The Failure of Action

Action always has an attendant failure. If you can’t point to a failure, you’re probably not taking action. The longer you go avoiding contact with this failure, the harder it is to engage with it when you finally do encounter it.

Even the simplest task like cleaning a room has failure. You encounter the bounds of just how clean you can get something. Surfaces have flaws, and there are stains that can’t be removed. Nothing can be perfectly clean. When you decide to stop cleaning, you are accepting and setting the bounds of your failures. For example, here are some bounds around cleaning a carpet. Every stopping point on this hierarchy could be viewed as a failure to reach a lower, deeper level.

  • Pick things up off the floor
  • Vacuum the floor but avoid moving heavy furniture
  • Move all objects around so that every inch gets vacuumed
  • Steam clean the carpet
  • Replace the carpet and its unfixable flaws with a new carpet

We sometimes view the problem of deciding when to stop working on something as a characteristic unique to creative projects. Those stopping points and their failures are really inherent to all action.

And this presents the problem with inaction. There are no failures in reading a book or your Twitter feed. Your ideas aren’t tested against any reality. You digest the content, form a reaction, and have no reason to perceive your formed opinions as anything other than perfect. You aren’t forced to encounter the un-cleanable blemishes of reality. Your actions are perfectly round, whole, complete.

So when you finally do take action it’s no surprise that it feels bad. All of a sudden you’re forced to encounter failure no matter how hard you try. You may try moving down the action hierarchy, deeper and deeper, searching for the point where your actions feel complete. But even a fresh carpet picks up some imperfections on its way to your room. Suddenly inaction doesn’t seem like such a bad path.

But inaction has such obvious shortcomings. And the longer you stay on that path, the more perfect you think your actions will be when you finally do take action. This can go on for days, weeks, years, a lifetime.

We all have to rest, but try not to stay under the warm sheets of inaction too long. Because the longer you hit the snooze button, the harder it is to eventually get out of bed and fail.


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