Two Words Not To Say In Or Out Of The Workplace


‘I’ll try’

There’s nothing wrong with trying to do something, of course there isn’t. It’s good to make an effort, to reach for what is out of our grasp, to experiment, to give something a whirl without certainty of success.

That’s all part of the excitement and challenge of living. The virtue of trying is reflected in commonplace sayings such as, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,’ and encouraging reminders of the importance of perseverance, of keeping going, of taking risks, of learning from failure.

But this heroic kind of trying often isn’t quite what we mean when we say ‘I’ll try.’ Be honest. We mean a range of things:

  • I’m saying this, but actually I’m not going to bother

  • It’s not going to happen, but I don’t want to say so

  • I don’t want to say no

  • I want to look willing

  • I want to look capable

  • I might get round to doing it

  • I might not feel like it

We think the phrase gets us off the hook by implying co-operation, but it actually draws attention to our lack of commitment.

It implies an approach, a state of mind, a vague willingness, but it builds in a little leg-room, a hint of likely failure, a warning not to expect too much.

  • I’ll try to meet the deadline

  • I’ll try to call you tomorrow

  • I’ll try to make the meeting/party

  • I’ll try to remember to collect the kids

  • I’ll try to pick up the organic wasabi beans/dry-cleaning/travel money

Hmm, doesn’t fill you with confidence, does it? What, we ask, will prevent you from ‘trying’? Will something be flung in your path as you ‘try’ desperately to get to the supermarket, or the meeting, or your phone? What does ‘try’ actually mean?

‘Try’ is not a tangible action. It doesn’t say what you will do. That’s what Yoda in Star Wars meant when he said ‘Do. Or do not. There is no try.’

Supporters of the ‘I don’t believe in failure, me’ school have appropriated this as a slogan for a kind of self-promoting bragadaccio, but its meaning is surely more subtle. You can’t sit there and try — you have to take a step towards doing something, and that step moves you along, takes you into the task so that you are, in fact, doing it.

You could just drop the ‘try’. Say that you will. Making the commitment means that you are much likely to manage it, and you come across as confident and on-board.