-five years conducting and analyzing interviews with creative individuals, scrutinizing manuscripts and drafts of creative works, and performing empirical studies on creativity, finds less support for “lovely insights,” to begin with. I shall not discuss his findings and methods in depth, for, as I said, such studies are invariably open to question. However, let me nonetheless point out that his conclusion is that, quite contrary to the cultural stereotype of creative ideas arising via sudden inspiration, they are actually the result of “direct, intense and intentional effort on the creator’s part” (p. 9). And, in her review of poets’ manuscripts from first to final draft, Phyllis Bartlett (1951) finds that initial drafts rarely show any signs that the poet was working from a sense of inspiration.

My own informal and entirely unsystematic interviews have led me to think that, in general, although some amateur athletes, musicians, or poets tell me that thinking interferes with doing, professionals in most areas (as well as the serious amateurs) are unlikely to say this. And when I ask the amateur athlete, musician, or poet who has just been trying to convince me of the truth of just-do-it whether she performs her professional activities best with thought and effort, she usually readily agrees that of course my work is like that.

A writer once told me that Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis (1974) changed his life, by which he meant that it changed (and, he felt, improved) his tennis game. In fact, he said that now, if he really needs to win a point, he asks his opponent—feigning keen interest—whether she locates her racket more in the middle of her back or behind her left shoulder before she serves the ball. “It works every time,” he told me: “They start thinking and they muff.” I responded by saying that his opponent must not have been a very serious tennis player, and summarily told him that he must not have read very much of this book that changed his life, since if he had, he’d be working on developing a way to think about even the movements of his arm-muscles as he plays – since, after paying homage to Zen in the Art of Archery (or what according to Shoji (2001) might be better thought of as “the myth of Zen in the art of archery”), the author goes on to explain that thinking about the details of his arm movements is exactly what he does while playing. (Or rather, that is what I wanted to say in response; somehow I rarely am able to say what I want to say, and when I try to, it often comes out wrong—which may, of course, be the reason I write.160) This weekend tennis-playing author, however, told me that when he writes, it’s pure blood, sweat, and tears.

So I am not convinced that reflection on optimal performance in one’s area of expertise generally is a significant motivation to accept just-do-it. Nonetheless, some might infer that because their avocation suffers under self-reflection, this is true of their vocation as well. Others, however, may draw conclusions about thought in action based on their experience of everyday activities. Thinking about what you are doing as you are doing it does at least sometimes seem to interfere with everyday actions, such as answering the phone or going down stairs. As I put it in Chapter 2, if you start thinking about how exactly you are supposed to initiate a telephone conversation, the recipient of your call will notice your heavy breathing and hang up. And it is easy to see how an evolutionary advantage could accrue to those who could think about more important things during, say, grooming. But, as I have argued, expert action is significantly different from everyday action, since for the performer on stage or the professional golfer on the green, there is nothing more important than the task at hand. And so we shouldn’t expect that just-do-it applies in these situations as well. When Dreyfus embarked on his investigation of expertise in the Air Force, he had never flown a plane during a military assault; indeed, he had never flown a plane at all. So he reflected on his experience of driving, and generalized from there. Yet, driving, for better or worse, is something one often doesn’t put one’s heart and soul into. It is a life-or-death matter, but unlike Air Force pilots, we do not treat it as such, and so would rather chat with the person in the passenger seat than give it our all. For this reason, it is not well suited as a generalization base for the type of expert action I have been investigating. Dreyfus, on my view, does not count as an expert driver. Yet he is an expert philosopher; why didn’t he start there?161

Now, as I explained in Chapter 1, various just-do-it-like precepts may, nonetheless, be beneficial. For example, it is sometimes useful not to think much about how others will perceive you or your work: to thine own self be true and all that. As should be obvious—if not hitherto, then at least in this chapter—I follow that precept to a degree when I write. But that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking; nor does it even mean that my writing wouldn’t be better if I were to be able to think more about how others will perceive me. After all, I don’t do this purely for my own enjoyment. It’s just that for me, such thoughts can, at times, stifle my ability to think productively. However, that certain kinds of thoughts are detrimental does not imply that thinking is detrimental; thinking, as I’ve emphasized time and time again, ought to be encouraged.

What type of thoughts are detrimental? I believe that this differs from person to person. For example, while thinking a great deal about how I will be perceived stifles me, some might find the elixir of motivation in thinking about how they will be perceived. I also believe that what one finds unproductive depends in part on what aspects of performance one has been working on to improve. If you have been working on improving the movements of your right pinkie finger—you may think this a joke, but the precise position of one’s fingers is highly aesthetically relevant in ballet—then thinking about your right pinkie finger will not impede performance. But aren’t negative thoughts (thinking, for example, I can’t do this) always detrimental? For me, they tend to be (yet at the same time, I am constantly plagued by them); however, given that some apparently successful coaching techniques seem to turn on making one feel terrible about one’s abilities, I do not want to claim even that.

In earlier chapters, I have suggested a number of other reasons for why the idea of effortless expertise may be deceptively attractive. For example, just-do-it may be appealing because expert action in some areas can erroneously appear effortless. Also, when one is performing poorly, one often is thinking in action. Yet rather than thinking causing the blunder, as the just-do-iters would have it, it may be that the blunder caused one to think about what is going wrong.162 But let me close this section with one last possibility: it could be that some of the popularity of just-do-it is based simply on the apparent fact that most people prefer ease to hard work. Books like Zen in the Art of Archery and all of its spin-offs may very well turn upon this tendency. Perhaps they reach the status of bestsellers for the same reason that diet books that advocate the idea that you can eat as much as you want as long as you don’t eat one somewhat arbitrary category of food are popular: not because they work, but because they are easy to follow.

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