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Doing vs Taking Action

How to take difficult action and keep at it.

Thunderstorms are highly unpredictable, fascinating, and intense. As the warm, tropical, humid air moves upward, it collides with polar cold fronts. It then quickly condenses into droplets that fall down, growing and crashing into each other to begin what could turn into a thunderstorm. The high-altitude clouds make the sky turn into such interesting colors. Sometimes a deep orange or yellow, and other times purple with a bit of a pink hue. With a bit of luck, you can see lightning from afar as the storm approaches. The nuances between doing vs taking action are subtle yet powerful, like an air mass that doesn’t collide with a cold front vs a focused thunderstorm.

In our educational models, first we learn and then we do. Doing is often supervised and guided. The student does the homework, revises the mistakes, and then gets tested. To get a job, it’s a similar process. You elaborate about your experience, your challenges, and how you dealt with them. You show that you can be a good fit for the job requirements, and show you can be someone the interviewers would want to work with. It’s all based on knowing first, then doing–which fits nicely with our educational model. You wouldn’t get hired if you didn’t know what you were supposed to do. In this sense, the model works.

But how do you figure out what to do if you don’t have instructions? How do you start something when it’s not guided, or when the path is not clear? How do you tackle wicked problems? When you see experienced performers and subject matter experts, it appears they can seamlessly get creative. It appears they can improvise, play, and enjoy something that’s difficult while performing. This is tricky because it can make you think that the mechanics behind taking difficult action are a lot more smooth than they really are. Taking action involves risk. The characteristics of taking action on risky, unguided, and undefined problems are more like thunderstorms than they are a light rain.

Consider the following elements:

A) Focus

In a thunderstorm, you can spot lightning in the deep dark clouds. Then something interesting happens. The clouds gain so much altitude that they become uniform and you can’t tell them from each other. Then the sky changes color. The storm builds and builds as the warm air clashes into the cold. Everything focuses into a thunderstorm. This is the key difference between doing vs taking action: doing is not necessarily achieving something while taking action is result driven. You can learn and know more, but that won’t get you results in and of itself. Taking action is about shaping your future and working to achieve a specific outcome.

Doing something is more general. You can do many things but not achieve, and that’s okay too. However, when you take action you intend to change, create, or solve something worthwhile. You become an artisan. To gain focus, substitute the kind of doing that gives you a sense of motion for actions that lead you to progress. Being in motion is being busy but with no results. You stay focused when you’re clear about what you want to accomplish. Doing – focus = motion. Doing + focus = taking action.

B) Intensity

Thunderstorms are intense. You can hear how strong the wind blows as it rushes through the trees and tears through branches. You see constant lightning flashes followed by roaring thunder. The temperature drops suddenly, and rain comes pouring down. This is how you take action. You take a leap. It’s intense. Thunderstorms knock down trees and flood streets. It’s messy. There isn’t enough time to learn everything before you act. In fact, because it’s ambiguous, you can’t find a guide to solve undefined problems. In Rework, Jason Fried and David Hansson say: “This approach [launch now] just recognizes that the best way to get there [market] is through iterations. Stop imagining what’s going to work. Find out for real.” Will thunderstorms have precipitation? Not always. Will the air masses collide? Definitely. You might not get the results you expect, but you’ll have taken action.

Taking action is intense because it involves risk. You only learn after you make mistakes. That shouldn’t deter you from action though. Thunderstorms are unpredictable. Weather forecasts are usually not precise. To move forward on a problem that’s not well defined, you need to accept you can’t control the outcome, but you can control taking action and learning from it. You can’t know everything ahead of time, like a test you can ace. Planning and preparing will only be useful up to a point. There is a time and place for that, but not when you decide to advance. You decide to take action even when you don’t completely know what will happen next.

C) Value

After the storm the sky clears, and you can smell the freshness. Everything looks wet and green. Like a storm, you took action and that’s what matters. When you take difficult action continuously, you may feel exhausted. The results might not be what you imagined, and you see how you could’ve done it better. That’s how action happens: It is wild, but it’s always valuable. According to Lois Kerr, editor of an agricultural magazine based in Montana, “Lightning helps fertilize plants. Our atmosphere consists of approximately 70% nitrogen, but this nitrogen exists in a form that plant life cannot use. Lightning strikes help dissolve this unusable nitrogen in water, which then creates a natural fertilizer that plants can absorb through their roots. Lightning also produces ozone, a vital gas in our atmosphere that helps shield the planet from rays of harmful ultraviolet sunlight.”

Taking action and planning, reviewing, or strategizing do not happen all at the same time. Only after you take action can you see how you can do better next time. In retrospect, execution looks less than optimal. The mind can’t focus on strategizing and acting at the same time. What you want is to be a storm when you face a wild challenge. You’ll sharpen your skills, like the storm nourishes the soil. You’ll strike a balance between your goals and your outcomes. Most importantly, you’ll gain momentum in whatever you set to do, and strength in your strides.

It’s always easier to imagine than to execute. Confronting the challenges of creativity or solving difficult problems is hard. Respect taking action with no attachment for immediate results. Improve later. Then let go again and take action. Repeat. Trying to execute the perfect plan means no action. It’s natural to want to know everything, and to try to learn before you do. That’s how we’re educated. But when you don’t know how to proceed, let go of that need to know everything before the exam. Try, fail, jump right to it, and try again. Make small bets, but bet into your future. Become the storm, and take the leap!

Juan F. Diaz

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