Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

You can try, but you won’t succeed

By · Monday, January 16th, 2017

Sheets

Just finished folding a set of sheets, including the dreaded fitted sheet. Actually, folding sheets was an exercise for students during one of their editing classes at the end of last semester.

Two students were given a flat sheet. Two students were given a fitted sheet. Their instructions were simple.

Those on the sidelines were eager to assist, and they pitched in when asked.

As might be expected, the one team produced a perfectly folded flat sheet so neat that it looked like it had come straight from the new package the students had just opened. (And they didn’t cheat by folding on the creased lines.)

The other team produced a not-bad-looking fitted sheet that had only a bit of excess material cleverly tucked in the folds here and there. It was not perfect, but it was mostly neat. And it was folded.

Everyone judged the flat sheet a success, but not the fitted sheet.

Imagine their surprise when I concluded the opposite. And then the protesting started about the neatly folded flat sheet.

What do you mean we didn’t succeed? Look at this!

I know. But you were told to try to fold the sheet neatly.

We did!

I agree. You folded the sheet neatly. It looks great. But you didn’t follow the instructions. You were told to try to fold the sheet. If you had tried, you wouldn’t have succeeded.

What? We can try and also succeed.

No, you won’t succeed if you only try.

I tossed a highlighter on the floor and invited anyone to try to pick it up — not an original idea, but one I had learned years ago from two motivational speakers. One student and then another and another reached for the highlighter and grabbed it off the floor.

No, I didn’t say to pick up the highlighter. I said to try to pick it up.

Then one student quite dramatically reached for the highlighter, coming oh so close but never touching it.

I’m trying. But I can’t pick it up.

Even this on-the-mark demonstration did not sway them. It was only when I shared another example that they started to get it.

Picture yourself excitedly talking to a friend, I told them.

You: “A bunch of us are getting together tonight. Come over.”

Your friend: “Hey, thanks. I’ll try to come.”

What do you think will happen, I asked everyone. “They’ll show,” answered one, optimistically. “Nah, they aren’t coming,” concluded another, realistically.

A new semester in a new year … we all must do more than merely try.

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