Michael Ashcroft

February 18, 2021

Not caring lets us perform better

There’s a common trap that gets in the way of our natural abilities. That trap is to care too much about achieving an outcome.

This is something I experienced in my Alexander Technique lessons with Peter Nobes. He would throw me a ball and, like most humans who have ever played catch, it became important that I catch the ball. That led me to try to catch the ball, which looked like me coordinating myself somewhat awkwardly, probably dropping the ball, and looking sheepish and apologising when I did.

Contrast this to the other way I learned to catch a ball, which was to i) have a clear intention that I wanted to catch the ball, ii) not care if I did or didn’t, iii) watch as my hand reached out perfectly accurately and effortlessly on its own such that the ball just landed in it.

The second way is probably familiar to most people, but as a sort of rare, chance and fleeting “wow, I was really in the zone” experience. 

What’s happening here is captured well in the Inner Game series of books by W. Timothy Gallwey. He describes two ‘selves’ within each of us: 

  • Self 1: the explicit, thinking part that tries to catch the ball
  • Self 2: the implicit, non-thinking part that actually catches the ball

The more Self 1 cares about achieving a goal, the more it interferes with the natural functioning of Self 2. This is why, counterintuitively, the less you care about something, the more easily, effortlessly and effectively it can be achieved.

This entire concept can be played with in all areas of life, and it’s interesting to see the areas where people are okay with it. Catching a ball with one other person, without an audience, in a non-competitive environment and as part of a training exercise seems to be fine. Not ‘caring’ about getting the girl of our dreams or delivering a great presentation at work, on the other and, can seem crazy, even though exactly the same principle applies.

Here I have to point out the difference between ‘not caring’ and ‘not intending’, because they are often conflated in day to day language.

Caring is as described above, and comes with a sense of the outcome being important, that it (or we) would bad if the outcome weren’t achieved. There is a physical tension associated with it.

Intending is the activation energy required to take a specific action. I can intend to catch the ball (or not) as it flies towards me, while not caring whether or not I actually catch it. 

In this frame, the ideal combination to minimise or remove self-interference is to have a strong and unambiguous intention while caring as little as possible. The worst combination for our performance is to have a weak and ambiguous intention while caring strongly about achieving a particular outcome.

Now I will bring in playfulness, which I define as an attitude whereby we engage in an activity for its own sake. That sounds a lot like having clear intentions while not caring about achieving specific outcomes. Even in competition, it’s possible to maintain a position of “I want to win, but I don’t mind if I don’t”. That mental posture often brings about a sense of ease and lightness that unlock greater levels of performance that actually make winning more likely.

There’s a trap here, of course. 

Thinking “it is important that I not care so that I play better” is caring. This is the trap that most people are stuck in. They know they are stuck, but their most powerful and practiced tool is to care and try, but all they end up doing is care and try in the opposite direction. This is the same exact thing that they are trying to escape.

Getting out of that trap is a discussion for another time. But you can read about it over in Expanding Awareness.


I made a video from this