The myth of trying harder.

When I was in high school—in fact, through most of college—I sucked at homework. All homework. Math, writing, science, anything. It’s not that I wasn’t smart enough to do it; most of the homework I completed I did at great speed just before (or just after) it was due. No, I just sucked at doing it. And for years I had no idea what to do about it.

So I did the obvious thing: try harder. That’s what everyone told me to do, that’s what seemed logical, so that’s what I did. I tried harder. Or I tried to try harder. But I wasn’t really sure how to do that. Mostly, I stared harder at the blinking line in my word processor. And then made sure to feel guiltier after spending all night playing Starcraft.

Strangely, none of this helped.

I always assumed I was broken. Why couldn’t I just try harder? If I tried hard enough, surely I’d get through it.

Is there a pen near you? Great. I want you to try this (seriously). Fix your eyes on it. Now, with only your mind, I want you to lift it. Let’s say, three inches. Got it? No? Okay, try harder.


What happened when you tried to “try harder”? Anything? Did you do anything differently? Is there some “try” muscle you twitched harder?

Sometimes I try to wiggle my ears. It feels a lot like trying harder. I don’t even know where to begin. I mean, what muscle is that?

Here’s my theory: you can’t try harder, you can only try different. I finally figured out how to do my homework. Mostly, it involved finding David Allen’s GTD. I found techniques to get control of everything I had to do, so I knew what I really had to do, and when I could goof off with my friends.

You can’t try harder, because trying harder isn’t anything. It’s syntax without meaning. It’s easy to say and think you’ve said something. It’s easy to decide to do and think you’ve changed something. Don’t be fooled.

One Response to “The myth of trying harder.”

  1. Poshi says:

    I like this…except that I think there is still a line that needs to be drawn between “trying” and “not trying”. That is to say, a lot of people say they’re trying to do something, when actually they’re not, like all the scads of people that hired me as a math tutor back in the day and then looked at me, expectant, while I refused to just do their homework for them. “What? I hired a tutor, that counts as trying, right?”