At the beginning of 2014 my friend Louise Knight encouraged people to pick a word as their theme for the year. I loved doing it so much, I decided to do it again this year. Last year my word was return. That turned out to be a great word. It was the same idea as meditation. In other words, whenever I noticed that my focus had changed and I was distracted by something, I could gently return my attention back to what I wanted to create.
Last year, while working with my therapist on issues around fear, he told me: Curiosity is the antidote to fear. Armed with this knowledge, I began experimenting. I would try something out and see what kind of results of got. Fear leads to paralysis; curiosity can unlock that frozen state.
This brings me to this year’s theme. Yes, I realize it’s the end of February, but I chose it at the beginning of January. I’m just now getting around to writing it up. I first thought it should be curiosity, but that wasn’t a verb. It didn’t impel me to any action. I considered experiment, but that too wasn’t compelling enough for me. And then I landed on the sticky verb try
Those you familiar with Star Wars will remember Yoda’s famous injunction:
“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Yoda gives this instruction to the young Skywalker after he watches his ship sink in the bog. For many years I subscribed to this approach. But recently I’ve come to realize that this sets up a false dichotomy: Do, or do not. There is no room for effort, for error, for learning by failing, which is how we all learn.
When I speak of trying, I speak of failing. I mean making the effort and not getting it quite right, but learning something with each round. There is a wonderful children’s book, The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires that describes this process wonderfully. There is a little girl and in her mind, she envisions the most magnificent thing. She sets out to create it, but her first attempt doesn’t hit the mark. Nor does her second or third. But in each attempt, she learns and sees something that she can adjust that will improve her product until she attains her goal.
When I try to do something, with focus and intention, and I see the result isn’t what I intended, I have hopefully learned something that I can apply when I go back to do it again.
I read in the book Art & Fear a story about a ceramics teacher who demonstrated this very concept I’m describing:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
By Yoda’s definition, those focused on quality were “trying.” I like to think of those focused on quantity were trying in the way I’m describing. Even young Skywalker kept making the effort. In today’s tech world, people talk about iterating. Would Yoda say, “There is no interate. Only do.”? I don’t know, but I like to think of him exhorting Luke to iterate!
Do, or do not, it’s not a zero-sum. I wrote last year about failure, and it’s the fear of failing of that keeps us all from trying. What if the first effort is a failure? Or the second or third or tenth? At what point do we define our efforts as a failure? For me, I’m going to put that at the end of my life, so I can have as many chances as possible.
We can all make the effort. We can keep aiming our arrows and drawing back the bows. As one of my yoga teachers says, “No effort is wasted.”
I found your blog post to be quite timely and relevant to me and the way I live my life and the mindset I try to maintain on a daily basis. I too used to subscribe to the Yoda dogma, but like you I find myself drifting further and further from it as time goes on. While I know some people who succeed at nearly everything they try right out of the gate, I know I’m not that person and just in maybe the last year I’ve come to terms with that and it’s incredibly freeing.
The idea of picking a word for the year is pretty smart and entertaining. I like that you settled on try. It’s a beautiful verb that creates an infinite number of possibilities. Beyond that, you mention fear and failure, two things that I am constantly aware and afraid of, but I attempt to battle on a near daily basis. As a guy with more hobbies than I care to admit, I’m learning to embrace the failure and on occasion even look forward to it just so the success tastes sweeter. Lately, I’ve been seeing people walking around, working jobs they hate, letting themselves go and not being the best version of themselves and it honestly makes me misty eyed, so when I see someone acknowledging the struggle and not shying away from it, it makes me happy.
Anyway, it was a great post. Thanks for sharing it.
And yes, I think it’s important to remember that we aren’t alone, even when it feels like we are. Glad it made you happy, too :).
Just wanted to say that I really really love that anecdote from the ceramics teacher.
Thanks Frances. It has stuck with me for many years. I find it encouraging :D.
The timing of this post is so apt, Jill. Just yesterday I was thinking about my various practices (writing, photography, meditation, bread baking, cheese making, etc.) and how each one has benefited not from a frantic effort to MASTER the thing or the act, but the small, gradual accumulation of practice over time. My first poems and photos and loaves were nothing to boast about, but my ability improves slowly as I keep trying again and again. My gut instinct is always to just really work hard to learn or do something, but, really, all it takes is the gradual doing, and doing, and doing,
Timing is EVERYTHING! So glad this dovetailed with your own thinking. I love it! Yes, gentle, gradual repetition, with an understanding of how to improve, is all we really need.