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There's a Zen Koan. It says that if you want to find something, you have to stop looking.
Temperance Brennan, Bones

Alice tries to do something. She tries really hard, in a bunch of different ways, and none of them work. Finally she succeeds--either in the one last half-hearted attempt she makes before giving up, or precisely by giving up.

This is a staple of Secret Test of Character plotlines. When done poorly, it can come across as the Broken Aesop version of Know When to Fold'Em.

See also Gave Up Too Soon. Compare Sheathe Your Sword. The Centipede's Dilemma is often due to this.

Examples of You Were Trying Too Hard include:

Animated Films

  • In Disney's Hercules during a training montage/song the titular character is shown launching projectiles at practise dummies. He misses repeatedly, then turns away throwing another weapon as he does. This hits the target, and for some reason both him and his trainer consider this a success.


  • For the first half of Gun X Sword, Van carries around a small sliding puzzle. He constantly works on it, but never gets the grip of it. After Woo defeats him, he angsts over the situation, unconsciously working on the puzzle... and solves it. Cue epiphany.
  • Vegeta in Dragon Ball spends an entire story arc or two hellbent on becoming the legendary "Super Saiyan", putting himself through an equally hellish training program in an effort to top recently ascended Super Saiyan Goku. After a particularly brutal workout, the Vegeta gives up in frustration ...and finally transforms, as the despairing rage that consumes him is what it takes for the Super-Powered Evil Side to come out.
  • Ranma is trying to learn a special technique which involves training using an open fire in order to get a MacGuffin which will restore his ability to resist heat, but can't get close enough to the fire due to an aversion of Convection Shmonvection . Eventually, he is talked into taking a break and going to a fair by Akane and while doing so learns effectively the same technique technique in a different way through a sideshow challenge.

Comic Books

  • This is how the Marvel superhero Quasar gained control of his 'quantum-bands' in the first issue of his own series: after being forced to use the untested and dangerous alien devices in combat and trying his hardest to control the unstoppable energy buildup, Wendell Vaughn flies high up into the atmosphere so nobody else will get hurt in the inevitable explosion/disintegration (which happened to the person who tried the bands on before him) and basically stops fighting...which causes the energy to harmlessly dissipate. The point is reinforced by Wendell feeling explicitly ashamed for his poor performance and apparent lack of 'killer instinct' during his earlier SHIELD combat training.
  • In the Fantastic Four story "Unthinkable," Reed Richards' technical devices are useless against the newly magically-empowered Doctor Doom, forcing him to rely on a magic gauntlet provided by Doctor Strange. No matter how hard he concentrates, it won't work. Of course, when he gives up and admits that there are things he'll never understand, the gauntlet starts working like gangbusters. It was apparently powered by humility.
  • In Sonic the Comic, Robotnik modifies a standard trooper robot with a powerful predictive artificial intelligence that allows it to counter any attack made by Sonic and his allies. Sonic eventually defeats it by saying he's giving up, because that is so outside the Determinator psychological profile for him the robot is programmed with that it (explosively) shuts down.

Fan Works

  • In Luminosity, Elspeth keeps trying to convince herself that she should be able to use her "I am being honest" magic when she's lying, or be able to turn it off, and failing. Finally, she is simply herself, who hates lying, and happens to be unsure. (Empahsis added)

 Siobhan: And you really believe all that? I can't tell when you decorate your sentences with all those hedges.

  • George in With Strings Attached works through this trope. He spends the better part of a day trying to figure out how to smuggle water into a house guarded by warriors and wizards. He comes up with a list of schemes that run the gamut from crazy to crazier, until he finally realizes he's trying too hard and decides to meditate to calm himself down. But he can't concentrate because of all the activity around him, including roof repair... and that's when he remembers the house he's trying to get into has holes in the roof. Given his chosen method of sneaking water past the wizards, this works out perfectly.


  • Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. "Father, guide my sword."
  • In What Dreams May Come, Christy finally saves his wife from Hell by giving up on trying to save her and instead joining her. Sometimes, when you lose, you win.
  • At the beginning of National Lampoon's European Vacation, the family is appearing on a game show and is asked a question they don't know the answer to. Chevy Chase's wife whines "Clark!", which is the name of Chevy's character. This turns out to be the correct answer to the question.
  • In The Matrix Revolutions, Neo allows himself to be assimilated by Agent Smith after realizing that the two of them are evenly matched. The Machine God uses the new connection to eliminate Smith and all of his clones at once.
  • The Fifth Element: After trying numerous ways to activate the four elemental stones, they all give up. David laments that they're going to die and sighs, inadvertently activating the wind stone. Turns out the stones need their classical element to activate (wind for wind, earth for earth, water for water, fire for fire).
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: While escaping the Nazi base at Castle Brunwald, Indy finds himself and his father Henry Sr. at an apparent dead end, so Indy starts looking all around for a switch to open a secret passageway. All looks desperate until:

 Henry: I find that if I just sit down to think...

(he sits down on a chair, which leans back and opens a stairwell which Indy falls into)

Indy: (yelling) Dad!

Henry: ...the solution presents itself!



  • In Good Omens, Anathema tries unsuccessfully to invoke this when she's looking for her lost book of prophecy:

 She even tried the one which every romantic nerve in her body insisted should work, which consisted of theatrically giving up, sitting down, and letting her gaze fall naturally on a patch of earth which, if she had been in any decent narrative, should have contained the book.

It didn't.

  • It does, however, work for Richard in Neverwhere when he loses his keys in the mud.
  • Malicia in The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents tries to invoke it as well, and it's possibly a hidden double subversion in that she tries too hard accidentally leaning on things before Keith gets it first thing he tries by actually looking.
  • This happens to Bilbo during the riddle-game in The Hobbit: he can't figure out a riddle, he's really spooked, and he squeaks "Time!" meaning "Give me more time!" It's the right answer. Technically, also how Bilbo wins the riddle-game. Trying to think up a riddle, he off-handedly asks himself, "What's in my pocket?" Gollum takes it as a riddle.
  • In The Lord of the Rings Gandalf uses several spells while attempting to open the door into Moria, whereas if he had not translated the Elvish inscription on the door (Speak, Friend, and enter) when he read it aloud the door would have opened, as the Elvish word for Friend (mellon) was the password.
  • In Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater, Samuel Klugarsh sells an Omega Meter to Alan and Leonard, promising that the machine will play a tape recording of "Jingle Bells" instead of buzzing when their brains start to produce omega waves. The boys try various meditation tricks to no avail. Finally, Alan agrees with Leonard that Klugarsh played a trick on them, says, "I give up," and collapses in defeat. Moments later, the machine starts to play "Jingle Bells."
  • This is how Saidar, the female half of the One Power, works in The Wheel of Time. The only way to control it is for the channeler to recognise how infinitely greater it is than her and surrender to it completely. Try to fight it and it will burn you out.
  • In Harry Potter, the final test to get the stone is to get it from the Mirror of Erised. Voldemort couldn't get it while Harry was able to. Dumbledore later reveals to Harry that only a person who wanted to find the stone, but not use it would be the one to get it.
  • This is a huge part of learning to fly in Hitch Hikers Guide to The Galaxy.

  "One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally. It's no good deliberately intending to miss the ground because you won't. You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else when you're halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it's going to hurt if you fail to miss it. . . There are private clubs you can join which help you achieve the all-important moment of distraction. They hire people with surprising bodies or opinions to leap out from behind bushes and exhibit and/or explain them at the critical moment."

    • This is later proven to be correct when Arthur Dent gets distracted while falling off a mountain on an alien world (having just spotted some luggage he'd lost while vacationing in Greece).

Live Action TV

  • In the Leverage episode "The Stork Job", Parker's attempt at getting the kids from a Serbian orphanage to follow her works this way: she tries a few phrases out of a phrase book, all of which wind up as My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels, and finally half-heartedly offers up "Haagen-Daaz?", which they understand.
  • In an episode of Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, Colin had a one-one-one basketball game with Patrice O'Neill, and couldn't land a basket to save his life until the final seconds of the game, where he halfheartedly hurled the ball at the hoop while walking away. It went in.
  • Eureka, Your face or mine?: Carter is isolated in a test room and tries to get out. He only finds a way when he's ready to give up.
  • Used in at least two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation:
    • In "Booby Trap," the Enterprise is caught in an energy-sucking asteroid field which, true to its description, sucks any and all power out of the engines. The crew spends the episode trying to figure out how to put more energy into the engines until they figure out that "That's the trap!" They escape by shutting the engines down and using a single thruster to fly free.
    • In "Hero Worship," the ship is (say it with me) caught in a Negative Space Wedgie which reflects the Deflector Shields, creating a huge-gantic tidal wave of energy. Only when they drop the shields (in effect, giving up) does the tidal wave disappear.
    • In "Peak Performance," Data plays against and loses to Sirna Kolrami in the game Strategema. He's really bothered by it, albeit stoically so, and runs dozens of diagnostics to figure out why he lost. Later in the episode, after saving the lives of millions or whatever, he reboots his confidence subroutine...yadda yadda yadda, and goes back to try again. This time, he doesn't try to win, he tries to draw. This makes the game go on longer than Sirna can handle (since his neural capacities don't allow him to play Strategema, sudoku, Ms. Pacman, and Final Fantasy VII all at once) — in fact longer than the game is supposed to ever go on — and he forfeits in a fit of rage.
    • In "Q Who" Q tells Picard he wants to become a member of the Enterprise, and he'll even renounce his godly powers to do so. Picard tells them he believes they are equipped to handle anything the universe can throw them without Q's help. So, Q throws the Enterprise into Borg space. Just as the Borg are about to destroy/assimilate the Enterprise, Picard admits they aren't prepared and they do need Q after all. Satisfied, Q whisks them away from Borg space and departs. (Note that it wasn't simply because Picard satisfied Q's ego, but because Picard showed he was not too prideful to either realize or admit he was wrong.)
    • In Lower Decks. Ensign Sito gets chewed out by Picard regarding things she did while at Starfleet Academy. She accepts the dressing down quietly. Later, while taking martial arts lessons from Worf, he tells her to put on a blindfold and defend herself. After being smacked around by Worf several times, she gives up and tears off the blindfold, shouting at Worf that it wasn't a fair test. Worf is pleased at her response, and tells her that he hopes the next time she's being treated unfairly, she'll speak up. She goes back to Picard and tells him that she should be judged by her actions on the Enterprise, not on what she did in the Academy. It turns out that Picard had been giving her a Secret Test of Character, hoping she would react assertively.
  • On I Love Lucy, Lucy and Ricky are on a TV quiz show. After Lucy blows the first two questions, the third asks what George Washington said while crossing the Delaware. Ricky, who has no idea, says to Lucy, "Please let me sit down, this is making me sick."
  • The Thanksgiving episode of The Mommies revealed that one of the titular mommies has been trying year after year to recreate her mother-in-law's pumpkin pie recipe. This year, she gives up and uses Libby's. Her husband then tells her she finally got it.
  • Spenny's number one problem when trying to win competitions in Kenny vs. Spenny.
  • In a Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch, a Hollywood producer is firing his screenwriters left and right for failing to come up with "something funny" for Doris Day to say to Rock Hudson. When this challenge is posed to the last remaining writer, he yells "I can't take it anymore!" and rushes out. The producer thinks it's a great line.

Video Games

  • To enter the Siege Tower in Planescape: Torment, you must not want to enter it. And not in a false way; you really don't want to get there, so you go there.

Web Comics

  • In Eight Bit Theater, Red Mage faces the ordeal of Pride in the castle of ordeals, and, after many unsuccessful attempts to defeat it, gives up. This is the entire point of the exercise, but he completely misses the point and starts gloating immediately afterward.
  • In Goblins, a death trap is sealed by a door that opens when the occupants are confused, and closes when they understand things - including the nature of the door.

Western Animation

  • Futurama:
    • In "Fry and the Slurm Factory", Fry tries to find the can of Slurm with the winning gold bottle cap inside, first by drinking can after can, then by using the professor's F-ray. After his search yields nothing, he gives up and has a can of Slurm... and starts choking on the winning cap.
    • This is also used as a joke in "A Head in the Polls", when Fry is going to register to vote. The Apathy party only accepts members who don't care about voting.

 Fry: Now this is a party I can get excited about! Sign me up!

Recruiter: Not with that attitude.

Fry: Oh, well screw it then.

Recruiter: Welcome aboard!


Real Life

  • Chinese Finger Traps.
  • Magic Eye 3D pictures.
  • One piece of advice given to people that aren't exactly lucky in love is "it's easiest to find a significant other when you stop looking for them". May be related to the real Koan "when the student is ready, the master will appear".
    • This probably works because people getting on with and enjoying their lives are a lot more attractive than people desperately seeking someone else to make their lives worthwhile.
  • This trope describes exactly how the Buddha's disciple Ananda supposedly reached enlightenment.
  • There's a (Japanese?) story about a master calligrapher who was asked to make a painting for an important temple. He paints slowly and methodically, and produces beautiful, clean strokes, but it's rejected. He makes several more methodically produced calligraphy, but they're all rejected - the person commissioning the work even asks if he really is a master calligrapher. Exasperated, he quickly slaps together one last painting, which is instantly accepted - "There's the carefree brush of the Master I've been looking for!"
  • Certain techniques in fencing, especially making an attack to the foot in epee, are less accurate the harder you think about what you are doing.
  • Some alcoholics speak of total surrender as the necessary first step on the path to recovery.
    • Recovered addicts usually start the recovery process because they hit such a desolate, soul-crushing rock bottom that it's practically less effort to go through rehab than it is to go on living like that.
  • A Croatian woman was reported missing in 1966. 42 years later, her body was found by police... in her own apartment.
  • Much of Taoist philosophy revolves around this. Constantly struggling to get what you want leads to suffering and defeat, while simply "going with the flow" and doing what you're good at will reward you.
  • Many inexperienced kids on the internet fall victim to this trope. They try too hard to make themselves seem respectable, by giving themselves unnecessarily cool names like DarkEvilLord97 or Xkiller74x, and acting like an Internet Tough Guy, when it isn't cool at all. As they grow up they mature a bit they realize that you shouldn't try to be a "cool" person, whatever that means this week; you should just Be Yourself. It's true what they say, after all: being comfortable with who you are makes you cool!
    • Similarly, other kids on the internet try too hard to seem special or unique by acting "random" and becoming furries or Otherkin. What they fail to realize is that real Cloud Cuckoo Landers don't need to try to act the way they are, they're just eccentric by default. That's part of their quirky charm.
    • And whatever you do, do NOT try to be edgy. You'll just come off as annoying.