Woody Allen is quoted as saying that, “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” And there is a very great deal of truth in that. Showing up, and caring about how we show up, means a very great deal.
This idea has been a recurrent theme. Pointedly so in the last few days, but in reality it’s been a persistent truth through much of life. Success is, very simply, about doing the work. And if you are going to get the work done, you need to get started.
That doesn’t mean that you particularly want to, every day. There are days where the last thing you want is to get started on something. Equally, there are days that you can’t wait. But life involves ebbs and flows of energy, inspiration and intention. The question is how to keep moving forward regardless.
Sometimes, of course, the answer isn’t to move forward at all. At least, perhaps not now, and perhaps not on the thing that is resisting us (or that we are resisting getting started on). One of the inspirations contained in David Allen’s Getting Things Done is the idea that different tasks are suited to different times, and things flagged for when we are tired, or bored, or simply not fully productive, is not a good way to get something done.
At other times, the issue is can be one of burnout. We may most fervently need to recharge. In these situations, the best thing that we might do for ourselves is to walk away, take a break and do nothing that remotely resembles work.
The challenge is knowing what situation we’re facing at a particular point in time. The inertia of simply avoiding a task can, in the right circumstances, feel a lot like burnout. We may not be sure where to start, we feel overwhelmed by the thing in front of us, and the urge to run in the other direction can be huge.
Confronting this situation requires being honest with ourselves about what is going on. We need to have a reasonable sense of where we are, how we are feeling and what that means for us overall. Sometimes, that can be difficult to assess, at least objectively. Evaluating our sense of self, how we are responding emotionally and what is actually driving that can be an extremely difficult to do.
Particularly challenging in this is the words we use. Evaluating, assessing, reflecting all imply a level of internal dialogue and thought that will guide as magically towards an answer. Implicit in this is the assumption that by thinking harder, or more deeply, or with greater insight, we’ll magically arrive at a realization of what’s going on and an answer of what to do about it.
In her book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Herminia Ibarra quite successfully undermines this perception. In her exploration of leadership development, Ibarra demonstrates how much of what passes for education in this space is ineffective. The primary challenge is that the traditional model of leadership development presumes that we need to first change how we think, and that by changing how we think we can then change how we act.
Ibarra argues that we need to turn this around. First we need to change how we act, and only by acting can we also change how we think. Our actions—and how we act—are the basis of how we come to know ourselves, and how we evolve our abilities.
Choosing to act isn’t easy. The particular situations that Ibarra is referring to are instances of growth and development. By definition, therefore, we don’t know fully how to act. We don’t have all the answers. We can’t rely on repeated experience and past success as a guide to what we should do next. We make our best guess of the way forward, and we take a step. The experience of making a move is what creates the insight and information to evaluate how well we are doing. We don’t decide and then act, we act and then decide how well the action turned out.
This has a lot of implications for when we are wrestling with the inertia of whether and how we move forward on something. We may be struggling with what to do, or how to do it, or whether we even want to do it. Regardless, the only way out is through. Reflection and pondering won’t create action. Start doing something and see where it takes you.
What that movement looks like is going to vary. I have, in the last day alone, grappled with a phone call that I needed to make to get the status of a project team member, with how best to approach a presentation I needed to give and with how to write a particular article (that you happen to be reading right now). The reasons for this varied. But the results were the same; a resistance to move forward and take action.
The problem with inaction is that it simply builds. Whatever consequences we anticipate or fear don’t actually diminish over time; they simply build. The longer we wait, the more reluctant we are likely to be to move forward. The problem with this is that waiting does nothing to change the consequences externally, but they significantly change our perception of the consequences internally. The longer we defer, the more reluctant we are to move forward.
Yesterday, I was supposed to deliver a webinar. Twice. The first presentation went well in terms of delivery, but there were a number of technical glitches that affected how it was received (and how it was recorded). This compounded itself when, prior to the evening delivery, my internet service (and my telephone service) wound up being completely compromised. This might have been weather-related (my phone and internet are delivered by two separate organizations, but both ultimately involve wires running to my house). It may have been coincidental. But it meant that the recording that was hoped-for from the evening session didn’t happen.
We endeavoured to re-record the webinar this morning. Internet issues persisted. Technology challenges in working with the webinar software led to two additional scrubbed attempts at a good recording. It would have been easy at this point to have given up in frustration. But we persevered, and managed to get a solid run through and a reasonable recording (even though we still had to re-record the last couple of minutes). This was a lot of work—much of it out of the norm—but it was what was necessary to deliver the quality of results that has come to be expected.
There are any number of roadblocks that life is going to throw in our path. We can choose to view these as deliberate attempts by a malevolent universe to thwart our best efforts. Or we can choose to see them as learning opportunities. Avoiding them helps no one. Tackling them head on teaches us what is possible, what we are capable of and what is necessary in order to get things done. We may not always do those things well, but that is part of the learning process. We lead and advance not by thinking about new approaches, but by actually taking action.
Every action we take is an experience. Every experience is an opportunity to learn. Every learning opportunity is a chance to reflect on what we have done, and to recalibrate what we do next. What is fundamental is that each of these steps is rooted in action. First we do, then we reflect, then we learn. The more we learn, the more we have opportunities to do differently. The less we do, the less opportunity we have for learning.
The long and the short of it is this: when you are faced with a difficult thing, a thing you struggle with, a thing you are tempted to avoid, just start. Take some action. Try to move it forwards. If—after a period of time—you still aren’t making progress, then by all means take a break. More often than not, though, the very act of starting is what you need. Action is its own reward. You may still need to edit, revisit or revise what you produce. But you will have produced something that can be edited. That alone is a mark of leadership. And it’s something to be awfully proud of.