“Trying” is a dirty word

betty ming liu Inspiration 15 Comments

After a few weeks of conducting a personal experiment, I am here to report my findings: “Trying” dooms my efforts to failure. “Trying” shows a lack of confidence.

This discovery process started a few weeks ago when I was overwhelmed by Superstorm Sandy. After the electricity was restored in early November, I was swamped with things to do. From juggling a busy work schedule to dealing with household tasks, the demands on my time were piling up. It took me forever just to clean the spoiled food from the fridge and then restock our groceries.

Even though I tried to be efficient, I kept falling behind. Then one day a few weeks ago, I just decided that the word “try” was part of my problem. Since then, I’ve eliminated “try” and “trying” from my vocabulary. Now life is better!

Don’t: I tried calling you.  I used to say this a lot and write it in emails. The more I thought about it, the more stupid that sentence sounded. Did I call or not? I did. Well, if that’s the case, then why say “tried?” There’s no good answer to that, which is why I now write or say: “I called you.” Okay, so maybe I didn’t get the response I wanted. But that’s another issue. The point is, I accomplished what I set out to do. I called.

Don’t: I try to exercise a few times a week. Of course, getting to the gym is a constant, uphill battle. The days fly by but what’s the point of guilting myself about that? Instead, I’m retraining my head as well as body. The new line: “I do my best to get to the gym a few times a week.” Or maybe: “My goal is to get in a half-hour swim a few times a week.”

Do: I’m working on (fill in the blank). “I’m trying to get a new job.” “I’m trying to get into grad school.” I’m hearing these lines a lot lately from friends. Their phrasing instantly reveals anxiety. If they had said, “I’m working on getting a new job” or “I’m applying to grad school,” that would be better. It would show they viewed themselves as part of an on-going process. Staying positive is the hardest thing in the world. Practice in even small ways can help.

Here’s another example…when I returned to a full-time reporter’s job after a 16-year haitus, I struggled to find my 21st century game. In the beginning, I felt very small. My insecurity showed. I would tell my editors, “I’m trying to do a story on X” or “I’m trying to get an interview with so-and-so.” But in the interest of preserving my reputation and everyone’s sanity, I learned to rephrase: “I heard about blah blah, which might be a good story. ” And this: “I called so-and-so about XYZ; he’s getting back to me tomorrow with his answer.” Don’t I sound more in control?

Do: I am (fill in the blank). Even after I was a professional journalist, it took me ages to say with confidence: “I am a writer.” That’s because journalism is quite formulaic and I used to hold creative writers in higher esteem. Once again, we’re talking about a confidence issue. In time, I learned to look people in the eye as I told them, “I’m a writer.” In recent years, I moved onto redefining myself in other ways. When I began painting classes, I initially explained that I was trying to paint. Forget that! Ask me now and I will tell you with no hesitation that I am an artist. Period.


I often think of another example I read long ago in a self-help book. Hey, speaking of books, please go get one now. Aha! You’re holding a book in your hand, right? You didn’t tell me, “Okay, Betty, I’m gonna try to pick up a book.” You can’t try to pick up a book. Either you’ve picked it up or not. This is true even if you’re in physical therapy recovering from a hand injury. (In which case, it’s not about trying to pick up a book but recovering skills. You are working on your skills. See the difference?)

We become self-fulfilling prophecies. This is the deeper conclusion from my “trying” experiment. If I look in the mirror and see someone who is always trying, trying, trying, trying, well, that’s too sad because I will never catch up.

Better to view myself as a doer. Yes, I am fulfilling my dreams.

We’re almost at the end of 2012. Let’s not look back and feel it was the year we tried to do this or that. Please stop and reflect. Stuff actually happened. Let’s acknowledge our (incremental) accomplishments!

And now I am going downstairs to putter in the kitchen. It’s become an even cozier space, thanks to the Christmas tree. Last December, we tried (!) to pull our fake wonder out of the basement and put it up — and failed, of course. This year, we simply decided to do it. The animals are thoroughly enjoying our efforts too.  Every morning, I find a few ornaments from the tree on the floor. The cats didn’t try to play with them or break them. They just went ahead and did both. Meow.


Comments 15

  1. Betty,
    Yoda said it long ago “Do or do not, there is no try”
    Why do you need a gym to exercise? For me the last place I consider to be a good place to exercise is the gym. I totally hate goin there, except perhaps to swim. Maybe you could benefit from another, more natural form of exercise. Go for a walk to the store instead of driving or ride your bike. If it happens to snow enough go skiing around the neighborhood. Try– OOps– Sample diffrent forms of exercise. Ask yourself why am I doing all this training at the gym if it not for a greater purpose? Perhaps there is a climbing gym for you to experience. Perhaps working out at the gym boring? What is all this training for?
    I find it is only meaningful if you have a goal.
    Find something you have never done, such as hiking to the summit of a mountain and make that the real goal. Then your trips to the gym are training. Steps to a much larger goal.
    What do you think of that idea?

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  3. I loved this particular story you wrote! It’s amazing, just yesterday I was telling a friend of mine I was really going to “try” to take a walk every morning before my shower. Guess who already failed! So instead, I am going to work on walking at least twice a week :)

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  6. As I am not a writer – for a living or otherwise, I found this article very helpful as when I plan my weekly/daily things to do. All of my planning is done mentally, nothing is written down. If I think it that means I want to do it and, usually, I rarely let myself down. “Try” means I can be wishy washy and I don’t have to hold myself accountable.

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    Frequent reader, that’s exactly the point! When I use the word “try,” it usually means other forces are at work. Ambivalence has a lot to do with “trying.” And thanks re the kitchen. Everyone loves to hang out there to eat, watch TV and talk. :)

  8. This is exactly what I needed! At the end of the year, it makes me see that I did more than I thought. I agree that we become self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s time to speak what we want and do what we say. Trying gets tired! I’ve been there.

    Thank you with a capital ”T.”

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  9. Thanks for this, Betty! I’ve been thinking about it all week. The part about learning to say “I’m a writer” especially caught my eye. I have a friend, also in the beginning of her career, who always says that, and I thought it sounded kind of pretentious. But I think you’re right that we should be proud and take credit even when we’re works-in-progress!

    1. Yes, we are works in progress! I have such a hard time with this. I’ve been working as a reporter for almost two years, but I still don’t see myself as a writer. But I am! So I should be proud, because every day I’m growing and perfecting my craft! I’m not becoming a writer, I’m becoming a better writing!

  10. Thanks Betty, I’m working my way around this word as well. I noticed since this summer started everything that I finished I “worked on” instead of “try”.

    I’m organising my space right now, trying- no WORKING to get control of my life starting from the bedroom c:. I’ve been working on it for half a year now. From before my parents took control of my room. My mom puts everything where it is while the rest of my family criticizes it (girl’s room should be cute and clean). I tried to handle it but I think I gave up long ago.. Nope not going to happen anymore! I’m finally going to feel comfortable in my own darn room. (It sounds silly I know but I’m slow-…I mean I’m just a silly person).

    (yikes it gets kinda long from here, I’m sorry for ranting again Betty!)

    I’m also working on my “feedback from parents” loop. It’s really hard since all I’ve been doing for 20+ years is try to win their approval and love. When my mom (finally) outright tells me that I shouldn’t get a job I completely lost all drive and crashed for the last few days. She’s been “subtlety” discouraging me from applying by being snappy and angry so I’m happy she just outright tells me what’s wrong haha. She says I’m being too dependent on others. That I should be find just creating my own studying schedule and be happy with myself. That I don’t need money. I should just be studying so I can get a real job. I should just snap out of “being so down” and learn some self control.

    I won’t ignore her advice (she’s my mom afterall) but I feel like she doesn’t understand where I’m coming from. If I get a job this summer it will probably be the first time I ever really disregarded my mom’s advice. I’m scared because she’s right, I am still too dependent, dependent on her. I don’t know how I can find myself again. But I will work to find it.

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