I hear it far too often:
Do, or do not. There is no try.Yoda
Only it’s never coming from Master Yoda. It’s coming from some influential internet mom or from a fitness instructor or from somebody’s boss. It’s usually tinged with exasperation, from people who are tired of other people’s nonsense. People who say things like, “If I can do it, anyone can,” and truly believe that in their hearts. People who have a hard time looking directly at failure.
When I was in college, I heard this notion almost daily. It came from my boss: a thin, pretty, blonde woman who, I learned, had never failed in her life. The worst that had happened to her so far was working here, at her family’s hotel, trying to manage an understaffed and underfunded endeavor. Still, she hadn’t failed–at least not when I knew her–and if she had, she refused to acknowledge it.
She had played tennis every day during each of her three pregnancies; she thought fat was an indication of weakness and that her chubby daughter clearly got that from her husband’s side of the family. She didn’t wear makeup. Moreover, she thought people who did wear makeup had something wrong with them and didn’t understand why she should have to spend money putting makeup removal wipes in the toiletry kits and/or replacing the towels when someone’s waterproof mascara left a permanent stain.
She had an MBA and had gotten into grad school without effort. She assumed it was this easy for everyone.
While I worked for her, I applied to a couple of schools where I hoped to get my MFA in creative writing. My fiance (now husband) had a good job in town–an entry-level engineering position that would get his career off to a good start–so I didn’t apply broadly, knowing we couldn’t move for a while. I applied to one school the first year and was rejected. I applied to two schools the second year and was rejected.
My boss watched this process like she was watching a horror movie. Like I had just peeled off my face and revealed that, instead of the normal person she’d hired to run the front desk (who, incidentally, earned her undergrad degree summa cume laude), I was the walking dead.
I explained to her how few candidates are accepted for a Master of Fine Arts program versus the number that apply. I explained to her how intensive the programs are and how subjective the review of the applications. I told her it didn’t bother me (though it did) and that I knew I’d eventually find the right program for me–but maybe after my husband’s career had taken root and we had the opportunity to move.
Ultimately, I did get into graduate school. I wrote a new story for my application and made sure all my papers got to the right offices (my second year of applying, one of the schools had shuffled my transcripts to the wrong office and it took quite a few phone calls to get them to the right place–a problem I didn’t want to repeat).
I no longer worked for this woman when I got my acceptance–the day I returned from my honeymoon, her mother called me to say that they’d found someone else for my job who was so qualified and since they knew I wanted to move on within the next year, they decided I ought to move on right then–so she never saw that my persistence paid off. In her mind, I’m probably proof of concept: if you have to try, then maybe you’re simply trying the wrong thing.
As an artist, I know that the “do or do not” philosophy can be (very broadly) applied to creation: you make a painting or you don’t make a painting, you write a story or you don’t. But what is a painting without someone to look at it, or a story without someone to read? And while you can set out to write the Great American Novel or to sculpt figures like Rodin, getting it there is all effort. It’s trial and error–lots of error, for most of us. And when you’re finished, who decides? Who publishes your book and who buys your art? How do you get it there?
A lot of trying.
Here’s what I want to say to all those no-nonsense, “do or do not”-ers: if you did, you tried. Because if you didn’t try, you wouldn’t have accomplished anything. The only things we don’t have to try for–most of us, most of the time–are the things our bodies are programmed to do, like breathing and blinking. Even eating requires effort. Getting the food, preparing it safely, getting it to your mouth and chewing. Don’t inhale it, don’t choke.
Hemingway had to try to write his novels. Frida Kahlo tried to make beautiful paintings. Frank Lloyd Wright tried to design buildings. I’m trying to write a blog post.
Why do we think that success negates the act of trying? How often do we even know what effort went into the things we see succeed?
As an aspiring visual artist, I’ve begun to notice the huge number of drawings, paintings, and photographs that fill my eyespace on a daily basis. The cartoons we watch, the image on a candy wrapper, the logo on the bottom of my shoes. We never meet the artists or see the work they do; we only see the product. We don’t know how many drafts the creative team at Adidas went through before they started putting three stripes on the sides of their shoes. We don’t think about the labor that goes into the making of a font; to us, Times New Roman is eternal. But someone made it. Someone sketched the art on every billboard we see, then finished the design, then printed or painted it.
But somewhere along the way, we decided that effort isn’t sexy. That struggle means weakness. We started to believe snake oil would save us, that movie magic was real. We believed the svelte actors and actresses who claimed they ate tons of junk food and hardly worked out. We believed the commercials that promised eternal youth, the magazine articles that claimed we could change our lives in three easy steps.
The truth is, there is effort in everything–even looking effortless. Some people get lucky breaks or have things handed to them, but if anything gets done, somebody did it and you can bet it was hard work. If you want to get nerdy and swing back to Yoda and Luke in the swamp: Luke is trying like a mofo. The Force is working like a mofo. It took a lot of effort to pull that thing out of the muck. Also, Yoda is speaking English (or whatever language Luke learned on Tatooine, whatever common tongue unites this galaxy far, far away) but he’s not exactly speaking it well. Everything else he’s said so far indicates he believes that Luke must work his padawan hiney off in order to become a Jedi. And what is work? Effort. And what is effort? Trying.