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

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Tapping the Unconscious

Although some versions of just-do-it—such as the idea of “it shoots,” the Ancient Greek idea of divine inspiration, and Dreyfus and Kelly’s “whoosh”—are “just let it happen” views, wherein the expert’s mind is entirely absent in peak performance and expert action is guided by external forces, less extreme just-do-it views maintain that although experts’ best actions involve thought, they do not involve conscious thought. Sometimes the specific type of consciousness inveighed upon is consciousness of the details—or, in line with Dave Hill’s analogy between golf and sex, mechanics of the act. Others disparage the conscious mind more generally, a view exemplified by the sportscasters words of praise: “She’s playing unconscious.” And still others do not so much disparage conscious thought, but elevate the unconscious, as Goethe famously did. Goethe claims, for example, to have written his novella The Sorrows of Young Werther “unconsciously” and “like a sleepwalker.” In a letter he wrote to Schiller, he sums up his view: “What the genius, as a genius, does, happens unconsciously,” and that “all our most sincere striving/succeeds only in the unconscious moment” (quoted in Bishop, 2010: p. 30).18

Proponents of this brand of just-do-it sometimes support the view that it is the effortless motions of the unconscious mind that are responsible for works of true genius by citing various anecdotes, such as that of the nineteenth-century mathematician Henri Poincaré, who talks of brilliant ideas arriving unbidden—“at the moment I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it” (quoted in Gheselin 1952, p. 26) —or Kekule’s description of the discovery of the structure of the benzene molecule by dreaming of a snake biting its tail (ibid., p. 237), or A. E. Housman’s account of writing poems effortlessly—“two of the stanzas came into my head, just as they were printed while I was crossing the corner of Hamptsead Heath between Spaniard’s Inn and the footpath to Temple Fortune. A third came with a little coaxing after tea” (1933: p. 91). Such claims are frequently cited as evidence of the miraculous effortless workings of the unconscious.

The physician, zoologist and physiologist W. B. Carpenter introduced the term “unconscious cerebration” to describe this process, telling us that “[t]he act of ‘unconscious cerebration’….is far more likely to lead us to good and true results than any continual discussion and argumentation,” and that “the mind has obviously worked more clearly and successfully in this automatic condition, when left entirely to itself, than when we have been cudgeling our brains, so to speak, to get the solution” (1874/2011: p.204). Henry James (1888/2010) wrote of the “unconscious cerebration of sleep” (p. 159), and H. Amiel, in his famous Journal, claimed that “the wise part of us, then, is that which is unconscious of itself, and what is most reasonable in man are those elements in him which do not reason” (1893: p. 87).19

To be sure, many of these stories of ideas arriving fully formed are at least exaggerated, and Goethe himself later turned away from the extreme views expressed in his youth, and advocated a view quite opposed to just-do-it: a musical composition, he wrote, arises “through practice, teaching, reflection, success, failure, furtherance and resistance, and again and again reflection” (quoted in Frankl, 2006: p. 30). Indeed, some have seen the Romantic veneration of the unconscious as a ‘pathology’, with the poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller at one point commenting that “classicism is health, romanticism is sickness” and emphasizing that unconscious inspiration must also be “accompanied by self-reflection and the capacity to bring such emotions within clear, formal boundaries” (quoted in Becker-Cantarino, 2005: p.29).20 And modernist poets made a strong break with the Romantic tradition, with Paul Valéry explaining in his essay “Poetry and Abstract Thought” that a poet must “struggle with inequality of moments, chance association, weak attention, and outer distractions” (1939/1954: p.65). To create a poem, he goes on, requires us “to recognize in ourselves and to choose in ourselves what deserves to be plucked from the very instant and carefully used” (ibid.: p.65). Nonetheless, something very much like the Romantic adoration of the unconscious is found today in the psychology of skilled performance, wherein some researchers claim to have shown that consciously pondering what to do hinders performance. For example, the psychologists, Flegal and Anderson claim that “[r]eflecting consciously on what one knows about a skill often undermines its proper execution” and accordingly advise the expert to leave the conscious mind by the wayside (2008: p. 927). The psychologist Baumeister, tells us that expert skills cannot be controlled consciously, because “consciousness does not contain the knowledge of these skills” (1984: p. 610). And Toner and Moran (2011) suggest that “a practical implication of the findings from our experiments is that it would appear prudent for skilled performers to avoid consciously attending to their movement during competitive performance” (p. 682).21

The contemporary take on the Romantic view of the unconscious, which sees the unconscious as intelligent and sometimes more intelligent than the conscious mind, is also brought out well by Stephen J. Gould, in his editorial on the press coverage of Knoblauch’s throwing problems, which I mentioned briefly earlier. Gould (2000) criticizes the press for expressing the idea that Knoblauch’s distress arises from “the imposition of . . . mind upon matter,” telling us that this “represents the worst, and most philistine, of mischaracterizations.” But Gould does not say this because he thinks that conscious attention to movement is compatible with highly skilled peak performance. Rather he thinks that, for Knoblauch, an unwanted, conscious mentality is interfering with a wanted unconscious mentality. And this unconscious mentality, according to Gould, reveals that high-level athletic performance is a laudable intellectual endeavor and not merely brute bodily movement. As he describes it, “we encounter mentality in either case, not body against mind.” But it is the unconscious mind that is valued.

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