Trying too Hard

This article is part of the Psychology section.

Western society likes to believe that we can achieve anything we want, if only we try hard enough. While this idea encourages enthusiasm, engagement, determination, ambition, dynamism and many other positive mindsets and actions, it has some very significant limits and also comes with some very significant risks attached. Some of our most fundamentally important activities do not respond at all well to our conscious efforts to do them better. Just think about what tends to happen when we “try hard” to go to sleep, to find or make love, to laugh, to relax, to make friends, to calm down, or to be in a good mood. In most of the very important areas of life, trying hard is not the way to go, and in fact the harder we try, the further we get from both our goals and from our true nature. This is actually the definition of trying “too hard”: when those extra efforts that we are making seem to be having the opposite effect to that which we so much want to achieve.

Of course, to play the cello well requires an awful lot of work and effort, but in order to fully share the fruits of all this hard work we need to change into a different mindset. Music-making, in contrast to the acquisition of instrumental mastery, falls into the category of basic vital activities like loving, laughing, breathing, relaxing and sleeping, none of which respond well to being forced. For these processes to function optimally we will probably have more success if we use our intelligence and forward-thinking to simply create the most favourable conditions possible in which they can occur naturally and spontaneously rather than trying to force them into action unnaturally in any particular moment. One of the most important preconditions that we can create to achieve optimal functioning of these vital natural processes is relaxation, which is the polar opposite of intense effort and trying.

Our body, our instrument, and other people, are constantly giving us feedback about how we are doing in our relationships with them. If we are trying too hard, that means, almost by definition, that we are either ignoring their negative feedback or trying to “turn the tide around” (convert the negative feedback into positive feedback) by using even more force and effort. When we try too hard at the cello, both our body and our instrument will be telling us to “relax …. take it easy …. take the pressure off.” The instrument will send us this message by responding with an ugly sound (too much pressure). Our body will tell us with pain, stiffness, poor coordination etc. If other people are listening they might tell us it was beautiful ………… but they’ll run away all the same!

But is it really surprising that trying hard, working hard, and studying hard can produce just that: hardness? Nobody likes to be pushed around, and even a cello will rebel and say no !

Unfortunately, there are a huge number of powerful forces that conspire to lead us into this trap of trying too hard. Firstly, playing the cello well is just not easy – it’s a lifelong challenge. Every new piece presents new difficulties. There is just so much to learn. What’s more, it is very rare that anyone will ever urge us to try less, to work less, to study less – and not just for cello playing. This is not just a shame. It can even be a tragedy, because the enormous pain and frustration of a highly motivated hard-worker who is getting worse and worse because of over-trying, is multiplied by a huge sense of injustice.

To make matters worse, over-trying often produces a vertiginous vicious circle. Above a certain level of effort, results will often start to go down. Unfortunately this can lead to a redoubling of efforts, which in turn makes everything even worse. We could perhaps see this same phenomenon in problems of stuttering, impotence, and insomnia. In all these cases the greater the effort made, the worse the problem often becomes.

Returning again to music and cello playing, if we are unable to consciously get out of this vicious circle of trying harder and harder, something may actually break in order to oblige us to stop. Many “musician’s injuries” happen in this way and probably many musician’s burnouts also. Normally – and fortunately – it will be some minor, easily-repaired part of the body that breaks down first, rather than the mind. This is rather like a fuse in an electrical circuit: the fuse blows before the whole installation melts, catches fire or explodes! Bodies are much easier to heal than minds, and the time it takes for the body to heal can hopefully be put to good use in realising the trap that we have fallen into.

To know when to stop ….. how to switch off …… how and when to slow down …. to listen to and respect our body and emotions and thus know when it’s time to stop trying so hard ……… These are all very important skills that are, unfortunately, largely taken for granted.