I’ve been spending the past few weeks in Paris and consequently have been trying to dust off my knowledge of French. My years in French class have equipped me with just enough understanding of the language to get around town with only minor challenges. If you need help ordering a sandwich “en français”, then I’m your man. But if you want to discuss politics or technology in that same language, you’d find me dull and silent. But I keep trying, which brings me to the French verb “essayer”, which in English means “to try”.
Two French essayists that I’ve had an interest in over the past couple years are Blaise Pascal and Michel de Montaigne. If you’re interested in reading more about Pascal, I recommend Peter Kreeft’s excellent book about Pascal’s Pensées. Earlier this year I was able to get to Montaigne via Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book.
Did you note that in the first sentence of the above paragraph I referred to them both as “essayists”? In fact, it was Montaigne who linked the French verb to its current use as a way to describe long-form writing. He spent over two decades in the sixteenth century writing his multi-volume book titled, appropriately enough, Essays. Both men were ahead of their time, in different ways. Presaging today’s social media problem of TMI, Montaigne seemed to write down every thought that passed through his head, including complaints about his penis.
Pascal, writing about seventy years after Montaigne in the seventeenth century, demonstrated that there is nothing new under the sun with this insight concerning the core of the world’s problems (keep in mind that this was written centuries before social media, streaming, and cable news): “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
But back to Montaigne for a minute, and the idea of “essayer”.
When it comes to political discourse or compensation negotiations, it is common for one party to insist upon the degree of work and effort they have expended. In politics, one group might claim to be the only group to have an impressive “work ethic”. When it comes to salary or grade complaints, an employee or student might insist that they have given forth maximum effort.
“I tried”, is a familiar protest. But we are storytellers and our intended audience is ourselves.
I am convinced that stories about our Great Efforts are often narratives that primarily exist in our minds. The fact is, we could try harder and we all know it. There are many ways we evade responsibility for not achieving our potential, and one of the most devious tricks on our bag is to tell ourselves how hard we are trying. Telling ourselves and others about how hard we are trying is the short and easy path to contentment. Its like laying down in a field of poppies.
- Find one thing in your life that you KNOW is not receiving your best effort
- Set forth a realistic objective for making improvements
- Tell somebody close to you what your goal is before you start.
- Create a tracking mechanism and/or commitment device
- Start tracking your effort and communicating results to others.
Essayer doesn’t mean “spend time” on this or that project. It means you bring forth your talent and your sustained focus. It means you give it a real try.
P.S. When visiting the statue of Montaigne (pictured above) across from Paris’s Sorbonne Université , it is customary to rub the toe of his shoe for good luck. So many pre-test-taking students and tourists have done it that his right shoe shines from all the rubbing. I don’t believe in such things, but why chance it? I gave it a rub.