The Value of Trying
January 8, 2016
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Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. Quote from Mark Twain.Photo Credit: Moyan Brenn

This post explores the benefits of trying things – whether it’s starting something new, taking that final step to finish a project, or just learning how to relate differently to your present circumstances.  Trying something new is empowering and can lead to a variety of positive outcomes, some of which are unexpected.   In addition to the value of trying, this post looks at the common roadblocks to change, notably: fear, discouragement and perfectionism.

This is a long article, so it’s been divided into several sections:
1.) Introduction
2.) What Does it Mean to Try?
3.) Stay Open to Possibility
4.) Fear = Biggest Hindrance to Trying New Things
5.) Let Go of the Concept of Failure
6.) Taking Action (i.e., Trying) is Empowering
7.) Ignore those Old Beliefs and Grow
8.) Novelty = Good for Health
9.) Let Go of Perfectionism

Introduction

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”            -Mark Twain

It’s human nature to regret choices or actions that bring undesirable results.  Everybody gets that.  However, as the legendary Mr. Twain noted, even greater disappointment can come from not trying at all and wondering what could have been.

Life is both short and precious.  Whether you live to 30 or 100, it goes by quickly.  You don’t want to find yourself at the end of your life saying, “I wish I had done that, gone there, or loved more.”

This is perhaps one of the greatest blessings related to the reality of death.  When you lose a loved one, or something else precious like your own health, it provides a wake up call that helps put your priorities in order.   You get a clearer sense of the finiteness of time and what really matters.  This can provide that courage and motivation to stop ignoring your inner voice when it says, “hey, that sounds really cool, why don’t you check it out.”  Or, “that dream I’ve always had…I’m going to give it a shot now.”  Or, “you know, I really matter, I’m going to put my health first from now on and start eating better, exercising more, and lowering my stress.”

Hopefully this post will provide some inspiration, motivation and encouragement to start trying something – either a new endeavor or simply a different way of relating to your current life, with all its beauty and challenges.

What Does it Mean to Try?

Trying simply means “to make an attempt at” doing something.  It’s about putting forth some amount of time and energy to solve a problem, learn something new, or make a change. Any effort counts with regards to trying, although everybody knows the difference between giving 100% versus taking a more half-baked approach.  It’s important to be mindful of which camp you fall into, so the results of your efforts can be evaluated realistically.

For example, if you want to learn how to surf and you try one time, without any instruction or proper equipment, then you’re unlikely to get an accurate picture of your potential as a surfer.  On the other hand, if you make a commitment to taking a few lessons and diligently applying the feedback of your instructor, then you’ll get a better idea of what your future may hold on the surfboard.  And if you take it a step further, deciding to spend a whole year surfing as often as you can, you’ll see even more in terms of potential and results.

Research suggests that it can take anywhere from 3 weeks to 9 months to form a new habit (depending on the habit and other influencing factors).  Yes, that’s a big range, but the good news is that’s really not a very long time in the big scheme of things.  I’m making this last point to demonstrate that when effort is applied consistently, results will follow.  The results may not be exactly what we want in terms of progress, but some forward progress will be made when we try something and keep at it.

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Stay Open to Possibility

The fact remains that nobody really knows how anything will turn out, as every activity, hobby, relationship or vocation is always a work in progress. There are no guarantees in life, in either a positive or negative direction, (except when it comes to “death and taxes,” as Benjamin Franklin gets credit for noting many moons ago!).

It’s often hard to discern what one’s true potential is in any endeavor.  For example, you may give 100% effort with your surfing hobby and find that you’re not progressing as quickly as other surfers.  You may draw the conclusion that you just don’t have enough “natural ability” or “talent” in comparison to others.  But, you really have no idea about this.  You could keep at it, trying new approaches and techniques and then, 2-3 years later, find that you’ve excelled beyond your peers.

Tom Brady, one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in professional football, was a backup quarterback his first two years in college and wasn’t sure if he’d even get drafted.  He didn’t possess the athletic talent that so many other peers did at the time.  The pundits said things like “He’s too slow, lacks mobility, isn’t strong enough.”  Yes, some positives were recognized, but it wasn’t until late in second-to-last round of the professional draft that he finally got picked.  Brady said, however, that he always believed in himself and felt he would succeed given the right opportunity.

Jeremy Lin - the value of trying
Jeremy Lin / Photo Credit: DvYang

NBA star Jeremy Lin is an even better example of this.  He wasn’t drafted out of college, but he kept trying, kept pursuing his dreams, even when it meant sleeping on a friends couch while playing professional basketball. He didn’t do great at Golden State, he was initially waived by the Houston Rockets,  and then he got his big break with the NY Knicks, where his style of play fit well with the system (similar to Tom Brady — if Brady played for another team/system, he may not have been as successful, but he and Belichek have been an incredible unit in New England).

It’s also hard to know what events may take your life is a completely different, but lovely direction.

Four-time National Basketball Assocation Champion and two-time MVP, Tim Duncan, illustrates this point well.  His athletic career started out in the swimming pool, but during his teen years, a hurricane ruined the only training pool available in St. Croix, where he lived, so he started playing basketball.  What if that storm never hit?  Who knows if Mr. Duncan would have ever even made it to the NBA, let alone the pinnacle of the game.  One could argue that Mother Nature made him into a basketball player.

Keep this in mind: you just never know how things will turn out and what the future has in store.

The Vast Planes of Possibility

Both history and science tell us it’s important to keep our mind open to possibilities, instead of jumping to premature conclusions.  Respected family therapist and author, Bill O’Hanlon, developed a method of psychotherapy referred to as Possibility Therapy. (That’s actually how I look at any kind of psychotherapy, but I appreciated that he so explicitly named his method as such.)

Anyway, the philosophy of Possibility Therapy recognizes that individuals are already experts on their problems and goals in life, and that the task of therapy is to evoke the existing resources, solutions, strengths, etc. that are already there.  In the context of psychotherapy, the goal may be to feel happier or improve relationships, but these principles can be applied to any task or endeavor.

In Possibility Therapy, O’Hanlon stresses the importance of keeping an open mind about what may happen.  This includes eschewing ideas of “normalcy” which are really just subjective judgments that can be self-limiting.

In the context of psychotherapy, he describes the collaborative relationship between psychotherapist and client by using a taxi cab metaphor.

“We (the psychotherapist) view ourselves as cab drivers. Yes, we have a vast knowledge of the city, traffic patterns and various routes to reach any given destination, but the client provides us with the destination and we negotiate the route.” – Bill O’Hanlon

This empowers the clients to tap into their existing resources and intelligence to find their own way.

When it comes to trying new things, you can essentially be this support to yourself that O’Hanlon describes as the therapist’s role, by tapping into your own undiscovered or latent abilities, and using existing strengths.

As mentioned, giving up preconceived notions and expectations is an important part of growth, as it creates an opening for authentic, fresh experiences. Interpersonal Neurobiologist, Daniel Siegel, MD, explains how our minds tend to perceive stimuli in more narrow, rather than expansive, ways as we’re exposed to new experiences.  He illustrates this theory uses by discussing three related concepts known as the “planes of possibility,” “plateaus of probability” and “peaks of certainty.”

Journey and Possibility by Kendra Luck, Dogumentarian.com
Photo Credit: Kendra Luck

When somebody is totally open and receptive, then a vast, open plane of possibilities exist in one’s mind about what may happen.  In these situations, the probability of a certain thing happening is essentially at zero.  People often experience this when trying something for the first time, where they don’t really know what is going to happen and they don’t have prior associative experiences that would contribute to much anticipation. They are open-minded in these situations.

In contrast, when you hear a particular word, or approach an activity that is familiar, then the mind shifts to a more specific place. He refers to these as “peaks of certainty.”  This is when the mind is brimming with certainty and expectation about what may happen.

Plateaus of probability are the places in between that open-minded space and the strong expectation of certainty.  Keep in mind what I said earlier, that nothing is really 100% certain, unless it’s “death and taxes,” but our minds are kind of wired to go to the place of certainty, even when limited data is available.

In one of his lectures, Dr. Siegel gives a great example illustrating these concepts that involves a child and a dog.  When a child first sees a dog – this furry creature that barks, wags and jumps about – it’s the most incredible thing in the world!  The child has never seen something like it before and is completely mesmerized.

Now, the next time the child sees a dog, it may still be quite interesting to him/her, but it will feel slightly different, because now the child has this mental representation of what a “dog” is.

By the time the child has seen a dog for the 10th time, it’s no longer as exciting as it was the first time, because now the child has all these preconceived notions about what the dog is and what to expect based on past experiences.  Yes, there might still be excitement upon seeing the dog (if the prior experiences have been positive), but the impact will be diluted.

This process reflects a natural narrowing of the mind, whereby now it just sees “another dog,” when in reality, no two dogs are exactly alike.  That’s just how the mind works and certainly, there’s an adaptive side of this, as we need to be able to learn from experience and apply this learning to new situations.

However, there’s also a problematic side to this, in that people can eventually get “stuck” in the peaks of certainty that limit how they experience the world.  This happens most dramatically when somebody has experienced trauma.

For example, say the aforementioned child’s first exposure to a dog was a bad one that involved getting bitten.  The child goes from that open plane of “wow, look at this neat being” to the peak of certainty of “dogs are scary and hurtful.”  The next time the child sees a dog he will probably quickly shift to the “peak” of fear, even if that next dog is completely harmless.   Without altering influences, the child is likely to get “stuck” in this type of peak of certainty, which will limit his opportunities to experience dogs in either a benign or pleasurable way.

As Dr. Siegel notes, a healthy mind exists when there is fluidity between all three categories, rather than getting stuck in one or the other.  In other words, we need to have access to all of these mind processes – “planes of possibility,” “plateaus of probability” and “peaks of certainty” – in order to function well.

Practices like psychotherapy and mindfulness help train the mind to move more freely among these realms – from the open plane to more specific places of certainty and back again. This is healthy because it allows you to see what’s truly happening and available in each unique moment and experience, in contrast to a more biased perception rooted predominantly in the past.

So, that may have been a bit of a tangent, but I just love Dan Siegel’s work which highlights the importance of staying open to possibilities, an important mindset when it comes to trying things, as you just never know how they will turn out.

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Fear = Biggest Hindrance to Trying New Things

As most people would agree, fear is a big barrier to trying new things. Granted, some folks relish the idea of novelty and change, but for most, fear of the unknown is quite strong, often worse than the fear associated with a guaranteed bad outcome. This explains why people will sometimes stay in bad situations, because it’s less scary than taking a leap into the unknown.

Alex Lickerman, MD, talks about his fear of trying new things on his blog, “Happiness in this World: Reflections of a Buddhist Physician.”

He notes how he feels fear something new when it presents the possibility of danger; when no threat exists, he’s quite enthusiastic about trying something new. I’m sure many people can relate!

Similar to the plugs I’ve already made about being “open” to possibilities and so forth, when working with fear it can be helpful to take a similar tact.  Try to stay open and curious about what may happen, rather than assuming a negative outcome.  Of course, negative things can happen, but you don’t really know for sure until they do (within the bounds of reason). So, try to expand your mindset from thinking the negative is likely to happen, to considering it one possibility of many.  Far too often, negative, catastrophic predictions simply don’t pan out.

Alternatively, it can also be interesting to deliberately cultivate a positive cognitive bias, where you essentially choose to be optimistic and assume a good outcome. With a lot of new endeavors (acquiring a new skill or habit), people’s default response is to go to that place of fear and pessimism. Playing with a positive bias may free up some energy to take that first step in trying something new.  You can take a moderately positive approach here with self-talk like “this may go well, so let’s see.”

It’s always good to experiment with different approaches and see how they go.  If one tact leads to a sense of increased energy, excitement or inspiration, rather than doubt, discouragement and procrastination, then you know you’re onto something.

Photo Credit: A Winning Personality
Photo Credit: A Winning Personality

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Let Go of the Concept of “Failure”

I put “failure” in quotes because the word is imbued with such negativity, when in reality something is always gained when you try something, regardless of the outcome.

As Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest male basketball player to walk the planet said:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Or, think of the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Sanders.  Granted, you may not find the thought of fried chicken inspiring, but you can learn from his story.  When he decided to market his chicken to restaurants, he was turned down over 1,000 times, before he finally found a business partner.  He was in his 60’s at the time.   What if he gave up on try number 100?  Some of you are probably thinking, we’d be a lot better off as a country with fewer fast food options, but, the fact remains: his story does illustrate the power of perseverance.

Other notable folks who failed before achieving tremendous success include author JK Rowling (1st Harry Potter book rejected over 10 times by publishers); Henry Ford (his first automobile company went belly up); and Walt Disney (who early in his career was told that he lacked imagination and had multiple failed ventures, including an initial rejection of the famed Mickey Mouse).

“Failure” isn’t as bad as it seems and is actually a necessary part of the learning process.  It needs to be seen for what it is – information to help guide your next step – rather than something more personal like a flaw.  Research shows that having a “growth” oriented mindset (e.g., a belief in the power of persistence and effort) versus one that is “fixed” (e.g., rigid and full of certainty) leads to more successful outcomes.

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Taking Action (i.e., Trying) is Empowering

“Happy people plan actions, they don’t plan results.”

-Dennis Waitley

Taking action is empowering, regardless of the outcome. Oftentimes, people have an idea of what would be good for them, but apprehension, discouragement, or simply not knowing where to begin, get in the way of taking that first step.

Perhaps you want to try something physical, like swing dancing or tennis.  Or, maybe it’s something more artistic that piques your interest, like learning how to sculpt or play the guitar.  Anything that generates curiosity and excitement – that triggers a sense of increased vitality – is worth pursuing.

Too often in life, people get stuck in limited mindsets. For example, the let’s-be-practical-mindset might sound like “I don’t have enough time to do that” or “there are more important things to be doing than pursuing a hobby.”  The discouraged mindset, which focuses on outcome and fear of failure, sounds like “I’d never be good at that,” “I don’t have any creative talent” or “I’m terribly uncoordinated.”

But, most people can attest to the experience of trying something new and feeling good about taking that step, regardless of where it led.  For example, it can be something as simple as speaking up to your spouse or co-worker.  You may tell them about something that is bothering you.  Regardless of whether they change, there is something empowering about just naming it and putting it out there.

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Ignore Those Old Beliefs and Grow

Beliefs about what is possible or likely to occur are sometimes grounded in reality.  And, at other times, they’re not!

“Old” beliefs or worldviews, like “I don’t have any creative talent” or “hobbies are a waste of time” are typically learned early in life and should be seen for what they are – thoughts.  Unfortunately, these thoughts can get in the way of pursuing activities that can, at a minimum, enrich one’s life.  Sometimes, these initially casual pursuits can lead to something really special, like finding a lifelong passion or new career.

If you’re wondering about the accuracy of your belief system, it can be helpful to reflect on its origins.  When did the belief first enter your mind?   Who did you learn it from?  What would they have to gain from you harboring this belief?

Understanding where these thoughts and beliefs come from can often provide more space for you to see them for what they are – just conditioning, and not necessarily reality.

Let’s take a scenario to illustrate how conditioning works with the belief of “I’m not athletic.”  Let’s say you come from a family of intellectuals, where engaging in cognitive pursuits, like reading, writing and science, is most valued.  Because your family never really valued sports, they didn’t engage in them, and accordingly, you hear a lot of jokes about how “your father is so uncoordinated, he could never swing a bat.”  You’re also female, growing up in a part of the world where girls are not encouraged to play sports, nor given many opportunities to do so.  So, you basically have no role models that would be considered athletic, nor anybody pushing you in this direction. Then, you get to school and the first sport you try is not that interesting to you, so you don’t feel very engaged by it and consequently, you don’t learn much.  You then try another physical activity, but this time, your instructor lacks the charisma and knowledge to teach you well.  You find yourself bored and frustrated, which doesn’t lead to good skill development.  You come away from these experiences thinking, “yeah, I’m just not athletic…sports aren’t for me” and you go back to pursuing more scholarly endeavors, where you get more positive reinforcement from your peers and family.

That’s an example of how conditioning works.  That hypothetical girl never had the chance to really test the belief “I’m not athletic” for its validity because the process of exploration was interrupted.

If something is interesting to you, if it makes you excited or curious when you think about it, that’s good data that points to the value of trying it.  Even if it seems like the wackiest idea you ever had, go ahead and take that first step.  Then, see what internal feedback you get.  You’ll often find a new source of energy, inspiration or creativity bubbling up just from starting the process.  That’s also good data.

If you get stuck in the place of “I’ll never succeed at that,” read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.  In it he discusses what is known as the “10,000 hour rule.”  This basically says that it takes about 10,000 hours of practicing something to become a master at it.  Yes, there’s also some “luck,” in the form of being exposed to certain opportunities that tend to differentiate the known elite from those merely at the expert level, but the fact remains that putting in time leads to skill attainment.  So, if you want to get better at something, put in the time, instead of jumping to conclusions that you can’t succeed.

This makes me think of former superstar tennis pros and long-time rivals during the 1980’s, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.  Martina clearly had natural physical talent.  She worked hard and had tremendous success.  Chrissie, on the other hand, wasn’t as gifted athletically, but she also worked very hard and relied more on her mental prowess.  My guess is that Chris had to work harder on the physical skills, but she eventually developed them well enough to succeed at the highest level. I don’t know this for fact, but I’ve seen this happen with other athletes as well.

For example, Kobe Bryant is considered by many to be the one of the best male basketball players ever.  You can tell he’s incredibly talented athletically, but want to know something else?  His peers say that he was one of the hardest working players they know.  All-Star Ray Allen is the same.  It’s no surprise that this NBA 3-pointer record holder is someone who has practiced thousands and thousands of shots, including hundreds before each game.  No magic there, just a lot of blood, sweat and tears.

Personally, I find it comforting to know that talent plays less of a role than skill development when it comes to success.  Yes, talent plays a role, as does opportunity, like Malcolm Gladwell discovered.  But, hard (and strategic) work is the key ingredient.

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Trying Something New is Good for Your Health

Trying something new is good for your health!  This is probably something we all know on an intuitive level, but now there’s the science to back it up.

For example, studies show that novel activities can both enhance one’s mood and contribute to regeneration of brain cells. So, trying something new can improve both your emotional life and also make you smarter.

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Let Go of Perfectionism and Take that First or Final Step

“A final work product doesn’t have to be perfect to produce strong results. However, the project must be essentially complete.” – Steve Pavlina

Sometimes perfectionism, which is a close cousin of fear, gets in the way of trying things. We create all kinds of arbitrary rules about how things should be before we can “feel ready” to take that next step.  I had a friend who felt that he couldn’t start his own meditation practice until he had taken a formal class, bought a sitting cushion and set up a special room in her house with all of the necessary Buddhist accoutrements.   Because this involved several steps, there was always some excuse for not getting started.

I encouraged him to keep it simple, by listening to a short instructional tape and then giving it a shot.  This turned out to be motivating.  Taking that first step provided some immediate feedback (e.g., “it felt relaxing, similar to what I do in yoga”) and made it easier to start exploring additional ways to build and support his meditation practice, by going to classes and reading more.

Letting go of perfectionism can be applied not only to starting something new, but also to finishing something.  Personal Development blogger Steve Pavlina makes an excellent distinction between the value of completion vs. perfection.  He uses a good example of how a second-rate, but complete film script can be made into a movie, but a meticulously written half script is essentially worthless.  This isn’t to make a case for mediocrity, but more to demonstrate that there comes a time when you need to let go of perfectionism and take a stab at something.

Trying something is a necessary step that can lead to completion.  If you keep trying things, in the form of taking that next step, then you’ll eventually finish your project.  A tremendous amount of satisfaction and sense of accomplishment comes with finishing something that you started, regardless of how it turns out.

Conclusion – The Value of Trying

In conclusion, there is tremendous value in trying things.  You learn things about yourself and enrich your experience of life in general.  Oftentimes, starting something new can lead to uncharted, beautiful territory that is impossible to anticipate.  So, if you feel some curiosity, some interest, some potential benefit, go ahead and give it a whirl.  And work with whatever gets in the way of doing so.

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  1. Thank you Kim. I think this piece really seems to capture the essence of Healthypsych.

    For me this is a great reminder to keep trying, even in the face of challenge, even in those times of trying to forge a new trail.

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