Yoda and different kinds of trying

Yoda said “Do or do not, there is no try.” I have always had problems with this nugget of Jedi wisdom.

The semantic difference between do, do not and try is thin, but it annoys me enough to indulge my atomic hairsplitter.

The advice is superficial for doing anything interesting. Even if you are fully committed and focused, you are still likely to fail at a first marathon or novel. We all have limits, no matter how great our commitment is. To grow means putting ourselves in situations where we’re not sure we can succeed. To have complete certainty of success at a big challenge is insane, which is why rallying against the concept of a ‘try’ is ridiculous.

What Yoda’s advice implies, but doesn’t state, is that holding back prevents learning. I agree. When you hold back, you have an excuse. You can say “I didn’t really try that hard” or “I only did because you told me”. Those are the excuses that indicate a bad kind of trying. It’s trying where you just want to be able to say you tried, mostly so you don’t have to try anymore.  Commitment is investment. You get as much learning out of any attempt as you put into it. No more and no less.

My point is there is a way to try and be fully committed. You give everything, in spite of knowing it may not work. And it’s only then that you might learn what you need to learn for your next try to have higher odds of success.

So I disagree with Yoda: there is trying, just different kinds. Some are more rewarding than others. The rewarding kind is where you know going in even if you give your best you may fail, yet you do it anyway. Your eyes are open. You have faith a better version of you is on the other side of that attempt, but only if you are fully committed. There’s nothing wrong with trying if you are fully committed and not hedging. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a half-assed try either, if it gives you the motivation to make a bigger commitment next time.

(note: this post revised on 7/11/2012)

17 Responses to “Yoda and different kinds of trying”

  1. Jason

    There is no disagreeing with Yoda, there is only misunderstanding him :)

    Yoda was helping Luke to break through the rational mind. When you do, there is nothing but the doing. When you try, you’re busy thinking about doing as much as the doing. It’s like someone looking over your shoulder to see how your work is going – quite distracting.

    Morpheus in the Matrix tells Neo off, “stop trying to hit me and hit me.” ie. stop thinking about it and just do it! Trust your instincts.

  2. Dave

    To me it sounds like you agree with Yoda, in phrasing as well as sentiment.

    I always took it that he was saying that whatever you do, give everything of yourself to it. Like you said, if you’re just trying you can always fall back on “I didn’t really try that hard.” If you’re just doing then either it works (do) or it doesn’t (do not), either way there is no try…

  3. Ryan Anthony

    I think you’re both quite right Scott. And I don’t think you’re arguing against the Yoda quote here. You discuss the outcome, and the attempt, and the success or failure of the attempt. I think the quote is simply “Do or do not”, without the added “Succeed or succeed not” that you are putting in there. It’s not “Do and succeed at” but merely “Do.” I think we can all get behind that.

  4. calvin

    Great post Scott,

    There are countless such phrases that managers/organizations float around that just sends the wrong message to the audience, Thanks for the refined philosophy.

  5. Scott Berkun

    > Morpheus in the Matrix tells Neo off, “stop trying to
    > hit me and hit me.” ie. stop thinking about it and
    > just do it! Trust your instincts.

    But that’s just my point. If I took you, today, and put you in a ring with Bruce Lee, and told you “stop trying to hit him and just hit him” no matter how much you trusted yourself or had amazing instincts, the task would not be possible. Not if I took you as you are today.

    I get the sentiment and the abstract philosophical point. I believe in commitment and mastery of the mind and how our higher brains get in the way.

    But practically speaking having focus/instinct/faith whatever is only part of the challenge at achieving something. There is lots of trying and learning and fumbling that must be done.

    If you actually believed you could hit Bruce Lee, or move a mountain, or levitate your own body, on the first attempt, simply because of the state of your mind, we would rightfully call you insane.

  6. Glen B Alleman

    When I was coaching girls volleyball, I used the phrase after we lost – perfect try.

    There is no trying, either we won or we lost.

    There is no trying. You perform at the level of your capabilities. If you say Try, you know you’re not performing at the level of your capabilities and have admitted up front that it can’t be done.

    Another phrase we use is “we want to win or we want to come in last, no second.” If we’re going the spend the money for the proposal we plan on winning. If we know we can’t, then don’t submit, it’s a waste of time and money.

    Joda was a great Business Development Manager.

  7. Angel

    You wrote “The healthy kind is where you know going in even if you give your best, you may fail, yet you do it anyway”. The two most important words in this sentence are that you DO IT. That’s what Yoda is saying, “DO IT”. the fact that you may or may not fail is secondary. You do it to the best of your ability, failure and success are both necessary outcomes for learning.

  8. Richard Dalton

    I think this is a difference of “temporal perspective”.

    Yoda was suggesting that Luke put aside his doubts and have confidence that he could do it *before* he tried.

    You are suggesting that *after* trying and failing Luke shouldn’t get discouraged and that he should learn from his mistakes.

    Right, you both are ;-)

  9. Justin Warren

    Yoda clarifies the point when he lifts the X-wing out of the bog. Luke exclaims “I don’t believe it!” and Yoda replies “That is why you fail.”

    So I think you agree with Yoda. When he says “Do or do not, there is no try” he wants Luke to commit. To believe he can. Not to ‘try’, which is shorthand for doing without belief or commitment. Because then you’re probably going to fail. You’re only letting yourself down.

    Morpheus is talking about the same thing. Neo isn’t some novice who’s never done it before. He says it himself: “I know Kung Fu” and Morpheus replies “Show me.”

    Both guru archetypes are trying to get their pupil to believe in their own abilities, and when they do, they have access to a level of skill well beyond what merely ‘trying’ would have done.

    That’s how I interpret Master Yoda, anyhow. ;)

  10. Jason

    > > Morpheus in the Matrix tells Neo off…
    > But that’s just my point.
    > If I put you in a ring with Bruce Lee…

    Yeah, I’d get my ass kicked no matter what I believed (even though he’s a corpse), but it’s not about the result.

    We’re all touched in Armageddon when Ben Affleck told Liv Tyler that he’d be back. “I promise”, he said. Bought a tear to my eye. Anyway, it wasn’t a prediction that he would make it back, that would just be silly given the insurmountable odds. It was a statement to her that he will never give up.

    It’s the intent, not the attempt, that’s important.

  11. Gregg

    Great post Scott. But I think I have to agree with Jason, i think you are misunderstanding Yoda’s sentiment.

    The sentiment isn’t so much that you should be fully committed to your actions, but more to not let thinking get in the way of doing. When thinking takes precedence over doing you open the doorway to all sorts of things like self-doubt that can prevent your full potential from coming through.

    There is “action” and then there is “thought”. Or if you prefer, instinct and reason. It can be described as “what we do”, and “what we think about what we do”.

    Trying is a product of the latter. It is a label to describe a specific type of doing. It isn’t real. And it implies the potential for failure.

    “Doing” is a product of the former. It disregards the idea of failure and the outcome is always a degree of success. Babies don’t try to do anything. They just do whatever it is that they can do. And each day is a series of successes without the notion of failure. The notion of failure isn’t introduced to them until they are compared to other children.

    So Yoda isn’t saying that you should forgo “trying” and just “do”. He’s saying, literally, there is no such thing as “trying”. “Trying” is an idea, a notion. It’s an exercise in thought. And to treat it as anything more is a waste of time that could be otherwise spent “doing”.

    That’s my take.

  12. Josef


    it’s nice to see one of my favorite quotes dissected from all sides like that… lots to learn, thank you all for that.

    To me, the quote is about both success and failure. It is rather Zen-like: Just do. Don’t distract your mind with thoughts of failure when you’re done. The situation is going to be different then, deal with it when it’s in the now – if need be, by cleaning up the mess. By the way, don’t distract your mind with thoughts of success when you’re done, either. In general, success is a much rarer distraction, though I’ve experienced it in sports every once in a while. Either way: Be in the here end now: Do.

    It is also a quote about the “grey zone” we experience every day. You are right, I will most likely not beat Bruce Lee, not without training and most likely not even with. By the way, the likelihood of such an encounter is even less than my success prospect.

    I will most likely succeed in getting a cup of coffee, at least it has so far had a success rate of ~500:1 (and significantly better on the second cup of a day :-)).

    And there are a thousand situations every day where the outcome is far less certain than meeting Bruce Lee or getting a cup of coffee. In those situations, I can “try”, or I can “do”, it’s the grey zone. The quote is about exploring two types of grey zones: Those “outside” and those “inside”. We can surprise ourselves about how small the every-day outside grey is compared to the inside.

    By the way, most people don’t have the choice between “try” and “do”, they don’t have the awareness of the difference. We here reading this thread and all Yoda fans do have the choice, we have the choice to explore the grey zone.

    Every day.




  13. Sam Leitch

    I take “Do or Do Not” slightly differently: Failing is a perfect example of doing. You cannot fail unless you’re doing something.

    The difference between doing and trying is that Doers don’t expect to fail. Tryers accept the possibility.

    A Doer is more likely to succeed since they have no intention of failing. They’ll do whatever it takes to succeed (which also means failing a lot). A Tryer on the other hand will give up and call it a learning experience.

  14. Michael

    Gregg has the best explanation – at least as I have interpreted the quote. It’s an admonition to action. There is no try, because try precedes do, and is thus the same as do not.

  15. Llewbondhu

    You’re confusing “do not” w failure …you are missing the point …as doing includes failure



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