On “Trying Too Hard”

The other night over dinner (a colossal plate of latkes), I asked my younger sister about a girl she used to spend lots of time with, but whom I haven’t seen in years. From what I could remember, said girl was adorable in every way my Jewish, dark-featured family wasn’t – a natural politesse (seemingly unenforced by her elders), soft, golden curls, chubby cheeks, bright blue eyes…a real-life cherub. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m a proud brunette and have even come around to the family schnoz, but doesn’t everybody occasionally want what they can’t have?) My sister’s response was a quick, “She tries too hard.” Without any need for further questioning, my whole family nodded their heads in comprehension, moving on to some other, less familiar topic.

Later that night, as I sunk into the bed of roses that is insomnia, I couldn’t get the phrase out of my head. For years I myself have thrown it around to describe those overeager people whose primary goal in life appears to be that of pleasing others and fitting in. Such behavior is admittedly irritating at times, but who isn’t guilty of succumbing to it once in a while? Perhaps some of us have just mastered the art of trying too hard while not appearing to do so. Is it really fair to sneer at those who fail to keep it discrete?

The look of annoyance on my sister’s face was one I know all too well. Cocktail parties (or at least the four I’ve attended in my life) are lush with people whose language is potently contrived, sprinkled with sidebars that conveniently list all the idyllic aspects of that person’s life. The four vacation homes, the Ivy League education, the solar panels and use of a compost, the bedroom-as-shoe-closet, the trip to Africa to save the children. Sometimes a person doesn’t even have to open their mouths to appear to be trying too hard…the showy-nature of their clothing alone can come off to some as effort better left un-made. I distinctly remember scoffing at the boy who covered his body in Chanel tattoos during my freshman year of college, or the girl who spent two hours perfecting the corkscrew curls in her hair. Never mind that I sometimes took over an hour deciding on an outfit. I could easily comfort myself with the notion that the strange ensembles I often put together were purely to satisfy myself, and no one else. But perhaps this was just one of the many lies that we tell ourselves? A lie that places us above those ‘lesser-beings’ who have the nerve to advocate for themselves, or even worse, show-off.

By disparaging these try-too-hards, aren’t we merely caving to a different version of vainglorious behavior? “Ah, yes. I am so much better than so-and-so because I don’t feel the need to brag about this, or strut around in that.” While we may not be aiming for the obvious title of hottie, we’re certainly deserving of haughty.

Label-junkies will always irritate me – in my book, there’s nothing gucci about head-to-toe Gucci. And women who feel compelled to strip down to nothing every Halloween will probably continue to grate my nerves. But maybe it’s time we all take a step back from our criticism and realize that we’re full of our own pretensions, all of which try-too-hard in their own unique way. My nondescript leather Baggu tote and allergy to trend-following takes an equivalent amount of effort, one that is perhaps less blatant, but not really much different than the try-too-hards’ noisy endeavors to fit in. Judgment is natural, and I don’t believe a soul who claims not to do it (save it for your yoga retreat), but it’s crucial to recognize that in judging others for their excessive striving we are simply overcompensating for our own insecurities and longing to fit in. Though we’re not all concerned with the approval of the masses, we all have a niche we’re trying to please.

I’ve often heard that the traits we find most irritating in others are the same characteristics we loathe most in ourselves, and it seems that this phenomenon confirms that notion. Is it possible that insecurity and the grade-school-borne longing to be popular are hard to face in other people because we’re struggling to accept those very same qualities in ourselves (regardless of age)? By disparaging those who fail to adequately hide these universal attributes, we are merely patting ourselves on the back with the false belief that we are of a greater caliber.

Trying too hard has become so stigmatized that it appears to be worse than not trying at all (see: the proliferation of jaded hipsters). And why is that? Audacious braggarts are certainly tiresome, but kudos to them for not settling for the safe space that is blasé. The fact of the matter is that we’re all trying, and we’re trying pretty damn hard, in different ways, twenty-four seven. Some of us dress these efforts up as something else, or try to argue that our efforts are superior to those made in an attempt to jibe with a certain status quo.  That’s no crime, but neither is a display of desperation or the non-humble brag, behaviors that are simply the nature of the beast. And, I hate to break it to you, but we’re all beasts.

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