Recognize When You’re Trying Too Hard

There’s an art to knowing when you’re trying too hard to get something.  Sometimes you need to back off a bit, especially when what you are seeking has a strong volition of its own.

Erica Goldson, the Valedictorian at Coxsackie-Athens High School, recounted the following story this past June (HT SRDill) :

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen?”

The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years.”

The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast – How long then?”

Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.”

“But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student.

“Thirty years,” replied the Master.

“But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?”

Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

This is the dilemma I’ve faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

A true education, peace of mind, positive relationships — these and other things require more than the achievement of narrow short-term objectives.

How to reconcile this with the idea of pushing through barriers, trying your hardest, going beyond your limits, etc.?

Maybe it has to do with the difference between overcoming resistance that is externally imposed, versus overcoming resistance that is fed by your own efforts?

Too Much, Too FastThere’s an example of this in physics in the principle of the critical angle of attack  which features prominently in space flight, particularly atmospheric reentry: If you don’t try hard enough (too shallow an angle), you bounce away and don’t get where you want to go.  If you try too hard (too sharp an angle), you burn up and fall to pieces.  In that example, it’s all about finding the sweet spot/angle and having the appropriate amount of heat shielding to allow for the minimum required friction plus a margin of error.

A simpler example might be the role of interpersonal facilitation.  Effective communicators know that “trying too hard” gets in the way of getting the change they want, and also know when to “push through” challenges.

Easy to talk about, but how to know the difference?


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on August 16, 2010, in Learning, Life and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Daniel, you strike at the heart of “Public Education” as we know it. We have all swallowed the Kool-Aid that we are losing a race, that our children cannot compete, that we must introduce our children to languages in the womb, arts are better than engineering, only science is valuable, and on and on. Instead, why aren’t we looking at what education really is: a chance to learn, to discover, to understand more about who we are as a person, as a world citizen, as a human? The average lifespan is approaching three times what it was when Public Education as an institution was introduced. Why must everyone race to be CEO-capable as they turn 18?

    I would encourage you and your readers to think this through on your own, here, or on if we all learn differently, and we all have differing objectives to our learning, and there are many ways to learn the same topic, and learning is no longer structured according to age, geography or economics, why should it stay public? Releasing the property taxes earmarked for education would return at least 70% of every US citizen’s property tax back to them, more in most towns and cities. Imagine the personal benefit in being responsible for our own education, and being able to afford whatever we selected for courses and instructors! And imagine doing that throughout our lives, learning it from our parents from our earliest memories. Education would move from something to be rid of, as Ms. Goldson points out in her valedictorian speech, to something we would embrace our whole lives—for the fun, the exhilaration, and the camaraderie of it all.

    Thanks again, Daniel!

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