There is no try

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“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” That line is probably one of the most quoted lines from The Empire Strikes Back. The scene (from Star Wars HDR on YouTube) is only about 5 minutes long and worth watching, even if you’re already familiar with it. There are so many leadership and life lessons packed into those 5 minutes. Some may be easy to miss or overlook, and others might be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

The scene starts with Luke practicing his Force powers by levitating a rock in a one-handed handstand. He loses concentration when he gets distracted by the X-Wing sinking into the swamp. As Luke stands there, watching its final moments, he says, “Oh, no. We’ll never get it out now.” Like many of us, when faced with an obstacle, Luke’s first reaction is to give up. In our mind, the task is insurmountable and, therefore, impossible to do, so it’s not worth putting forth the effort to attempt it. Yoda responds by calling out his defeatist mindset, “So certain, are you? Always with you, it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?” Yoda implies that Luke is listening but not hearing and that his “go-to” response is a defeatist belief that he can’t do difficult things.

Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t— you’re right.” It’s all about belief and vision. If you believe you can accomplish a goal, then you’ll be able to accomplish it because, consciously or not, you’re going to take actions that move you toward that accomplishment. However, if you don’t believe you can accomplish a goal, the same thing will happen, and you’re going to take actions, consciously or not, that move you further from achieving it.

Having a default reaction to an obstacle of “I can’t” means that, almost certainly, you won’t.

The scene shifts now to Luke saying, “Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.” Here, Luke is justifying and rationalizing his inaction. Yes, he’s been able to move stones around using the Force, but those are just stones. They’re small. Moving an X-Wing fighter is different. Yoda’s response is, “No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.” Here, Yoda is trying to make Luke understand that the difference is only in his mind. To be successful, he needs to stop thinking of this task differently than moving the rocks.

In our life, each of us will face at least one obstacle that feels overwhelming. If we focus on the size of the problem based on a conventional understanding of it, then it will feel daunting. However, if we focus on the fact that we’ve achieved similar results on a smaller scale before and realize that the only difference is one of relative scale, we can begin to accept that this too is possible. We must leave preconceived beliefs behind and start from a fresh, unbiased, and unencumbered point of view.

Limiting our beliefs to what is conventionally accepted does just that; it limits our belief.

Now we’ve reached the moment in the scene that everyone loves to quote. Luke sighs and says, “All right, I’ll give it a try,” to which Yoda famously responds, “No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” The dictionary defines try as “to make an attempt; to put effort into an action,” which implies that we can’t try without doing. Could Yoda have meant something else? If we know the outcome of a task before attempting it, do we say “I’ll try to do it” or “I will do it”? What if we don’t know the outcome beforehand? We say, “I’ll try to do it.”

The common belief is that when someone uses “try,” it shows they are unsure of the outcome of their actions. We say “try” because we accept that we might fail. What if, by acknowledging we might fail, we’re subconsciously setting ourselves up to fail? Removing the thought that we could fail, and believing that we can do it, is the best option for being able to do it. Could Yoda have been wrong when he said, “There is no try”? What if he meant that Luke could no longer let the uncertainty of the outcome be a limiting factor? To a Jedi, “trying” is believing that you can and cannot do something at the same time; it means not committing. Allowing doubt to cast a shadow in our lives means we’ve already accepted defeat, even if it’s subconsciously. If that sounds familiar, it should. It’s the basis for Henry Ford’s quote, which I mentioned earlier.

Focus on the present and commit yourself; to do anything less is the same as not doing it at all.

Luke attempts to raise the X-Wing and fails. Again, Luke justifies his failure by saying, “I can’t. It’s too big.” Yoda responds by sharing some philosophical and metaphysical wisdom about the Force. He explains to Luke that physical size isn’t important, saying, “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you?” and that the Force is a “powerful ally.” He even goes so far as to say its energy “surrounds us and binds us.” In a discouraged tone, Luke tells Yoda, “You want the impossible.” When Yoda raises the X-Wing and sets it down, Luke stares in astonishment and says, “I don’t… I don’t believe it.” Yoda’s simple response is, “That is why you fail.”

Did Luke not believe it because he didn’t believe in himself? Earlier in the movie, we see Luke free his light saber from the ice with incredible difficulty. We have also seen him moving stones around with difficulty as well. He must have realized that Luke had a limited ability to control the Force. Why did Yoda still tell Luke to raise the X-Wing? In truth, Yoda did recognize it, but he also realized that Luke could lift the X-Wing. It was Luke who thought he couldn’t. What, then, was the lesson Luke needed to learn? He needed to learn how to fail.

Knowing how to fail, accepting it, and learning from it are the only ways not to fail.

Society, through our school systems (both public and private), our economic system, and even businesses, punish failure. We believe we get one shot, one chance, to do something. This belief leads to two mindsets: we can’t afford to fail, or that failure is inevitable, so we shouldn’t bother.

Neither of these mindsets is healthy. Believing we can’t afford to fail places extreme and unnecessary pressure on you to succeed, while believing failure is inevitable stagnates you and prevents you from growing. Instead, what’s needed is a mindset of accepting, and learning from, failure.

Luke didn’t learn from his failure because he gave up. What if he tried again? What if he asked for advice? What would the outcome have been instead?

Earlier, I asked if Yoda could have been wrong when he said, “There is no try.” I also mentioned that many leadership lessons in this scene could be missed or overlooked, and others might be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Yoda’s famous quote might seem terse and even harsh when taken alone. However, this discussion brings an often overlooked nuance to the meaning. Trying doesn’t exist. It’s about using your skills and abilities to overcome obstacles and achieve objectives. If you already have the necessary skills, you either do it or don’t. However, if you don’t already have the skills, you either learn them and do it, or you don’t.

To borrow from Led Zeppelin’s famous song, A Stairway to Heaven, “Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.” To overcome any obstacle, you must put in the work. You’re going to succeed, or you won’t. If you don’t, you change your road by figuring out what didn’t work, so you don’t make those same mistakes again and make another attempt. In either case, doubting or second-guessing yourself will guarantee you fail.

Luke fell victim to that. He limited himself by his preconceptions, rationalized his failure, believed the task was beyond his abilities and failed before he had even begun. In short, he thought he couldn’t, so he didn’t.

I challenge each of you to be better, to do better. Don’t let yourself become overwhelmed by “impossible odds” and “insurmountable challenges.” Recognize your abilities and learn them if you don’t have what’s necessary. Don’t “try” and be stuck between accomplishment and failure; commit yourself and do it.

In 2014, comedian Jim Carrey said in his MIU Commencement Address, “You can fail at what you don’t want. You might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”