What Yoda Got Wrong

One of the most famous quotations cited ad nauseam by business leaders, parents, and gym teachers happens to be dead wrong. Yoda, the sage Jedi master, professes thoughtful and inspired wisdom and is admired by millions as a limitless source of meaningful insights. In fact, some of his quotations are among my all-time favorites including:

“Truly wonder, the mind of a child is.” – from Attack of the Clones, 2002
“Fear is the path to the dark side… fear leads to anger… anger leads to hate… hate leads to suffering.” – from The Phantom Menace, 1999
“Judge me by my size, do you?” – from The Empire Strikes Back, 1980

Despite his wisdom of the ages, I believe Yoda’s most famous chestnut is flawed. His chart-topping pontification that we’ve all heard a hundred times reads, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Presumably, the instruction here is to go all-in on your goals. It professes the “don’t quit, you can do it” cheerleading we hear from little league coaches and grandparents alike. Instead of simply “trying” to do something important, you should be completely committed to the outcome and display relentless tenacity in order to achieve your desired outcome.

Sage advice…what could possibly be wrong with that?

The notion that “there is no try” is problematic when examined from a different angle. In fact, breakthrough advances in healthcare, technology, and education most often come from a series of trials. The vast majority of the products, services, food, medicines, music, art, and entertainment we consume are directly linked to hundreds or even thousands of experiments. If I never tried broccoli or sushi or red wine, I’d still be eating chicken nuggets like a four-year-old.

I hate to take issue with the all-knowing Jedi master, but progress of all shapes and sizes is a byproduct of trying things. The rigid, single-minded tunnel vision that Yoda suggests is no recipe for success in our fluid, complex, and rapidly changing times.

College students try a number of different subjects in order to discover their calling. Successful marriages endure the test of time through open-mindedness and a willingness to adapt to changing conditions.  Businesses thrive not through dogged persistence on a single product, but through a willingness to course correct when needed and change with the times.

Having an experimentation mindset in which you’re constantly trying a wide variety of approaches is by far the best approach to sustainable success. How can we even decide what to go all-in on without first trying things out to find the best fit?

Try a new route to work. Try a food you’ve never had. Try a fresh approach to a sales call, business meeting, or performance review. The number of innovations we enjoy is directly linked to the number of new things we test out.

No disrespect to the beloved Jedi master, but I’m certain that we need more trying, not less. To be clear, I agree that we can’t use “but I tried” as a copout for lackluster performance, but the notion of trying lots and lots of approaches will help us land on the best possible outcomes.

With deep admiration for the green, pointy-eared guru, I think the modern version of the quote should be, “Try first, do next.”