The Tremors: On Trying too Hard
by Jennifer Paros
Just as a bicycle chain may be too tight, so may one’s carefulness and conscientiousness be so tense as to hinder the running of one’s mind.
~ William James
Years ago, while working on the final pen and ink drawings for my children’s book, I leaned in to draw a face and my hand began to shake. The more I strove to hold myself steady, the more impossible it seemed. Maxwell Maltz, doctor and self-help writer, once described this dynamic as “purpose tremors.” When someone has a specific purpose, goes towards it with great intensity, and tries very hard not to make an error, he shakes. In Maltz’s explanation – what takes a stable body into a sudden expression of instability, ironically, is “excessive carefulness.” Maltz used the example of striving to thread a needle. The person’s hand is steady a moment before, but the exertion of mental effort to get it right inadvertently thwarts his ability.
Mentally striving to control what we’re doing leads to this sort of backfiring. The nature of trying hard is that the focus isn’t actually on success; it’s on effort and striving for control of an outcome. This focus then yields greater awareness of more to control, therefore more that feels out of control.
It’s easy to understand why trying harder seems like a logical approach. A good work ethic usually implies the concept of effort and great achievement is commonly seen as a byproduct of hard work. It’s a natural conclusion that punching up the application of working hard and exerting effort would increase our chances of success. But in my case, the harder I tried, the worse the situation became. Soon, I couldn’t approach drawing without feeling nervous; I was unable to recall what it was like (before my deadline) to draw without this unwanted mental vigilance. My thought process was in overdrive regarding something I had once done virtually without thinking. I had accidentally thrown off my own autonomic creativesystem by no longer trusting it.
To sooth myself, every time I sat down to work, I listened to the same audio book repeatedly. The author’s voice was calm. I comforted myself with someone else’s focus since mine was currently so twisted up in trying to control the future. And it got me through.
It’s more fun to do it your way when you fail and [when] you succeed.
~ Louis CK
I wanted success but my mind’s strategy for securing it was undermining my abilities. In an episode of Inside Comedy, Louis CK describes his relationship to the ups and downs of his failures and successes. He encountered so many seeming wins that didn’t go anywhere and so many losses that didn’t really matter that he stopped prognosticating where things might lead. Instead, he started trying things he really wanted to try regardless of what he thought might happen – because it was more fun that way.
He stepped out of the tyranny of striving to predict and control what each step might get him (good or bad) and allowed himself to experience success in the moment. That’s known as enjoying the journey or taking pleasure in the process – when we let fun equal success.
Since a process is a series of steps that leads to a result – but is not the result – then enjoying the process means valuing the realization of an idea unfolding. This puts us back in the creative flow. Being “in the flow” indicates a mind active but at ease, through which there is creative gain without pain. There is good reason we never hear advice like, “Tighten up” or “Get tense”; contracted thinking only ever works against us. It is an out-of-the-flow, out-of-the process stance.
Trying hard to secure an end result can make us tremble because, in truth, we know that nothing about the future can be locked down. But to try whatever we want, to follow a course for the joy in it, is a rich experience that can be had now. And it’s likely that that decision alone has the power to put us in the best position for creating exactly what we want. This means our success is in our own hands – whether they shake now and again or not.
Life is about movement, and so too is creativity. Our steadiness is established with the return of attention to the joy of our unfolding path, for then we have taken our proper place back as creators in the creative process, rather than as potential winners or losers.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.