It is said that F M Alexander kept a large, heavy looking suitcase in his teaching room, which he would sometimes use to demonstrate a very important idea.
Allegedly, he would ask a student to do him a huge favour by moving this case out of the way. The student would take hold of the case and yank, expecting to lift a significant weight. In fact, it was empty, and the student would at least get a bit of a shock or possibly go flying backwards.
The purpose of the demonstration (allegedly) was to make two closely related points.
Firstly, that we tend to pre-judge, often without evidence, the amount of force required to perform a given task, and secondly, that we routinely use far more force than necessary. As my mother used to say: we jump in with both feet.
I don’t know if these stories are true, but it wouldn’t surprise me (he did work in the theatre, after all). I do know that he included a very similar illustration in his first book.
If you ask a man to lift a papier-maché imitation of an enormous dumb-bell, leading him to believe that it is almost beyond his capacity to raise it from the floor, he will exert his full power in the effort to do that which he could perform with the greatest ease. In a lesser degree the same expenditure of unnecessary force is exerted by the vast majority of “physical-culture” students, and by practically every person in the ordinary duties of daily life.Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Mouritz 2011, p.94
This use of excessive force in everyday acts seems to be endemic — we all do it at least some of the time.
One of my all-time favourite examples is handwriting. I’ve seen people squeezing a pen or pencil hard enough to crack walnuts. Yet when I ask them how heavy the pen is, and how much effort it would take to hold it they quickly realise it ought to take very little.
So, why all that wasted energy trying to strangle your writing implement? This kind of misdirected effort is a big theme for Alexander. He continues:
Ask a friend to lift a chair or any other object of such weight that, while it may be lifted without great difficulty, will in the process make an undoubted call on the muscular energies. You will see at once that your friend will approach the task with a definite preconception as to the amount of physical tension necessary. His mind is exclusively occupied with the question of his own muscular effort, instead of with the purpose in front of him and the best means to undertake it. Before he has even approached it, he will brace or tense the muscles of his arms, back, neck, etc., and when about to perform the act he will place himself in a position which is actually one of mechanical disadvantage as far as he is concerned. Not only are all these preparations of course quite unnecessary, but the whole attitude of mind towards the task is wrong. In such instances as this, any preconception as to the degree of tension required is out of place.
Aha! Now we’re into very familiar Alexandrian territory. The problem is in our “pre-conceptions”. By the time we start to carry out the task, we have already decided how much effort it’s going to take, and when I say “decided” I mean “made a wild guess”.
If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing easily
The concept hovering behind all these shenanigans is, of course, “efficiency”.
Chambers Dictionary defines efficiency as the ratio of a machines output of energy to its input (machine, in this case, being the human psycho-physical organism). The less energy you use in order to accomplish a certain task, the more efficient you are.
In other words, there is a certain amount of effort required to carry out a task. If you use more than you need, you might accomplish the task, but you will waste energy in doing it.
Also, too much effort might very well ruin what you are trying to do and you still won’t accomplish the task. Seriously inefficient!
Obviously, if you use too little energy then the task won’t be accomplished, so the ideal would be just exactly the right amount of effort to get the job done, but no more.
This principle is most clearly demonstrated in sports or in the performing arts. Did you ever see an amazing performance and think how easy the performer made it look?
Whether it’s actors, dancers, musicians, athletes, acrobats or public speakers, when we see or hear an outstanding performance, we very often use words like “effortless” to describe it.
Torvill and Dean were greatly admired because they “made it look easy”. Fred Astaire, Michael Jordan and Nat King Cole looked as though they weren’t even trying. The first time I saw Jackie Chan ‘walk’ casually over a 6-foot high gate*, it was several seconds before I realised that I had just witnessed something spectacular, because it didn’t look spectacular at all — it looked like the easiest thing in the world.
Of course, these things are not actually “easy”. All of these performances take effort, often extreme effort, but never excessive effort.
Exactly the right amount of effort to get the job done, and no more.
Don’t let your fingers melt
Okay, so how is this going to help me in the real world? Most of us don’t spend a lot of time tap-dancing or hopping over unfeasibly high obstacles.
Let’s go back to Mr Alexander’s fabled suitcase, but this time imagine it is actually fully loaded and some effort will be required to lift it.
How can we approach that task with maximum ease?
(I am indebted to Don Weed for this next game, and I do mean indebted. The practical benefits in my previous professional life (as a drummer) alone were priceless)
Step one: arrange your hand so that your fingers are hooked underneath some part of the suitcase (the handle springs to mind).
Step two: don’t grip, just make the decision that you are not going to let your fingers uncurl. All that matters is that some part of you is underneath some part of the object to be lifted.
Step three: stand up.
As long as you maintain your decision not to let your fingers uncurl, and as long as your fingers don’t melt, and as long as the suitcase doesn’t break, it will come with you wherever you go.
(Incidentally, if you carry out these steps and the suitcase doesn’t move, take the hint. It’s too heavy for you and you should get somebody to help.)
People are often very surprised to find how easy it is to carry things around using this approach, and they soon realise it’s a transferable skill. You can apply the same principle to moving furniture, carrying an umbrella or using a saw.
The art and science of not putting your back into it
I referred to this process as a “game” earlier, and I meant it. Activities don’t just get easier this way, they also can become much more fun. Here’s another example.
I once found myself at the bottom of a very steep hill in some local woodland with my bicycle (not a mountain bike, mind you, a racer). I knew I would be pushing my bike for a long time, so I was motivated to do some constructive Alexandrian thinking.
I placed my hand so that my thumb and fingers were behind and in the middle of the handlebars. I reasoned that as long as I didn’t let my shoulder extend, and as long as my fingers didn’t melt, the bike would go with me wherever I went.
I had “pushed” bikes up hills before, and I knew it was hard work. This wasn’t hard at all. This was fun. It wasn’t hard because I wasn’t “pushing” the bike. I was just walking with a bike at my side.
It was fun because, as I walked, I experimented with how little I had to do to steer (very little, by the way), how little I had to do to walk up the hill (less than you’d think), and how much effort it really took to carry my rucksack (zero).
I am not kidding or exaggerating when I say that I was having so much fun with all these games that it was several minutes and a couple of hundred metres before I realised I had got to the top of the hill and was walking on the flat.
How easily can you do that?
What I like about this game is that anyone can play — you don’t need to be an Alexander student. It’s a simple idea that can make a real difference to anyone’s life if they will take a little bit of time to work out where that magic minimum is.
If you feel like playing, pick an activity and see if you can find exactly the right amount of effort to get the job done, and no more. In other words, instead of trying hard to get the job done, try easy.
[* The film was “Operation Condor”, for those who are interested]
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