Book Review : Trying Not To Try

It does not seem like long ago that I designed a module on Anger Management. The first time I delivered the module to a group of people, I was nervous and concerned about the success of the module. Even though I had prepared thoroughly, I felt unsure. I was afraid. I was consciously trying my best to make it a good programme.

That’s where I was wrong, according to Edward Slingerland (Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia). I was trying too hard to stick to the script I had in my mind of how the programme should be and did not address the needs of the participants in the moment. One could say that I was not “mindful” enough.

However, after about 2-3 delivery sessions, I began to relax into the module. While I kept a structure in mind, I allowed myself to become more flexible. I stopped making a conscious effort to deliver a good programme, but rather tried to help people in the best way I could. I msyelf enjoyed the sessions more, and experienced what can be called a state of “flow”. As Slingerland would have predicted, this approach worked better. By not trying so much, I actually made a better impact.

This counterintutive concept forms the crux of Slingerland’s Trying Not To Try. In exploring this concept he draws on the work of ancient Chinese philosophers like Confucius, Lao-Tzu, and Mencius, as well as recent psychological reseearch such as the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.


The reader is introduced to the concept of wu-wei (pronounced oo-way) translated as “no doing/trying” and de (pronounced duh), meaning “charismatic power/virtue”. These two concepts form the scaffolding for the book. A lot of the book also deals with the concepts of hot (instinctive, impulsive) thought and cold (deliberate, conscious) cognitions, very similar to Daniel Kahneman’s fast and slow thinking. But where Kahneman argues for more rational thinking, Slingerland deals with the Chinese philosophers’ distrust of abstract thought for it’s own sake.

Slingerland compares and contrasts different Chinese philosophies about how one can achieve the kind of ‘de’ that would lead to perfect “wu-wei”–be it the Confucian emphasis on learning and ritual or the Laozian ideal of “embracing the uncarved block.” Where applicable, he supports with anecdotes, or research findings. In the end however, the reader is not presented with any concrete steps or actions to take. It is left upto the reader to develop his/her own methods to be sponstaneous and “not try”.

What I liked about the book is that it avoids presenting Eastern philosophy as this mystical, mysterious stuff of legends that is beyond understanding. Without “dumbing down” the material, it is presented in a matter of fact way, as just another perespective in the world. This was quite refreshing.

As a learning and development professional, I see value in this book. It opens up new ways of thinking about bringing about behavioural change in people. It helps me see how others can be helped to be their best.

As a reader however, the book was difficult to read. Usually a fast reader, I took 2 whole weeks to read this book. Personally I found the writing dull and repitive, and more than once I was tempted to give up on the book altogether.

Ever so often, however, there was a gem of an “aha!” moment, which made working through this book worthwhile. Perhaps “trying not to read” is the best way to read this book?

FTC disclaimer : I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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One thought on “Book Review : Trying Not To Try

  1. Nice review of a not so ‘readable stuff ‘ which at the end persuades one to read with just one word ‘aha’ . I like the way it ends with- “Ever so often, however, there was a gem of an “aha!” moment, which made working through this book worthwhile. Perhaps “trying not to read” is the best way to read this book?”


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