Fundamentally, I think life is about taking action. It's about drawing information from your surroundings, formulating that into a decision, and then finally acting on that decision. People who are successful and happy tend to be those who take a lot of action.
My beef with video games, TV, movies, and other sorts of passive entertainment isn't that there's NO value in them, or that they're fundamentally evil things. It's that they promote NOT taking action. When I see someone whose life is made up mostly of going to a mindless job and then coming home and indulging in passive entertainment, I think of their life as being on pause. Days spent that way just don't count.
A lot of what I think about is what makes people take action and what makes people abstain from taking action. I think about times that I've taken action, and times that I haven't, I think about others around me and their relationship with taking action, and I think about how we can all take action more frequently.
Lately I've been thinking that maybe the biggest leverage point for taking action is focusing on where that threshhold lies between taking action and not taking action, and where it ought to be. For example, if I told you that if you clapped your hands, you could have a million dollars, you would clap your hands. The opportunity is so overwhelmingly good that anyone would take it. But what if I told you that you would have to walk across Russia and I'd give you a million dollars? Fewer people would take that offer.
We all have a threshhold of how good an opportunity has to be for us to take action. Most people would be better served by lowering their threshhold for action.
Take an average office worker who would like to become a millionaire, which is probably just about every office worker. How many of them could actually become millionaires? Not all of them, maybe, but many of them. Most could quit their jobs, live lean, start some sort of business, work hard, and eventually make a million dollars. Almost none of them will actually try to do that.
The default threshhold setting for a lot of people is "perfect opportunity". That's why most office workers who dream of being independent will never quit their jobs and strike it out on their own. Without really consciously deciding what their threshhold is, they wait for a perfect opportunity to present itself. Sometimes it does, but most of the time it doesn't.
What would happen if we made the decision to act not only on perfect opportunities, but also excellent opportunities, great opportunities, and maybe even good opportunities? For one, a lot more people would acheive the success they wanted. That's good. Beyond that immediate success, people would be actively engaged in life and learning through action. The point of taking action isn't to succeed on this very next opportunity (although that's a great result), but rather to build the habit of taking action so that eventually success becomes inevitable.
I try to always be taking action in my life. I don't mean that in a frantic be-busy-every-moment sort of way, but rather to recognize when I'm pushing myself forward towards my goals and when I'm just coasting. Whenever I find that I'm coasting, I start looking for opportunities to take action on-- not perfect ones, just plain old good ones.
Heading to Austin, TX on Tuesday for a month. Can't wait to see my friends and family!
Thanks to all the people who have been giving feedback on SETT. Very much appreciated!
Great post, Tynan!
When you write "Fundamentally, I think life is about taking action," do you mean that life for everyone is (or should be) about taking action, or "life is about ___________" and anyone can fill in the blank with whatever they think life is about? Another person may think "life is about learning", or "life is about having great kids", or "life is about being happy".
For example, as you write your post and I read it, life is about taking action for you (writing the post) but for me it's about being interested in what you have to say, and therefore taking the time to read your post. That would mean that in that moment, you're fulfilling what you think life is about, but because I am passively consuming your post, I am not! Unless, that is, life is about something different for everyone.
PS, I'm curious: Does reading a literary classic count as being passive?
Some thoughts based on a great post!
I've thought about that a bunch - is reading "active" or "passive"? And I think for me a big part of it is: when I read a given book or story or whatever, am I taking that experience and integrating it into my life in some meaningful way?
Lately I've been reading a lot of psychology and behavioral economics and that has dramatically changed the way I think and behave.
And a lot of fiction I've read - William Gibson's books from 2000 and later like All Tomorrow's Parties and Zero History and the like come to mind - inspire my imagination and motivate me with their vision of a world I want to live in, and that really steers my behavior and life too.
Even rather fluffy books that give me perspective on the world, like Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster, can contribute meaningfully to my life. They enrich my experience of life and give me fascinating information I use when I'm engaging in conversation with people.
I think if I read a literary classic and it gives me some profound insight into the human condition, or gives me a moment of intimacy with the author, or fits into and fleshes out a historical perspective I have, that seems greatly valuable.
But I know more than one person - and have sometimes been the kind of person - who reads to avoid, never using the information and experience from the books to live a more present and active life.
I appreciate the feedback from one of the most action-taking people I know!
I think that all of those things that you suggest to fill in the blank are fundamentally defined by action. If your life is about learning, then your success in learning all that you'd like to learn will be a direct result of the amount of action you'll put into that learning.
In your example of reading this post, I think that what you do with what you've read is what's important (although, to be clear, I don't think you have any sort of problem taking action). I used to read a lot of self development books, but not do anything with what I had learned. That was a passive way of consuming. Now whenever I read a book that I think is at least decent, I try to put into action at least one thing that I learned from the book. So I think that the acquisition of knowledge can be a passive or active process, depending on the individual.
As for reading classics, I think that Brian pretty much nailed it. Ironically enough, I read a fiction book that I thought was terrible, but its shortcomings motivated me to write my own novel, so I wrote about 80 pages in the two days following the read.
Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion!
Yeah I've structured my life around the same concepts as you detail. Some examples:
- Although the place I live in has a TV, I banished it to the attic the second I moved in. TVs are like giant time-sucking vacuums. And as someone famously once said, "time is our most precious resource, and we never know how much of it we have to begin with."
- I believe that any action item should accompany with it a date. For example, instead of saying "yeah we'll do this later," say "Joe will do this by Friday." Or if you don't know the date, then set a date to pick a date: "Joe will give us a firm date for this project by Friday,"
- The Scrum approach to agile development is fantastic for keeping team members productive and spurring action. I wrote about this at http://go.danielodio.com/scrum
However, to get more meta about it (and about your blog in particular):
As human beings, we often define ourselves through action. We want to build; to create. We want to leave the world in a better condition than we found it. In fact, if you believe Ray Kurzweil, we're approaching "The Singularity" which is the culmination of an exponential curve that results from humans taking action:
So I guess my point is simply this: Humans are geared for action by their nature. But even the act of watching TV could be considered an action. Reading a literary novel is an action. So saying that 'life is about taking action' is kind of like saying that 'life is about breathing.' True, but so what?
What I really hear you saying is that you're quantifying your action with some type of productivity measure of output. And that gets interesting, because then you're applying one person's judgement as to what defines productive output. Does watching TV count as productive output? Reading a novel? Etc. How do you differentiate between something that may be productive but takes up the first 1/3 of a person's life (like getting an education, which is a lot of "input," the "output" of which is distributed over the course of one's life), and an action that's immediately productive (like saving someone's life by pushing them out of the way of an oncoming bus). Are both of those actions equally valuable? Should one be prioritized over the other? What type of taxonomy do you use to determine levels of productive output? I'd love to hear your thoughts on those points.
I think that the fundamental distinction is whether or not that action is moving you closer or farther away from your goals.
Take reading, for example. If I'm in the middle of coding, but I take a break to read for an hour, I'd consider that to be moving away from my goals (although not as bad as many other distractions).
On the other hand, sleep is very important to me. When I'm well rested (and hydrated and fed), I can perform at a high level. When I'm tired, I'm next to useless. So every night I shut my computer off at midnight, clean my RV, and then read until 3am. This transitions me to sleep in a way that going from computer straight to bed doesn't do, and keeps me more rested for more of the time. In addition, I read books that I think will generally benefit me in some way.
If there was a magical formula for this stuff, I think it would be something along the lines of figuring out your goals, designing actions to reach those goals, and then having the discipline to stick to those actions.
One of your best posts in my opinion! You should consider applying to give a TED talk on this topic!
Re-reading the post, here's another way of thinking about it that just occurred to me: treat every moment as a choice. Treat everything as an action. This is kind of turning your "watching TV and working a mundane job is inaction" on its head, and saying - no, think of that as action! When you wake up, say, I'm choosing to go to work. When you sit on your couch, say I'm choosing to watch TV instead of doing something else.
It's the unconscious that kills, that dawning sense of "whoa, what have I been doing for the last two days / two weeks / two years / entire lifetime??"
We have to realize that working the day job is not "no choice", it's a choice - a choice to spend that portion of your limited life doing that day job instead of taking every other opportunity you have for spending that time differently.
Wow, I think this is a really significant post. I love this formulation - talking about the opportunity quality that motivates us to act. I wonder if there's research about this - I haven't seen anything that addresses this directly in the behavioral econ stuff I've been reading. But maybe in books like Jonah Lehrer's "How We Decide"? (I haven't read it, so I don't know.)
I mean, the flip-side formulation is, what are we measuring the opportunity against? It's fear, right, in a catch-all sort of way, the opportunity has to be exciting or motivating enough to push us past fear. And inertia, too, procrastination.
I know for me a huge part of it is deliberately deciding to look honestly and openly at these decisions from a bunch of angles to try to make sure I'm being as rational as possible. What's the downside of taking the opportunity? The upside? The downside of not? The upside? And then look honestly at the feelings about doing it or not doing it. Like when I see something I want to buy, I'll stop and visualize that I already own it and see how that feels, and most of the time that helps me see that I won't really care about the thing as soon as it's mine, and so I don't buy it. Or I consider an opportunity like doing some risky physical thing and I'll stop and visualize, let's say I don't do it, will I regret it?
I really like the framing of action vs. inaction. It's kind of existential - like, doing a mundane day job and then watching TV is "inaction" because it's all just going with the flow and not making any hard decisions.
Yeah, as I think about it I realize this is a topic I see discussed a ton, all the time, but I think this formulation is a really novel way of looking at it & is the most motivating and incisive one I've seen.
It's a shame but not taking action has everything to do with the way we are unconsciously set up since childhood through the education system. Schools indoctrinate kids for at least 12 years how to be servants, obeying a boss who also obeys their own boss. Unfortunately, schools don't teach entrepreneurial skills at all. If they did, more and more people would be "trained" to take action on the opportunities that present to our lives.
Tynan once mentioned to me that he's noticed a correlation between engaging, active, cool people and people who attended Montessori schools as kids (which he and I both did.) I think it relates to what you're saying - a huge thing in Montessori for me was that they give you constraints ("You have to get these five things done at some point today") but within those constraints, give you major autonomy. I think it's a really important experience for a kid.
Yeah, couldn't agree more with both of you guys. As crazy as it sounds, I actually do credit Montessori with a lot of who I've become.
I think unschooling is a really great way to do this, too. Leo Babauta unschools his kids, and every time I hear about what he's doing, I'm a little bit jealous of his kids.
Yeah, I was thinking the same thing as you, Tynan, about Startup Chile....just felt like there were too many rules to put up with in order to do something that really could be done anywhere..
Taking Action is great.
However, if you want results, there is a pre-requisite.
Planning, and Preparing, so that when you take action, you are for ready to achieve successful results.
Side note, if your in the habit of inaction, than Step 1 is to get into the habit of taking action, regardless of results. (running blind, just to get into the habit of running)
Then with the habit of taking action built, now adding in Planning and Preparing, thus successful results are more attainable. (ready, running and getting results)
I, Agree on how TV entertainment wastes Time & it makes you dum, unless it's educational and you can apply it to make your life better say like a trade of some kind, Video games are to Boring, and now days at's about killing people, so how does that improve of ones Life! - it don't-, If you Really Like Video Games Try Writing software to move robots like the ones on MARS, it's more educational for your mind, + you maybe the Next Team at NASA to sent a Rover!
Moves OK from time to time if it Up Lifts You, Good Moves! are hard to Find ones without Killing or Fear!
The last Great Moves I saw was Dolphin Tale & Hugo!
Opportunities Happen to all of us all the time you just need to wake up yourself to see them!
One way to break down a lifetime would be to think of it as two portions-- the part where the person became better, and the part where he coasted.
In a normal person's life, the getting better part would include everything from his first breath of air, as he learned how to see and feel and breathe, through school as he learned different things, and probably through the beginning part of his job as he developed a baseline proficiency in his trade. The coasting part would be most of his career, as he put his educational investment to work, and, of course, retirement.
There are a lot of ways to get better. You can learn new things. You can travel and see the world, thus gaining new perspective. You can build your personality. You can create a body of meaningful work. You can become more healthy and more fit. You can actively cultivate relationships with people.
August 11th, 2011. Chiba, Japan.
A mix of confusion and awe as I step off the platform.
I must have made a mistake. But maybe a good mistake.
Birds caw and cicadas click gently, filling the warm afternoon air with sounds of nature. The train platform is open to the air and on the other side of the tracks is a high fence. Beyond it, a bicycle and walking path leading to a park.
Children are running around and playing in the park, but surprisingly quietly. Very Japanese.