How many times has some well-intentioned friend, family member, partner or coworker told you, when you complain about a lack of success or even just slow progress, that “You’re trying too hard” or “You’re not trying hard enough”?

It seems it’s almost always one or the other, no matter what kind of success you’re shooting for—dating, creating a good impression in a job interview, snagging a client, dieting, quitting smoking, whatever.

Somehow everybody but you seems to know that you’re not doing it right and that the worst of it is that the only thing between you and your success is your own effort, which, in their estimation is either too much or too little.

Even more exasperating than being told you’ve been getting it wrong is the predictable reaction of others among them when you take the advice of one of them, e.g., and do try harder and still fail: “You’re trying too hard.” OK. So you then try not to try so hard and still fail. Predictably, someone among them will then advise you that you aren’t trying hard enough. Try that, fail and the criticism cycle will repeat.

If this “damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t” treatment weren’t exasperating, confusing and demoralizing enough—in compounding the misery of failure with implied accusations of it’s all being your own fault—you also are stuck with knowing with near certainty that such two-phase fault-finding with your efforts will never abate so long as you are still complaining about or merely not achieving the success you’ve targeted for yourself. Expecting helpful advice or insights, you end up with two problems rather than just one: failure plus responsibility for it.

Two-Phased Friends

By “two-phase”—not to be confused with “two-faced—fault finding, I mean the pattern in which your confidants, as a group, will predictably shift from the “too hard” to the “not hard enough” line whenever you take either road and still do not succeed.

Take dating for example: “I never meet anybody….I’m so lonely!” you say.

In the absence of detailed information about your efforts, one in the circle of confidants will toss off “You’ve got to get out there, make more of an effort, be more patient and try harder. The squeaky wheel gets the grease; (s)he who hesitates is lost!” In that information vacuum, it could have gone the other way. “Everything comes to those who wait.” Or, “A watched pot never boils.” You not only get the idea; you’ve probably heard it all before.

Which way it goes matters less than the constant in their advice giving: You have to change something, with the implication that the “something” is in particular, only or always the intensity, frequency and forms of your efforts.

What never seems to occur to these confidants in critiquing the frequency of your effort is that perhaps

  1. Doing the same thing over and over again or even harder and expecting a different result is not a good definition of insanity, as drilling for oil, “doing the numbers” in sales cold calls, or merely repeatedly bending an expired credit card along a crease to split it in two prove.
  2. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same result is also not a good definition of insanity—unless quality control procedures, standardized engineering procedures and scientific repeatability are nutty standards. If it were, then not increasing or decreasing one’s efforts would be insane, which, in many instances, it isn’t, e.g., sticking to a fixed number of resume submissions per day as part of job-hunt discipline.

The point here is that you should not be faulted for trying too hard or not trying hard enough just because you persist.

When More or Less Effort is Pointless

What these usually well-intentioned confidants also don’t seem to grasp is that sometimes, indeed often, your efforts beyond a certain minimum are irrelevant to your success. Whether it’s a search for a job, a mate or a cure for cancer, much of the time all that matters is the minimum initial effort, as it is in buying a lottery ticket or a ticket for a flight to Tahiti.

Beyond that, there is nothing for you to do to ensure a win or a successful, safe flight for the plane—apart from abstaining from behavior that will get the flight diverted to a tarmac swarming with police.

If the flight is cancelled, no one would or should say that you didn’t try hard enough or you tried too hard to make the flight. Likewise, if you submit 100 resumes and get no replies, it may very well be all about the job market and entirely beyond your control or influence, rather than about your efforts in that market.

As for the cancer research grant application, if it’s turned down, it may have nothing to do with your effort that went into it and more to do with budget cuts, making increased or decreased future effort in connection with that grant or others like it irrelevant on a per application basis.

Why the “Too Hard-Not Hard Enough” Mantra?

So, why is the “too hard-not hard enough” mantra so likely to be chanted at you automatically, without regard for case-by-case specifics? It’s because that’s what confidants, consultants and advisers think their primary role is: to suggest a change, rather than to rubber-stamp whatever you are doing, like unimaginative, timid yes-men/women.

Moreover, unconsciously, many will have the mindset of FDA bureaucrats: better to reject something that should be accepted than to accept something that should be rejected.

So, if you are failing the success test, their mandarin risk-analyst take on it is that something is wrong and that therefore the hypothesis that your effort is not part of the problem should be rejected, just to be on the safe side.

After all, if your effort is not part of the problem, changing it can’t make matters worse, if you are thinking in a binary way, namely, that either you succeed or fail, and that if you still fail, the degree of failure matters much less than the mere fact of it. (This, despite the fact that modifying effort can compound failure dramatically and catastrophically, e.g., when boosting effort takes the form of investing even more in a sinking stock, to capitalize on “cost averaging”.)

Another reason that they will always single out your effort for criticism is that it’s one of the few variables they can influence.

Few will suggest that capitalism needs to be completely overhauled or that the power of large chemical corporations to influence what gets published about GMOs needs to be opposed and curtailed (if your paper critical of GMOs can’t get published).

Instead, you’ll be encouraged to put more effort into your stats and experimental design or to put less effort into them, e.g., by simplifying them for readability and replication before resubmission.

The core attitude of these confidants is not unlike that of a sow’s barnyard confidante who tells her that the reason she’s not making the human Miss America finals is that she’s putting on too much or too little lipstick—when the real unalterable fact and problem is that if you put lipstick on a pig it is still an ineligible pig.

Surely, the confidante reasons, it is better to keep hope alive than to be responsible for completely crushing it.

That’s why lonely hearts and desperate job hunters are more likely to be told to change their efforts rather than their goals.

After all, which would you rather hear or say: “(Don’t) try harder” or “Give up”? Of course there is a middle path to take with this kind of advice.

“(Don’t) Try harder to give up.”



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