Ever watch a presentation or have a conversation and come away feeling like the person was trying way too hard?
I take a lot of exercise classes at my gym. Recently, we have had a few new teachers sub or introduce new classes. Once, I took a new dance-based class with a new fitness instructor and found myself NOT enjoying it at all! I felt like I had a perpetual inner scowl and I couldn’t figure out why. I love to dance! I started blaming myself. “Am I just being pissy because the teacher I wanted to be here wasn’t here?” “Am I being ageist”(She was young and I’m not) “Am I being arrogant cause I think I’m such a hot dancer?” or ”Do I just hate and resist anything new?” All of the above could have been true, but midway through the class, the communication skills coach in me wanted to figure out what other dynamic might be playing out here. Maybe it wasn’t all me.
I reflected back on the fact that a few weeks ago, I’d taken the same class with a new teacher and loved her within two seconds. So instead of judging my feelings, I began to question where they might be coming from. As I watched the teacher smiling broadly and trying to encourage us to smile and pose and enjoy ourselves, I realized that she was trying too hard. She was trying to “make” us enjoy what we were doing instead of enjoying it herself and trusting that because she enjoys it, that enjoyment will infect us. Afterward, I spoke to a gym buddy who had also taken the class and she had concluded the same thing.
I decided to write a blog post about the difference between trying too hard and “just being” and then… low and behold, the next day, a friend of mine (I hadn’t spoken to her about this at all) happened to mention an article she’d read in the New York Times that she thought I would find interesting. It was called – A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying (John Tierney, 12/15/2014) and it specifically addresses what I had concluded! Amazing! So instead of having to write this whole post from scratch, I get to use Mr. Tierney’s article to support my ideas! Thanks, John wherever you are!
The article references the work of Dr. Edward Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia and author of the book: Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity. Dr. Slingerland talks about a concept called, wu wei, the Chinese term for “effortless action” – (Pronounced ooo-way) There are differing theories about how to attain Wu Wei. There is one theory that goes that once you work really hard at something, you will eventually get to the point where you can perform that “something” effortlessly – similar to when people talk about athletes practicing a skill so that in the throes of the game they can perform without thinking. The other theory is that our gifts are innate and we need to relax and allow them to emerge. There are actual ancient text that speak about this type of Wu Wei:
“[…] it wasn’t enough just to be a sensible, law-abiding citizen, and it wasn’t even enough to dutifully strive to be virtuous. You had to demonstrate that your virtue was so intrinsic that it came to you effortlessly. These texts tell aspiring politicians that they must have an instinctive sense of their duties to their superiors: If you try to be filial, this not true filiality; if you try to be obedient, this is not true obedience.”
You can read Mr. Tierney’s article or Dr. Slingerland’s book to find out more about these different theories on attaining Wu Wei and where they originated.
I believe that you can attain Wu Wei both ways – by practicing a skill and then learning to let it go and by relaxing, going inward and then learning to let it out. In fact, this topic has been part of my latest obsession. I wrote a blog post and spoke on the radio show, What Women Want about the Impostor Syndrome – the fact that we tend to feel like impostors once we are successful because we have forgotten or we ignore the “intrinsic qualities” we have inside us that have contributed to our success. So in essence, in our efforts to strive for “effortless action” we often negate or forget our instinctive sense of our “duties.” Whether those duties are to be virtuous as referenced in the ancient text or whether those duties are to be successful, effective leaders or successful contributive human beings as in the case of those with the Impostor Syndrome.
The New York Times article goes on to say: “You cannot try, but you also cannot not try. Chinese philosophers were genuinely on to something,says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Particularly when one has developed proficiency in an area, it is often better to simply go with the flow. Paralysis through analysis and overthinking are very real pitfalls that the art of wu wei was designed to avoid.”
As a mother to a professional baseball pitcher, I know that all too well. Once my son starts to think too much about the pitch he’s about to throw he’s in trouble AND once he totally forgets his innate gifts and training he’s in trouble.
My gym buddy had said after our class with the new teacher – “I just didn’t like her.” And it was true. There was no real reason not to like her but we didn’t. That may be because as Mr. Tierney’s article explains: “However wu wei is attained, there’s no debate about the charismatic effect it creates. It conveys an authenticity that makes you attractive, whether you’re addressing a crowd or talking to one person. The way to impress someone on a first date is to not seem too desperate to impress.”
The teacher who I had liked within two seconds, had achieved Wu Wei. She authentically loved what she did and trusted that we would too. What this newer teacher had done was let her desperation to impress, or in this case, I think it was her determination to impress, get in the way of any authenticity she had.
Again from the Times article “Some people, like politicians and salespeople, can get pretty good at faking spontaneity, but we’re constantly looking for ways to expose them. We put presidential candidates through marathon campaigns looking for that one spontaneous moment that reveals their “true” character.”
The above passage also supports my latest vendetta against the phrase: “Fake it till you make it.” Nobody likes a fake and nobody wants to trust someone “faking it.” I believe in the concept behind the phrase which is that sometimes we need to adopt values we may not think we have to help us feel successful. I just don’t like the idea of using the word “fake.” I believe it’s more important to convey the concept of trusting and/or uncovering our intrinsic qualities and letting them help us feel successful. So instead, I encourage people to adopt the phrase “Own it while you hone it.”
Mr. Tierney quotes Dr. Slingerland who says: “Our culture is very good at pushing people to work hard or acquire particular technical skills, But in many domains, actual success requires the ability to transcend our training and relax completely into what we are doing, or simply forget ourselves as agents.”
I will never forget very early in my teaching career when I was teaching at a city university here in New York, one of my students wrote in an evaluation after a class that I thought had been expertly taught. “Robyn, you are a great teacher but I don’t think you need to try so hard.” I was stunned! At first, I didn’t really know what she was talking about. I was hurt and I wanted to be angry and insulted but I couldn’t be. I instinctively knew that this was a good thing. What she was actually saying was, I see your intrinsic qualities and I want you to own them and trust them. I took that comment to heart and now, many years later, I am so thrilled that the feedback I most consistently get is more along the lines of: “You are so authentic” You make me feel so comfortable” “You are engaging” “I can tell you really believe in and love what you do.” That’s when I know that I’m being an agent of my skills and practicing the art of Wu Wei.
For me, Wu Wei comes about with a combination of:
- Knowing that you have obtained proficiency in the area you’re talking about.
- Trusting that you are connected to your deepest truest authentic self and
- Being committed to helping the person(s) you’re speaking with for the sole purpose of enriching their lives.
That third part, not mentioned in the article, is extremely important, in my opinion, for those of us in business and leadership positions. These three parts of finding Wu Wei; Proficiency, authenticity, and generosity, is what I strive to bring out in the clients I work with and the companies I train.
So… let’s all stop trying so hard and become conscious of practicing Effortless Action – Wu Wei. If you need help, give me a call.