For years Yoda’s famous advice to Luke Skywalker on Dagobah vexed me. “Do or do not, there is no try” always struck me as fatally reductive, and too results-oriented. It felt less like spiritual wisdom and more like corporate motivational drivel.
In fact, the phrase calls to mind Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan, center of one of the most famous ad campaigns of the 20th century*. But as is so often the case with stuff that gets printed on motivational posters or superimposed on images of ladies doing yoga on the beach and then shared on Facebook, there’s true wisdom in there. You just gotta get past the bullshit to see the beauty.
It’s important to take a step back from the whole situation, to remove the quote from its current status as a way to motivate jocks. In the scene Yoda is teaching Luke, who is being a whiny bish as usual (seriously, Last Jedi haters should take a deeper look at the real Luke Skywalker, not the one they created in their heads). Luke is in the early stages of his training, standing on his head with Yoda perched on one of his legs, using the Force to levitate a rock. But R2-D2 starts chirping with urgency and breaks Luke’s concentration. In a moment the rock falls, he tumbles, and Yoda hurtles to the ground.
R2 is upset because the X-Wing, which Luke had set down in the swamp of Dagobah, is sinking. Luke, frustrated already, just immediately gives up. “We’ll never get it out now,” he whines.
“So certain are you,” says Yoda. “Always with you it cannot be done.”
That’s the start of the wisdom, and very applicable to our lives. Are there things in your world that you look at and say “Oh, I could never do that”? I don’t mean like, fly under your own power. I mean pursue a career you want, or move to a city in which you’d like to live. Do you always have reasons why something is impossible, even if it is physically possible?
Browbeaten, Luke gives Yoda a cranky “Okay, I’ll try,” and that’s what pisses Yoda off.
“No!” the Muppet barks. “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Because Yoda goes on to actually lift the X-Wing it’s easy to believe that he’s talking results here, but he very specifically is not. The “do or do not” is wedged between two other lines that give it full context – the “Always with you it cannot be done” and what comes at the end of the scene.
When Yoda pulls the X-Wing out of the swamp and gently lays it down on solid ground Luke circles it in awe and lays his hands on it, to prove it’s really there (shades of the apostle Thomas sticking his fingers in the wounds of the resurrected Christ). “I don’t believe it,” he says.
“That is why you fail,” Yoda replies.
Okay, so we’ve got the scene. When we take the whole thing in context it becomes clear what Yoda is talking about is not results but attitude. Luke’s attitude is what’s holding him back. I don’t think Yoda expects Luke to lift the X-Wing – he’s still a Youngling, essentially (which makes Yoda training him perfect – something the Prequels actually did right by establishing Yoda as the Jedi daycare teacher). Yoda expects Luke to approach the problem with the attitude of someone who could lift it.**
What’s the difference? Think about all the little things you do in a day. You get up and you make breakfast. You say to yourself, “I’m going to make breakfast.” You do it. It’s as simple as that. Even if something comes up – you’re out of ingredients, you have a sudden time crunch – the attitude is still that of someone who will make breakfast, even if you’re unable to make breakfast. You don’t wake up and say “I’ll try to make breakfast.”
You don’t half-ass your breakfast intentions.
Or take it another way – if you’re in a relationship and you ask your significant other to move in with you, you say that it’s time to take the next step, and they say “Okay, I’ll give it a try,” you’re not going to be happy. Their attitude is not what you want, and frankly you shouldn’t move in with them. You want someone who is raring to go, who is excited about the proposition, otherwise they’re always going to have one foot out the door (I’ve learned this one the hardest way possible).
That’s what Yoda is talking about – the attitude of commitment versus the attitude of having one foot out the door. We understand this on a deep level, because we’ve all had one foot out the door – we’ve all gone along to parties we didn’t want to go to and had a bad time, not because the party was bad but because we walked in with the bad attitude. When we have one foot out the door – when we are ‘trying’ – we’re not invested and we’re not giving it our all. We’re holding back.
But there’s another lesson that Yoda is hiding in these lines. He’s not promising Luke success, but he is guaranteeing him that he won’t fail. Again, when we’re looking at this from a results-oriented Western mindset (“You must unlearn what you have learned,” Yoda says in this scene, and we should take this to heart. Examine all of your assumptions, every single last one of them. How many are assumptions based on what you have experienced and how many are based on what society tells you?) Yoda’s advice sucks. But when looking at it with a more expansive, less material and less immediate mindset, it’s brilliant.
Failure is your defeat. It is when you quit. It is different from not succeeding. Not succeeding is not the same as failure. When we don’t succeed at something it can be a lesson – we can learn from it. A science experiment may not succeed, but it doesn’t fail, as it can still teach us something. Being unsuccessful can be a blessing – we can be saved from a bad thing. Or it can simply be a stumbling block; getting one strike isn’t a failure, as you still have more swings, but it’s not a success. Failure comes only when you decide it comes; because Luke doesn’t believe he can do the thing he fails at it before he even tries it. He has given up in advance.
If we can eliminate the connection between ‘not succeeding’ and ‘failure’ in our minds, we’re going to end up with an attitude that’s astonishing in its ability to make us happy. To use another every day example, imagine if you took the ‘not success = failure’ mindset to the act of pouring yourself a cup of coffee. If you happen to spill that coffee, do you throw up your hands and say “I am done with coffee! I just can’t do this right!”? I mean, you might – I have! – but you also recognize that you’re having an overreaction to a really minor setback. The next time you go to pour a cup of coffee you don’t say, ‘I’m going to try to pour a cup,’ you just pour a cup. You do, you do not try.
The problem with a lot of this stuff is that it’s actually subtle, and the language used to describe it is certainly unsubtle. But this is all about perspective changes, about the way we approach situations. In The Empire Strikes Back we see in Luke’s approach the same kind of negativity that we bring to a lot of stuff in our lives. It is that negativity which holds us back, not the circumstances that we use as excuses. And even if we try to do the things we want to do and do not succeed, we still have not failed if we learn from the attempt, or if the attempt brings us to something else.
This past year I’ve really taken Yoda’s advice to heart. I’ve approached a lot of things in my life – from the mundane shit at work to the bigger stuff about my future – with the ‘do or do not’ attitude, and it has not always led to success but it has always led to a different relationship with ‘not success.’ And by the way, I have taken both sides of that advice to heart. There are some things I just ‘do not.’ I understand that I will not be able to ‘do’ them, and so I ‘do not’ them. It’s as easy as that, and it’s allowed me to not torture myself with situations or circumstances that won’t work for me and to which I cannot give my meaningful all. This is not about productivity (fuck productivity, remove productivity as a concern from your life) but rather about attitude.
Your attitude determines how you process the world around you, and how you process the world around you determines your reality. Change your attitude, change your reality. Do. Or do not. There is no try.
*A side note on that: the slogan was inspired by killer Gary Gilmore, whose last words when facing the firing squad in Utah in 1977 were “Let’s do it.” That’s a true story; Gilmore also inspired the non-fiction novel Executioner’s Song, which is an absolute classic, and the fact that he donated his eyes to science inspired the song “Looking Through Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” by the Adverts. Gilmore is a lesser-known killer, and yet his cultural footprint is monumental.
**It’s also really important here to note that Yoda thinks Luke can eventually lift the X-Wing. Yoda has realistic expectations of Luke based on what he senses in the young man. Too often the ‘do or do not’ advice is given out in unrealistic ways, and we have this culture where we’re told we can do anything we put our minds to. We can’t. You probably won’t become President or win a Nobel prize or write the Great American Novel. But reasonable expectations for ourselves is a topic for another day.