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

The Just-do-it Principle in Popular Culture

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The Just-do-it Principle in Popular Culture

If you walk through the aisles of your local bookstore, or browse through one of the increasingly favored online substitutes, you will come across numerous titles that, at least on first glance, advocate the view that to perform at one’s best, one must not try, but just do, and that one must proceed with a relatively blank, if not entirely empty mind. There are books on how to improve in golf, tennis, archery and parenting by taking the conscious mind out of the picture. There are books on how to achieve mastery in poker, how to cinch a business deal, or how to create high-impact web pages with nary a modicum of effort. There are books with titles such as Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius (Wahl, 2013), or Trust your Gut: How to Overcome the Obstacles to Greater Success and Self-Fulfillment (Walker, 2004), or Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within (Werner 1996), as well as Destined to Reign: The Secret to Effortless Success, Wholeness and Victorious Living (Prince 2010). Paeans to just-do-it are found on every shelf.

Of course, sometimes the titles, perhaps chosen by the publisher for their mass market appeal, do not fully capture the book’s content. A case in point is Unconscious Putting: Dave Stockton’s Guide to Unlocking Your Signature Stroke (Stockton and Rudy, 2011), wherein, despite Stockton’s promise to introduce “an easier, more instinctive way to putt,” readers come across suggestion after suggestion about what to think about and how to focus the mind on what matters; indeed, as one reviewer put it, “the very reading of Stockton’s book puts more stuff, not less, into the swollen, clogged chamber that is the golf brain” (McGrath, 2012). And although jazz pianist Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery, emphasizes that the best playing is that which is “unobstructed by thought” (p. 11), many of the thoughts that obstruct playing, he tells us, have to do with low confidence, and accordingly, he spends a great deal of time on explaining techniques that are aimed boosting confidence (would that such a book existed for philosophers!). Nevertheless, one finds a good number of volumes that come down hard on thought, books such as The Power of Habit: Why We do What we do in Life and Business (Duhigg, 2012), which showcases examples of actions that misfire because individuals “stop relying on their habits and start thinking too much” (p. 90), or Incognito, which tells of a pianist who “discovers that there is only one way she can [play]: by not thinking about it” (Eagleman 2011: p. 8), or perhaps most explicitly, and here the title tells it all: Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less (Claxton, 2000).

A significant inspiration behind a number of these books is Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, according to which an expert archer must become “completely empty and rid of the self” so that the release of the arrow occurs “automatically…[without] further need of the controlling or reflecting intelligence” (p. 61). It is not the archer, Herrigel tells us, who shoots the arrow, but rather, when the master archer stands before the target, “it shoots” (ibid.). And riding on the coattails of the success of this book, you can find everything from Zen and the Art of Information Security (Winkley, 2007) to Zen and the Art of Anything (French, 2001). Regardless of whether such books have captured something correct about expertise, it seems clear that they, or at least their titles, have hit upon something that the public likes to hear.

Timothy Gallwey, who wrote the bestseller The Inner Game of Tennis, was also influenced by Herrigel’s work, and he favorably quotes D. T. Suzuki’s introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery: “as soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize,” Gallwey tells us, “the original unconsciousness is lost and thought interferes” (Gallwey 1974,p. 15; quoting Herrigel 1953, p. viiii). In the best expert performances, in Gallwey’s words, “the mind is transcended—or at least in part rendered inoperative” (p. 7). People frequently tell me how much this book, first published in 1974, meant to them, and how it converted them to the just-do-it mentality.6

In addition to popular books chiming the praise of unreflective action at the highest level and warning against using the thinking mind to guide what is assumed to be done best without it, the just-do-it idea is also much-loved by the media, which not infrequently explain poor performance in terms of the mind interfering with the body. In the sports section of the paper, for example, one reads that the tennis player Venus Williams is off because she is “overthinking her tosses” (Vecsey, 2010), or that football player Mark Sanchez’s fumble is possibly a result of “trying too hard to make something happen” (Bretherton, 2012), and a favorite accolade of sportscasters is to say that an athlete’s playing is “simply unconscious.”7

The journalist David Epstein, in a Sports Illustrated article about what makes great athletes great, writes that “thinking about an action is the sign of a novice, or a key to transforming an expert back into an amateur” (Epstein 2013) and in Jonathan Hock’s short documentary, “Play Without Thinking,” the narrator tells us that the football coach “Kliff Kingsbury wants Texas Tech to play without thinking” (Hock 2013). Expressing what he sees as the cutting edge sports psychology, journalist, Jaimal Yogis, in a “Choking Issue” of ESPN Magazine, reports that “the most advanced mental trainers now discourage thinking” (Yogis, 2012). Yet again, we have: Don’t think; just do.

In the arts pages, one comes across similar sentiments. For example, I recently found the dancer Robert Swinston quoted in an article in which he expresses the view that “when you get on stage,” you need to “stop thinking and give yourself to the dance” (Parris, 2011). This is not the only vision of the road to excellence that one finds in the popular media, and Yogis, himself also tells us that if you “ask 15 psychologists, psychiatrists or biologists [whether athletes enter into a zone of nonthinking] . . . you'll get somewhere around three times as many answers” (2013). Nonetheless, it is a common one. Indeed, one could even say of just-do-it, as author Belleruth Naparstek said of the concomitant notion of intuition in an Utne Reader article about the recent profusion of books that sing its praises, “it’s hot” (Naparstek 1998).

Baseball, perhaps because it leaves time open for long stretches of ratiocination, is seen by the media as especially beholden to the idea that thinking interferes with doing. And a particularly dramatic example of this was the media’s coverage of the tragic story of New York Yankee’s former second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who, in the middle of a brilliant career, developed severe throwing problems, sometimes being barely able to toss the ball, other times throwing it outrageously far out of bounds.8 The media’s analysis of the situation was in line with the just-do-it principle: Knoblauch was thinking too much. As Stephen Jay Gould (2000) summed up the popular press’s analysis of the situation, “his conscious brain has intruded upon a bodily skill that must be honed by practice into a purely automatic and virtually infallible reflex”. David Brooks, a New York Times editorialist, explains why just-do-it is essential to baseball like this: “Over the decades, the institution of baseball has figured out how to instruct the unconscious mind, to make it better at what it does” and “has developed a series of habits and standards of behavior to keep the conscious mind from interfering with the automatic mind,” for it is, “one of those activities in which the harder you try, the worse you do” (Brooks 2007). Professional baseball players, Brooks suggests, need to proceed without effort and without thought.

Though less physically demanding than baseball, and perhaps given the length of a sound bite, less open to prolonged stretches of ratiocination, one more example of an arena in which the just-do-it principle takes hold of the popular imagination is politics. A presidential candidate’s poor showing, we are told, is due to his making “what appear to be laboriously studied moves rather than anything that comes naturally,” and a candidate’s success is due in part to his ability to exude impressive ease, “standing with a slight smile on his face and his hands resting easily in his pockets, looking on with calm amusement” (Fallows, 2012). Of course, as it is often assumed that one’s most heartfelt views come out naturally and without deep thought, some might see thinking during a debate, for example, as indicating that one is searching for words that will please the public. Socrates seems to accept the general idea that one’s natural effortless discourse reveals one’s honest views, for in the Apology he tells the jurors that, in contrast to his accusers who use “embroidered and stylized phrases” to deceive, he will be expressing the truth…[by using] the first words that come to mind” (17c). Yet neither Socrates’s comments about his accusers nor the analysis of the politician’s poor showing decry thinking per-se; rather, they allude to the dangers of duplicitous thinking. Nevertheless, a good dose of love of effortlessness pure and simple is apparent in political realms as well.

During this stroll (or scroll) through the aisles, besides numerous paeans to the just-do-it principle, you will certainly also encounter popular books that, while they aim to teach you how to excel, do not even give it a nod: books like Ben Hogan’s (1957) Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, or Michael Breed’s recent (2011) The 3-Degree Putting Solution: The Comprehensive, Scientifically Proven Guide to Better Putting, both of which unabashedly aim at stuffing more into your head. Even Gallwey, though he uses phrases such as “playing outside your head,” also emphasizes how important your head is in the game, suggesting, for example, that as a tennis player, you should train in such a way so that you “get to know the feel of every inch of your stroke, every muscle in your body,” so that when you play you can be “particularly aware of certain muscles” (1974: p. 90), which is quite contrary to the incarnation of just-do-it that proclaims that experts should not focus on the fine-grained aspects of their movements.

Although there is something I relish about going against the grain, I probably wouldn’t be writing this book if it weren’t for the support I have found for my own views in works such as these, as well as autobiographical accounts of experts, such as that of the tennis player, Rafael Nadal (2011), who emphasizes the importance of thought in his playing. I have also found that my views resonate with much of Richard Shusterman’s (2008, 2012) work on the importance of bodily awareness in correcting habits; with Andres Ericsson’s theory of deliberate practice which involves focused attention and thought; with work by the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverky (Kahneman, 2011), which illustrates ways in which automatic or intuitive reactions lead us astray in certain situations; and with various studies of expertise by sports psychologists that suggest experts do think about what they are doing in action, such as research by Adam Nicholls (2010) on how expert athletes increase their attention to what they are doing in order to cope with stress during important tournaments and by Dave Collins (Collins et al., 2009) whose studies of weightlifters suggest that they use conscious control of their movements in competition. And then there is the statistical analysis of the practice of “icing the kicker” that shows it to be ineffective.9 (“Icing the kicker,” is practice in football whereby the a team takes a time out right before the opposing team’s kick in order to make the kicker start thinking about the kick and thereby blunder.) However, I digress; the task of burying the just-do-it maxim is yet to come. The goal in this chapter is merely to illustrate its widespread acceptance, so let me return to it forthwith.

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