I grew up thinking of trying hard as being “a good thing”. Now, I realize that trying has a substantial dark side, and can be downright negative as a mindset. As a result, I am in favor of ceasing to “try” and starting to “do”. Here’s my thinking.

“Trying is the first step towards failure”

– Homer Simpson

It all began when my husband brought home a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Homer’s fatherly advice to complete as a family project, and I had lots of time to contemplate it.

At first, I was upset about a message that said we should not even try.  Then, I thought that failure is actually a useful and even positive thing – as in Silicon Valley entrepreneurs wanting to “fail fast” so they can learn and grow and ultimately succeed more quickly.  I concluded that yes, trying is the first step to failure, which is a good thing because it leads us to learn, grow and ultimately achieve.  Case closed.

“There is no such thing as trying to write a book. You either are or you aren’t.”

Then the “trying” topic came up again last month, this time much closer to home:  whereas I had originally told people, “I am writing a book,” I have more recently begun to say, “I am trying to write a book.”  A friend called me out on this by saying:

“May, there is no such thing as trying to write a book.  You either are or you aren’t.”  As they say, truth hurts.

I cannot pinpoint when it happened, but it must have been while going back and forth between multiple proverbial drawing boards, still with no finished product, that I adopted the trying mindset – an attempt without promises or conviction.

Why trying can be a problem

Trying contains the element of doubt, as in “can/will I really do this?”  This may be appropriate when we are coming from a standing start, when looking doubt in the eye and overcoming fear and inertia to make the attempt is essential.

However, once we have begun the attempt, then trying can become a hindering concept – like the booster stage of a rocket that must be jettisoned if we are to achieve orbit.  In fact, I am hard pressed to find occasions when trying is truly a positive, and have come to see it as counterproductive.

For example, in sports, trying too hard can be a problem.

  • In learning tennis and then squash, my instructors repeatedly told me to “stop trying so hard”.  Apparently there is a point of diminishing returns to “trying hard” where you actually get in your own way, and I had gone past even that.
  • In contrast, we watch Roger Federer hit winning shots “without looking like he’s even trying,” which is about effortlessness, ease and allowing yourself to play to your potential.

Moreover, many of our sayings allude to the dark side of merely trying.

  • “Let’s give it the old college try,” means applying effort but without commitment or much expectation of succeeding – basically giving yourself an excuse and escape route from the start.
  • And after we are done trying, we use phrases like “it was a trying experience, under trying circumstances” to describe frustratingly huge efforts taken without a satisfactory outcome.
  • Finally, there is the report card that reads, “Junior tries hard”, as in Junior puts in much effort but without ability and therefore results.

In daily life, saying “I’ll try” is tantamount to admitting upfront that you quite likely will not be doing that thing.  For example, “I’m trying to quit smoking/lose weight/eat right/be good” or “We’ll try to deliver it by Wednesday.”

Similarly, asking others to “please try to …” essentially gives others permission to not deliver.   What is the message you are really giving your team when you say, “Try to arrive on time” versus “Be here by 9am?”  Would you ask someone to “please try to feed the dogs while we’re away”?

Move beyond the “trying” mindset

So, coming back to Homer Simpson’s quote, I now see it in yet another way, which is that trying truly is a first step to failure – the version of failure where we fall short of our potential unnecessarily.  The trying mindset is doubt-filled, skeptical and low commitment.  It very quickly outlives any potential initial usefulness, and will drag us down into performing below our abilities by calling them into question.

Instead, it is essential to move beyond trying and into a mindset of commitment and conviction – to doing, being and trusting ourselves – in order to achieve the positive outcomes of which we are capable.

Go ahead, stop trying to do or be, and start actually doing and being.


Image credit: © 20th Century Fox