As you strive more, you get less

Very often we have the feeling that as more we strive to achieve something, we less succeed.

And so it is. A typical case is when we have insomnia: as we care more about sleeping, less can get to sleep. As the minutes pass, or even the hours, we are more stressed and less we can sleep.

Another situation is when you want to make a good impression to your superiors and try to have a good performance during a key meeting. Nerves betray you and you end up performing a poor role that does not make a particularly good impression among participants, perhaps even a bad one.

Paradox of we-wei

This phenomenon is known as the paradox of we-wei. It was identified thousands of years ago by Chinese thinkers. As they believed, you have to try to get something, but without trying to. Because if you try, you get less so. Therefore, treat is not good, but not to treat is also not good. Then, what can we do?

Edward Slingerland addresses this issue in his recent book Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity and provides tips about how you can act so that you may live more spontaneously and that, at the same time, your performance be better.

He argues that in many everyday situations it is worth more to rely on the reaction of the body, or of the unconscious mind, than on a conscious effort. Something like when we play a game of tennis, for example, just for fun and perform brilliantly. But when we play some important game, maybe in a tournament, we do so awkwardly.

In the first case, we let the automatic reaction of the body to take over. In the second one, the conscious mind, tries to take control of the situation, interferes with the natural action of the body and hurts our performance.

Slingerland leads us to the past to review the solution to this paradox that four Chinese sages reached: Mencius, Confucius, Laozi and Zhuangzi.

These sages called we-wei when you leave to your automatic reactions to take care of the situation. They agree that this is better than always acting under the control of the conscious mind. The achievements are greater.

But not only this, when operating in we-wei you provoke de, which is a projection of tranquility, security and trust, which is perceived by others. De facilitates the relationship with whom you live.

All they recognize the paradox we-wei. If you try to operate in we-wei, you don’t get it. To operate in we-wei you should avoid trying. But, somehow, you must try.


Unfortunately there is no consensus among them on how to achieve we-wei. Each one provides a solution that is largely incompatible with those given by the others.

Confucius proposes that through strive to follow deliberately certain behaviors, finally the body adapts to them and respond correctly and automatically when they have been assimilated. Something like how you learn to drive. At the beginning you do each of the tasks consciously, accelerate, stop, go, but afterwards you do them automatically.

Laozi suggests to let yourself be carried away by your natural automatic response. He thought that that since birth you have imbued the appropriate response to each situation and simply you must let yourself be guided by them. Nature (plants and animals) does not have a mind that guide it and, however, they carries out it  functions properly. Mind clutters the man. It conditions and controls him so that he deviates from the correct behavior.

Mencius believes that automatic reactions are important, but it is necessary to regulate them. They must pass through the filter of the mind and be adjusted as needed. Over time you can exercise less supervision and rely more on automatic answers without question.

Zhuangzi advises that easily let yourself be guided by your values, by what you consider convenient, without worrying if you try or not try, simply doing what you have to do.

But, the question remains: what should we do? Whom to follow? The author of the book considers that depending on the circumstances and the way of being of each person, you can adopt the appropriate strategy to each situation. It provides some practical examples of how you can discern what is most suitable.

Note. I received this book from Blogging for Books for review.