How to Not Try

Trying too hard can be counterproductive and unattractive. Use your brain's cognitive control regions to shut down your brain's cognitive control regions.
Carved blocks at Shelter nightclub in Shanghai (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Trying hasn't gone out of style. It was never in style. Cool is in style, and cool means moving through the world at once effortlessly and effectively.

Woven into most of our natures is a cumbersome desire to be accepted and liked. At odds with that is the equally natural tendency to be turned off by people who wear that desire on their sleeves. If you, like me, essentially reek of effort in all that you do, such that people can sense it blocks away, and it makes you unattractive socially and intellectually, and it makes babies cry, can you practice and learn to cultivate a genuinely spontaneous approach to life? Is it possible to be deliberately less deliberate?

Edward Slingerland offers some answers. He is a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia. He trained in early Chinese thought at Stanford, but for the last decade he has immersed himself in cognitive neuroscience and social psychology. Right at that intersection sits his new book, Trying Not to Try: The art and science of spontaneity. In it, Slingerland offers prepossessing solutions to the problem of living, managing as best possible to make ancient philosophy concepts accessible to a wide audience without feeling like jejune misappropriation or commercialization.

He begins with two intertwined concepts: wu-wei and de. Wu-wei translates literally to "no trying" or "no doing." To completely distill a complex philosophical concept into one sentence: Wu-wei is like the automatic flow of being in the zone; often described as dynamic, effortless action, with elements of cultivated thoughtlessness and unselfconscious spontaneity. Some ancient Chinese philosophers considered it the source of all success in life. De (literal translation: "charismatic power") is a confidence without arrogance, a byproduct of wu-wei that, as a quality in others, people tend to find irresistibly attractive.

Slingerland describes reconciling the effortless action duality in a recent article at Nautilus:

Although talk of “mind” and “body” is technically inaccurate, it does capture an important functional difference between two systems: a slow, cold, conscious mind and a fast, hot, unconscious set of bodily instincts, hunches, and skills.

We tend to identify with the cold, slow system because it is the seat of our conscious awareness and our sense of self. Beneath this conscious self, though, is another self—much bigger and more powerful—that we have no direct access to. It is this deeper, more evolutionarily ancient part of us that knows how to spit and move our legs around. It’s also the part that we are struggling with when we try to resist that tiramisu or drag ourselves out of bed for an important meeting. The goal of wu-wei is to get these two selves working together smoothly and effectively. For a person in wu-wei, the mind is embodied and the body is mindful; the two systems—hot and cold, fast and slow—are completely integrated. The result is an intelligent spontaneity that is perfectly calibrated to the environment.

I spoke with Slingerland about how to be irresistibly attractive and successful without trying. I didn't go out of my way to talk with him, it just kind of appeared on my calendar and there we were, smiling and casually conversing with just the right amount of lightness and consequence. It went flawlessly.

Dizzy Gillespie in New York, May 1, 1947 (AP)

How can I be effortlessly successful in this big, busy, dog-eat-dog modern world? [Editor's note: Begin by never saying dog eat dog again, even tongue in cheek.]

For the early Chinese thinkers, the goal was to get beyond striving. The ideal person for them is in a state where they’re not thinking, they’re not exerting effort, they’re not experiencing any doubts, and yet everything works out perfectly. Like just being on fire when you’re playing basketball, you’re not thinking; you’re absorbed in the activity and everything is going perfectly. The problem is, how do you get someone to be in that state if they’re not already?

A lot of the theories about human nature and self-cultivation that [these philosophers] develop are really all circling around the tension of how to try not to try. Part of what my book argues is that this is a real tension, and it’s something we should all be worrying about, too. We don’t tend to think too much about spontaneity because recent Western tradition has been more focused on rationality, self-control, discipline, cognitive control. We tend to, I think, feel that if you want to be different than what you are, the best way to go about it is to work really hard, and exert really hard, and try, try, try. And we miss the sides where that’s actually counterproductive.

There are a lot of areas in life where you really can’t succeed unless you’re not trying. So, like with people constantly focusing on happiness, there are obvious microcosms where you see this. If you have insomnia, and you’re trying to fall asleep, the more you try to fall asleep, the harder it is. If you’re in a social situation and you know you should be relaxed and confident, but you’re not feeling that way, thinking about it more and trying harder is actually going to be counterproductive.

I’m arguing that, for the ancient Chinese thinkers, this was their central worry, of how to get people who aren’t spontaneous to be that way. So they developed a lot of very sophisticated techniques for sneaking around the paradox in various ways. That’s the main thrust of the book, that in modern Western society, people who depend on being “in the zone” for their job—professional athletes, performers—think about this a bit. So they have terms for “being in the zone,” and various kinds of superstitions and strategies that they think help them stay in the zone. But I don’t think most people think about it.

You write about jazz musicians and the various brain pathways that activate and disengage during improvisation. Kind of parallel to that, at Upright Citizens Brigade, the improv comedy theater, their motto is: “Don’t think.” For an improvising comedian, the apparent goal is to be incredibly clever and make connections, while also memorizing every detail that’s happening on stage so you can tie things together later in the show. Can you explain how the best approach to doing that effectively is not to think?

You could boil down the different strategies for "trying not to try" into four basic ones. It really is a tension, not just a trick of language or something, because you’re essentially trying to use your cognitive control regions to shut down your cognitive control regions. So that’s the trick. The first strategy is the Confucian strategy, which is “try really hard for a long time.” And to boil that down, it’s essentially if you train hard enough, eventually it become second nature and then you don’t need to worry about it anymore. Applying that to improv, maybe it would be, you do train a lot and have your little schticks that you’ve built up and you’ve watched other people do it, and you’ve tried it lots of times, and kind of not done so well, so you get to the point where you sort of internalize timing, or how to play off another person so that you can start doing it in a spontaneous way.

Slingerland (Paul Joseph)

The second strategy, the Laozian strategy and Taoist strategy I view as a kind of corrective. Basically, the Taoists thought that Confucius had it all wrong; that if you trained in wu-wei, you would never really be in wu-wei. You’d just turn into kind of a hypocrite—someone who went through the motions. Apply that to improv or theater. If you’re overly manneristic or rely too much on tricks or stock things, you’re stiff or not able to change when things change, what you need to do is—the images that Laozi uses are things like returning to being like a child or being like the uncarved block. So, essentially he’s arguing that you basically need to stop doing anything and shut down your conscious mind completely.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The AtlanticHe is the host of If Our Bodies Could Talk.


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