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

A half dozen just-do-it principles

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A half dozen just-do-it principles

I have been speaking of the myth of “just do it,” but as we saw in the previous chapter, there are a number of very different views that have something of a “just do it” flavor. Nonetheless, there is a general theme behind the various versions of just-do-it that we have encountered so far: they all hold that experts are in some significant sense not entirely responsible for their actions. It is not just that some aspect of their actions depends on luck, which is something I accept as well, but instead that the surprising checkmate, the game-winning hook shot, or the poetic flow of words, is rather like a gift. As such, we can sum up the various forms of just-do-it we encountered in the previous chapter in terms of how they answer the question: Who or what ought we to thank for this gift?

1. The divine or spiritual: an expert’s best actions are guided by divine or spiritual inspiration.

Exemplified, for example, by the ancient Greek conception of divine inspiration and the Taoist account of skill.

2. An external force: an expert’s best actions are pulled out of her by some external force.

Exemplified by Dreyfus and Kelly’s idea of the “whoosh”: when acting at our best, our actions are drawn out of us.

3. The intelligent yet unconscious mind: an expert’s best action is guided by intelligent, often leisurely, unconscious thought.

Exemplified by the Romantic’s view of creative inspiration, and illustrated by anecdotal accounts of inspiration given by Goethe and Poincaré.

4. Automatic processes: an expert’s best action is automatic, or not guided by conscious control.

Exemplified by Sian Beilock’s work on athletic expertise, and found in both Dreyfus’s and Fitts and Posner’s theories of skill acquisition.

5. Intuition: the best of expert’s judgments are made, not slowly, deliberately, and rationally, but instantly.

What Daniel Kahneman refers to as “System 1” thinking, and exemplified by Gary Klein’s and Hubert Dreyfus’s work on expertise.

6. Natural talent: Expert action, in certain domains, is primarily a product of natural talent.

Exemplified by various accounts of Mozart’s abilities.

The ensuing arguments in the book address 1-5—primarily primarily 2, 4 and 5. However, since the categories readily bleed into one another, I shall often address more than one of these conceptions at a time, and indeed, most of the proponents of just-do-it whose work I shall discuss seem to hold a number of these views simultaneously. For example, although Dreyfus and Kelly think of the external force that “pulls” actions out of experts as entirely this-worldly, the Zen notion of “nothing is needed” and the Taoist notion of nonaction both suggest that action is being drawn out of an individual, yet also suggest a divine or spiritual component (though exactly how to understand this latter component, I must leave it to scholars of Eastern philosophy and religion to debate).

The unconscious and the divine variations of the principle sometimes overlap as well, since some see the unconscious as receiving divine inspiration; as the nineteenth century German philosopher Eduard von Hartmann put it in his book The Philosophy of the Unconscious: “The fruit of the Unconscious is as it were a gift of the gods, and man only its favoured messenger” (p. 40). Similarly, Goethe and others have expressed the view that it is through the unconscious that the divine speaks.

While Goethe’s conception of the unconscious is thoughtful and highly intelligent in a very cerebral sense, working slowly in one’s dreams, or during a leisurely stroll on a spring day, one finds another conception of the unconscious in the psychology literature on skill –one in line with what Daniel Kahneman (2011) refers to as System 1.This type of unconscious processing works instantly and is quite removed from any idea about higher powers. Such conception of the unconscious is sometimes aligned with intuition, in the sense that, without thinking, an expert chess player can intuitively see the right move in chess, or an expert fire-fighter can intuitively see whether a building is about to collapse.

For Dreyfus, expert action, when all is going well, is intuitive (in the quick sense) yet entirely nonmental, which means that it is not even unconsciously mental. And intuitive action, for him, is automatic, in the sense of not being guided by experts, but rather being “pulled out” of them. However, in much of the psychology literature that supports just-do-it in athletic endeavors, athletes are described as acting automatically but not necessarily intuitively, and the idea of an external force is typically absent. Here, the “gift” metaphor does not readily apply, but perhaps we can say that the gift of expert athletic performance, on this view, is simply a result of having well-developed neural pathways; as such, just like you would not be responsible for what you would do were you to suffer a seizure, the expert is not responsible for her automatic action (though, like an individual might be responsible for actions that occur during a seizure, if she failed to take her prescribed medicine, the athlete can still be responsible for her actions in the sense that she had the choice of following or failing to follow her training regime).

Finally, the view that expertise is due primarily to natural talent casts off the idea, accepted by many of those who uphold other just-do-it views, that one becomes an expert only after years of hard work. Although this conception of expert action stands more or less on its own, there are certainly those who see natural talent as having been bestowed upon an individual by the grace of God. My remarks shall be less much less relevant to the ‘natural talent conception’ of expertise, and in fact, in the next chapter, I stipulate that the notion of expert that concerns me here excludes individuals, if any exist, who have achieved great heights not through hard work, but merely on the basis of natural talent.

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