When it comes to sports, the best athletes are the ones that appear to do things without thinking — and it’s true. As explained in the book “Trying Not to Try“, the more automatically you can perform a task, the better you’ll likely perform at it.
This is also why people often choke under pressure. Rather than just lining up and doing their thing, they really stop and think about what they’re doing, which isn’t always helpful.
In the book, author Edward Slingerland simply says this:
Moreover, we are attracted to people in wu-wei (“effortless action”) because we trust the automatic, unconscious mind.
It reminds me of the birth of our second daughter in 2006. The doctor came in to perform an epidural on my wife, and his approach was noteworthy. While he was working on this important (and somewhat scary) procedure, he was casually chatting with me about the Braves game from the previous night!
My wife wasn’t too concerned with what he had to say, as she just wanted to the procedure to be finished, but it gave me a surprising amount of confidence in his ability. I felt that confidence at the time, but didn’t really understand why until later.
His “wu-wei” is what did it — he’s done this many times before, he knows what he’s doing, and he gets it done. As a result, his hands weren’t shaky, his actions were smooth, and all went well.
There’s certainly a line between “wu-wei” and outright carelessness, and he thankfully stayed far on the careful side of things. He took all necessary preparation and precautions, but with a calmness that gave us all trust in his abilities.
For this to work, you need to put in the hours to become automatic. I generally hit a golf ball much better if I just get up there and do it (rather than stand over it and think about it too long), but my overall skill level isn’t high enough for that to be consistent. I need to hit another 10,000 balls at the driving range before that can really start to work for me. Wu-wei can be fantastic, but you can’t get there without putting in the effort first.
For me, I’m glad to be able to put a name to this phenomenon, and I encourage to you check out Slingerland’s book to go much deeper into this.