I recently wrote about my views on quitting, but it appears that I have more to say about it. In an effort to allow all of my thoughts to come out however they want, I sat down and typed. There are some thematic redundancies and similarities to the other story, but I thought someone might like to read it anyway. And be warned that there are a few Star Wars references in the following text.
I spent a good amount of my life carrying a lightsaber clipped to my belt. It continued way beyond an age where it would be considered appropriate. However, I’ve recently had the unfortunate realization that some of Yoda’s wisdom might be tremendously misguided.
“Do, or do not. There is not try.” This quote has been taken out of context over the years and represents the basis of a huge issue I’ve had in my life.
Yoda says this after Luke Skywalker claims he’ll “give it a try” when he is having trouble lifting a gigantic spacecraft out of a swamp using his brain powers. It’s about commitment. It’s about following through.
I think most people my age grew up with the Yoda, baby-boomer wisdom. Anything you do, do it! Give it everything you’ve got. Don’t ever give up. This sounds inspirational and reasonable, but it’s ridiculous. It’s this idea that before you even attempt anything, you must fully commit to it, or it’s not worth it. Don’t curiously see if you’re able to make the spacecraft move using your brain powers, lift it completely out of the swamp or don’t even bother at all.
In Skywalker’s case, it totally applies. He’s already committed to becoming a Jedi, now he has to follow through on that commitment. But this is where the quote is taken out of context and causes damage. It now seems to be applied to every effort that everyone makes in life.
By the time I was 13, I’d already quit tons of things. I was labelled a quitter and felt like a failure about it. One day, I was at my friend’s house and he clumsily played the intro to “One” by Metallica on an electric guitar. I was blown away. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. I watched his fingers and tried to figure out how he was doing it. He put the guitar on a stand and left the room.
While he was gone, I wrapped my hands around the neck of the guitar, but didn’t pick it up off the stand. I was on my knees with my hands awkwardly trying to recreate the notes he played. When he came back in the room, he saw me and said, “Here, I’ll show you.” He picked up the guitar and said, “You put this finger on the second fret on this string, and then this finger on the fourth fret of this string, then you pluck these strings and take your finger off that string. Do you want to try?”
I said, “No.” I didn’t want to try. There is no try. Do, or do not. And I wasn’t sure if I could do it, so I just didn’t. I didn’t follow my fascination and curiosity, I submitted to my fear of failure.
What if I can’t do it? The most irrelevant and crippling thought I’ve ever had.
When my friend left the room again, I shot over to the guitar and tried one more time to recreate the sounds he made. Still too afraid to commit and lift it off the stand, I put my fingers where he said to, plucked some stings and, holy crap, it almost sounded like the Metallica song.
When he came back again, I asked him if he could help me try to play it. He picked up the guitar, sat it on my lap and talked me through it. After a few minutes, I put the guitar down and we went outside to jump off of things while attempting to use a plastic shopping bag as a parachute. The usual. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the guitar.
The instant I got home, I told my parents I needed a guitar. My dad said, “Why, so you can quit in two months?” Eventually, after a lot of begging and nagging, my parents agreed to let me borrow a guitar from my uncle. I’ve been playing ever since. (Here’s proof)
If I didn’t have the opportunity to privately attempt playing, I never would’ve started. I had to shamefully try it out in secret without anyone knowing. I knew I wanted to learn when I first saw my friend play the Metallica song. But without the little noncommittal attempt to show me that I might actually be able to do it, I would’ve said, “Nevermind,” when my father challenged me about it. It took this tiny, private, serendipitous moment to give me the courage to start playing guitar. I almost never started. Yoda did this to me.
I grew up in an environment where I was told I could do absolutely anything I wanted to do and be anything I wanted to be. I was given endless opportunities. However, there was the unwritten stipulation that whatever I chose to do, I had to do it for the rest of my life. If I started something I didn’t want to continue, I was attacked, labelled a quitter.
Innocently following curiosity was not encouraged. Emphasizing commitment is really important. Certainly. But it would’ve saved me a lot of grief if I had a small opportunity to try things without being called a quitter if I didn’t enjoy it.
My sister gave me some quality advice when I turned 18. She said, “Make sure you dip your foot in the water before you jump in the pool.” Of course, she was referring to sex before marriage, but I think this advice can apply more broadly.
In college, I changed my major, like, forty-three times. It was not very well accepted to constantly switch majors, but quitting was unthinkable.
I tried so hard to not drop out of school. I was taking classes I hated while trying to figure out which stupid classes I wanted to take the next term. I wasn’t going anywhere with my education. All I did was take intro classes that did not interest me. After two years in college I was no closer to graduating than I was during my first semester. I dropped out. I was convinced I wasn’t smart enough for college. That I didn’t have the work ethic. That I couldn’t persevere.
A few years after dropping out, I had an epiphany and realized I wanted to study medicine and become a doctor. At first, I thought it was a ridiculous, out-of-reach goal. Especially for a college dropout.
I read a book about what it’s like to go to medical school (Med School Confidential). I spent hours at the bookstore reading medical textbooks. Of course, I didn’t understand anything, but I passionately wanted to know all of it. I eventually realized how much time I was spending at the bookstore and decided that it was real. This is what I want to do.
No one hassled me about it. I’d already dropped out of school. I’d already shown everyone what a failure I was. And I was finally left alone to explore what I really wanted to study, who I wanted to become. When I started telling people that I was moving to Hawai’i to study biology and medicine, they said things like, “Right. I’ll see you in 6 months.” No one was convinced I’d follow through.
But I knew this was different. This wasn’t another college major I was jumping into because I hated the last one. This was the guitar sitting on the stand while my friend was in the other room. I dipped my foot in the pool. I tried it and knew I wanted to do it.
Now I’m in medical school and I realize I never had a commitment issue. I never had any problem with perseverance or intelligence. My only problem was an inability to continually do things I think are stupid.
Yoda’s wisdom makes it really difficult to experiment. This thinking forces people to either continually commit to something they aren’t passionate about, or view themselves as quitters when they move on. Maybe we can simply bypass this step and encourage exploration.
At some point, it’s important to commit, but it shouldn’t be forced, especially in an age where there are so many opportunities. It shouldn’t be viewed as a failure if someone follows their curiosity and realizes they want something else. The only failures are not trying something you want to try or not moving on when you realize you don’t enjoy what you’re doing.
Screw Yoda. Try first. Then do. Or do not. Whatever.