The sports psychologist Robert Rotella (2012: p. 65) tells us that a career-making or -breaking golf putt requires a relaxed, almost lackadaisical state of mind. This, he thinks, is true not only of golf, but of a wide variety of skilled performances. Indeed, in a somewhat frightening analogy, he tells of a surgeon he observed performing a life-or-death cardiac bypass who, according to Rotella, was able to perform well in part because she was not trying as hard as she could. As Rotella explains,
While performing the very fine, precise motor skills involved in surgery, [the surgeon had] to avoid getting too careful and trying too hard . . . [T]he truth is that being very careful and trying as hard as you can are not the best ways to perform surgery. [Rather,] when it comes to performing complex physical tasks, human beings do best when they learn the task, practice it diligently, then go unconscious and rely on subconscious memory to perform the movements under pressure. If the conscious mind becomes involved in the process, the body proceeds less gracefully and efficiently . . .We have to get out of our own way. (p. 66)
Though the philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly take their inspiration more from Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger than from clinical observations, the conclusions they arrive at resonate with Rotella’s. For Dreyfus and Kelly, true excellence doesn’t occur when we are trying; rather, it is something that happens to an individual. Should the chess player try as hard as she can to win the game? Should the tennis player, in the last match of a Grand Slam, try harder than ever? Not according to Dreyfus and Kelly, since, like Rotella, they think that experts need to ‘get out of their own way’. Indeed, on their view, the expert is so far removed from trying that the closest analogy Dreyfus and Kelly come up with to performing a great move in chess, pushing off a 10-meter-high diving platform, or coming up with a profound and unbelievably beautiful line of poetry, is falling asleep. In a discussion of excellence as exemplified by the ancient Greeks described by Homer, they explain:
. . . going to sleep is . . . not something achieved by the force of one’s individual will, as if one could go to sleep simply by deciding to do so. Indeed, going to sleep is neither something one is caused to do by an outside force, nor something one achieves by dint of effort and control . . . and so it is in general for human beings at their best in Homer’s world. Just as one cannot go to sleep by trying harder, so too one cannot act at one’s best—in war, love, marriage, or adventure—by taking direct and complete responsibility for oneself. (2011a : p. __)
But what is it about trying that is supposed to hinder performance? Why, according to these very different thinkers, must experts get out of their own way?