Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Just Do It–A Misleading Cliche

Originally posted on August 25, 2010

The saying, “just do it,” is an oversimplification and deserves to be critiqued, semantically unpacked, examined more closely, which is what this blog piece aims to do. (Please forgive my pedantry. One of my goals is to promote imagination, spontaneity, play. Another goal is to promote critical thinking, reflection. It might seem that these two goals are  in opposition, but actually they complement each other. Critical thinking and reasoning need to be in balance with creative imagination for optimal adaptation.)

The word “just” is a dismissive or disqualifying word, implying simplicity or nothing-but. As a phrase, “just do it” implies that whatever it is, it can be done by a simple act of will, if one’s intentions are good and not clouded by phony mind-games driven by elitism. It reflects an underlying fantasy that life is simple if only one’s heart is pure. In fact, though, “it”—whatever needs to be done—is often really rather complex. It’s not at all clear to most people how it should be done, or even where to start.

Now, there are some acts that simply involve a measure of courage, like getting into the water—cold at first, but you get used to it. Or building a simple habit, such as washing one’s hands after using the toilet. But even then there are arguments about the details, especially when it comes to research about degrees of getting relatively free of bacteria or viruses, or how much and in what way doctors should wash between patients. (Alas, they often forget to do this when making hospital rounds, so it is okay for you as a patient in a hospital to ask your visiting doctor to wash his or her hands before they examine you.)

Anyway, doing it is most often not as simple as the words make it out to be. If a given modification is suggested, some distinctions need to be discovered that highlight who would benefit from “it” being done, and recognizing that some might not benefit. Indeed, for some, since different strokes are needed for different folks, who might actually be harmed by it being done? “Just do it” might actually be contra-indicated.

Then there is the problem of dosage. It turns out that for most things that involve doing it, it can be easily done too much or too little. How to find the right dose for which people or situations? Another problem is that it works well for situation A but although situation B seems on the surface to be like situation A, in fact it’s quite different. “It” may not help, and perhaps even hurt. So there needs to be a recognition that most actions have limitations.

Moreover, it often takes years, decades, to begin to get answers to the questions implied above. It is thus anything but “just do it.”

Even the golden rule isn’t simple. The early 20th century playwright George Bernard Shaw once twisted this cliche by saying, “Don’t do unto others as you would have them do unto you; they may not have the same tastes.” Thus, wisdom, judgment, complexity, humility, and other qualities are needed, along with a good deal of knowledge and feedback, in order to know how and when to apply even that on-the-whole benign rule.

On occasion on these blogs I may do a bit of a critique, a gentle rant, if you will, regarding some bit of what tends to pass as “common sense.” My experience has taught me that many simplistic sayings only serve to support the sense of small-minded people that they have something to say that seems wise—but it is misleading. Because it is a common saying, though, it tends to add to the status of the person expressing this view. It appeals to our wish that things be simple, and makes us feel suspicious that who might want us to look a little closer or think a bit more before coming to conclusions are just making things more complex than they are.  But things are often far more complex than the seem at first. An attitude of alertness to bulls**t may help.

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