The paradox of trying less to achieve more

Have you ever had the feeling that the harder you chase something, the further out of your reach it becomes? We are told that to achieve something great in life, we need to obsessively and relentlessly  pursue our objective, sacrificing all else along the way. And that makes sense. Every day we hear inspirational success stories about athletes who have made it to the top, the endless hours in the gym when nobody else is watching, putting in the thousands of hours of deliberate, focused practice. Yes, there is no doubt about the physical effort and hardship required, pushing yourself past the physical limits, enduring more than what you thought was possible. As they say, if it was easy everyone would be doing it.

But paradoxically, it seems that the more you depend on achieving your goal, the less likely you actually are of getting there. This seems to hold true whether in relation to sport, music, careers, or relationships.

I have pondered over this for years, wondering if it a real phenomenon or mere illusion, as I chased my own hurling dreams.

My brothers and I were hurling in nappies, I remember well my first training session in St Paul’s when I was 8. Hurling, like for many in Ireland, was woven into the fabric of our lives. We could name every player of ’89 All-Ireland team by nickname, and dreamed of Croke Park decked in Saffron. Every summer the stack of video cassettes in our house grew, as we recorded every All-Ireland championship game off the teilifís for repeated viewing, cursing the tall trees across the road for our grainy RTÉ coverage. By 17 years old, I didn’t want to succeed, I needed to succeed. As I looked up to my brother lining out for the Antrim senior team and playing for Fitzgibbon Cup for the University of Limerick. I came home one day after a trial for the Antrim minors, lying in bed in hysterics because I thought I didn’t do well, my mother comforting me that it probably wasn’t that bad. Others who didn’t seem to care as much actually did better, how could that be? I still have my training diary from that year, with entries from every game and training session, going into great detail about what I did wrong, how many wides I hit, how many times I got hooked, how many fouls I gave away. And the more I obsessed about being hooked and fouling, the more I got hooked and the more fouls I gave away.

Fast forward a few years, driving home with my housemates after a trial for the UL Fitzgibbon Cup team, as the boys chatted about the game, I couldn’t even speak as my eyes welled up and I filled with rage after not reaching my high expectations. The others didn’t even seem too worried that they didn’t have the game of their lives, did they not care? Reflecting now, it is no surprise that my friends made the team as I continued my self-destructive crusade against the injustices of the world. In attempting to remedy the situation and remove the negativity, I read sport psychology books. I think I read them all, but they didn’t really help.

And on it went, the more I fought my injuries, the more injured I became. The more I needed to make it, the more elusive it seemed.

Last year, I listened to this Joe Rogan Experience podcast with Dr Dan Engle and Aubrey Marcus that struck a chord and perfectly articulated this strange catch 22:

If your identity is too wrapped up in one thing you will crave the success in such a way that you need it. And the minute you need something it bellies a certain underlying fear that you aren’t going to get that. And the second you fear you’re not going to get that you aren’t going to perform to the best of your ability.

The universe loves going around playing gotcha with anything we have too much attachment too – Aubrey Marcus


They spoke about the need to diversify your interests to the point where you don’t need attachment to any one thing. Getting to the point where you’ve mastered that art to such a degree that you don’t crave it to form your identity. Not being afraid of not succeeding.

This concept popped up again last week when reading the wonderfully titled book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**K, by Mark Manson. As Manson puts it to the reader;

Ever notice when you care less about something you do better at it? The person least invested in the success of something ends up achieving it. He refers to this as the Backwards Law, or Law of Reversed Effort, as coined by philosopher Alan Watts.Wu Wei

Further investigation revealed, as is often the case with our understanding of the world, that people
figured this out thousands of years ago. Lao Tzu explains in the Tao Te Ching, published in 6th Century BC, the paradox of wei wu wei: “action without action”, or “effortless doing”. It turns out that the wisdom of wei wu wei is a fundamental tenet of Taoism. Wu wei is action that does not involved struggle or excessive effort. One cannot actively pursue wu wei, but it manifests as a result of cultivation.

The Sage is occupied with the unspoken
and acts without effort.
Teaching without verbosity,
producing without possessing,
creating without regard to result,
claiming nothing,
the Sage has nothing to lose.

-Tao Te Ching, Chapter II

My interpretation of all this is that it doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard, but that you don’t depend on it working out to validate your perceived identity. If you immerse yourself in the action, without defining your success based on how far you go, you will actually achieve more.

Looking back over the years, I see the truth in this philosophy and wu wei being acted out. Many of my friends who just hurled away, not getting too uptight or crazy about playing at county level, invariably ended up getting there. They just enjoyed the art of hurling and stuck at it with self-belief, as Lao Tzu says; creating without regard to result, claiming nothing. I thought if I knew a future All-Ireland medal winner that I’d see them coming, blazing a trail behind him. But it turns out they didn’t scream their intention for hurling domination from the roof tops, they worked quietly away and enjoyed life either way. They persevered when others would give up, certainly, and no doubt they suffered physical and mental torture at time, the road to success, of course, is paved with failure. But they didn’t pin all their hopes on this one thing, they didn’t depend on it.

In positive pshycology, this is called Flow, as named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: when a person is performing an activity fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. But you can’t force it, it is wu wei, only when you don’t consciously try to achieve flow can you achieve it, for the trying itself takes away from the full involvement and absorption of the task. As I learned with my sport psychology books, I couldn’t force myself to have the confidence and self-belief that they spoke about.

Obviously, I wish that I had learned all this 12 years ago when I was getting serious about hurling, but unfortunately I wasn’t in to my Taoism as much at the time. But for those who are setting out on a journey of their own, I would certainly heed the ancient wisdom:

Set your goals and work hard, but go with the flow and whatever you do don’t worry about it too much.

Author: Cairbre

Cairbre is the face behind Feed Me Strength. Cairbre has previously worked as Strength and Conditioning coach for Arsenal Women FC, Arsenal Youth Academy, and the Limerick Hurling Academy. He has a passion for athletic performance and an endless curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind.

UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.

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