Trying Not to Try: Edward Slingerland on the Art of Effortlessness

Trying Not to Try - Edward Slingerland

Editor's Note: Self-awareness is one of the most crucial facets of the human psyche. It has helped us foster relationships, build societies bound by moral and social codes of conduct. But it also has a darker side, one mired in the mysterious depths of the human brain. When we consciously put our minds to something, we can risk overthinking. We risk trying too hard. We can become, as the adage goes, our own worst enemies. In his new book Trying Not to Try, Edward Singerland discusses the psychological juijitsu we use all too often for tasks that require, in reality, much less effort than we expend. Success sometimes comes from less, not more. To learn how to get out of your own way, start with Singerland's primer on the practice of "wu-wei," the Chinese philosophy of effortlessness. 

Signature: Trying Not to Try introduces the concept of wu-wei. How would you describe it?

Edward Slingerland: Wu-wei means literally “no doing” or “no trying” but is better translated as “effortless action.” It refers to a state of total ease, in which you become completely lost in what you’re doing, feel no sense of exerting effort, and yet everything works out perfectly. When you are in wu-wei, you are maximally effective in the way you move through the world and you emerge from the experience feeling relaxed and satisfied. You are also socially effective: we like spontaneous ease in others and tend to trust and be attracted to those who exhibit it (the early Chinese called this attractive aura de (duh), or “charismatic power”). Wu-wei is very much like the feeling of being “in the zone” that athletes describe, or what you experience when you go into a job interview or date feeling completely relaxed and confident, and everything just falls into place.

SIG: Do you feel you’ve been able to achieve wu-wei in your own life? Are there some examples of well-known individuals who you would say seem to have achieved wu-wei?

ES: There are certain areas in my life where I am, and always have been, very wu-wei. For instance, in my academic career I tend to be relaxed and flexible, in the sense of pursuing whatever interests me and feeling confident that it will work out—and it generally has. There are other areas of life—driving comes immediately to mind—where I am as far from wu-wei as it is possible for a human being to be, and nothing that I know intellectually about wu-wei has helped. My inner Jersey driver seems to be an essential part of my being.

The recent death of Lou Reed made me think about the wu-wei nature of his music and musical persona: never appearing to strive, never appearing to second-guess or reflect, just pure, strangely beautiful music. The man singing “Some Kinda Love” on the third Velvet Underground album—“I don’t know just what it’s all about / (Tell you something . . .) / But put on your red pajamas and find out / (Mmm . . . Mmm . . . mmm . . . mmm . . .)”—was clearly, fully in a state of wu-wei. Although he wasn’t necessarily handsome in a conventional sense, Reed also seemed to have the kind of effortless charisma that people in wu-wei emanate. Former president Clinton strikes me as a good example of someone who is able to project de, or charismatic power, and appear fully relaxed and wu-wei in a variety of social situations, whereas the more Mitt Romney tries to come across as likable and relaxed, the more wooden he appears.

Supremely talented politicians, though, may be good examples of the danger of “faked” wu-wei that I discuss in the book: we trust people who are in wu-wei because usually faking requires conscious effort, so people who seem not to be exerting effort also seem trustworthy. But there may be some exceptional people who can flip a switch and seem completely wu-wei even when they actually have other conscious, ulterior motives.

SIG: Wu-wei sounds a lot like the concept of flow, popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. What’s the difference?

ES: Flow and wu-wei are very similar in many respects, and in fact Csikszentmihayli quotes one of the Daoist wu-wei stories in his 1990 book Flow. But flow has been conceptualized in a very individualistic way that I think obscures important aspects of the wu-wei experience. When Csikszentmihayli wants to distinguish flow from other less desirable states that might superficially resemble flow (vegging out in front of the TV, engaging in shallow gossip), he focuses on two hallmarks: complexity and challenge. Flow, he argues, happens when the complexity of the task at hand perfectly matches one’s skills, resulting in engaging challenge. This means that flow requires a constantly increasing spiral of complexity and skill to keep that challenge element present. While this certainly describes certain types of flow experiences—rock climbing, high-stakes investment banking—it doesn’t really fit other experiences, like taking an easy hike through a favorite landscape, playing a simple game with children, or having a meal with people you love. I argue that a better way to characterize the hallmark of wu-wei or anything we’d want to call “flow” is the sense of being absorbed in something larger than oneself, something from which one derives value. The originally spiritual or religious quality of wu-wei helps to highlight this aspect of spontaneity better, I think, than the modern psychological concept of flow.

SIG: Why is spontaneity so important in today’s world? What are the benefits of spontaneity?

ES: We’re typically told that the best way to reach our goals or to be satisfied is to tryharder or strivemore intensely. So we’ve got three-year-olds attending drill sessions to get an edge on admission to the best preschool and then growing into hypercompetitive high school students popping speed or Ritalin to enhance their test results and to keep up with a brutal schedule of afterschool activities. And we’ve got adults whose personal and professional lives increasingly revolve around a relentless quest for greater efficiency and higher productivity, crowding out leisure time, vacation, and simple unstructured pleasures. The result is that people of all ages spend their days stumbling around tethered umbilically to their smartphones, immersed in an endless stream of competitive games, e-mails, texts, tweets, dings, pings, and pokes, getting up too early, staying up too late, in the end somehow falling into a fitful sleep illumined by the bright glow of tiny LCD screens.

Maybe this would be all right if it actually worked, but the problem is that endless striving is, in many areas of life, actually counterproductive. Some of the most desirable states in life—happiness, attractiveness, physical efficacy in the world—are best pursued indirectly, and conscious thought and effortful striving can interfere with their attainment. We’re often at our best when we’re not trying, and interpersonal charisma and attractiveness are typically generated by people only when they are relaxed and unselfconscious. Without a good, clear termfor effortless spontaneity—that is, unless we adopt the Chinese wu-wei—it is hard for us to see the power of “body thinking”: tacit, fast, and semiautomatic behavior that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference. Adding words like wu-wei and de (charismatic power) to our verbal repertoires helps us gain insight into aspects of our mental and social worlds that we have tended to miss. Since I was introduced to these concepts as an undergraduate, they’ve become a basic part of my vocabulary and have also spread quickly among my family members, friends, and acquaintances. “You’re not being very wu-wei about this,” my wife now chides me, when I’m trying to force something that shouldn’t be forced—a recalcitrant door, an obstructionist bureaucrat.  “That guy just doesn’t have de, but you do,” I tell a colleague in an attempt to explain why I want her rather than someone else to join me for an important potential grant interview. And she knows precisely what I mean.

We also often run into the paradox of wu-wei—the problem of how you try not to try—in our daily lives: getting into the zone in a game of tennis, overcoming insomnia, or trying to relax before a date or be confident in a job interview. But we as a culture have not developed many tools for overcoming it, or even recognizing it as a problem. This is where thinking through the benefits and tensions involved in spontaneity, with ancient Chinese thinkers and modern science at our side, can be very helpful.

SIG: What do you hope readers of Trying Not to Try will take away with them?

ES: Ideally they’ll learn something about the power of the embodied mind from the portraits of spontaneous ease and effortless charisma that we find in early China. I also hope that they’ll pick up a grab bag of potentially helpful strategies for getting past the paradox of wu-wei and take away a deeper understanding of how this ideal of wu-wei makes sense from a modern scientific perspective. If nothing else, hopefully somebody who has read this book will be quicker to notice when pushing harder, or thinking more, is actually taking them farther away from where they want to be.