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

You don’t need to conquer the world

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You don’t need to conquer the world

I have just argued that people may be drawn to accept the just-do-it principle for a number of reasons other than insight into its truth. And once propounded, the principle is perpetuated because introspection is susceptible to suggestion. Nonetheless, as a matter of psychological fact, not thinking, or at least not thinking much about what you are doing might, for some, help ease nervousness or prevent one’s unproductive thoughts from multiplying out of control. It may be that the best performers keep nerves and unproductive thoughts in check and are able to effectively think in action. Nonetheless, for some, occasionally suspending the thinking processes might be a useful means of conquering psychological demons. Something similar can be said about suspending the will to achieve.

Dancer David Hallberg commented in an interview (Barry, 2011) that once, when he was practicing turning before going on for Act II in Giselle, the floor was slippery, and he “just kind of lost the feeling of being up on the leg and turning” – whereupon, Hallberg recounts, the director of the Bolshoi Ballet (the company he was dancing with at the time) said (in paraphrase) “You don’t have to emote. Just calm down, relax and just go for the pirouette calmly”. Hallberg tells us that, “in essence—he didn’t say this, but in essence—he’s saying you don’t have to conquer the world, just do a pirouette. You know, just go around three times” (ibid.). And this fixed the problem.

In this situation, thinking less and trying less (or perhaps not at all) may have been beneficial. But, again, this does not mean that trying or thinking in and of themselves are detrimental, as Hallberg’s further comments indicate: “sometimes when things aren’t working you get yourself into a stupor. You start to panic a little bit and then it just gets worse and worse.” The problem, then, seemed not so much that he was thinking or trying too hard, but that his suboptimal practice session led him to thinking in an unproductive way, namely, to panic – and panic, no doubt, should be avoided. What fixed the pirouette, according to Hallberg, was that he “calm[ed] down and let it happen.” But perhaps the key was the calmness, rather than the let-it-happenness.

Of course, if your goal is to conquer the world, then (in line with the argument I presented in Chapter 7, “You Can’t Try Too Hard”) in order to achieve this goal, you should try your best to conquer the world. (Whether conquering the world is a worthwhile goal is another question). However, as I indicated, there are various senses of “trying,” and when “trying” means simply exerting more force, then sometimes you can very well try too hard—if not when your goal is conquering the world, then at least when it is performing a pirouette – for if you push off with a great deal of force, especially if the floor is slippery, you may fall. And despite the fact that Balanchine used to say that he likes dancers who fall, one prefers to avoid it oneself, if possible. That excess force is unwarranted, as I argued, does not mean one should not try or put in effort in one’s expert actions. There is a balance between force and control: too much force will lead you to lose control. Thus one needs to try to find just the right balance.

Some might find that trying produces unwanted tension. Yet again, this does not mean that the trying in itself is problematic. If I am right, there is no necessary connection between trying and tension and, as I suggested, the best course of action is to learn to try your best without getting tense. What is more, the experience of trying is most pronounced when you are doing your best, yet still fail. Of course, that’s a bad thing. But doing your best and succeeding is not.

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