In Praise of Taking Action

“For us is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty; let us live in the harness, striving mightily; let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out.”

Theodore Roosevelt


The life of Winston Churchill was an extraordinary one, filled with rigor and motion, and not to mention, his myriad of meaningful contributions. Although he is best known for his galvanizing speeches during World War II and his leadership as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, fearlessly leading his nation to fight against Nazi Germany and constructing the Allied strategy — It wouldn’t do him enough justice to define his “finest hour” by just that.

As a soldier, he served in British India — His reports on the Siege of Malakand served as the basis for his first book, “The Story of the Malakand Field Force”. Pulled into the habit of writing, he tried his hand at his only novel, “Savrola” — To which he admitted, “I have consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it.” A bad novel or not, to have written one at a young age, with so many other important calls for his time, was still a heck of an achievement. Churchill left an incredible legacy as a writer, having published 44 books, penning over a thousand newspaper articles, and even coining several new words, such as “summit”, which he was credited for in 1950.

Some time later in life, Churchill started painting. It was his way to find stillness amidst the pressures of politics. He would commonly paint works of vivid color, sun and stone, soothing greenery in country scenes and garden days, and colors of travel, particularly in the Mediterranean. He said, “One forgets utterly the works of the past or the worry of the future…I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind.” His artworks were highly-acclaimed, and he would eventually create over 500 paintings. Without a doubt, Churchill had a busy schedule and faced obstacles that would have prevented other people from painting at all, but he still managed to create paintings of rare beauty. When asked about how he found the time to paint, he replied, “If it weren’t for painting, I couldn’t live; I couldn’t bear the strain of things.”

Not one to idly stay indoors, Churchill also took up bricklaying, enjoyed gardening, and even bred butterflies in his country home. Other times, he could be seen reading voraciously, smoking his cigars, drinking whisky, and making fun of his adversaries with his sharp wit.

Churchill is an inspiring example for us to follow in terms of moving forward and taking action. After all, he was greatly admired for his willingness to brave into the front lines and overcome hardship. But a lesson to be highlighted here is that you don’t have to be like Churchill and take on many different calls, at least until you are able to get yourself to do just one difficult thing.

But why is it so hard?

You put on your running shoes, and in your mind, you have a picture of yourself winning a marathon. Or you prepare for a theater audition while you dream of yourself winning an Oscar, shaking hands with Al Pacino and Robert de Niro.

And that’s the problem. We are used to conditioning ourselves to be fixated on the end goal, instead of enjoying and savoring the process. In real time, that particular activity becomes a hit and miss — Sometimes you manage to go for a great run, other times you just feel miserable and uninspired.

In actuality, the gap between the picture of you winning the marathon and the current-level-you on the treadmill is huge. And more often than not, that picture is all you think about while you’re undergoing the process, causing you to be discouraged, and even cutting corners at times.

The antidote to your inability to take action is to focus on the process (or at least focus more on it as compared to your end goal). You need to teach yourself to be in love with the process, because that really is the key to mastery and to achieving great things.

One way to do this is by reminding yourself every time you’re about to do an activity, that this isn’t a performance. No one is observing you, no one is anticipating your work.

Better, don’t even look at it as practice — “Practice” signifies that you’re doing everything to achieve an end outcome.

The musician John Mayer once did a live stream where he gave guitar lessons. He was jamming to some blues backtracks, and you could tell, he was having a lot of fun. He advised his fans, “Nothing’s more fun in this lifetime than going out to dinner, coming home and picking up your guitar, and just practicing.” He then corrected his last word by saying, “Just playing — I don’t even call it practicing.”

By shifting your mindset from “practicing” to “playing”, you’ll have a much greater experience in that activity, because you’re just doing it for what it is and enjoying your love for it.

Mayer then explained, “When I play for you (onstage), I’m like, ‘I’m kind of doing what I do at home, which is repeat the same stuff over and over again because it feels really good.’ ”

Another way to get yourself to take action is to pair it with another activity that you love. For example, I like coffee (Alright, like is a gross understatement) — So I allow myself to drink coffee, as long as I pair it with reading a book. This way, I’m able to use my coffee-drinking habit as a lever for reading, which can be a tough habit to stick to sometimes — This helps me read a lot, up to three books a week on average.

Also, I’m writing this article while listening to John Mayer’s “Continuum” album that I couldn’t get enough of.

This strategy helps reframe your desired activity as something that you highly enjoy and look forward to, instead of something painful and boring. When you go for a run, put on your earbuds and listen to your favorite album. If you’re trying to read more, have your favorite cup of tea at the ready while you read.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step, right? — Try to get yourself to take one form of action, to do just one difficult thing that you’ve been meaning to. Once you get in motion, you would not want to settle back to where you were. As Winston Churchill said, “I never worry about action, but only inaction.”

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