When to Take Action

I’m highly action biased.  I get the frustration of identifying a problem or having a new idea and wanting to do something about it, good and hard.  I believe jumping in with both feet as soon as possible is always preferable to lots of analysis.  Still, there are times when the best thing to do is nothing.

This is particularly true when the problem is a grand one that affects all of society.  Just because you realize that there is something wrong with X system or process doesn’t mean there is an obvious and immediate action to take.  The realization is the first, often most powerful but also most fleeting step.  It’s easy for action biased people to get antsy and want to do something quick.  Start a campaign, write an article, launch an organization, etc.  Often though there is no clear vision, understanding of causal factors involved, or strategy.

Our culture is one that provides social rewards for any kind of action.  If you say you’re doing something to alleviate poverty, people congratulate you no matter how stupid or useless or even counter-productive your efforts might be.  Volunteering is deemed noble and effective, whether or not it’s either of these things.  The obsession with nonprofits and vilification of win-win for profit activities further incentivizes blind action.  Start a club.  Host a fundraiser.  Do something!

The most profound improvements in the world are typically born out of many years of following the initial identification of a problem deep down the rabbit hole.  Those who see something they don’t like and jump to do something come and go, as do the effects of their efforts.  Those who internalize the problem – let it steep, let it alter the way they think, pursue an in-depth understanding of the problem and knowledge of tried and untried solutions, and only act when the idea they hold is one that doesn’t just suggest but demands action – are typically the ones who best solve it.

There are a lot of dysfunctional beliefs and institutions around us.  Discover them.  But when it comes to action if you feel the itch ask yourself exactly what kind of action you want to take and why.  Do your ideas demand action?  That specific action?  Will you be unable to sleep without taking that specific action?  More importantly (and much harder) ask if the solution you have in mind can be obtained within the context of a for-profit business model.  If not, the odds that it will work are incredibly low.  If a solution is real, it will create value.  Non-profits can create value, but it’s much, much harder to know if they are and far too easy for them to do the opposite.  If the solution is political it’s almost assuredly going to do more harm than good.  If the goal is good feels, launch a nonprofit effort or lobby politicians.  If the goal is effectiveness, try as hard as you can to discover a way in which your ideas can generate a profit.

Until action is clear, and clearly value-creating, let your ideas direct you to further understanding.  Channel your hunger to act towards the act of learning more.  When the time is right and the idea is ripe you’ll know.