According to a school of thought that has been around in therapy and coaching for a while, there is one word you should completely ban from your vocabulary: trying. Following Star Wars character Yoda’s brand of therapy, the advice is to “do or do not, there is no try”.
Such a seemingly innocent word, such nefarious consequences. It’s true that “trying” has become a veiled way to say no: we all suspect that if someone says “I’ll try to come to your party”, it probably means they won’t. And using that word to refer to our own projects and plans cannot only reflect but also perpetuate a lack of commitment to pursuing them.
But it is simply untrue that inaction inevitably follows from the word “trying”. If you are aware of the danger of using it as a proxy for not doing, you can set clear behavioural goals to avoid this. Even if you are “trying” to write a novel, you can decide to work on it for a certain number of hours every day this month.
Neither do you need to convince yourself that if you only shift from “trying” to “doing”, success is almost guaranteed. In real life nothing is ever guaranteed, as we don’t pull all the strings. For some projects the outcome is sufficiently unknown that the only honest way to describe them is to say you’re trying.
You can’t try to lift a chair, a popular example goes, you can either lift it or not lift it.
In ordinary circumstances that’s true. But if you’re recovering from a long illness, or the chair is large and awkwardly shaped, it makes perfect sense to talk of trying to lift it.
So by all means bypass trying if something is reasonably within your control: to wash up after dinner, or go to the gym three times a week. But don’t be tempted to get rid of “trying”. Banishing the word risks hiding the fact that all we can ever do is try the best we can, and that is good enough.
I’ve often been surprised to find otherwise intelligent people confessing admiration for certain shrill, opinionated, somewhat sensationalist social commentators. They like the fact that these demagogues know their own minds and are prepared to defend the ground they occupy with force and conviction, even if that territory is barren.
I think this betrays a distorted sense of what success means when it comes to thinking things through. The implicit idea is that what matters most is reaching a verdict. Of course, ideally the conclusion should be right, but sometimes it seems that people believe it’s better to arrive fallaciously than merely to travel in truth. The person who refuses to come down on an issue one way or another is dismissed as an obfuscator or coward who does not know his own mind and lacks the courage of his convictions.
Perhaps it is a symptom of this preference for argumentative closure that the essay has become a marginalised form. Essays, in their original sense, are attempts – from the French, essai. They self-consciously do not claim to provide definitive answers or secure knowledge, but simply try to think a matter through a bit better and to come up with suggestions and ideas worthy of examination and testing.
In my ideal world, almost all writing that is not a scientific paper – and even some that is – would be in essay form. Not only would this make it much clearer to the reader that we do not, in fact, have anything like conclusive solutions to most of life’s big problems, but an emphasis on trying would also keep writers more honest. Freed from the pressure to issue a confident decree and fully aware of the provisionality of any conclusions reached, they would be more likely to keep digging, rather than to go only as deep as is required to lay the flimsiest of foundations for their ill-conceived intellectual edifices.
A culture which doesn’t prize trying in itself only encourages people not to try hard enough. And when writers do that, the result is almost always trying, in the worst sense of the word.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@shrink&sage.com