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“The more information that’s out there, the greater the returns to just being willing to sit down and apply yourself. Information isn’t what’s scarce; it’s the willingness to do something with it.” — Tyler Cowen, Average is Over
The most successful individuals and organizations on the planet are more focused on action-based progress than perfect abstract understanding. They realize information is moving too quickly to be grasped and that they’re better off moving rapidly at the risk of being wrong more often than being slower and more correct.
Consider Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos. His letters to the shareholders have become legendary, starting with his prophetic first note in 1997. In his most recent letter, two decades later, Bezos puts an emphasis on action with his “High-Velocity Decision Making.” He explains that “most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow.”
If you think you need to collect all the relevant data to make a decision, then you’ll never do anything. Aiming for 70% instead of 90% of information helps us to take action before we think we’re ready to–which is ideal in most situations.
Bezos even suggests that it’s often better to move forward with (to take action on) something you disagree with than allow yourself to stagnate. He says we should use the phrase “disagree and commit” because “[t]his phrase will save a lot of time. If you have a conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.”
For Amazon, it’s about quickly taking action to test ideas. No matter how much time we spend thinking about a solution to a problem, there’s no way we can know whether it will work until we test it. Their emphasis on focused experimentation is a pillar of their massive success over the last decade.
It’s difficult to overemphasize the importance of taking action. I used to run a consulting company that teaches people how to start e-commerce businesses. We’ve helped thousands of people become entrepreneurs and leave their jobs behind. it was incredibly easy to teach people how and what to do. The difficult part was to get folks to do something with the information.
Many of the people I worked with were mostly middle-aged, successful folks with six-figure salaries. They were smart and capable, but fearful of uncertainty and even the most modest risk. This is because, for many of us, our default understanding of action and ambiguity makes us stagnant. Just learning a couple of key facets of action can help us to take more effective action in our own lives. My book, “The Pocket Guide to Action: 116 Meditations on the Art of Action” goes into much more depth on this (there are 116 meditations!) but for now, let’s start with five important facts about action.
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1. Action Allows Emergence
When you take action you’re able to see and create new possibilities.
If you’ve never been healthy, you may think you never will be. If all your entrepreneurial endeavors have failed so far, it may seem that “you’re just not cut out for it”. If all your relationships have fallen apart, it may feel like you’re meant to be alone. Yet one more step may reveal a whole new set of possibilities: of health, profitability, or love.
The important thing is to keep taking action, even without the belief of possible success. Action allows for the possibility.
I know a 75-year-old woman who was single almost her entire adult life, with a bunch of failed relationships. She had given up on love but forced herself to keep dating. Now she’s happily married because she didn’t stop meeting people–she didn’t stop taking action.
By taking action, we see opportunities that were invisible to us before. We also create opportunities that didn’t exist before.
2. Motivation Follows Action
One of the most broken ideas we have about doing things is that we think we need to be motivated to do them or to “feel like it”. This is so broken because, the truth is, we’re more likely to feel like doing something once we’ve begun doing it.
I rarely feel motivated to go to the gym, to meditate, or to eat healthily. Once I’ve started, though, the motivation comes. The same goes for writing. There are few things less motivating than a blank page. Motivation comes after I’ve started, not before.
Remembering that motivation follows action will give you the strength to begin.
3. Inaction is Scarier
Action seems scary because the pain that comes with it is immediate, acute, and obvious. The benefits come after the pain.
Inaction is tempting because the benefits come first (mostly comfort) and the associated pain is deferred: our souls and bodies slowly decay, we become less capable, and our lives get smaller in general.
The pain that comes with action is invigorating; the pain that comes with inaction is depressing.
Taking action closes doors and opens them, whilst inaction just allows doors to be closed in our face.
4. Action Connects Us to Reality
Before we try something, we imagine it being much harder or much easier than it actually is. Either our skills aren’t what we think they are, the task isn’t what we think it is, or, most likely, both.
Action connects us to reality by skipping the narratives we hold about the world. We poke at something and observe what happens–we don’t guess or hypothesize, we experience.
Taking action connects us to reality so that we don’t need to believe in ourselves. Instead, we can build a body of evidence for ourselves.
5. Action Isn’t Petty
“Suckers try to win arguments, nonsuckers try to win.” — Nassim Taleb
The whole world seems intent on being offended and offensive simultaneously. Everybody demands diversity in thinking–but only their breed of diversity.
When we orient ourselves to action, we become more focused on what’s done than what’s said. It’s about having skin in the game and behaving accordingly. Taleb puts it this way: “If you take risks and face your fate with dignity, there is nothing you can do that makes you small; if you don't take risks, there is nothing you can do that makes you grand, nothing.”
Your reading and research should be defined by your interests and necessity, not social obligations.
The world demands you care about its petty arguments. Headlines about typos, micro-aggressions, and celebrity slights scream out at us to care about details.
Thoreau observed that “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” It’s the men and women of action who are capable of striking at the root of our problems. Only they can cut past the petty B.S. and make a true change in their lives and the world at large.
Recap: Understanding Action
If we remember the following five facts about taking action, it will become more natural for us to take bold action daily. It will also help us be more discerning in the actions we do take–less busyness and more right action.
1. Action unveils and creates possibilities that are currently hidden or don’t yet exist.
2. Motivation often follows action instead of preceding it. Don’t wait to be motivated to do something, do the thing to be motivated.
3. If you look beyond the immediate moment, inaction is much worse for your life than action. Action is how you grow, so pick immediate pain and deferred pleasure.
4. Action connects you to reality in a way that is impossible through abstraction. Don’t waste time trying to believe in yourself when you can create evidence of your ability.
5. Taking action means you’ve decided to be big, not petty. It means that you’re more concerned about winning than winning the argument–you’re playing the more important game.
Editor's Note: The Pocket Guide to Action has been making its way around our office and we absolutely love it. It's incredible what a small shift in perception can do! Head over to Instagram for your chance to win a copy!