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



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Think-to-win (monitoring): For experts, when all is going well, optimal or near-optimal performance frequently employs the monitoring of one’s own bodily movements. Moreover, such monitoring does not necessarily or even generally interfere with expert performance, and should not generally be avoided by experts.
Note that I say that experts frequently, rather than always, engage in some of these processes, which (one might object) rather handily enables me to simply take any counterexample to the view as an occasional exception. Although this might seem to provide me with an easy out, the view I shall defend nonetheless stands in contrast to a number of just-do-it views we shall encounter throughout the book.
To get a better sense of the position I advocate, let me list some specific claims that are consistent with it:
When all is going well, some professional tennis players may be able to focus, without detriment, on their shoulder muscles during a backhand.
Strategizing is a form of higher-level thought that occurs in a wide variety of competitive sports, without any detriment to performance.
Employing the thought “just make the landing stick” can benefit certain gymnasts during a competition.
Some professional ballet dancers’ performances would improve if they were to focus-on positioning their heel forward when taking off for a leap.
Some professional pianists exert tremendous effort during even their best performances.
Top lightning chess players typically think (very quickly) about many of the best moves in their games.
A renowned poet may struggle, revise, and think extensively about what ends up as her best stanza.
A surgeon may, while performing very well, attend to and experience pleasure in the precise workings of her hands.
An emergency room nurse should and will perform his best actions for a reason and with the ability to justify them.
An elite marathon runner may think about when to exert more energy and when to ease up, with beneficial results.
A hedge fund manager sometimes makes better decisions by deliberately acting contrary to her intuitions, or natural tendencies.
Some mathematicians come up with their greatest proofs through prolonged, effortful work.
For some experts (such as philosophers, mathematicians, writers and scientists), the “aha!” moment is relatively insignificant; it’s what they do with it that really matters.
I understand these all as examples of when the mind is advantageous to expert performance. As such, they are all inconsistent with the extreme just-do-it principle, which takes the best expert action to be entirely nonminded, as well as with the various relevant restricted forms of the principle. For example, the fact that a professional pianist may finish her best performance feeling exhausted indicates that her best performances are not necessarily effortless. The fact that a ballet dancer can focus on details of the movement indicates that the best performances are not necessarily ones in which the performer is not aware of the mechanics of her movements. And so on.

Let me also mention some specific views that I think are likely (or in some cases definitely) false and do not follow from the Think-to-Win principle, as well as, parenthetically, a related claim that I do accept:

When all is going well,
Professional ballet dancers think about or focus on every detail of their bodily movements.

(Professional performing artists and athletes don’t focus on every detail, but they may focus on some details without detriment)

Professional tennis players consciously control all aspects of their movements.

(Though much happens too quickly for conscious control, there is more time for conscious control than is often acknowledged; moreover, even in the quickest of movements, there may be time for conscious control at a high level, such as controlling where to hit the ball.)


During a marathon, an elite runner never feels that her running is effortless.

(There are times during which experts might experience effortlessness, such as when they do not need to exert their willpower. to go on. And perhaps even occasionally there are moments of utter effortlessness in the best performances. However, the best performances are still nonetheless effortful in a variety of ways. For example, they might involve arduous strategizing.)


Poets never experience an idea just bubbling up into consciousness.

(Ideas do sometimes “bubble up,” but such ideas are not necessarily good, and often require extensive revision.)


Grand-master chess players don’t immediately see amazingly good moves.

(They often do, but they also deliberate over these moves, and sometimes the deliberation may lead them to choose a move that was not initially perceived. Moreover, even the intuitively obvious move is conceptualized, so, contrary to the extreme just-do-it, it involves the mind in some sense.)


Surgeons never experience phenomenological blanks, about which, post-operation, they have no memory.

(If this does happen, it is not characteristic of, or at least not necessarily part of, the best expert performance.)


A hedge fund manager will never just go with an intuitive choice.

(In a situation in which there is too much information to sort through, one might just need to go with one’s intuition and proceed from there. However, the intuitive choice might be reflected on and sometimes revised.)


Stopping the mind from thinking is never psychologically beneficial for an expert.

(For some, this may be the only way to prevent extreme performance anxiety; however, increased focus and thought about what one is doing is another, possibly preferable way.)

There are no thoughts that interfere with expert performance.

(Although I hold that experts frequently think when acting in their domain of expertise, I assume that highly distracting thoughts, such as—to pick an extreme example—thinking about a tree just struck with lightning and about to crash down before you, would certainly distract one from doing well. And even other less distracting thoughts, such as thinking about the details of a certain moment, might interfere if one has not practiced thinking about such things. Moreover, highly negative thoughts, such as, “It’s hopeless; I’m going to lose,” might be deleterious to performance. )

The Retinue of Proscribed Mental Processes

(This section may be skipped by those who feel they have a good enough understanding of various mental processes I take the just-do-it principle to ban.)


I have described just-do-it as proscribing self-reflective thinking, planning, predicting, deliberation, attention to, or monitoring of one’s own bodily movements, conceptualizing one’s actions, conscious control, trying, effort, having a sense of the self, and acting for a reason. Although many of these concepts will be clarified in context as the book progresses, let me say a bit about each notion to get us started. My concern is with these processes as they occur in expert action. However, to explain them, I also use examples from everyday actions.




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