Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Thought vs. action

"Better to act, than to wander around in dreams"
--from the Ramayana (ancient Hindu epic)

Over twenty years ago, I went down to Silicon Valley to present a consulting project that blended philosophy with business. My partner in this venture was a well-known existential philosopher who had resigned his bookish university job to become a management consultant to large multinational corporations.

We sought to transform short-sighted, profit-focused, C.Y.A. ("Cover Your Ass") corporate creatures into philosopher-executives. They would be modern-day versions of Plato's philosopher-king, embodying both leadership and wisdom.

My partner, much older and wiser than myself, put it to one of these anxious managers: "The difference between thought and action is that to think involves no risk; but every time you act, you risk death!"

He did not mean actual physical death, but the little death our egos suffer. To act is to risk failure; ideas that look so good to the mind don't always work out.

The corporate group was very impressed with our presentation. But in the end they did not buy the program. No one in the department dared to act. All our observations about their state of inaction didn't help. As I walked around the office I was amazed that anything ever got done. They looked like a bunch of bees buzzing around each other's cubicles. The place was filled with pleasant people, but deep down they were all afraid to do a wrong thing. No one wanted to look bad.

Peter Koestenbaum once told me, "Anxiety is what you feel between the thought and the action". Imagine how you feel on the edge of a pool of cold water, just before you jump in. You know you'll feel good after you do it. But the water's cold!

Life is filled with such situations. You have a good idea. You want to tell the boss. You know she might think it's stupid. You sit on the fence between thought and action. More often than not, you do nothing. You let the moment pass.

Companies are filled with people unable to act. There are worlds of fearful people out there. The decline of American productivity, I suspect, has a lot to do with this. A huge problem in government, too, which is why nothing gets done there either.

Some folks confuse talking with action. But talking is just dreaming out loud. I used to lead meetings. We would discuss ending the meeting, yet it would drag on. One day I discovered that all I had to do to end a meeting was to stand up! Talk may be cheap, but it can last forever.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger noted (Being and Time) that death provides us with the best opportunity to contact our utmost being. We immediately know ourselves when we're faced with death. Likewise, we may accomplish remarkable things in our dreams and fantasies. But in the light of day, faced with reality, we see who we really are.

If we live each day as if it is our last, we will not hesitate to act.

Eminem said it like this (Lose Yourself):

Look! If you had one shot, one opportunity,
to seize everything you ever wanted, in one moment -
would you capture it, or just let it slip?