To Be or Not to Be
Action vs. Inaction
Hamlet famously wrestled with whether to act or not. Its one of the biggest challenges we all face each and every day: what to do; when to do it; never enough time. And the plaguing questions about how will it be received, whether what we do is good enough or ready to be shared.
Doing anything, and completing any project we set out to do, is met with a series of obstacles. This is especially true of long-term projects. When we want to play the long game we are beset with doubts that feed our innate laziness. Inertia can take many forms along the arc: procrastination, preparation, the task itself, and deciding when it’s done.
Jazz musicians have a saying that the two most difficult parts of any tune are starting it and ending it.
We all have great ideas. It’s that pesky execution that’s troublesome. As T.S. Eliot said in The Hollow Men:
“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow”
We have to take the leap and just start. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; then one foot in front of the other. Start. Get a dart on the dartboard and iterate. Jump off the cliff and build the airplane on the way down.
Here is an inspiring quote by Goethe exhorting us to overcome inertia and begin:
“Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting over lost days.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute;
What you can do, or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
Then when the initial elation wears off, we find ourselves confronted with hard work of continuing the effort and not getting bogged down or distracted. We discover that the work is hard and a slog. We get caught in the doldrums or as Seth Godin calls it The Dip. Check out his great book by that name on the subject. It will give you lots of great advice about getting through the middle period.
Winston Churchill said: “ When you’re going through hell keep going.”
In entrepreneurship there is a similar problem of whether to Pivot or Persevere. Do you stay with your original concept or do you change based on the feedback you are receiving. There is a great Tim Ferris podcast on this subject where he has several super smart and talented entrepreneurs weigh in on the conundrum and how to deal with it. A lot of it has to do with asking the right questions of yourself and being radically honest in your responses.
These are the hurdles of inertia that we confront. A good way to look at them is as the stoic philosophers did and as Ryan Holiday lays out in his book The Obstacle is the Way. The perceived obstacles are what refine us and make our works better. Instead of bemoaning them, embrace them. We need support and strategies to face them and overcome, and shifting our perceptions of what they are can be immensely fruitful. The great industrialist Henry Kaiser said: “Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.”
Once we get the bulk of the project complete, and can see light at the end of the tunnel, comes the problem of deciding when something is complete, finished, done. The greatest artists have wrestled with this as an aesthetic question. When would Jackson Pollock decide one of his paintings was finished?
Or Beethoven decide a sonata was complete? If you have ever looked at his manuscripts they are so filled with sections crossed out and re-written and revised and it looks like a mess, but ends up sounding inevitable.
Voltaire, an incredible prolific literary figure, said in his Philosophical Dictionary: “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. (The perfect is the enemy of the good.)” That is a good thing to keep in mind when confronted with these competing imperatives.
Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn and one of the founders of PayPal and a legendary figure in Silicon Valley, said: “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
90% and done is better than 99% and incomplete. As Steve Jobs said: “Real artists ship.”
No-nonsense Harry Truman said: “Imperfect action better than perfect inaction”
Don’t get too balled up in making things perfect or ruminating over your “Art”. Just do it and get it out in the world and revise it based on feedback if you fell its valid. Picasso, another prolific creator said: “The less Art there is in painting the more painting there is.”
And even when we finally have the courage to call it a complete version 1.0, we run into something called Post-Completion Error. Post-completion error is an error where a user misses the steps of a task that are not directly related to the goal and have to be completed after the goal has been reached, like leaving the original in a copy machine after all the copying is done. Be aware of this tendency!
With all these landmines it’s amazing anybody gets anything done. Inertia is not our friend.
We do need to prepare: research, practice, training and whatever else gets us ready. Lincoln may have exaggerated but only by a bit when he said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Maybe that is a good ratio for tree chopping, but I think we tend to get caught in a vortex of preparation and never get down to the task at hand.
Design Thinking is a set of principles and an action-oriented philosophy designed to help us get stuff done. One of its precepts is to adopt a more playful experimental mode of being; do then think, instead of think then do. Ready, fire, aim.
Focus, follow through, and when in doubt choose action. These are the things I try to remind myself and wanted to share with you.
I am now deciding this piece is finished.