Can You Try A Bit Harder?

A philosophical conundrum I’ve attempted to untangle, and it’s still a bit knotted, belongs to the domain of ethical philosophy, and concerns what is the best attitude to take, with everyday experiences from the mundane to the extraordinary, at the level of conscious human willpower. The question is, which is better - to try…or not to try?

I wrestled with it. I gave up eventually instead, which appeared to work initially, then became too troublesome and I gave that up too…which led into an epistemological no-man’s land. A sort of Sartrean hell/paradise where every question has attached to it a sub-question, roughly the same question every time, i.e. ‘is that the best line of inquiry to take?’

But is that the best line of inquiry to take?

And so on.

It gradually sank in the nature of self-motivation has something to do with the philosophy of mind ‘dualism’ involved in telling yourself to get on with something. If you have to tell yourself, you are making a fundamental linguistic error in the representation of your personal identity, which is to assume there are two of you; one who does things, and the other who gives commands.

When in fact there is one of you, and the answer to the dilemma lies in reconciling the two roles in one character, you, the agent and the actor.

Now and again I glimpse the realisation of this prospective harmony, and see it in practice; a human being in their element, or the being who is being themselves being me, whoever is comfortable with their personality and doesn’t feel like they even have to try; the light of truth examined, by the light of truth, one and the same light…sometimes the situation feels right and you know exactly what to do (it seems).

Is that a philosophical conundrum…? In my (admittedly somewhat limited) experience of the human mind, it crops up again and again, and for the zillionth time I find myself wondering:

“Shall I try or not?”

Let’s take the extremes; pushing yourself. Can’t be bad, can it? Some of the most driven people put enormous pressure on themselves, and achieve great things. Is this the primary basis for practical success - to ‘get on your own case’?

Let me answer that:

 - No.

Getting on your own case is a later stage. It follows the instance of having the motivation to get on your own case - which can only occur naturally. If you tell yourself to do something, the integrity of your personal identity is compromised. If you decide to do that thing, in spite of an inclination not to….that’s your prerogative, just as long as it is your choice, according to your own, home-grown intentions…otherwise it is someone else’s motivation at stake.

The idea of ‘trying harder’ is liable to be employed in response to the assertion ‘this isn’t good enough’ as it might be uttered by your bosses, peers or…underlings? Well whatever you are, it doesn’t matter, just try a bit harder, okay?

Trying harder. It’s okay. It’s good, actually. Try, try and try again, if at first you don’t succeed. Try to jump higher. Try to type faster. Try to be better at what you do best. Even if you don’t feel like it, sometimes. But whatever you do, don’t try to try to try ad infinitum. Especially if it is making you depressed. Except if you are a committed student of the practical health implications of epistemological meltdown (a nervous breakdown.)

To the other extreme…relaxing and doing nothing. Not a bad thing either! Not a lifelong pursuit most of us would prefer, although do bear in mind, stuff just…happens…anyway. So doing nothing might through natural causes evolve into everything. To some it might seem to be the antithesis of motivation - the mere thought of laying down to be fought off like a hungry lion. This formula might be the bread and butter of the motivational stratagem, so let’s not deny any efficacy the will to succeed has for the driven. It’s all very well for them. But look at the following sentence:

‘The best way to achieve great things is to push yourself’

Does it have a lot of substance?

I tried it.

For years.

Shall we push ourselves at times? Hell yeah! But…is it the best way to achieve great things? - I’d hazard a guess not every skilled classical violinist is an obsessive fanatic about their instrument. Some wait until they have the impulse to strike a bow. Why do something rather than nothing, at any given moment, as a general rule?

What makes pushing yourself to do more, better, faster, a firmer guarantee of triumph than simply, I don’t know, going to bed? Or staring at an ant? Or having ‘bath of the century’? Or watching 5 hours of The Sopranos on DVD? Or walking to the edge of the city? Or entertaining yourself with atoms of music (which don’t exist), as they vibrate from a sound source, and dance around according to the architectural acoustics of the environmental furniture. I did wonder at the time if I’d ever get to use those phrases.

If you struggle, with existential angst, and depression, towards self-improvement through willpower alone, the question will eventually pop into your head “why do anything?” If you are there, first opportunity you get, sit back, let go of the pressures, and simply relax until you discover what naturally impels you when there is ‘nothing to do’. Sometimes the best thing to do is to have the courage to do nothing.

It’s a balance; on one side is laziness; the other side, effort.

Which to choose…




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