On Action

We cannot spend the day in explanation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way is a book on implementing Stoic philosophy with three main attack vectors: perception, action and will. The book is designed to help with how the reader deals with obstacles in the path first by changing how we perceive them, then how we act against them and finally (I assume, I’m not this far into the book yet) how we stay focused on them until they are dealt with.

The Emerson quote particularly struck home with me. The full context of the quote regards how Emerson must write when the Muse strikes him, regardless of what else is going on in his life. Of course, it is easy to act when the Muse is heavy upon us. The real power in a bias towards action lies in all the days when the Muse is silent or hungover or generally feeling sorry for Herself. Continuing to act on those days is a super power, one that results in a lifetime of results and more importantly, improvement in the craft.

This is something I have come to struggle with a great deal. I THINK about doing things all the time. Projects, todos, phone calls, letters, cleaning tasks, garage organization, websites, they all rotate regularly through my consciousness. Yet, at the end of the day, I’m more like James McMurtry than Emerson when he said “All I want to do now is sell all my stocks and sit on the coast. I don’t believe in Heaven but I still believe in Ghosts.” Ghosts of previous days when I was in shape or when I did build websites or when things got done.

Action is hard. It gets harder when you think about right action or “not having to do it again” action. But in reality, doing things twice is better than not doing them at all as long as you aren’t writing software for the Space Shuttle or doing heart transplants. If you’re learning to write or playing the piano or drawing or learning some new technology, any action is better than mere thought about action. When I read Emerson’s quote, I want to apply it not in an anti-social way regarding rejecting all in times of Muse-y-ness but in an admonition against the constant “thinking about action” trap that I regularly find myself in.

One way to do this is to be present in the moment which unsurprisingly is another tenet of the book. In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer hammers this point home that no amount of concern or thought can change either the past or much of the future. You only have this moment now and the worry and anxiety of results from the past or potential disasters in the future are wasted time. Focus on this moment, pick something to act upon and do it. My main struggle in this area is just the size of many projects and the fact that if I start now, I may get interrupted or I only have 1 hour so why bother. But 1 hour done regularly can make a world of difference. Building a bias towards action can overcome the long, tedious middle ground of a project or craft when it seems nothing is changing, no progress made.

A focus on the present also removes all fear of failure or internal discussion of ability from the equation. We cannot fail in the moment. Failure is an artifact of the past viewed through the lens of history and hindsight. Remaining here in the moment removes failure as a consideration. There is only right now, learning another chord or writing another paragraph or putting a few more strokes on a painting. Thinking about anything else immediately introduces failure as an option. Focusing on that failure puts the obstacle right back in your way.

In The World Outside Your Head, Matthew Crawford explains an interesting phenomenon as a motorcyclist. I have encountered something similar on a bike. If you are going along and you notice an object in your path, you must note it and then immediately move your eyes back to the path or road ahead. If you do not do this, invariably, the bike or motorcycle will track directly at the object until you hit it. The obstacle becomes the focus and try as you might, you cannot avoid it. Where we focus our attention is critical not only to our success but also our progress along the path.

Combining presence with action will undoubtedly change the output and result of any task, project or obstacle. I find that it my focus on the final result that hinders my progress. I think of how great it will be to be done or what it will provide. But who can know what the final result of anything might be? The Stoics would tell you that you have little control over the future, that this might be your last breath so use it as if it were. Some people then find this approach fatalistic and it’s important to avoid this. If you have no control over the future, why do anything? This is where I think Stoicism reveals itself less as a philosophy and more as a structure for self control. The Stoics say little about morality or values as guidance for what to do. You must augment Stoicism with a set of values that you develop separately. Your values tell you why and what to do, Stoicism tells you how.

If we can combine our values with the Stoic principles of presence and action, we can live a fulfilled life. We will be both less concerned with final results and more able to achieve them successfully.

Notes On A Sermon – The Right Time

Then I felt too that I might take this opportunity to tie up a few loose ends, only of course loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones. Time, like the sea, unties all knots… — Iris Murdoch in The Sea, The Sea

As God’s fellow workers, we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the tie of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.
II Corintians 6:1-2

Whereupon I begin a series of possibly 1 to N posts writing my thoughts down on the Sunday morning sermon at Kessler Park United Methodist Church. This Sunday we talked about time and our usage and abuse of it, our habit of treating it as an unlimited resource and our stewardship campaign of this year which is called Connect 52. A central theme of Connect 52 is giving an hour to God and possibly the church every week so that if everyone participated, we would collectively spend 52 hours each this year on God.

Of course, this likely caused some anxiety in those people prone to the disease as they wondered where in the clearly not unlimited supply of time they hold could they possibly find an extra hour. Reverend Magruder wanted to address this anxiety because finding that proverbial extra time in our not so unlimited time bucket was not the intent. The intent in fact is an analyzation of our usage of time to see if the way we currently spend our time is in fact both useful to God and to ourselves. The question is not “can you please find an extra hour in your week to spend with God and the church?” but instead “can you find an hour, any hour, not an extra hour, that you are currently spending frivolously and instead redirect that to a more meaningful use, a use for God or for growing relationships or giving back to the community?”

Framed in this way, the question becomes clear and anxiety free. Well, except that Rev. Magruder invoked the Death Clock as his main tool for bringing to the forefront our typical attitude towards time as an unlimited resource. The Death Clock tells you when you are going to die. It’s morbid. But it’s also surprisingly freeing in a Stoic way that causes us to confront our own impending death (and no matter what the Death Clock says, our deaths are impending from a geologic consideration of time). I’m going to die on September 21st, 2046 which saddens me because that’s before the State Fair of Texas starts that year. There is another Death Clock which apparently got their actuarial tables from some guy at State Farm whose cat just died as they are significantly more depressing. According to that site, I’m done for on Monday April 12th, 2038. The good news is I won’t have to pay taxes that year. Oddly, average male testers with my BMI have an average life span of 81.7 years. Death-clock.org must somehow know I had 3 donuts and a handful of Hershey’s kisses for lunch yesterday.

Regardless of the results of the fun sites above, I apparently have less than 30 years left and in the case of the latter, less than 20. I was sure I was going to live forever. Thinking about such things might in fact reintroduce the aforementioned anxiety regarding time even if the church didn’t selfishly want .03% of my remaining 169,995 hours. Or instead, the results might refocus one on things that matter and time wasted in a very limited lifespan. There is nothing that can be done about the time washed under the bridge at our feet and so we shouldn’t worry about the past. Also, nothing can be done with the time we have left though we can try to increase our allotment with healthy choices. Instead, only the moment is important and how we are spending it which is what II Corinthians 6:1-2 was saying.

Rev. Magruder then talked about what he thought were the four top ways we misallocate our time. The first was by spending too much time on work. I am fortunate in that this is not a problem for me mostly. I have come to a certain detente with my position at work and for the most part, never think about it at home and I rarely work extra hours. Others are not so lucky and spend an inordinate amount of their limited lives thinking about something for which they aren’t properly rewarded or considered. If you are working for The Man as they said in the 60s, you owe him no more of your life than the agreed upon 40 hours. Even if you don’t work in a salaried position, there is always the question of if spending time on work is better for you than spending it on something more rewarding.

The second big time misallocation is distraction, especially in our distracted, divisive anti-social world. We are regularly manipulated through our own actions and the actions of corporations vying for our eyeballs and money to spend our time in ways we may look back upon in disgust when the Death Clock man comes calling. iPhones apparently now have a way to see how many times you looked at your phone and what you did on it. Android P has something similar. I do struggle with this one as my 16.2K tweets can attest. Luckily, those 16.2K tweets are hilarious and widely read.

The third misallocation of time is not spending enough time with God. This of course almost goes without saying, even for those who regularly give to God and the church, as our society becomes less and less religious over time. Even for those who are non-believers, this can be phrased as not spending enough time doing things that improve society or community.

And the fourth misallocation is procrastination which is a massive loss of time for me. There is always tomorrow. I can work out tomorrow. I can stop eating carbs tomorrow. I can stop drinking tomorrow. I can write that novel or application or whatever tomorrow. But as the verse above points out, now is the appropriate time. There is no other more appropriate time then now to begin.

Facing the fact that time is rushing away through our fingers like sand at the beach can be depressing. Or it can be a way to refocus (or possibly focus for the first time for many of us) on what is important. With only 169,995 hours left, I better go do some pushups. And start writing a great deal more often.