Yoda, a Jedi warrior in Star Wars, is portrayed as saying “Do or Do Not. There is no Try!” What he is referring to is that it is only through action that something is manifested in the real world. We can intend to do something, we can plan to do something, we can decide to do something, and we can try to do something, but until we actually do it, the “something” does not yet exist in the world. It is only through action that something actually changes in our environment. A math joke illustrates this point: “there are 10 birds on a telephone wire and 5 of them decide to fly south, so how many birds are left on the wire?” The answer is 10, since deciding to fly south is not the same as actually flying south. Carry out the following instruction: “try to pick up the chair” and see what you experience. If you pick up the chair, you have not tried to pick up the chair, you have actually picked up the chair (action). If you do not pick up the chair, you have not tried to pick up the chair, you simply have not yet picked it up (non-action). How can we demonstrate “trying”? The answer is we cannot, since trying is only a concept existing in our minds, and is not something that occurs in the world.
The mental activity of worrying is quite different from the mental activity of planning, as the latter is much more often associated with effective action. In my clinical office, I have sometimes demonstrated this difference by asking clients to describe a plan to leave my office, and usually actions such as getting up out of their chair, walking to the office door, turning the door knob, and pulling open the door are mentioned. Then I ask clients to describe the process of worrying about whether they will be able to leave my office, and such things as visualizing a stuck door or something pressing on the door from outside that prevents it from opening or their therapist stopping them from leaving might be mentioned. It is clear that imagining such possible obstacles to leaving is not likely to be associated with effective action.
We sometimes seem to give ourselves credit for our decisions, plans, attempts, or intentions, when in fact, we have not yet actually done anything. The mental activity involved in deciding, planning, or intending may be useful in improving the effectiveness of our subsequent actions, but only through effective action can we carry out our decisions, plans, or intentions in our environment. There is usually no congratulations, cheers, or rewards for simply thinking about doing something; you have to actually do it to reap the benefits. In my clinical work, many clients seem to be content with having planned or tried to do something to change their life, even though they did not actually perform actions that succeed in making the changes. In this way, they avoid future “failures” and the frustration, shame or guilt that often accompanies such “failures”. The are so intent on avoiding future emotional pain that they miss out on the joy and pleasure they could experience after succeeding in making the desired changes. When those of us who are nearing the end of our lives are interviewed about our regrets, we much more often mention the regrets we feel because of lost opportunities (actions we did not take) than the regrets we feel for undesirable actions we may have taken.
The concept of procrastination is relevant in this context. We tend to be anxious and do a lot of worrying about the completion of a task but do not take any action until shortly before the task is supposed to be completed. This process appears to be based on not taking action until the thought of not completing the task produces more anxiety than the thought of completing the task, the former thought occurring as we approach the time for completing the task and have not yet performed any effective actions toward completing the task. When there is a lot of time left before the task needs to be completed, we find it easier to reduce our anxiety by not thinking about the task (and thus not acting to complete the task). When we get closer to the time for completing the task, the anxiety about not getting it done becomes so high that it can only be reduced by taking action to complete the task. Since the quality of our efforts is usually not as high as it would have been if we had allowed ourselves more time, we can also tell ourselves and others that the poorer quality of the completed task does not really reflect our actual ability and thus protect our fragile “self-esteem”.
The lesson we can learn is that the purpose of life is to take effective action. Why a task has not been completed successfully is not relevant, only whether the task has been accomplished or not. While generating excuses to as to why we did not complete a task may help us to feel like less of a “failure”, only effective action will help us to feel “successful” in life.
A future post will discuss some of the secrets of taking effective action in life. How do we set appropriate goals for success? How can we realistically assess how well we are doing in achieving a desired goal? How do we keep ourselves motivated to do the hard work of taking effective actions day after day?