Nothing seems to get in the way of growth more than trying – in the sense that the word is used these days. An example of this came up while I was learning pool recently. I am pretty bad at pool. I was never taught before, so this did not surprise me.

I asked a skillful friend to give me some pointers, and he showed me how everything I was doing was wrong. One of my worst areas was hitting angles. I could see the angle in my mind, just not hit it on the table. He showed me different ways to visualize the contact, but ultimately said I would have to “find a way that works for me”.

As I lay across the table, “trying” to hit the ball correctly, it occurred to me that trying was getting in my way. We only try when we’re not certain; but if we’re uncertain, how can we try? It’s like saying I will try to know what I don’t know, or do what I can’t do. How is that different from guessing, or depending on luck? If I knew how to do something, I wouldn’t have to try. This made me wonder what “trying” really is, since it seems to offer nothing.

Because I don’t know how to hit the ball, I need to get scientific about it: shoot as many ways as possible, over and over again, and measure the results. When I find a method that works consistently, keep practicing until the input leads to the desired output. Perhaps this is the original meaning of trying: to experiment continually, paying close attention to each action and its results. In this way I “try” myself through repeated experience, gradually learning the right way to shoot.

Modern “trying” gets in the way of this by creating the illusion that I can shoot well if I only try hard enough. But is skill a question of knowledge or effort? If I fail, was my trying inept or my knowledge insufficient? I can think of no way to become better at trying. I can think of many ways to improve my knowledge.

The example of shooting pool is benign, but it applies to other areas too, like trying to become spiritual. Here too, I find that trying is the biggest obstacle. There is no way to try to do what one cannot do: if a person does not understand the grounds for patience, there is no way to try to be patient. The end will either be frustration, or luck, or the belief that one needs to “try harder”. Even when success is found, there is no certainty behind it or confidence in how to reproduce it. It’s a completely haphazard approach to behavior.

Instead, I believe the key to growth is education through learning, experimentation and observation. Instead of trying to be patient, experiment with different way of relating to situations and examine the results. There can be no failure in the process of education since it’s all data-gathering – both the cases that succeed and the ones that fail. A large sampling of both is needed, in fact, to provide a firm basis for conscious knowledge.

While a person is learning, they are not looking for success, but rather an understanding of what leads to success and failure. Once that understanding is in place, action can follow knowledge. This implies detachment from the outcome while learning, since there will be many more occurrences of failure than success. If this detachment does not exist, it implies a focus on the outcome rather than on understanding the process.

So rather than trying to hit the ball correctly, I now shoot at it a few hundred times a day, failing much more than I succeed, but learning each time. Enough of this, and I will discover exactly what to do, what not to do, and why. But the sort of trying that leads to frustration, or “trying too hard”, rather than leading to knowledge, can make some of the simplest things impossible to see.