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 her out.
One Action Is worth More than a Thousand Thoughts
You just never know; that's the curious thing about thoughts, they are not reliable predictors of action. Yes, we had all decided, that still wasn't the same thing as doing it. This reminds me of the riddle of five frogs on a log. If four decide to jump, how many are left? A child would answer "one." This is where the adult would correct the child and answer, "No, there are still five frogs left." Explaining that the moral was: deciding and doing are different things. If I had only heard this riddle before I had met Jane.
It wasn't long after that Jane moved away, becoming a distant memory. She, however, taught me a valuable lesson: an action is worth more than a thousand thoughts.
The Symbolism of a Prizefight
I have always been fascinated by prizefighting, there is a certain honesty to it that you won't find anywhere else. There are the occasional fight fixes, but overall what you see is what you get. 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 their intent is to win, yet all that matters is what they do. There are no should haves or could haves. The fighter leaves it all in the ring — and then some. Beyond the shallow brutality, that is the attractiveness. Everything else in our lives is blurred by subjectiveness, context, intent — but this — this as real as it gets.
Too often we tell people of our intents, wanting instant positive feedback — rewards for thoughts. When faced with regret or failure of inactivity, we default to: "But I thought about it..."
Our Inner Script
- Why didn't I tell someone I loved them? "I thought about it."
- Why didn't I reconnect with that loved one? "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 control of my health? "I thought about it."
It's not about actions speaking louder than words, I am saying actions are the only thing that speaks. Actions count. Words are meaningless unless used for something meaningful. In my life, what will count aren't all the thoughts I've had, it will be all the things I've done. How I treated others, how I treated myself, and how I applied the principles I believed in — that's what counts.
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 need to announce it again the following year? It's like having a grand opening every year, it's probably a sign that something isn't working. In business, you never really want to announce anything until you're done. In fact, Peter Thiel (Paypal, Facebook) gave a lecture at Stanford telling students not to say 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 difficult because to be a good writer, you must be able to demonstrate intent through actions, not by having the characters talk about themselves. The general rule is: show don't tell. In real life, we call this: walking the walk, not just talking the talk. Just as writing the part can be challenging, so is living the part. It requires fortitude. This is known as "character development."
“Action is character.” — F. Scott FitzgeraldIs the focus on creating an identity or is the focus on implementing a task? One encourages action, the other, inactivity. If, for instance, my goal is to look smart, it may be good enough to tell people how hard I am studying so they may recognize my identity as a "smart" person. Then I have met my goal.
There would be no need for me to convince people of my "smarts" if my goal is to only do well on the test. It would only rob me of time and energy that I could use for preparation, it would also distract me from my primary goal and add undue pressure.
Simulation or Reality?
For some, creating a to-do list or telling others of their intent partially achieves their goal. If my intent is to relay to myself and to others how ambitious and motivated I am, the expression of intent may be good enough. I have taken a step in creating my own social reality. If it's just to keep myself on track for personal goals, I may not need others to know about it. I would hate to give my power away.
Let's say I tell everyone my intent for all of 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? As a fantasy enhancer? It is like the Turing test for artificial intelligence: is the machine simulating intelligence or is it really intelligent? Is it a simulation or is it reality? Is it simulated life or is it really alive? In that context, are we creating a simulation, or are we taking actions to make our goals into reality? The social reality we are creating — I am smart, I am a go-getter — is a simulation we create for ourselves by telling everyone of the world and the identity we'd like to live in. We are perpetuating it onto ourselves. Once we begin to live there, there is no need for action. We all know people who have big goals and plans and lots of things they'd like to do, because they tell us all about it. This isn't their attempt to lie and not do it, this is how they create their simulation, a sort of virtual reality if you will. Constantly talking about it helps maintain this fantasy. Simulating an examined life and a better self. But when will they live?
Announcement Can Be a Part of Progress If...
Sometimes informing others of my intent is a critical step in achieving my goals. (Intent letters for college, for holding appointments, to raise money, to gain advice, etc.) It can also remove unnecessary obstacles caused by misunderstanding or miscommunication. "You should have let me know first." These are natural steps in completing my tasks, they serve a practical purpose and are not just symbolic gestures. If the intent in telling others my goal is to get early praise (or to give myself self-praise), then it will backfire. There is a reason why people are so dismissive and say things like: "Talk to me when you are ready," or "I'll believe it when I see it." They have learned through experience and have little patience for having their time wasted. Me trying to convince them of my intent before having anything to show for it only supports their case. Why am I so bent on getting their approval prior to completion? That in itself is a bad sign.
Many behave in this way seeking catharsis. Catharsis is all about releasing some pent up psychological energy. Yet once that energy is released, there no longer is an urge to actually commit. It releases us from commitment. The intent is now out there in the universe and maybe that's all some people are after. They urgently want to exorcise themselves of intent rather than doing the intent. It also gives away 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." At times, promises get broken because the gesture of promise was important in and of itself — almost as good as the gesture of doing it. That's how our brains feel and it will reward us with the same feel-good hormones. They aren't lying when they say these things, they really mean it, otherwise they wouldn't feel good about. It's why they are so convincing and we believe them.
“Empty vessels make the loudest sound.” — PlatoSaying, "Let's do lunch," ostensibly means there will be no lunch. The gesture has been made and in making the gesture, the act of actually having lunch together is moot. The power has been diminished, so why even bother? That's what makes clichés, when they are often said but seldom acted upon. We know not to take these things seriously and this is why.
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. This may seem counterintuitive, as the reason people announce goals is to hold themselves more accountable. 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. I will get the social recognition without having to do any of the work, these are my friends after all and that's what friends are for. It would be similar to paying up front to get your car fixed, since the goal of getting money has been achieved, rather than being more accountable, the mechanic may lose some motivation to fix your car. That is the nature of the scam, since you gave your power away, there is no repercussions when the work never gets done. Many politicians know this well, telling you their plans is about getting elected, and not always about keeping their promises.
Since the 1930s, studies have consistently replicated the same findings. Announcing is seductive because it creates a sense of progress without having to get our hands dirty. It's why it's so tempting. We're too lazy to wait and we want something to show for this intent now. We know we shouldn't, just like bragging about a good deed, we sometimes lack the discipline to stop ourselves.
It's much easier to be judged on our goals rather than our progress. There is no barrier to ambitious goals. And those we announce to know how offended we'll be if they "poo-poo" our goals, thus they are only left with one choice... Or they can keep leaving for coffee whenever we talk about our goals.
We are told it is the thought that counts, yet experience has taught me that it is the action that counts. 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 do it. Why go through with all the nerves and unpleasantness of actually asking Jane out when I could have the self-satisfaction of getting respect from my friends? Since I took no action, there really is no story about Jane.
Pretending to Use Shame to Our Advantage
We are misguidedly attempting to use shame to self-police ourselves into taking action. It doesn't work. If the people whom we announce to truly are our friends, they won't shame us. If our goal becomes just another thing we never end up doing, they may be too polite to bring it up. If they do, they know they will be labeled "negative" and a "hater." Yet, what were we thinking? It's not like we'll embrace the shame to complete our action, our natural reaction would be defensive. Either they'll say nothing or they will celebrate our intent — because they know better. There may be no "nice" way to bring it up, it's eggshells. This logic fallacy is called appeal to force, rather than using reason, we are scaring people into agreeing with us.
It appears we're putting ourselves out there to be judged, forcing ourselves into commitment. It's a safe gamble. However, I hardly buy into this reasoning, because our friends won't feel comfortable judging us and we hate to be judged. Even if we didn't resist shaming, it would be discouraging and mentally damaging. Yes, it is possible to bring it up in a positive, encouraging way, yet if we already feel guilty and sensitive, no amount of verbal jiu-jitsu would prevent us from perceiving encouragement as judgment.
Some people will follow through because above all else, saving face is the highest priority. It's not what others will think of them, it's what they will think of themselves — having said something and not having done it. It becomes a matter of honor. It's a timeworn tradition that is vanishing.
It's hard to differentiate the people who are just saying it and the people who will actually do it. Yet it is always a pleasant surprise when someone accomplishes something with humility. Fighters are famous for saying they will let their actions speak for themselves, the effectiveness of this attitude is backed by science. 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. They will only remember done, not started. History records accomplishments. And Jane will never know. All that remains is a cautionary tale about inactivity.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an action is worth a thousand pictures.”— Grand Master Jhoon RheeSummary
Do not brag over what you have not yet done. Be playful, be childlike. They think then they do. We need to add that nature back into our adult lives. The ability to risk to gain progress. It is our fear of risk that can stagnate our capacity to get things done. It may feel safe to pretend to do something without actually doing it, but it is the lack of action that puts us in grave danger. Our health, our career, and our personal development suffers. We become less happy and fulfilled. Happiness is about meaningful movement and doing nothing is the opposite.
Useful Companions to This Article:
- Zen in the Art of Archery - Eugen Herrigel
- Getting Things Done - David Allen
- The Unfettered Mind - Takuan Soho
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing - Marie Kondo
- The NYU study on what happens when intentions go public
- Scientific American on Facebook resolutions
- Heidi Grant Halvorson PhD breaks down the mental science of achievement with Succeed
- Derek Sivers on keeping your goals to yourself
- Peter Thiel's Zero to One is all about secrets to build the future. Possibly one of the best modern business books ever written.
- Psychology Today - "I Told You I Would, But I Probably Won't"
Source: Must Triumph