You can’t Try too Hard

From  Chapter 7 of my forthcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:  

We’ve all experienced times where our seemingly best efforts lead to suboptimal or even disastrous results. You are cooking dinner for your in-laws for the first time and the pie crust falls apart, the sauce doesn’t thicken, and the kale comes out of the oven burnt. Or consider the business executive on his way to clinch that all-important deal. Why, on this morning alone, does he appear with a shred of toilet paper on his chin sopping up the blood? Could it be that trying is interfering with doing? Somerset Maugham said that “in each shave, lies a philosophy.” What can philosophy tell us about the relationship between making and effort to do something and doing it?  (→ to Chapter 7

Prior chapters:

As easy as pi: 100 digits

Does Thinking Interfere with Doing? Yale Symposium on Skills and Practices, April 2014

Thirteen-time PGA winner Dave Hill claimed, “Golf is like sex. You can’t be thinking about the mechanics of the act while you are performing.”

But why not?

Yale Symposium on Skills and Practices

Slides from my talk

Continuous Improvement

From  Chapter 6 of my forthcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:  

To become the Cuban ballet dancer Alicia Alonso, who, though partially blind,was able to rise to the top of her profession, one has to be driven to achieve great heights and, at least for many who excel in their fields, this drive is ongoing. Indeed, it may very well be that it is this desire for continuous improvement–what in Japanese is called “kaizen”–more so than talent, that turns a novice into an expert (Ericsson and Smith, 1991). Certainly nature plays a role, but for those who truly excel, nature is almost invariably coupled with a vast amount of hard work.  What does this ongoing desire to improve suggest about the role of the mind in expert in action?  (→Chapter 6, an early draft

full Kaisen image

Thinking Fast

crop our_time_is_running_out_by_stella_luna12-d6qeip5 (2)Here is an early draft of chapter 5 of  my forthcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:

It is nearing 7 AM when a call comes through to the trauma center of a large hospital in the New York City metropolitan area, alerting the staff that a pregnant woman with multiple abdominal gunshot wounds is due to arrive in about three minutes.  The head nurse on duty—let me call her Denise—jumps into action, putting out a call for intubation, x-rays, anesthesia, surgery, and, due to the special circumstances, sonography and labor and delivery.  The emergency medical service team slides the gurney into the hospital and the trauma center staff goes to work, with Denise coordinating and overseeing the action.

Is there time to think in an emergency?  (→ to Chapter 5

Prior chapters:

Does Thinking Interfere with Doing?

Here is an early draft of chapter 4 of  my forthcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action

Prior chapters:

CHAPTER 4: Does Thinking Interfere with Doing?     OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sometimes, when it really matters, everything falls apart. A vivid example of this occurred during the 2011 Republican primary presidential debate when Texas governor Rick Perry, in explaining how, if he were elected, he would eliminate three government agencies, couldn’t call to mind the phrase “the department of energy”: “The third agency of government I would do away with,” the Governor proclaimed, “the education, the uh, the commerce and let’s see, I can’t—the third one.  I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”  He curtailed his presidential campaign shortly after this.

Though other explanations are possible, it seems that Perry’s monumental choke was in part due to his heightened state of anxiety over how well he was going to be perceived; his worry apparently interfered with his ability to bring to mind a phrase which in some sense he knew very well—after all, he had been railing against the department of energy nearly every day during the months leading up to the debate. But how does anxiety cause a choke? The psychologist Sian Beilock claims that “highly practiced skills become automatic, so performance may actually be damaged by introspection, which is characteristic of an earlier, consciously-mediated stage.” Anxiety, on her view, prompts choking because it causes experts to think about what they are doing. Beilock’s advice: “Distract yourself…don’t give yourself too much time to think, focus on the outcome, not the mechanics… [and] just do it.” But is this view about the relationship between anxiety and skill correct?  Do high pressure situations induce experts to focus on what they are doing? And is there a causal connection between thinking and poor performance at the expert level? In other words, does thinking interfere with doing?  (→ to Chapter 4 )

What Combination Problem?

What Combination Problem? Forthcoming in an Oxford University Press anthology on Panpsychism

It would seem that one reason to be a panpsychist—that is, one reason to think that conscious experience more or less pervades the universe—is that panpsychism obviates the need to bridge what some see as the yawing gap between the conscious and the nonconscious: no need to derive mind from brute matter, no need to explain how nonconscious particles give rise to conscious beings, no need to account for the experience of ecstasy in terms of the unfeeling, dreary activations of the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulated cortex. The mind, for the panpsychist, is part of the fundamental fabric of the universe. But how do microminds combine to form human minds?  (→ to What Combination Problem)

What is an Expert?

Selections from my upcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’:


From Chapter 3:

A 1991 study by the psychologists Timothy Wilson and Jonathan Schooler is frequently cited in support of what I’m calling the just-do-it principle, the principle, roughly put, that experts, when performing at their best, act intuitively, effortlessly and automatically, that they don’t think about what they are doing as they are doing it, but just do it. The study divided subjects, who were college students, into two groups.  In both groups, participants were asked to rank five brands of jam from best to worst, and in one of these groups, participants were additionally asked to explain their reasons for their rankings. The group whose sole task was to rank the jams ended up with fairly consistent judgments both among themselves and in comparison with expert food tasters as communicated in Consumer Reports. The rankings of the other group, however, went haywire, with subjects’ preferences neither in line with one another nor with the preferences of the experts. Why should this be? The researchers posit that when subjects explained their choices, they thought more about them. Thus, thinking, it is suggested, is detrimental to doing; or, as the journalist Malcolm Gladwell sums up this research, “[b]y making people think about jam, Wilson and Schooler turned them into jam idiots.”

The take-home message from Wilson and Schooler’s experiment, however, ought to be quite the opposite. Yes, it may very well be that when college students think about their jam choices, their ability to accurately identify the best jams declines.  However, the expert food-tasters, who were a panel of trained individuals, were able to both justify their choices and, arguably, make the best choices.  Indeed, the consumers’ report that that Wilson and Schooler rely on is filled with such justifications. Thus, the experiment does not support the idea that thinking is detrimental to occurrent expert performance. Indeed, assuming that the food experts made the best choices, we should conclude from the experiment that poor choices come not from thinking, but from not being trained how to think.

But what does it mean to be an expert?  (→ to Chapter 3 )

Just do What?

Selections from my upcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’:


From Chapter 2:

Presumably when Nike used the phrase “just do it” in their advertising campaign, it was intended to mean something like, “Stop procrastinating, get off your posterior, and get the job done.” Interpreted as such, I’m in favor of “just do it.” However, the sense of “just do it” I question is the idea that expert action, at its best, proceeds without a significant amount of thought, attention or effort, or as Jazz musicians sometimes say, “when you’re thinking, you’re stinking.” As we saw in the last chapter, this view is embraced in various forms by philosophers, psychologists, journalists and others. And it is this view that I think is a myth.  (→ to Chapter 2)

The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action

Selections from my upcoming book, The ‘Myth of just do it’: Though and Effort in Expert Action (preface, introduction, Ch. 1)

From the introduction:

Science, Richard Feynman once said, is the belief in the ignorance of experts. If so—though I wouldn’t put it in quite those words—then perhaps my project should be dubbed scientific, for it is my belief that a wide range of experts who have written about expertise have been mistaken. In particular, I believe that various psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists, and other experts on high-level performance have erroneously concluded that expert action proceeds best when the mind is relatively less active, when action occurs automatically, and when bodily movements are effortless. These expertise-experts, I believe, are wrong…

(→ to the book )

Experience and Knowledge PHL 220: What is it like to be really good at something?

What is it like to be really good at something?  If you are an expert soccer player, do you need to think about what you are doing as you are doing it?  If you’re a guitarist and you think about the position of your fingers while playing, will this mess you up?  Are expert ballet dancers really performing effortlessly, or does their movement only look effortless?  More generally, after you have developed a high level of skill, do you have explicit knowledge of your actions as you are doing them, or does it all just happen without a “you” even being there? In this course, we’ll delve into these and other questions concerning the relations between thought, action, experience and knowledge.


Reflective Agency in Expert Action

How does thinking affect doing? In a paper entitled “The Way of the Wanton” (2008), David Velleman suggests that we achieve excellence only after we have moved beyond reflective agency. What he means by this is that although reflective agency—that is, thinking about and deliberating over our occurrent actions—is a stepping-stone to developing expertise, we perform at our best when we attain what he refers to as “self-forgetful spontaneity,” or “flow.” Echoing a view that one finds in a number of diverse intellectual traditions, he tells us that in highly-skilled actions, “the capacity to monitor…performance, to consider how it falls short of an ideal, and to correct it accordingly…is no longer exercised.” Rather, after the requisite training, according to Velleman, “evaluative judgment is suspended” and experts act “without deliberate intention or effort.” But is this true?

A research proposal: Reflective Agency

Aesthetic Effortlessness

Draft of Aesthetic Effortlessness

Forthcoming in the Oxford Anthology on Aesthetics and the Body, ed.

Abstract. Although we praise effort, we prize effortlessness.  Effortless bodily movement, effortless speech or writing, even effortless objects affect us in a way that one naturally thinks of as aesthetic.  But just what is effortlessness and what makes effortlessness aesthetically valuable?

Just do it? Radio Interviews

I’ve recently been interviewed by Joe Gelonesi for the Philosopher’s Zone program, “Just do it?” and by David Brendel for the VoiceAmerica program, “How to hit and think at the same time.”

Just as when I was a ballet dancer and I couldn’t bear to watch myself on video, I can’t bring myself to listen to these.  (I’m willing to suffer for my craft, but I do draw a line.) Nonetheless, because this is how one measures out one’s life these days, I post them below.

A Dancer Reflects: Deliberation in Action

Here is a draft of A Dancer Reflects Deliberation in Action which was published in Mind, Reason, and Being-in-the-World: The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate, 2013, Routledge, 303-319.

Abstract: The idea that performing a ballet typically involves tremendous effort is contrary to the widely touted view that great performances, in ballet and elsewhere, are natural and effortless. Although practice may be hard work, it is thought that when performing, an expert just lets the movement happen.  Indeed, thinking about what you are doing during a performance is, if anything, thought to interfere with expert skill. Here, I argue against such views.


Metaphysics, Graduate Center PHIL 77000, Fall 2013

Metaphysics: On How it All Hangs Together


The early twentieth century physicist Sir Arthur Eddington famously described how, in settling down to the task of writing, he must draw up his chair to two tables: the one, familiar to him from his earliest years, is extended, comparatively permanent, colored and, above all, substantial, while the other, a more recent acquaintance, is almost entirely empty space. “Yes,” he exclaims, “there are duplicates of every object about me—two tables, two chairs, two pens.” Philosophers, with their similar predilection for tables and chairs, have also been interested in how higher-level substantial objects are related to the physicist’s streams of particles rushing about in mostly empty space and recently such interest has given rise to a burgeoning literature on the question of “grounding,” that is, on how higher-level things are metaphysically dependent on (relatively) fundamental things. In this course, we shall delve into this literature as well as the related topics of levels of organization, physicalism, and fundamentality. We shall also consider whether a priori metaphysics, as it is exemplified in much of the current literature on grounding, is a viable means of investigation into the topic at hand.

For students in the class, readings are posted on a password protected post. Prior to our first meeting, please read the syllabus regarding access.

Northwestern Philosophy Workshop: “Nineteenth-Century German Philosophy Of Mind”

Philosophers at Northwestern University helped me with my paper on nineteenth-century German philosophy of mind. While I was there, I also had a lively discussion about expertise and Plato’s Ion, as a guest in Rachel Zuckert’s aesthetics course.   Here are some photos; the first few are from the class; the last couple, from the workshop.

IMG_0622 German Philosophy Northwestern

Philosophy of Mind in Nineteenth-Century German Philosophy

A draft of Philosophy of Mind in Nineteenth-Century, forthcoming in “Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century German Philosophy,” edited by Michael Forster and Kristin Gjesdal.

The Myth of ‘Just Do It’

Although the book, alas, is not yet done, I have managed to write this article for the New York Times:

OPINION   | June 09, 2013 The Myth of ‘Just Do It’ By BARBARA GAIL MONTERO

The idea that thinking interferes with doing is often taken for granted. But the realities at the highest levels of athletic and artistic performance are more complex.

→ go to The Myth of ‘Just Do It’


For discussion, see Martin Bingisser’s blog post, The Effortless Throw, in which he states, “few philosophical ideas…relate more directly to hammer throwing.”

CBS’s  interviewed me shortly after the New York Times article appeared:;content

“For by his face, straight shall you know his heart”

On Friday, May 3rd I shall serve on an Epic Theater’s post-performance pannel on empathy in Shakespeare’s Richard III:

Is Richard III incapable of feeling empathy? How much of his ruthlessness is in his nature?  What is the relationship between the machinations of his mind and his deformed body? And does he have accurate insight into his emotions only when his body is in its natural state?


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