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

Is everyday expertise governed by just-do-it?

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Is everyday expertise governed by just-do-it?

For the sake of argument I shall assume that everyday expertise is at least susceptible to just-do-it.29 Start thinking about exactly how to prevent spilling that full glass of water you are carrying, and you may end up drenched. Or next time you are at your keyboard, think about which keys your fingers are supposed to reach for as you type in your password, and you may end up locked out of your account. How is it, precisely, that you are supposed to initiate a telephone conversation? Begin wondering, and before very long the recipient of your call will notice your heavy breathing and hang up. The just-do-it principle seems to apply to such everyday actions. As William James put it in The Principles of Psychology, we should leave much of our daily “to the effortless custody of automatism” (1980/2007: p. 122).

The just-do-it principle, however, as I explained it above, comprises a descriptive element (which tells us that the best expert actions are performed without thought), a claim about interference (thought interferes with performance) and a proscriptive or normative element (experts ought not to think in action). Part of the reason I do not want to count “everyday experts” as experts is that I do not want to question whether the principle of interference applies to everyday expert actions. However, Richard Shusterman points out that even if the principle of interference does apply to everyday expertise, it may not be proscriptively correct; that is, it might not be that for everyday actions we should never think about such actions as we are performing them. The reason for this, as he explains in his 2008 book Body Consciousness, is that there are times when we need to think about our everyday actions in order to correct our movements. For example, someone might habitually walk with his toes slightly turned out, like a duck; such an individual is proficient at walking, yet walking in this way may lead to joint problems and is generally less efficient then walking with parallel feet. Thus, it would be advisable for this individual to change his habitual way of walking. However, changing habits such as these, Shusterman argues, requires deliberate, focused attention. Such deliberate, focused attention, may impede the flow of movement; nonetheless, according to Shusterman one ought to employ this type of attention in such a situation. In such cases, we take one step back, in order to take two parallel steps forward.

If Shusterman is correct, our everyday actions may typically proceed without thought, and thought may tend to interfere with such actions—yet sometimes we should think about them anyway. Specifically, according to Shusterman, our everyday actions ought to proceed without thought “until they prove problematic in experience,” and when this happens, “the unreflective action or habit must be brought into conscious critical reflection (if only for a limited time)”30 (pp. 212, 63). Perhaps it is even reasonable to go further and say that even if such actions are not problematic, it may be worthwhile to reflect on them in order to improve them before the problem occurs, or to make efficient movements even more efficient. Additionally, the process of critically reflecting on your movements can be enjoyable in and of itself; thus, such reflection, even if it interferes with movement, might be recommended for the sheer delight of it. So even with everyday movements, there may be times we do not want to follow the just-do-it council.

There are many questions one could ask about the descriptive application of the just-do-it principle to everyday actions, that is, about whether everyday actions do typically proceed without thought and effort. Does thinking about habitual, quotidian actions interfere with them? And if so, why? Are there types of self-directed thoughts that are non-interfering? If thinking about quotidian actions interferes with their performance once one has become proficient, just how proficient does one need to be before such interference kicks in? I shall touch upon the topic of everyday performance again, since some of the most influential theorists working on the topic of expert performance (including Hubert Dreyfus and Fitts & Posner) extrapolate an understanding of superior skills from our understanding of everyday skills. However, for the most part, I leave aside the above questions about everyday actions, for my concern is with the exceptional—or at least with those I will go on in the next chapter to define as experts. Such experts, I shall argue, tend to think in action.

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