WE NEED WU WEI Wu wei pronounced “ooo-way” is the Chinese term for what we might call “effortless action.” Dr. Slingerland a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia has written a book “Trying not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity” which explores this ancient Chinese concept. The whole concept has very broad application, but my interest was in how it applies to us in trying lawsuits. We all would like to not be self-conscious and nervous, but rather natural as well as spontaneous

The Confucian approach to achieving wu wei uses willpower and rigid adherence to rules, traditions and rituals. The idea was that one would learn proper behavior so well that it became second nature and be spontaneous. The Taoists, on the other hand, rejected the effort with the Confucian approach which they thought was in conflict with the whole idea of not trying. They emphasized personal meditation instead of formal learning behavior. In addition, there are other variations of this idea among Zen Buddhist, Hindu and even Christian philosophers.

The aspect of wu wei I’m interested in is the idea that when we simply “go with the flow” we avoid analysis and overthinking which results in paralysis of thought and action. When we are acting in a spontaneous manner without conscious self-evaluation we are more attractive, impressive and charismatic. Think of it like the idea of an athlete being “in the zone.”

Dr. Slingerland argues that the best strategy involves a combination of approaches. Conscious effort is necessary to first learn a skill. Training one to follow certain actions for rules conserves energy for conscious performance. However, as the Taoists recognized, trying can become counterproductive. In a psychological experiment subjects were asked to hold the pendulum and not allow it to move. It demonstrated more effort that was put into trying to keep it to move caused it to move even more.

He suggests that we need to be able to transcend our training can relax completely into what we are doing for getting ourselves in the process. A fourth century BC Chinese philosopher recommended trying, but not too hard. The whole idea is well known in athletics. The basketball player who suddenly seems incapable of f missing a basket and so on.

In the book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” the experience is described as being completely absorbed in an activity. During this ‘optimal experience’ they feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities. Some of the characteristics that put one in this state of mind, after appropriate preparation, involve: (one) complete absorption in the activity (two) clear goals in mind for the activity in question (three) total concentration on the task at hand (four) a loss of self-consciousness and (five) a sense of active control over the situation. Trial lawyers should strive for the same state of mind through thorough preparation which produces confidence and total absorption in their job at the time.

Too often we are really thinking about what the judge, jurors or others are thinking about us and trying to impress others. We need wu wei in our professional work.


David Garth has died at age 84. He was a pioneer in running political commercials to elect politicians. He was renowned for elevating virtual unknowns into upset victories and helping politicians turn around damaging information. Garth was the model for the media hustler in Robert Redford’s film “The Candidate.”

He was an innovator in having candidates use a video camera for training. He could sum up a campaign theme in two words. In one election his campaign slogan was “enough is enough.” A New York Mayor was facing election after failing to provide adequate snow removal equipment during the city’s biggest snowfall. The public was outraged.  Garth had the mayor admit it a TV ad even though it was at a time when candidates simply didn’t admit mistakes. His candidate, however, said on TV:  “I guessed wrong on the weather before the city’s biggest snowfall last winter, and that was a mistake. But, I put 6000 more cops in the street, and that was no mistake.” The candidate won.

Mr. Gore once explained the secret of his success was that: “I sometimes think our real strength  is in under producing, in stripping away all of the political clichés like blue shirts for TV.” In other words, in simplicity and honesty. Lessons for us all.

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