Mark Danger Powers

Just Quit Trying Already

One of the books that has most influenced my approach to teaching percussion lessons is Barry Green’s The Inner Game of Music. Based on principles found in the highly championed The Inner Game of Tennis and Inner Skiing, by Tim Gallwey, the book is a beautiful collection of concepts for musicians to apply to their practicing and educating.

Amidst the many terrific ideas Green lays out, are the simple philosophies of:

1. Not telling a student that a section of music, or exercise, is going to be difficult; and

2. Not suggesting that he/she try to get through a passage.

Informing someone that something is difficult, before a first attempt has even been made, is one method of setting them up for failure. I have seen firsthand very real physical tension quickly build up in a student after I’ve spoken something like, “Alright, take this one slowly. This line is super tricky.” Before he’s even given a chance to take a stab at it, he’s already holding his breath, expecting obstacles, and is subconsciously aware that he very well may not be successful. In fact, in some cases, he’s pretty much sure that he won’t be.

I’ve found that just as important as not defining passages as difficult, is not defining them as easy. All it takes is one blunder in the middle of a purportedly “easy” musical phrase, and an otherwise confident player starts to crumble. “I suck. I can’t even play through this easy section.”

LUKE: “All right, I’ll give it a try.”
YODA: “No. Try not. Do . . . or do not. There is no try.”

Try. That’s another biggie. I’d be willing to bet that you’ve had this experience: you ask someone for help, or to accomplish a task, and their response is, “yeah, I’ll try to get around to that.” And what happens 95% of the time? They don’t do it. Why? Because the word “try” is their out. It’s their escape. “Well, I only said I was going to try to.” Try is a fail-word. They either don’t want to complete the chore at hand, or don’t think that they have the ability to. Either way, a person trying to do something is not a person fully committed- intending, under any and all circumstances, to make it happen. Simply ask someone (a student, child, etc.) to try to do what’s needed/desired, and you’re essentially giving them permission to fail.

While I’m far from perfect at this, I’ve altered my teaching approach to allow my students to experience the exercise, the challenge, the music for themselves. Let them find what they can and cannot do; where their strengths and weaknesses lie. Be a guide to them, but avoid unnecessary pitfalls. When they’re having trouble, rather than saying, “go ahead and try this passage again,” say, “nice job! Play this one a few more times . . . and just a little slower.” Set them up for success from the get-go and everyone involved will benefit.

Can you apply this to your daily life? Hells yeah!

How many times have you been set up for failure by others (or yourself) who focus only on an endeavor’s difficulty and say that that lofty goal is a bit beyond your reach or ability level?

“That guy/girl is just a little too far out of your league.”
Nobody passes the audition for that school.”
“Just get a real job like everyone else. Starting your own business is too much work.”
“Of all ideas you could come up with, you pursue that one? Why not something easier and more realistic?”

How many times have you listened to those words and let them keep you from going for it? How many times did you set out to simply try something for a bit and see how it goes, and then run from it as soon as the going got rough?

I encourage beg you to seriously consider those questions and decide whether there are “difficult” things that you have only merely “tried” to accomplish in your life. Things that, deep down, are truly important to you and might deserve/warrant another honest go.

What would YOU be doing with your life right now if nobody had ever told you it was difficult? What current tries could you become more deliberate about?

Share in the comments below, and let’s support each other in this quest of trying less and doing more!

(photo by yapsnaps)

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  1. I see much wisdom in this post. I really do. However, as someone who has experienced a lot of demand for perfection (sometimes external, sometimes self-imposed), I have to say that I find some value in the word “try.” It gives me permission to be gentle with myself. To me, the “do or do not” philosophy demands perfect execution the first time, with no grace for a do-over if I “do not” (i.e. fail). If I want to stay motivated to pursue any goal, I need permission to be imperfect. I need permission to fail. Permission to fail also gives me permission to try (do?) again.

    I know you are not using “do or do not” in this fatalistic sense. Rather, you are saying, “Do your best, and keep doing. Do not let fear control your (in)action. Do not let ‘try’ be your excuse for fear, for acceptance of failure.” I love your example of how you’ve adjusted your word choices when teaching. “Nice job! Play this one a few more times . . . and just a little slower.” Affirmation of what is done, permission to be imperfect, and encouragement/guidance to continue doing. Emphasis on simply taking action, any action. Complete removal of fear (under the guise of “try”) from the equation. Such a subtle change in word choice, but what a HUGE change in the underlying paradigm!

    I think “try” means to me what “do or do not” means to you — namely, to continually take action without letting fear hinder us. And I think that is very freeing, indeed. Now… to live it…

    • Thanks for kicking off the comments on this post with such a great one!

      Parts of this are a matter of perspective (and verbage), I suppose, and it does seem that you understand exactly what I was getting at. “Do or do not” certainly does not imply a demand for perfection. As you mentioned, I think it is simply demanding action of any sort, rather than allowing fear to freeze us in a state of inaction, thus no forward progress and growth. In the past, I’ve mentioned the Ready, Fire, Aim approach to much of what I do. While almost never perfect from the onset, at least I’m moving (and hopefully in the right direction). 🙂

      And I 100% agree with you that “permission” to be imperfect and/or fail should be granted.

      Thanks again, Jillyn!

  2. Mark, cool to see I’m not the only teacher who uses the “Yoda quote”, tho it is occassionally followed by the “eye-roll”. Maybe the “eye-roll” comes from the preceding comparison to my student being my “Padawan Learner”, but no-matter its still a great approach to teaching

    • Haha- I love it, dude! “Be mindful of the living Force, my young Padawan.” Those Jedi masters knew what they were doing . . .

  3. Hey! Really like your blog. Thanks for a great post.

    I used to teach music to kids and private violin lessons. Most recently I’ve taught a few drum lessons and work with kids on a volunteer basis. I’ve seen first-hand what you wrote about. If you just sit back and let a kid wander into something then make sure to go along with supportive words, words of encouragement, they do really well! It’s amazing to see how kids open up when you give them a little space and encouragement. On the other hand is so hard, heartbreaking in fact, to see how kids shut down in self-doubt when they are approached with negative words, looks or just a lack of encouragement.

    I love that you draw this out and apply the idea to everyone, because really its true. We all are more free and happy when we are encouraged and removed from judgment.

    No one can tell you what you’re capable of….why would you ever let them!

    • Thanks, Jackie- I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment! Super cool that you’ve seen the same with the students you’ve worked with. “Why would you ever let them tell you what you’re capable of?” I like it!

  4. Mark! Awesome man! After I read this I realized that I’ve fallen into many of these traps with my kids. You’ve definitely made me realize I need to be more conscious of how I assist my kids in exploring the world around them and encouraging them in their own abilities and interests with the goal of not discouraging them. Although I have to say that there have been times when people have told me that what I wanted to do was difficult or even impossible or I’ve heard the phrase “I wouldn’t try that if I were you”, and that made me even more determined to succeed and prove them wrong.

    • Hey, Matt- awesome that you find application of this could work with your kids! I laughed at your mention of “I wouldn’t try that if I were you.” I still hear that from people constantly, in regards to many of the zany, hair-brained things I set out to do. I’ve come to expect it, and welcome it. If it’s something that everyone else would do, they most likely are doing it already, and I’m probably not interested. On to something less popular and more original . . .

  5. Mark, once again a thought provoking blog. I have found in my position as a Training & Development Specialist that Hands-on experience and personal discovery, supplemented with encouragement and support can create the environment for someone to do some amazing things if you do not set limits by your verbiage. When you set a limit, most people stop there. I often use the word “let’s” when providing an activity, I use it as a form of partnership, that the success and challenge is a shared experience.

    • Exactly! It is so easy to allow thoughts and/or words to create boundaries and limitations for us. “Let’s” stop doing that, eh?!
      Thanks for adding this!

  6. It’s so easy to become put-off by something if it proves too difficult, heck, it’s the reason most people don’t take any action, for fear of failure, or why people never follow through in the first place.

    I’m not a Star Wars fan, but I really do like that Yoda quote. 🙂

    The use of ‘try’ is definitely a cop-out word, I like using some NLP and essentially changing my language and thoughts, so that I can eliminate phrases like “I will try that”, to “I WILL do that”. It’s subtle, but once we realise that we use ‘cop-out’ words all the time, we can take action to change them – and as a result, our actions.

    • You are so 100% dead-on, Tom. Changing our thoughts and words to things more like “I WILL …” is huge. I catch myself and others on that all the time. It’s not, “hey, it’d sure be fun if we’re able to pull that off.” It’s, “damn, that’s going to be awesome!” Thanks for the comment, dude!

  7. Great post. I think there are great benefits to be had from being a stubborn bastard, ignoring the people who say something is too difficult, and doing it anyway.

    Unfortunately, most of us aren’t stubborn enough. We tend to ignore our own voice and place more value on the opinions of others, usually for some stupid reason. We listen to someone because a person *sounds* like they know what they’re talking about.

    An example from my own life regarding my home town: Because most of my peers either moved away or gave up, I used to believe that the place I lived had absolutely no opportunities. For a couple years, I didn’t even try to do, let alone do, anything that would create lasting value. Eventually, I realized that most of the people I listened to had their own reasons for their crappy outlook (usually self-justification).

    I started being a stubborn bastard, listening to myself, and that, like taking the proverbial road less traveled, has made all the difference.

    BTW: The Inner Game of Music is an excellent book!

    • Very cool that you’ve seen, recognized and responded to this in your own life and town. You and me: founding members of the Stubborn Bastard Club. Let’s do some recruiting! Thanks for reading and dropping a line, Seth!

  8. Very, very useful teaching here Mark.

    I’ve also noticed the what many others here have described when setting limits with students. I used to help with high school and middle school brass and percussion and found it super important, especially with sight-reading, not to set the kids up for mediocrity by “hinting” as to how hard a new piece was. It’s such a confidence boost when they nail something the first time or surprise themselves by hitting a high note they’ve never hit before!
    Fast forward to today and the work I do with (grown-up) professors and instructors recording themselves on video…the same thing! Limits have their place in creativity–timeboxing, artificial constraints to get things done–but since confidence and fear of failure are such fragile components of the teaching experience, anything I can do to help (Alice B, I love the “let’s do” concept, use this all the time) raise confidence and move students forward is worth it.

    I dig what you’re doing here Mark.

    • Abe- thanks so much for visiting and leaving this awesome comment! I love that you shared how you’ve dealt with this in two completely different scenarios. And you’re right- “limits have their place.” Tools like timeboxing don’t limit your options. In my experience, they simply help force me into a mode of hyper-focus and increased productivity. Thanks again!

  9. This is so incredibly thought provoking…I love this line:

    “What would YOU be doing with your life right now if nobody had ever told you it was difficult?”

    I am sooo going to apply this. No more trying for me…..just doing!

    • Really glad you dug the post, Maria! So, how are you going to apply it? Inquiring minds want to know! 🙂

  10. I LOVE this argument with “try” vs “do”. In the past I think “try” has been one of my most used words. What did I accomplish with trying? Not much. Well put, sir!

    • Thanks, Angela! I’ve caught myself falling into the same trap a number of times in the past. So, let’s not try to connect in Seattle then, eh?! I will see you soon- I look forward to meeting!

  11. That is so true what you say about not telling someone that something is going to be difficult. When I was a kid and someone told me something would be hard, I didn’t want to do it anymore! It’s a lot easier to play Mario Bros than learn to play the violin! (I gave up. Piano too. Oh, and guitar…)

    Now I’ve spent so many years thinking so many things will be difficult that I often just skip them. For instance, last year i really wanted to try fencing. I went to a free class, realized it would harder than I thought, and never went back. I’ve been told I don’t have great follow-through…

    This post inspired me to try … NO, to DO one thing I’ve been putting it off because it’s too hard.

    Not sure what it will be yet because there have been so many lol.

    • Hey, Chase- I always appreciate when you swing by here and leave a comment! I, too, have been guilty of giving up plenty of activities or pursuits after getting into it and realizing how “hard” it was going to be. (fencing included here, as well) It can be totally fine to choose not to pursue one thing because you know that you would ultimately rather be investing the time, energy and elbow grease on something more meaningful to you. It’s when we quit just because that desired path will be a rough one, that I have a problem. Worse yet, when we don’t try in the first place because someone else said it’d be tough.

      Thanks for this!


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