CHAPTER 7. You Can’t Try Too Hard I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.
Mikhail Baryshnikov (________)
Andre Agassi (2011: p. 276 and passim)
We’ve all experienced times where our seemingly best efforts lead to suboptimal or even disastrous results. You are cooking dinner for your in-laws for the first time, and despite sticking to tried and true recipes, the pie crust falls apart, the sauce doesn’t thicken, and the crispy-kale comes out of the oven burnt. Or consider the business executive on his way to clinch that all-important deal. Why, on this morning alone, does he appear with a shred of toilet paper on his chin sopping up the blood? What went wrong in these situations? Chance plays a role; occasionally ovens malfunction, and a chin might just develop a bump overnight. And, as I highlighted in chapter 4, anxiety is also relevant: the tremors it causes could make could make your hands shake while holding the razor or it could impeded working memory which might lead you to forget to turn off the oven. Beyond these factors, however, one explanation you might hear from your spouse after your in-laws have left is that you were trying too hard. Trying too hard, it is often thought, is detrimental to performance. “Ease up,” the advice goes, “and you’ll be fine.” But can one really try too hard?
Somerset Maugham once said that “in each shave, lies a philosophy” (quoted in Murakami, 2008: p. vi). I’m sure he’s right; however, as I’ve emphasized, my concern is not with everyday actions, but with expert level actions. How does trying affect not the executive’s quotidian shave, but rather the shave done by an expert barber? Part of the motivation for the idea that expert performance is intuitive, unreflective, automatic, and effortless – what I’ve been calling the “just-do-it principle” – comes from examples of situations where trying too hard seems to hinder performance. And it is not just trying too hard that is proscribed. Rather, according to some, the best performances do not involve trying or effort at all. “Relax, don’t even try, and the words will flow from your fingertips,” or “your arms will take over your swing and the ball will go straight in” or “you’ll end those thirty-two fouettés in the coda of ‘Swan Lake’ with a triple.” Clearly, expert musicians, dancers and athletes need to work hard to attain their prowess; however, once attained, it is thought that trying interferes with the smooth, automatic flow of their best performances. Indeed, skill, according to the classic definition in psychology, “consists in the ability to bring about some end results with maximum certainty and minimum outlay of energy, or of time and energy” (Guthrie 1952: p.136).
Trying is related to the type of conscious control over movements that Beilock and others warn experts to avoid. When you are consciously controlling the movements of your shoulder as you swing a golf club, you are trying to move in some particular way. As such, I have already addressed, and ultimately found wanting, some of the relevant research that purports to support the principle of interference with respect to trying. Trying is also a component of improvement, and so, in discussing the expert’s drive to improve, I have also suggested that experts try in action. If experts are striving to improve, they are trying. However, let me make use of this chapter to delve explicitly into the relation between trying and doing, to present my reasons for thinking that expert performance is entirely compatible with trying, and conclude with my analysis of what you can’t try too hard.