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

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Is sex like golf?

In chapter one, I quoted golfer Dave Hill’s provocative claim that “the golf swing is like sex. You can’t be thinking about the mechanics of the act while you are performing.” If, as I have been arguing, experts generally think in action, and sometimes even about the mechanics of the act, why did he say this? To say that you can’t think about the mechanics of the golf swing while performing is not the same as saying that you cannot think during a golf swing; thinking may occur at a higher level. Nor is it to say that you can’t think about the mechanics of your swing prior to going through with it. Moreover, it might be that, just like Gallwey claims to focus on his triceps when his racket is below the ball, some expert golfers do focus on relatively low-level aspects of their swing. I welcome comments from golfers on this topic. Hill was known for his outrageous remarks, so there is a question about whether he was merely trying to be provocative. Moreover, even if he believed he claim, it is not clear that he always followed it:

Experimenting is my nature, and I know it has cost me considerable prize money over the years. I overcomplicate the game, toy around with too many options, and try too many difficult shots when a simple shot could get the job done. (Hill and Seitz, 1977: p. __)
Perhaps it is sometimes less demoralizing to say that you lose because you were trying too hard, experimenting and overcomplicating things, than to say that the winning player was simply better.

Yet, enough conjectures about why Hill may have made the comments he did, for I imagine that you have arrived at this point in the book not merely to better understand Hill’s motivation for saying what he did, but to find out whether think-to-win applies to sex; that is, you want to know whether when we do it, we should just do it. Assuming that golf allows one to think in action and is benefitted by such thinking, you want to know: Is sex is like golf?

Sex is, assuredly, a complicated matter, and one relevant complication —though rather uninteresting in the larger scheme of things—is that it is not clear that, outside of the ranks of professionals in the sex trade, sexually-active adults should count as experts, in my sense of “expert.” Is the sex act something that we deliberately train to perform? Are we engaged in an ongoing quest to improve our actions in this area of our lives? Or might it be more like everyday activity (if you’re lucky enough)?

Let’s put this issue aside and get back to the interesting question. Regardless of whether sexually-active adults count as experts in the relevant domain, and thus whether the topic of sex (outside of the professional sex trade) is at all relevant to my main goal in this book, which has been to tear down the just-do-it principle and fortify think-to-win, we can still ask: Is Dave Hill correct about sex? Does thinking interfere with doing it? And if so, should we refrain from thinking while thusly engaged.?

None less than Aristotle (350 BCE/2002) had something to say about this:

οἷον τῇ τῶν ἀφροδισίων· οὐδένα γὰρ ἂν δύνασθαι νοῆσαί τι ἐν αὐτῇ.

As with the pleasure of sex: no one could have any thoughts when enjoying that. (Nicomachean Ethics VII.11: 1152b17–18, trans. C. Rowe)
Sounds like support for Dave Hill. However, let us look at the larger context in which this remark occurs. This comment on sex is actually not presented by Aristotle as his own, but rather as the view of someone who objects to Aristotle’s position that pleasure is good. That is, Aristotle is claiming that his opponent may claim that “pleasure is not a good at all” because, among other things, “pleasures are a hindrance to thought, and the more so the more one delights in them” (ibid.: 1152b16–17), and this is illustrated, claims his rhetorical opponent, by sex. So we should not understand this remark as Aristotle’s endorsement of the view that no one can think while enjoying that.

What would Aristotle say about whether one can think while engaged in sexual activity? Since his concern is with whether pleasure impedes thinking, rather than with whether thinking impedes pleasure, it is difficult to say. However, he does respond to his opponent by claiming that neither practical wisdom (phronesis) “nor any disposition at all is impeded by the specific pleasure deriving from it, but only by alien ones” (1153a20). For example, since the pleasure of learning is not alien to learning itself, the pleasure of learning, he tells, does not impede learning, but makes us learn all the better. This is not to say that alien pleasures invariably hinder performance. For example, it would seem consistent with Aristotle’s view that the pleasure of drinking tea is alien to the pleasure of learning yet conducive to it. Rather, he is saying that if a pleasure is going to interfere with performance, then that pleasure will be an alien one. For example, though he does not explain what he means by “alien pleasures,” (save for the comment that they are pleasures not derived from the activity at issue), he would presumably say that the pleasure of texting may impede learning from a classroom lecture, while the pleasure of listening to the lecture would not. Given that he thinks that it is only alien pleasures that impede activities, one might speculate that he also thinks that pleasures are only hindered by alien thoughts (and not by relevant ones), where an “alien thought” is one that does not concern the activity. If so, his view would imply that while thinking about, say, mathematics during sex may very well hinder sexual pleasure (since thoughts about mathematics are alien to sexual pleasure), thinking about sex during sex would not hinder sexual pleasure but would make us enjoy it all the better.

But even if one can beneficially think about sex while doing it, one might still wonder: can one think about mechanics of sex while doing it? And what, precisely, are the mechanics of sex, anyway? These questions could be discussed in delightful detail; however, as we are drawing to a close, suffice it to say that a woman’s anatomy is so exquisitely subtle that if her partner just does it without thinking about the mechanics, it is likely that nothing in the realm of optimality will obtain.174

(Incidentally, I have found that women are much less likely to see the creative process as effortless; with their long nine months of pregnancy culminating in excruciating pain, women know that creating takes hard work; men, however, whose contribution involves little more than a mere fifteen seconds of ecstasy, are sometimes deluded.175)

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