Do or do not, there is no try. — Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back
Yoda’s absolutism aside, there’s a significant kernel of value in this perspective. I consider myself a liberal, and I was raised in the “Free to be you and me” post-hippie glow. Even so, one aspect of that mindset that I feel has been damaging, both on an individual level and to society in general, is the idea that effort counts for more than results.
In reality, both effort and results are important. A baseball manager will often bench a player who’s doing all right from a statistics perspective, but who’s dragging his heels, acting too cocky, or otherwise behaving in a way that suggests that some part of the excellent statistics are either happenstance or temporary. However, if a manager has to choose between a player who is trying their hardest but just can’t produce at all and a player who is acting lackadaisical but who produces regularly and with excellence, a decent manager will (nearly) always choose the latter.
The messages we give ourselves contribute to the effort we put forth, and to the quality of our results. When we say, “I’m trying” or “I’m doing my best,” we’re both allowing for the possibility of personal failure to accomplish the task and increasing the perceived difficulty of the task. In some cases, of course, tasks really are difficult, and no matter how hard we dedicate ourselves to the successful resolution of a task, we still fail to conquer it.
True, in the world of karma and feel-goodery and such, ’tis better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all (to misquote Tennyson). Some even go so far as to say that “failure” need not exist, that an attempt that does not succeed at its identified task could and ought to be used as a lesson for future challenges, and hence it succeeds vicariously. If nobody ever started a task that they weren’t 100% sure they could complete successfully, most people would hardly ever do anything at all.
Much of these thoughts are in my head because I’m reading through Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. An emphasis on results rather than effort is an Objectivist ideal, but even so, Dagny Taggert (Rand’s primary protagonist in part 1) partially sets aside the goal of finding the inventor of the motor when it looks like it will be too difficult to complete with the information available to her. She doesn’t abandon the task entirely, but she accepts that she has to stop focusing her full attention on it. The point being, even Uber-Objectivist Rand tacitly admits that there are tasks at which otherwise competent people can fail, despite their best struggles.
The implied ignominy is in adding palliations on top of the failure about “I tried, I can’t be blamed, I did my best!” The amount of effort should not become more important a gauge of a person’s self- and community assessment than the quality of the results.
I did very well in school. I understood most of the topics presented to me, even through college, with great facility. I did well on my grades. Where I struggled for grades most were classes with a significant subjective element, because I (along with other exceptional students) was held to a higher standard than the more mediocre students. Once I had been established as an “excellent” student, I was expected to outperform, and if I produced the same results as the average students, I received poorer marks. Even in some objective classes, I was marked down on questions that the teacher would have given other students a pass on.
Part of this, certainly, was because I became something of a cocky student, and just as the hypothetical manager mentioned earlier would dock his player for a lack of effort despite results, I too would get docked. Part of it, though, I do feel was part of the climate of rewarding effort over accomplishment.
This is why I strive to avoid thinking in terms of “I’m trying!”. This is such a socially conditioned phrase that it’s difficult to excise it entirely, and there are contexts in which it’s appropriate (particularly emergency or crisis situations). Even so, I do think it’s abused, and it’s my goal to minimize its use in my personal interactions.