Is it pointless trying (except in rugby)?

How often do you use the word ‘Try’ when you are telling yourself or others that you are going to do something? And just as importantly, what are you really saying? For such a small word, it can have hugely debilitating effects.

The use of the word comes up in many coaching sessions I undertake – and that’s because managers and leaders have a propensity to use it. Think of the last time you used it, and then think about what you were really saying.

Sometimes when people use it, and they say that they are going to ‘try’ and do something, they are really sharing that they don’t really have the confidence or belief that they can achieve whatever it is. They are already giving themselves a way out, telling themselves that it’s alright if they don’t achieve whatever it is they are going to ‘try’ to do.

On other occasions it can be used more dishonestly – and sadly I have to admit to using it in this way myself.  For example, if my wife asks me to do something, and I know there is little possibility of me doing it due to other – as far as I am concerned – more pressing or important activities, I will respond that I will ‘try’ to do it (I’m hoping and assuming that this is not too much of a revelation for her, but I also know I’m reasonably safe as she doesn’t read my blogs … well, I don’t think she does …). And guess what – it usually doesn’t get done.

The common denominator between the two examples is that the task or activity we are considering will probably not be achieved. As a rule of thumb or a default position, I find that the more a person uses the word ‘try’, the less they will accomplish.

There was some American research undertaken a number of years ago that supports my rule of thumb. It found that where a manager says that they are going to ‘try’ to undertake something, they are approximately 50% less likely to achieve it than when they leave out the word ‘try’. Unfortunately, I can’t re-find the source (but if anyone has it please let me know!).

You have probably heard the proverb, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again”. According to Gregory Titelman’s book, “The Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings”, it has been traced back to a book called ‘Teacher’s Manual’ by the American educator Thomas H. Palmer, and it was designed to motivate American children to do their homework. Palmer (1782-1861) wrote in his ‘Teacher’s Manual’: ‘Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ I wonder whether it had the desired effect?

A more positive quote, or way of looking at matters, can be found in the Star Wars film, “The Empire Strikes Back”. Yoda, the small and strange looking Jedi Master is training Luke Skywalker. Yoda sets him numerous challenges and tests to help build the boy into a Jedi. When Luke is given one particularly challenging task, he responds to Yoda that he will ‘try’.  ”No,” Yoda retorts, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

And Yoda is right. There really is no try. We do something or we don’t do something. And so many thousands, possibly millions, more goals would be achieved every day if we stopped talking to ourselves and others in terms of ‘trying’.

There is, however, one situation where a ‘try’ is an achievement. This is in rugby. A ‘try’ is scored when a player touches the ball down behind the opponent’s goal line. Why was that word used? Well, a ‘try’ originally didn’t get any points. When it was first introduced, the only way to score points was by kicking a goal – and the ‘try’ simply gave the team the opportunity to kick for goal and for points. The game has moved on since then, but the terminology has not.

But do you need to move on with your terminology? How often do you ‘try’? Does it add to your successes or stop you from achieving? Listen out for the next time you say it. Reflect on it. If necessary, plan to use a different phrase in future and evaluate how it impacts on your performance.

Paul

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One Response to “Is it pointless trying (except in rugby)?”

  1. [...] approach is that I will not permit the use of the word ‘try’. As I have mentioned previously in one of my blogs, Yoda understand [...]

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