On Actions: The Art of Doing

(  The Sword in the Stone   | tysmurph)

Do not brag over what is not yet done.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

In high school, I really liked this girl—let's call her Jane. Actually, I wasn't the only one who liked her, two of my other friends did as well. It had gotten to the point where the time for talk was over, it was time for action. We all decided to ask Jane out and see who she would say yes to. Guess who she said yes to? None of us, because none of us asked.

One Action Is Worth More than a Thousand Thoughts

That's the curious thing about thoughts, they only exist in our heads and not in the real world. It only becomes reality through action. Yes, we all decided to ask, but none of us actually did it. If thinking were just as good as doing, then every boy would be Casanova.

Imagine five frogs on a log. Four think about jumping off. How many are left? Still five—because thinking and doing are not the same. It's like someone on a diet describing their eating habits to a nutritionist. They often describe what they should be doing—"I'm trying to cook more and eat more salads"—rather than what they are actually doing—"I mostly eat fast food." We have a hard time differentiating intent with action. We are motivated to believe they are the same, preferring to be judged by our intents rather than our actions. Because our intents are always stellar. Our actions? Not so much. So, for the sake of ego, we highlight intent. (Perhaps we are all crazy, but some fortunate ones will find sanity.)

Not long after, Jane moved away. She, however, taught me a valuable lesson: an action is worth more than a thousand thoughts.

Why We Like Prizefighting

(Actions speak louder than words |  Rocky IV )

(Actions speak louder than words | Rocky IV)

I have always been fascinated by prizefighting, there is an honesty to it that you won't find in day-to-day conversations. There are the occasional fight fixes, but overall what you see is what you get. (Imagine if every conversation was held to the same standard.) The things that count are what the fighters do with their fists and not much else. We the audience have no privy to their thoughts, we can assume they intend to win, yet all that matters is what they do. There are no "should haves" or "could haves." The fighters leave it all in the ring—and then some. We respect that. Somewhere in our DNA, we all respect action. It's been hardwired by evolution. Adaptation is not an intent, it's an action. Nature doesn't mess around. Humans talk, think, and procrastinate, but nature is straight to business. Then what is fighting? It's the closest escape hatch we have to our primitive days when we only lived in objective reality. And on some basic level, the knowledge that there is at least one real thing left in the world is comforting to us.

Actions Count

Too often, we tell people our intents, wanting instant positive feedback (rewards for just thinking). "Mom, I was thinking about applying to law school." And mom replies, "I'm so proud of you!" Or how about wantrepreneurs, "I was thinking about starting my own business," and society responds, "You're so brave." And when our window passes us by, rather than face regret gracefully, we default to: "But I thought about it..."

Our Inner Script

Why didn't I tell dad I loved him before he passed?

I thought about it.

Why didn't I forgive my brother and reconnect with him?

I thought about it.

Why didn't I travel like I had always planned to?

I thought about it.

Why didn't I finish school?

I thought about it.

Why didn't I take better care of myself?

I thought about it.

It's not about actions speaking louder than words, I am saying they are the only things that speak. Actions count. Words are meaningless unless used for something meaningful. In your life, what will count aren't all the thoughts you've had (no one in their deathbed recounts all their thoughts), it will be all the things you've done. How you treated others, how you treated yourself, and how you applied the principles you believed in.

Announcing Is Not Committing

Every year I see Facebook health resolutions, a year later it's the same resolutions. If announcing worked, why would you have to announce it again the following year? It's like having multiple grand openings—something's not working. Peter Thiel (Paypal, Facebook) gave a lecture at Stanford telling business students not to announce anything until they were ready to take over the market. Intent is a guarded secret that is meant to be acted upon, not told.

Show Don't Tell

Writing narrative is hard because a good writer must demonstrate intent through actions, not by having the characters talk about themselves. (Which is what happens in real life, and why real life is boring compared to fiction.) The general rule is: show don't tell. Just as writing the part can be challenging, so is living the part. Both require character development.

Action is character.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald

Is the focus on creating an identity or is the focus on implementing a task? Implementation encourages action, identity encourages inactivity. It's the difference between being what you consistently do vs. being what you say you are. If I always lie, and I am what I consistently do, then I am a liar. But if I am what I say I am, and I say I am an honest person, then I am an honest person. Identity through exposition is, of course, more ego preserving than living the part, which is why people do it. (Just as writing bad narrative through exposition is easier than writing good narrative, which is why people do it.) The scientific definition of ego is self-identity. Our ego does not actually exist in the world, it only exists in our minds. Thus ego disconnects us from reality and connects us to fiction. Fiction being what our minds create. (Sadly, we often enjoy our fiction more than our reality.)

Let's say my goal is to look smart; it may be good enough to tell people how well I've done in school. Perhaps even make up a high number and tell people that's my IQ. Then I have met my goal, to appear smart to others. But if my goal were to do well on an upcoming test, there would be no advantage in trying to convince others of my smarts. In fact, it would only rob me of time and energy I could use for preparation. Furthermore, bragging would distract me from my primary goal and add unnecessary pressure. I am sabotaging myself, prioritizing appearance over performance. Not only will I under perform, but I will also look stupid. (And based on my actions, I am being stupid.)

Simulation or Reality?

For some, creating a list or telling others of intent achieves their goal. If my intent were to express to myself and to others my ambitions and motivations, then the telling accomplishes my task. I am creating my own social reality. But in announcing, though I gain some symbolic power, I lose material power. To expand on this further, think about the boy who cried wolf. He cried wolf hoping to gain symbolic power, and he did. Everyone gave him their attention. Attention exists in people's minds, this is why it is symbolic. But now he has no material power—a way to get people to physically help him if an actual wolf appears. And when the wolf arrived, the boy cried, but no one came. Symbolism is beautiful, but it does nothing for you when you're being eaten by a wolf. (Though it might help the writer who recounts your story.) Because symbolism does not exist in the real world—it is immaterial. And unfortunately, like intent and action, we obfuscate symbolic power with material power. (E.g., social politics vs. power politics.)

Let's say I tell everyone my goals. Am I doing this to help myself attain my goals or am I doing this to facilitate imagining myself having already attained my goals? Is this an exercise in productivity or is it a creative exercise? Like telling everyone I want to ask Jane out vs. asking Jane out. Doing the first hurts the latter because I may trap myself in a fantasy loop—where in my imagination, Jane and I already went out and broke up. Why ask her out when I've already lived the relationship? This is why people pretend to have online relationships, what matters isn't the material existence of the significant other, but rather, the feeling that this is a reality. And the more people you tell and convince, the more they help you live your fantasy. They actively participate in your delusion.

In your life, you will constantly be asked to participate in other's delusions, and you will ask others to take part in yours. (Every professional boxer regularly meets a grown man who's never taken a boxing class, tell them how they've always planned to fight professionally, and are still looking into it. They want the boxer to validate their fantasy. That they are a diamond in the rough. A somebody. Special. Significant.)

Thoughts without actions

Thoughts without actions

Are we living in base reality or are we living in our own custom-made simulated reality? We don't need virtual reality or machines for simulations, that's what our minds are for. Are we taking actions to make our goals a reality or are we creating a simulation where we pretend our goals are already a reality? In telling people our goals, we are telling people the reality we'd like to live in—one where we are Tony Stark. And whether they believe it or not, just saying it helps us live in our fantasy. Because we aren't saying it for them, we are saying it for ourselves. (We just need to know they heard us.) This allows us to wrap ourselves in the warm blanket of personal fiction. And once we're tucked in, there is no need for real world action. We're completely confused but since inaction and the world of intent is normalized, we believe eating in a video game means we don't have to eat in real life.

The Asaro tribe of Papua New Guinea have a saying:

Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.

It is the best explanation of thoughts and actions I've ever found.

We don't know if we are really trying to accomplish something or if we are just role-playing. We make big goals, make plans, make vision boards, but is this any different from people who set goals, make campaigns, draw maps and the sundry for Dungeons & Dragons? If you've ever played or talked with an enthusiast, the game is talked about and played as if it were base reality. But that's most of us, and goals are our game.

We've lived in our heads for so long, we can't tell when we are dealing with reality or our own fiction. We seamlessly slide back and forth. We aren't ever lying because to lie, we'd have to be aware of the truth, which most times we are not. And these fantasies are constantly reinforced. Smile before you're happy. Tell everyone you're a professional actor before ever having acted professionally. Think about being rich and pretend you already are. Say it until you believe it. Tell the universe your desires and pretend you already have them. Take a picture of your feet in front of the YMCA pool, post it on Instagram, and tell everyone you're in Fiji. It's a self-perpetuating delusion (no different than the process of hypnosis) and talking about it helps maintain it. Simulating an examined life and a better self is nice but when will you actually live? (Don't fear machines putting you inside the matrix, we've already put ourselves there—willingly.)

Friedrich Nietzsche believed this was the basis for understanding human behavior—that we humans live vicariously, but not vicariously through the lives of others—that would be somewhat understandable—but vicariously through our own lives, one which we imagined. Traditional vicarious living would be to look at an athlete and wonder what it would be like to be him. But in the vicarious living Nietzsche posits we live in, we imagine ourselves as perhaps a former star athlete, a past that never actually existed, and live vicariously through this imaginary us. (Dieters regularly imagine a time when they used to be in superhuman shape.) Or, in more ordinary terms, we pretend we are richer than we are, smarter than we are, and more badass than we are. Nietzsche suggests we snap out of our fantasies and live the lives we want to live, to become an Übermensch—one of the rare individuals who has free will, the will to power his or her own life.

Announcement Can Be a Part of Progress If...

Sometimes informing others of your objective is a critical step in achieving your goals. (Intent letters for college, to hold appointments, to raise money, to gain advice, etc.) It can also remove unnecessary obstacles caused by misunderstanding or miscommunication. (Using turn signals while driving.) These are natural steps in completing your tasks, they serve a tactical purpose, rather than serving as symbolic gestures. If the intent in telling someone your goal is to get early praise (or to give yourself self-praise), then it will backfire. Especially if they're important, you might blow your only opportunity by going to them before you were ready. In fact, being so bent on getting praise with nothing to show for it is a red flag for anyone who is in a position of power.

Many behave in this way seeking catharsis. Catharsis is all about releasing some pent up psychological energy. Yet once that energy is released, so goes the urge to commit. Exorcising the intent rather than doing the intent. Giving away your power.

"I plan to marry you" is different from a genuine proposal. You know this, right? "He said he loves me, but he's not ready to commit." To our brains, the gesture of promise feels as good as the action. Whether you are actually proposed to or not, being told the intent releases the same feel-good endorphins to the speaker and receiver. (This is why we get hooked on talk over action. It's a much quicker and easier way to get an endorphin rush.) People are willing to make unlikely promises and we are likely to believe them because it feels good. Like a drug addict, neither the person making the promise nor the receiver knows whether this promise will be kept, all they are thinking about is feelings. (Why do people say "I love you" when they don't mean it? Because it feels good. And it's often done during a feel good moment.)

As empty vessels make the loudest sound, so they that have least wit are the greatest babblers.
— Plato

Ostensibly, "Let's do lunch," means there will be no lunch. Since the gesture has been made, there is no good cause to actually meet for lunch. That's what make clichés, they are often said but seldom acted upon. We know not to take them seriously, and this is why.

People like to talk. Watch what they do, not what they say.

The Intent-Behavior Gap

In an NYU study, people who publicly announced their intentions to commit to a goal were less likely to pursue that goal than people who made no announcement. (These findings have been consistently replicated since the 1930s.) Was the intent to complete the goal or was it to communicate the goal? Part of the goal has come to fruition, getting others to imagine them crossing the finish line.

Imagine paying up front to get your car fixed—do you believe this will make the mechanic more accountable? That's how people get scammed. You're giving your power away.

Announcing is seductive because it creates a sense of progress without having to get your hands dirty. The same as bragging about a good deed, we know we shouldn't, but we sometimes lack the discipline to stop ourselves. (That feeling when you know you shouldn't post something on Facebook, but you can't help yourself.)

Act like a man of thought and think like a man of action.
— Henri Bergson

We are told it is the thought that counts, yet history tells us it is only actions that count. If we are exceptional based on our goals, then we are all exceptional. Because there are no barriers to ambitious goals.

When I told my friends I had decided to ask Jane out, they said they were proud of me and that I was "the man." But proud of what? I never did anything. They were proud of my intentions rather than my actions, and in doing so, it gave me the mental excuse not to bother. Why go through all the nerves of asking Jane out when I could have the self-satisfaction of getting respect from my friends as if I had accomplished the task? Strange as this might sound, if my friends had not believed me and called me out on my bullshit, I would have been more likely to pursue my goal. They were too supportive of my wish fulfillment. When people don't buy into your fantasy, when they doubt you, you now have just cause to prove your intent. What is the best motivator? Doubt. How do people lose massive weight or climb Mt. Everest? We like to believe it's because everyone bought into our vision, but as you know, that doesn't work. We do it when we believe there is no other way to make our intent a reality other than by doing it. Like a wolf, we are most powerful when backed into a corner. A corner we can create for ourselves. In 210 BCE, after ferrying his army across the Yangtze River, Chinese commander Xiang Yu set fire to his own ships. He eliminated retreat as an option. Harsh and cruel? Yes. But it worked, and his army won nine consecutive battles. (This same tactic was employed by many of the ancient militaries.) Humans look for any justification to stop trying—to give up. And sometimes, only when left with no other options do they do the right thing. Social scientists have proven that closing options not only helps us focus, it also makes us more creative in our solutions. (This is a tactic the most productive people use on themselves, eliminate their own options and distractions.)

When everyone tells you you're the best and you'll be able to accomplish whatever you wish, you probably won't be the best at anything, and you're not likely to accomplish much. (You'll be what Nietzsche called "the bungled and botched.") Yes, congratulations for doing nothing feels good, and doubt sucks, but that's just how our minds work. It's our design, to survive through adversity. (Remember, encouragement by definition means to be pushed into courage. And when we use encouragement as it was intended is when encouragement actually works.)

A Personal Code

Some people, however, are measured with their words. If they say they'll do something, they'll do it. They don't deliver on what they say because they are afraid of what others will think, it's what they will think of themselves—having said something and not having done it. They are indifferent to our doubts and uncomfortable with our praise. For them, it's a matter of principle. Social scientists call this personal code: conscientiousness. (Conscientious people are the rivals to public announcers, and studies consistently show conscientiousness folks are the happiest, have the most friends, and live the longest.) Conscientiousness is a timeworn quality that is vanishing in a shameless society who hates being shamed. (We tell the world our goals without shame. And yet we will not allow ourselves to be shamed into following through with our goals.)

Your actions speak so loudly, I can not hear what you are saying.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

It's always a pleasant surprise when someone accomplishes something without much fanfare. Fighters are famous for saying they will let their actions speak for themselves. The effectiveness of this attitude is backed by both science and common sense: people who believe actions are the best way to express intentions are more likely to start and complete any big undertaking.

In the end, no one will ever know what I was thinking. History only remembers what was done (and the Übermensches). And Jane will never know I wanted to ask her out. All that remains is a cautionary tale about my inactivity.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an action is worth a thousand pictures.
— Grand Master Jhoon Rhee


Do not brag over what is not yet done. Be playful, be childlike. They think then they do. We need to add some of that back into our lives. Fear of risk stagnates progress. It might feel safe to do nothing; yet most of the world's ills happen because "we should have done something." Happiness is an internal state, but it is driven by external actions. The more meaning we provide others, the happier we feel. So for your sake and for the sake of others, have your accomplishments surpass the things you wish you had done.

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