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

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A matter of emphasis

To a degree, the difference between my view and the positions of some of those whom I see as promoting just-do-it is a matter of emphasis. The Romantic poet Wordsworth tells us that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: but though this be true, poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply” (1862: p. 662). My view does not eliminate the role of spontaneous ideas or actions, however, I downplay the importance of what comes to the expert spontaneously. One needs to start somewhere, but it is what you do with the starting point that makes a work great.

Consider this statement by the violinist Arnold Steinhardt, member of the longstanding Guarneri Quartet, about performing with the other members of the Quartet:
When a performance is in progress, all four of us together enter a zone of magic somewhere between our music stands and become conduit, messenger, and missionary. In playing, say, the cavatina of Opus 130, we join hands to enter Beethoven’s world, vividly aware of each other and our objective performance responsibilities, and yet, almost like sleepwalkers, we allow ourselves to slip into the music’s spiritual realm. . . To label the stage a zone of magic sounds poetic, but it is also our work area. In the next two hours we will expend a significant amount of energy slaving over our individual instruments. (1998: p. 10-11)
Steinhardt, here seems to be saying that his expertise involves a balance between thought and effort, on the one hand, and a magical just-do-it (or just-let-it happen), on the other. And ultimately, the true account of what is most conducive to expert performance might line up with Steinhardt’s description of being both an effortless conduit of the music and also a hard-working agent who is vividly aware of and responsible for his own actions. That is, it might be that both the sacred and the sweat are equally essential to the best performances. The choreographer and dancer Z’eva Cohen once expressed to me a similar view: “When I was younger and starting out, I thought you couldn’t do both, that the analytic mind destroys the intuitive; but then I learned.” Though I shall be emphasizing the analytic mind, and arguing for an account of expert action that sees the sweat as certainly not the only important aspect of expertise, but as the real marvel, it is worthwhile to point out that such perfectly balanced positions still stand in stark contrast to the views of those who argue that the most amazing aspect of expert performance leaves the mind entirely behind.

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