When Joseph Conrad wrote “Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions” he was really reflecting on how keeping busy prevents the human mind thinking too much. As a former merchant seaman, he knew all about long periods of being away from home and dwelling on things.
However, for most of us in the modern workplace, quite the opposite is true. We’re all apparently ‘time poor’. Too much to do, too many emails, not enough hours in the day. The irony of all this rushing about doing things is that action really is the enemy of thought. ‘Doing’ pulls rank on ‘Thinking’ in almost every circumstance. Action is consolatory – doing something feels so much better than doing nothing. This presupposes that thinking is inactivity and somehow means time wasted. Worse, thinking is seen as passive and weak – a way of postponing decisions which are, ergo, brave and dynamic, regardless of their consequences.
The ‘getting stuff done now’ culture is pervasive – witness the stupidity on a show like the BBC’s “The Apprentice”. The emphasis is on selling lots and doing it in a very short time. The candidates are deliberately pressurised for our entertainment and most react badly – daft decisions, absent strategies and the belief that doing something – anything – is going to gain them brownie points with Suralan. The few who do fight the corner of thinking-it-through are often met with macho derision.
The uncomfortable truth is that many real organisations operate on similar lines; too many targets to hit, too little time and very little forethought or vision. The unfortunate result is corporate headless chickens – numerous initiatives, actions and projects with no clear understanding of why they’re happening and what they’ll achieve. The famous 1928 play ‘Journey’s End’ centered around exactly this sort of folly during WW1 but with fatal rather than adminstrative consequences.
Of course, there’s a balance to be struck here. We can’t ignore the need for any action; rather we should always devote some time to thinking ahead and questioning before we make a costly mistake.
“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” (Joel. A. Barker)
Don’t just pass the time, try and change the world instead.