The Source of Action
It is the rare person who lives a life of action. What is it then that lies beneath the almost universal aversion to action? In one word, it is belief.
George Doriot, “father of venture capitalism” and founder of the global business school INSEAD, once quipped: “Without action, the world would still be an idea.” Indeed, nothing great ever happens without action. And yet the world seems to be plagued with inaction. We swim in a sea of ideas, thoughts, desires, wishes, intentions, and commitments. Yet, it is the rare person who lives a life of action. What is it then that lies beneath the almost universal aversion to action? In one word, it is belief. Beliefs catalyze or constrain action. The human superpower is the ability to choose the beliefs that you hold. Change your beliefs, change your actions, change your world.
Last Friday marked the 68th anniversary of one of the more dramatic examples of the power of belief to unlock extraordinary performance. For centuries, runners had been attempting to run the mile in under four minutes. In the 1950s, the quest to break the barrier took on renewed importance, and a number of famous runners publicly and unsuccessfully attempted the feat. Many of the newspapers of the day began to question whether humans would ever be able to run a sub-four-minute mile. Then, on May 7, 1954, Bannister broke through the imaginary barrier, running the mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. An amazing feat for sure. But here’s what’s really interesting: it was only forty-six days later that another runner broke Bannister’s record. The following year two new runners broke the four-minute mark in the same race. Dozens followed, and as of this writing, more than fourteen hundred runners have accomplished the feat, including one runner who ran two miles in less than eight minutes. Nothing material changed with respect to human anatomy, track conditions, weather patterns, running shoes, or the human diet between the start of Bannister’s race and the few years that followed. What then explains the sudden and dramatic explosion of athletic achievement? The only thing possible is the constraining power of the myth that man could not run the mile in less than four minutes. What Bannister had done was not just break the four-minute-mile barrier; he shattered the myth that created the barrier in the first place. The paradigm had offered a limited set of actions available for runners to take. With that paradigm no longer in place, a whole new set of actions became available. Runners were literally free to run through that invented boundary.
If you are struggling to achieve any result in life, it is undoubtedly due to the lack of action. And the source of that inaction is a belief. It is simply impossible to act in ways that are inconsistent with the beliefs you hold. But here’s the thing about beliefs. First, every single belief is made up. Every single one. Second, most beliefs are designed to keep you safe, not for you to thrive. And finally, since every belief is made up, any belief can be reconstructed. What likely unexamined belief is standing in the way of the result you’re seeking? What powerful new belief could you adopt? And what one new action could you take, derivative of that new belief, as the first step toward that result? The action doesn’t have to be significant. Any action will do. As Mark Twain once wrote, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” Here’s to your first action.
I highly recommend watching the 2016 documentary, Bannister: Everest on the Track. The movie reveals just how much Bannister’s belief led to his remarkable feat.
Other than Doriot’s, my favorite quote about action is from Werner Erhard: “It is important that you get clear for yourself that your only access to impacting life is action. The world does not care what you intend, how committed you are, how you feel or what you think, and certainly it has no interest in what you want and don’t want. Take a look at life as it is lived and see for yourself that the world only moves for you when you act.”
I found this New York Times story of Dr. John Fryer, a.k.a. “Dr. Henry Anonymous,” fascinating.