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Are you trying too hard?
People thirst-posting copy-paste threads about mental models on Saturday morning when they should be out with their dog hiking or whatnot, this one is for you...
I’ve previously shared ideas to stop overthinking and how it is the enemy of creatives – it’s an almost instant destroyer of quality work. Something synonymous with overthinking is the idea of trying too hard.
Scientific American previously outlined some fun research on this one:
Trying to concentrate on monitoring the quality of your performance is counterproductive because the cerebellum, which controls complex motor tasks, is not consciously accessible.
…In a study psychologist Sian L. Beilock of the University of Chicago divided novice and skilled golfers into two groups and instructed them to perform a series of golf putts. The researchers encouraged members of the first group to take their time, whereas they exhorted members of the second group to swing as quickly as they could. Novice golfers performed less accurately when speed was emphasized, but skilled golfers showed exactly the opposite pattern: they performed best when told to execute quickly and faltered when advised to take their time.
Overthinking is an instant destroyer of highly skilled, developed tasks of any sort – whether the mental or physical variety. The Scientific American article I linked above focuses mostly on overthinking causing you to choke under high-pressure, live situations like golfing or public speaking, but this is an affliction that can also hurt your team during work that isn’t live. And let us be very, very clear, only outlier talent who is irrational committed and as some term “maniacs” at work are going to do better when lighting fires that force immediate action. It works for a very small percent of folk (and if you want to keep them, you won’t abuse this save for extreme crunch-time efforts, because even those with the most herculean work ethic have breaking points). I have seen this many times and am acutely aware of the sparing amounts of gas to apply during extraordinary times. Breaking your top performers is a recipe for disaster, not sometimes, always (no one is irreplaceable, but these people are difficult to replace and the cost is higher than whatever estimate is on your head - I’ve been helping companies I advise with sourcing talent here and it’s not easy and very time-consuming, meta-cognitive people aren’t morons and know they have options in a remote/distributed world). Putzing around/playing games with top talent with a mindset it’s simple to just backfill is a rookie mistake. You’ll spend more time here that should be allocated elsewhere, and 9 times out of 10 the new hire will underperform. Again why would you want to make your life more difficult and roll the dice on some lower cost or seemingly “amicable, yes-man” when you could simply fix issues with the ‘been there, done that’ pro. Chips on shoulders put chips in pockets. Management isn’t supposed to be easy.
So, to sum up: where overthinking will stop creative work from even happening in the first place, trying too hard or applying authoritarian measures to A-listers who can ship great work will nearly always produce results not worth sharing, or worse persuade them to leave you. No one is irreplaceable but everyone has options. And remember as you analyze projects - productivity is not necessarily creativity.
This could also be physically damaging to you/your team. As Medical News Today shared just last week in a study exploring cognitive fatigue using magnetic resonance spectroscopy during a workday:
A recent study published in Current Biology Trusted Source shows that mental fatigue is associated with the accumulation of the neurotransmitter glutamate in the prefrontal cortex. The necessity to remove excess glutamate levels due to its potentially toxic effect could increase the effort required for mental work, resulting in fatigue. This is a significant step toward understanding the mechanisms underlying the experience of mental tiredness.
Using magnetic resonance spectroscopy, researchers found that high-demand cognitive work led to a build-up of glutamate — a chemical that nerve cells use to transmit signals to other cells — in the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain. Managing the excess makes other pre-frontal cortex activity, such as planning and decision making, more difficult, leading subjects to favor low-effort, high-reward actions as cognitive fatigue sets in.
We know from sociological studies and increasingly from physiological data precisely measured by medical devices that keeping ourselves in constant, high-pressure states is not just unhealthy but harmful to work quality. Yet so many insist this is all fine and to simply power through. In some areas this might be the case, but not for creative output that produces the intended results. We are human beings, not machines and so must work in ways suited to our nature.
There are a massive influx of businesses and individuals embracing efforts such as content marketing, and that’s for sure at least part my fault as one of the early bloggers on the topic in the early 2000s. While many are engaging, the truth is most will fail at achieving anything close to their potential results of work done the right way. It’s not that effective digital strategies are hard to come by or the tactics are misunderstood. The problem is digital channels are inherently social, and businesses, as they do with most things, try too hard (and frequently pressure the wrong areas or team members at the wrong time). They make it about revenue over passion, and by doing so will never even have a chance at seeing revenue. Creativity is low key your secret weapon in a commoditized world. But you have to know how to coax it out of yourself and your team.
Let’s get into some specific reasons why if you try too hard your results suffer:
Natural dialogs flow freely and easily – like art
Most force it, versus keeping a dialog with the world. What exactly is a dialog? It’s natural and unforced. It’s art. And most businesses and executives don’t know the first thing about art. Even in creative industries like music and movies – many involved wouldn’t know art if it smacked them in the face.
Readers don’t want to interact with ideas and people who look like they’re trying too hard
It’s painful to read or interact with companies who are “going through the motions” of social media. When many read the same books/blogs or see popular presenters – they get it into their head that doing something – like creating digital content as part of their digital marketing strategy – should be done in a certain way. So they’ll bring what they think are best practices into their company when beginning to create. Unfortunately, if you really stop and think about it ‘best practices’ are the antithesis of social web participation – unless you think there are best practices to human interaction. Perhaps. If you’re dealing with robots or you treat people as numbers.
Content as the product of a forced process sounds contrived
Have you read many corporate blogs, their Twitter accounts, thoughts from leadership? Really read them, not just skimmed their posts. I don’t know if you’re noticing the same things I am but the vast majority can’t create ideas worth reading (let alone sharing) and to me just come off as painful. Design by committee tortures this type of work. Even when they’re trying to be personal, the words lack style and wreaks of approval processes. It’s like someone went the extra mile to remove any sense of individuality. Elon goes the other way (maybe a smidge too far, but at least he’s trying).
Passion is a secret of the social web
And passion spawns flow experiences. During a true flow experience, creativity is effortless, your work will move forward at amazing speed, and time itself will cease to have meaning. This is the mindset which will produce your most creative, most thought provoking, and potentially most successful results. I talked about focusing everyone purely on revenue above. The paradox is, when your team can operate with flow experiences this type of marketing output is exactly what leads to more revenue.
Flow experiences only occur if you’re passionate about what you’re doing. A funny thing happens when you enter a flow experience – while you’re not consciously trying, your results run circles around those who are trying too hard because they have unnatural pressure thrust upon them or were forced to do something.
Your social participation shouldn’t seem, it should be effortless
If you have to try to divert attention or use trickery to appear effortless, people will see through it. Web users are connected, activated and smart. They’re not as easy to manipulate as mass markets swayed by obvious attempts at coercion used classically by ad men of the past (especially in the organic parts of the web). You walk a thin line by seeming one way and in reality being another. This only succeeds at putting your digital reputation at risk.
Ever seen a movie where the guy who tries too hard actually gets the girl at first?
Sorry for the somewhat clichéd example but it proves my point. That’s not what attracts us as humans. We inherently want we can’t have, not what is begging for attention. It’s not just in the game of love, in marketing if you’re obviously begging for our attention we’re never going to give you any, at least the forms of it that matter. You can interrupt us all you want but you’ll never have any real influence, authority or trust.
The people we look up to and find interesting, persuasive and worth following aren’t ‘trying too hard’
They’re participating in the web’s remix culture, analyzing news and ideas, creating memes and insider jokes, going deep into (insider-y, shared) industry norms which signal being a trusted and genuine part of a sector via getting into debates/discussions about topics that really matter and expectation you’re up to speed. Impossible to fake. You can’t just join it without actually being a member of the group (and when it’s clear you do care and have put in the work, are nearly 100% of the time accepted - this is the very core of why digital communities are wonderful, they’ve always been open and inclusive). Members here love what they do/are irrationally committed, and thus expect others to behave similarly. How could they not? It’s table stakes. But don’t mistake this for trying too hard – they’re very different things.
I’m friends with many artists and writers and in watching them work over the years, none who have talent ever or genuine interest never appeared to have to try very hard. Their actions are natural, purposeful and measured. It doesn’t mean they’re the best or the smartest. That’s not the point. They give a fuck and so care to contribute meaningfully and along with that are consistently generative (at least to the extent their craft and personality allows). If trying too hard worked, it would be easy for businesses to succeed in a digital society: they would simply hire the greediest workers only interested in value extraction for the sake of financial gain. You can throw money at such problems after all. And that’s exactly how not how to achieve digital marketing and community results that matter. If this doesn’t make sense to you it’s because you’re still stuck in a world purely designed by bean counters. It’s not rational. It’s very human. And that’s precisely why it’s special and hard, you can’t fake or replicate this.