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Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  1,094 ratings  ·  169 reviews
A deeply original exploration of the power of spontaneity—an ancient Chinese ideal that cognitive scientists are only now beginning to understand—and why it is so essential to our well-being
Why is it always hard to fall asleep the night before an important meeting? Or be charming and relaxed on a first date? What is it about a politician who seems wooden or a comedian wh
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published March 4th 2014 by Crown
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Average rating 3.73  · 
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 ·  1,094 ratings  ·  169 reviews

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Stephanie *Extremely Stable Genius*
I did not experience flow while I read this book.

I picked this book up after I heard this author interviewed on NPR and the book sounded interesting, but it really wasn't. I'm fascinated by the concept of flow, which was what this book was supposed to be about, and it was...a little. Mostly it read like a history book about ancient Asian religions, which I'm also interested in, but the book was dry, flat and boring.

I read this as an audio book and I was trying not to stop listening to it. Then
Peter Clothier
Okay, I know that's a cliche. Worse, perhaps, it's a cliche born of a sneaker commercial. But how often do you hear some other person--or yourself!--say something like this: "I'll try to make it by eight o'clock," or "I'm trying to lose some weight," or "trying to write a novel/finish a painting/make a fresh start"...? The truth is, the longer you keep trying to feed the dog, the sooner the poor creature starves. Trying, in other words, doesn't hack it. It doesn't get the job done. You say it be ...more
Jul 11, 2018 marked it as abandoned
Shelves: 2018
I am the least spontaneous person I've ever met, so I felt I could learn something from this book. I found the introduction very dry, but soldiered on into the first chapter. Then I injured my toe by spontaneously dropping a can of wine on it, and spontaneously decided to read something more fun while I recuperated. Meanwhile every time I saw this book on my table I felt bad feelings of guilt. My friend suggested that if I truly wanted to be spontaneous I would return it to the library unfinishe ...more
Debbie "DJ"
Feb 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Won through Goodreads First Reads.Thank you!
This book is outstanding. When I first read the title I thought maybe this was yet another book on "new age" thought. I couldn't have been more wrong. What the author did was guide me through Ancient Chinese thought from Confucius to Zhuangzi. His book gave me a clearer understanding not only of the historic time period, but also how and why these texts were written and the powerful influence they still have today.

This idea of "trying not to try" is wh
Jul 31, 2016 rated it liked it
Overall, it’s a good read that I enjoyed, but it falls about 75% short of its target. Its value is in still having flown 25% of the way in the right direction. An interested reader can pick up the trail and walk the rest of the way himself.

In detail:

It’s a good overview of the main bullet-points of the major Ancient Chinese philosophers/schools of philosophy (though by no means exhaustive as far as each school is concerned — I think Zhuangzi has suffered a lot). It gives a decent treatment of ea
Mengran Xu
May 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Succeeding without trying

If you ever had a sleepless night, then you will perfectly understand why trying to fall asleep does not usually work. Instead, by making yourself fall asleep, you became more awake and soon began to ruminate how much time had been wasted and how dreadful the next morning would be. The moment when sleep became a deliberate and effortful action, sleepiness vanished, leaving us wide awake.
There is one defining feature about sleep—it is totally spontaneous. We simple do
Dec 23, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
The content deserves a 5/5 but the author's voice is too smug for my liking, so the result is a 4/5.

The content:
An overview of ancient Chinese (with a dash of Japanese Buddhism) thought focused on spontaneity. Cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience make appearances, mostly to support the ancient texts the author cites, and about midway through the book the author also injects some shallow anthropology to provide some context. So its a book with a lot of ground to cover, and to his credi
Feb 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
From the title of this book, I thought it could go in many different directions. And where it went, I hadn't guessed. This is a description of different Oriental religions through the ages and how they suggest that people reach their own state of flow. And more. The descriptions are wrapped in questions of whether trying to reach this state is good, or if trying is bad, or if trying to build the tools to reach this state is good, and the ancient books he describes give different answers for all ...more
Dec 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: first-reads
Wow, what a book... Full of philosophical ideas from early china and psychological studies from today this book comes together to make an amazing read. Focusing on 4 ways to living our lives and finding happiness we see the good and bad to each, pointing out the benefits and flaws to all of them, this book just flows. Although the topics covered steal the show, I have to mention the writing style here. Edward Slingerland does such a great job leading us through these complex ideas and topics and ...more
Fredrick Danysh
Jan 31, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: advance-read, science
The author discusses the idea that by not concentrating on a task but actually trying to relax the mind the desired outcome can be achieved more readily. He attempts to encourage the reader to free the mind from distractions as outside influences are reduced. This was a free proof copy and does contain a very interesting [to me] concept.
David Guy
Jan 14, 2015 rated it really liked it
When he was a teenager, we all noticed that my nephew Charlie was surrounded by beautiful young women, though he seemed less accomplished than his older brothers (he wasn’t; he was just younger). You’d go over in the morning and one girl would be hanging around, playing chess, go by in the afternoon and another was there. It was like a beauty pageant. We were never sure what was going on, but they were around, and obviously liked Charlie. I of course thought he was a great human being, but felt ...more
Bernie Gourley
Oct 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those interested in effortless action and spontaneity.
This book’s paradoxical title is perfect for its paradoxical subject matter, which is famously expressed in such quotes as, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” [ver. 48 of the “Tao Te Ching.”] Slingerland lays down the ancient Chinese wisdom of “wu-wei” and “de,” but provides something novel by putting it in the context of the positive psychology and neuroscience of today. “Wu-wei” literally means “no doing,” but can be more meaningfully defined as “effortless action.” “De” (pronounce ...more
Apr 05, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Originally posted on

This book will not teach you how to be more spontaneous. Because of the very nature of spontaneity it is not something you can learn from a book. However it does show how not concentrating on a task will help achieve the desired outcome.

This book also explores the meaning of the Chinese concepts of wu-wei. The book is full of examples of the action-less doing of wu-wei (being in the zone) as well as examples from contemporary neuroscience. It even goes as
Andrea Janes
Jun 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
Gateway drug to Chinese philosophy (unfortunately and somewhat misleadingly packaged as a self-help book) that now has me wanting to read Zhuangzi, whose work is evidently filled with "talking animals, mysterious leviathans that transform into huge birds, witches, hunchbacks, ghosts, talking skulls, and ancient sage kings brought back to life." Sold!
Mar 03, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: first-reads
I won this book through the goodreads giveaway program. The book was interesting (although I was bored in some places because it felt like the same things were being repeated). I did like learning about early Chinese thinkers and relating those ideas with my experiences with my Chinese in-laws.
Rebecca Upjohn
The concepts in this book are interesting and useful but I did not finish it. I kept thinking the author was making the same point over and over. Perhaps if I’d stuck with it I’d have gained more. Perhaps I was trying too hard. I listened to it in audio book format.
Oct 22, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I perceived the book as a bit long winded and somewhat chaotic. The topic and the core concepts are definitely interesting, but I did not really enjoy the execution...
Feng Ouyang
Nov 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book discusses the universal and long-standing paradox: how to work on being spontaneous? The book examines four schools in ancient Chinese philosophy to explain the paradox. In the last two chapters the author offers his own view, and his recommendations on how to achieve spontaneity in both moral behavior and in skills. I don't think he provided a good solution (nobody can). However, the whole discussions are very interesting to me. Besides, the language of the book is very enjoyable. The ...more
Omar Delawar
Jun 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
I am fascinated by the concept of wu-wei or "trying not to try". We live in such a competitive, dog eat dog society. We are always looking to be bigger, better, faster. Our daily life is often frenetic and rushed. There is always too much to do. And there is so much pressure (often self-induced). I often talk with my buddies and family about slowing down, breathing, being grateful, being present in the moment. Figuring out what they love - what they do best - how they want to live out this one l ...more
Pete Wung
Jul 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I casually ordered this book because I had read an article in Nautilus magazine of Butcher Ding and his effortless and unselfconscious way with a meat cleaver, having dispatch an ox smoothly and efficiently for the emperor. I thought this was an eastern spin on the idea of flow, a concept that Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi established in western psychology literature. While Csikszentmihalyi approached it from a strictly western way, using neurosciences and psychology to try to teach how to get flow in ...more
Teo 2050

A welcome blend of Taoism and modern dual-process theories of cognition (like Kahneman / Haidt / Greene / others I don't know of). I thought about rating it a 3, but it was fun to listen to and kept my attention, and since I'd already rated the [much/even] lighter The Tao of Pooh with 3, have a 4. This goes through some of the scientific results quite fast, but then again for references the author does refer you to his academic works including perhaps Effortless Action: Wu-W
Nicholas Floyd
Jun 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The thing about ancient Chinese philosophy is, it's ancient. As relevant as the core teachings might still be, the original context and many of the metaphors suffer from such an enormous time gap that many modern-day folks (myself included) simply can't relate, and therefore miss the message. These days one typically isn't faced with dilemmas such as how to most elegantly butcher an ox for ceremonial offering, or what to do with a crop of comically oversized gourds.

And from a Western point of vi
Don O'goodreader
Ideal companion to the Winter Olympics in Sochi 2014. Like the Chinese philosophers over 2,000 years ago, Olympic viewers are stuck with the paradox of spontaneous versus meditated behavior. Do we root for the natural skier or the one who approaches the moguls like a physicist.

Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland combines the ancient Chinese philosophy with contemporary neuroscience to address the paradox of the timeless debate of trying versus not trying, thinking versus not thinking, learn
Feb 27, 2015 rated it it was ok
Trying Not To Try provides a general background to eastern philosophy in the context of "flow" and the paradox of virtue. I found the book to be confusing, without a clear point until the very end. I feel some sort of introduction that provided an overview of the author's direction would have improved the book greatly. I also noticed a couple of the scientific studies were poorly explained, although a citation is provided in the back of the book if anyone is interested in finding the truth. For ...more
Jason Gregory
Oct 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Edward Slingerland has synthesized Chinese thought, cognitive science, and ancient culture like no other in this amazing book. It is refreshing to see a scholarly work on Chinese thought and the great philosophers of the Warring states period of China. He articulates perfectly the philosophy of all the great Chinese philosophers and how their approach to wu-wei differs and also how this relates to inducing different cognitive states. If you have been interested in the effortlessness of wu-wei an ...more
Andee Marley
Mar 02, 2014 rated it liked it
The first two chapters of this book were hilarious and interesting, and everything I thought this non-fiction find would be...
After that, it turned into a history of ancient Chinese philosophy. Slingerland is a professor of the topic at Vancouver University.

I read through other reviews, and some people think its okay and some people feel bamboozled. Honestly, I'm in the second camp. There was no indication this book would be mostly about Confucius.

I read and enjoyed the entire book, but remain
ياسمين خليفة
I expected a lot from that book because I heard the author talking in a podcast.
But in the end I didn't learn how to be spontaneous because I discovered from the book that the matter is complicated. so there is no magic way to have all that you want without trying.
I enjoyed some of the stories about ancient china, but the book isn't great as I thought it would be
Pam Mooney
Sep 13, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was very enjoyable to read. While comprehensive it is written in such a way that it doesn't feel like a text. I loved the stories that went along with each topic and the underlying theme that was easily followed throughout. A fun, interesting, thought provoking book and a good read.
Nov 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: grey
Edward Slingerland is not the first thinker and writer to have noticed that the modern field of neuroscience, on the one hand, and the ancient schools of thought from Asia such as Daoism, on the other hand, sometimes talk about the same topic, just using different vocabulary. He is not even the first person to attempt to translate one into the other, or both into something an ordinary human such as myself, neither a neuroscientist nor Laozi, can understand.

He is, however, the first writer I have
Jun 24, 2017 rated it liked it
Don't read this book without checking out the MOOC he runs on EdX, 'Chinese thought: Ancient wisdom meets modern science'. It's 5 stars, no, 6 stars. This book reads like he had to mix up his material so it wasn't exactly like his lectures, which are excellent. GO SIGN UP TO THE MOOC!
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I'm Professor of Asian Studies and Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia. I work in a lot of academic areas, including early Chinese thought, comparative religion, cognitive science of religion, virtue ethics, cognitive linguistics and science-humanities integration.

My first trade book, Trying Not to Try, is forthcoming from Crown/Ra

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60 likes · 29 comments
“Thinking that you are good can make you bad. Talking about positive behavior can encourage negative behavior. Laozi is clearly on to something when he warns us that consciously trying to be righteous will, in fact, turn us into insufferable hypocrites and that anyone striving to attain virtue is destined to fail.” 5 likes
“When people are asleep, their spirits wander off; when they are awake, their bodies are like an open door, so that everything they touch becomes an entanglement. Day after day they use their minds to stir up trouble; they become boastful, sneaky, secretive. They are consumed with anxiety over trivial matters but remain arrogantly oblivious to the things truly worth fearing. Their words fly from their mouths like crossbow bolts, so sure are they that they know right from wrong. They cling to their positions as though they had sworn an oath, so sure are they of victory. Their gradual decline is like autumn fading into winter—this is how they dwindle day by day. They drown in what they do—you cannot make them turn back. They begin to suffocate, as though sealed up in a box—this is how they decline into senility. And as their minds approach death, nothing can cause them to turn back toward the light.” 2 likes
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