Friday, September 11, 2009

Thinking and Acting

Of all the things my parents taught me, it was the general rules of life that stuck with me the longest. Perhaps the first and most persistent of these was embodied by the admonition to “think before you act.” This could mean planning, as my mother interpreted it -- figuring out exactly what you will do and when, and then following the schedule as close as possible. It could alternatively mean striving to understand the variables involved in reaching the goal of the action -- my father’s approach -- and then updating that understanding in the process of acting, allowing also for an adjustment in the definition of the goal (or, as he sometimes said, “If you don’t get where you’re going, you’ll get someplace just as good”).

I chose to follow my father’s example; though I occasionally find myself emulating my mother, such as when driving to a new place. I also tend to spend much more time refining my definition of the goal before going too far, mainly in response to the negative results of not doing so that I’ve witnessed over the years, especially in business.

Refining a goal, counter to what it sounds like, usually results in a broadening of the definition. Again, my father provided the initial guidance, generalizing into one basic question the lessons he learned while studying value engineering: “What is it I really want to accomplish, stated in the most fundamental terms?” For example, buying food becomes “being able to feed my family,” which offers more options than just relying on the places that sell the stuff. More options translate into a higher chance of success, as well as allowing us to better determine whether the goal is even worth pursuing.

Sometimes it is good to act impulsively, when some thought has identified a higher cost to action than inaction, or when there just isn’t enough information available to even decide what to do. There is no excuse for ignorance, because the indicated action is to learn, which may involve gathering second-hand knowledge (through reading or asking someone) or simply just doing something and analyzing the consequences.

For most of my life I suffered from a serious lack of self-confidence, which in part was due to a deep awareness of how little I knew, or could ever hope to know, compared to my father. I was not rebellious by nature, and unlike most of my peers growing up, I tried to become more, not less, like my parents. I learned by reading and doing, and gradually, by thinking for myself; but I too easily let others set my goals, learning a lot of skills I really didn’t have much personal interest in, yet I was convinced were too important not to have.

The contribution that gave me the most pleasure making (and still does) was asking questions no one else thought of, causing everyone around me to discover something totally new in a situation they believed they understood. “Discovering the obvious” was a skill I had in equal measure with my father, and was something we enjoyed doing together as equals, personally and professionally, right until the time he died. This kind of discovery -- the elaborate interplay between thinking and action in both the most mundane and the most unusual circumstances -- has revealed that thinking before you act is too confining a rule, because it presupposes that thinking can stop when you start to act, and because it assumes that the point of thinking and acting should be merely to reach a specific objective (including avoidance of a negative outcome from acting without thought).

I have personally decided that, everywhere I am, I will continue developing and sharing a growing understanding of the world by both thinking and acting, and continue to do so for as many years as I can. In the process, I will help enable other people to do the same into as distant a future as natural laws will allow.

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