Is this familiar? You're trying to remember something - it's on the tip of your tongue but you just can't get it. You try hard to think of it, but get even more frustrated, and the answer seems even more elusive. Then, as soon as you think about something else, the answer comes to you.
Or this: you're working on something and it's going really well. Before you know it, an hour or two has passed by and you didn't notice. You don't recall exactly what you did during that time, but you can see what you accomplished, and it feels brilliant.
Yep, me too.
Earlier this year, I had a discussion with a colleague about leadership and my own experiences, and they gave me what they thought was a compliment: that dealing with challenges, in situations or with people, seemed to come easily to me, that I made it look effortless. While they weren't suggesting that I had it easy, their perception that things that appeared to come easy and so must be effortless belied the incredible amount of time and effort (and numerous failures along the way) and energy required to get there. Like many people who do some things well, even expertly, it takes a lot of effort to make something look or seem effortless. No matter our strengths, we're all ducks paddling like crazy below the surface while appearing to calmly move through the water. And many of us experience situations where we can do a lot with what feels like little effort or even the opposite of effort - by letting go.
I was keen to explore this concept, and then I heard a podcast on Infinite Loops with the author, so I sought out the book. I was somewhat daunted by the subtitle ("ancient China, modern science, and the power of spontaneity"), but at a modest 200 pages, it seemed worth a try. Armed with post-its and a highlighter, I dove in. Slingerland is an excellent author, taking dense and complex ancient texts and presenting them in clear and accessible prose. The result is a look at the concepts of wu-wei (pronounced "oo-way") and de (pronounced "duh") that essentially mean "effortless action" and "charismatic power" respectively. Slingerland presents these concepts as things to aspire to, and outlines the various approaches to them in several Chinese texts - two based in Confucianism and two in Daoism.
In Confucianism (both standard and Menciusian), the emphasis is on trying - working really hard to get so good at things (including being human) that they just happen naturally. There are lots of rituals (ex. how to position a pillow before you sit on it) and long texts to memorize and a whole way of life of constraint and, well, trying. In Daoism (whether from Laozi or Zhuangzi), the emphasis is on NOT trying - stop trying altogether and just go with the flow; in this approach, there is still some structure, but no formal rituals. Slingerland presents each of these philosophies in easy to understand prose and stories, and interweaves the latest in neuroscience and psychology (plus some evolutionary biology) to show how these various ancient texts were very ahead of their time. To me, there are clear linkages to other recent books, such as Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Atomic Habits by James Clear, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. They're not the same, but that the insights they deliver - about thinking, habits, perseverance, and flow (obviously) - align with those that Slingerland shows us were present in China nearly 4,000 years ago.
I also found some overlap with Love+Work by Marcus Buckingham. Seeking red threads, keeping track of what you love and what you loathe, are perhaps approaches to finding activities and times where trying (and doing) are less trying and more effective. Fortunately for me, these moments happen frequently during my work. When I’m working one-on-one with someone in coaching/mentoring, and we are doing good and productive work something that is important to them, time flies. Before we know it, our time is up. If I wasn’t also taking notes, I wouldn’t remember all the details of what we discussed. At the same time, I can’t really describe how we did the work we did – just that we did it. Similarly, when I’m writing or editing, or elbows’ deep in a complicated budget, I can work fluidly for a long time. A few short breaks every now and then, but when I get in “the zone” the work feels good and the outputs are also good. I can't explain it, and I certainly can't manufacture those times or that energy, but I'm very glad when they happen.
Ultimately, we get to the paradox of trying not to try, which is that the more you try not to try, the less effective it is. The focus throughout is on spontaneity, and if it can be cultivated and still be natural. The answer, it seems, is no. The objective is to learn how to live with the paradox - try hard sometimes, go with the flow in others - and to learn the patience and perseverance required to balance trying with not trying. One's approach depends on so many factors that there is no solution, no "way" to try not to try. And no way to fake it. Artificial de is highly undesirable; someone faking it - be it confidence, positivity, or affection - is always seen or eventually revealed to be a fake, and ultimately feels icky to everyone involved.
I think this may also be why programs in school or in research that try to create or force imagination or innovation sometimes fail; those sparks of genius that create new things to save the world more often than not have to just happen, and the more we try to make them happen, the less likely they will (they may come, but at a very high price). We can create environments for them - quiet spaces, adequate resources, good education, sound mental health - but should perhaps temper any expectations of outcomes with the recognition that we may need to try not to try so hard.
This book was readable, interesting, and enjoyable, with lots of food for thought about effortless action, including the perception by others that an action is effortless even when there's a s$#t-ton of work behind it.
What are your experiences with trying not to try? What are the circumstances where you find yourself in flow? Or the opposite - when you find yourself stymied no matter how hard you tr? Please comment below or email me at email@example.com with your questions and feedback.
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Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.