Before ideas, comes action

In the past 5 weeks, I feel like original thoughts have slowed to a trickle. Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar.

Normally as I go about things, new ideas and theories are constantly bubbling up.  Sometimes I’ll get the urge to write something in the most inconvenient of moments – whilst driving, having coffee with someone, trying to go to sleep – at which point I’ll have to exorcise it by bashing a rough outline into my phone before being able to move on peacefully.

But now, when there aren’t “inconvenient moments” anymore, the flow has apparently stopped.

On the face of it, lockdown has presented many of us with what appears to be the perfect canvas for creativity – endless free time without external pressures (other than the obvious) – and yet whilst it’s given the canvas, it’s also taken the paint.  I cannot attribute this freeze to mood, at least not personally, as I’ve been fortunate to have a fairly contented lockdown, so far as these things go.  And I also can’t attribute it to lack of intellectual stimulation.  Needless to say we are afforded more time for reading, contemplation, bookish stuff like that.

All I can attribute it to is a lack of action.

In one way this makes little sense. Clearly the logical assumption would be that – when it comes to productive things – ideas precede action, but it’s become clear to me that this isn’t strictly true.  Action precedes ideas, which then in turn precede more action.  Like a chicken and egg riddle now resolved.

When life has volatility and texture, thoughts emerge.  They are not born in a flawless vacuum – they are instead reactions to circumstance, and so the more circumstance, the more reactions.  We have this image of the wise sage living in a cave on the side of a mountain, or a fearless thinker ensconced in their ivory tower surrounded by books.  But when you think of real life examples of people who’ve had significant ideas, this cliche doesn’t bear out.

The Stoics, whose advice has reverberated for thousands of years, were men of commerce – at home in the market square, not the study.  Einstein did his most significant work whilst employed as a patent clerk.  Hemingway was a hunter, boxer, and Nazi submarine tracker.  Companies are founded by college drop outs, not college professors.  Even Jesus was a carpenter.  The more you rub up against the the real world, the world of action, the more urgent and vivid your thoughts become.  As you are beaten by unpredictable circumstance, you change from a plain sheet of glass into a complex prism, which emits brilliant coloured light, rather than unfiltered nothingness.

Of course, it should be noted that reducing action, reducing volatility, isn’t all bad.  Psychologically speaking, it may be a good thing.  I recall the opening chapter to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now where he noted that after he became “enlightened” (not his word, but that’s the gist), he was content to merely sit on a park bench for two years.  My immediate reaction to this was “hmmm, I’m not sure I’d ever want to be that happy” – but nonetheless we must acknowledge that with emptiness comes peace.  And thus with peace, like it or not, comes emptiness.

From a practical point of view, the applicability of this idea is clear.  If you want to write some seminal work of philosophy, or the great post-corona novel, then become a deep sea fisherman.  Not that precisely perhaps, but expose yourself to volatility in some way.  Become a man of action in order to become a man of letters.  Writer’s block makes a lot of sense when you think of it like this: the inward-facing studiousness we associate with the art form is in fact its biggest enemy.

The same idea applies to any other creative endeavour of course – including business.  Both in the startup phase and the operational phase, you can no more afford to bury yourself in the company than an author can afford to bury themselves in their library.  You must expose yourself to the world and see it not as irrelevant distraction, but as generating the friction required to produce a spark.  How you do this is, possibly, irrelevant.  Naturally there are pleasant things like leisure pursuits, socialising and so on.  But equally I think that annoying or seemingly pointless things do the same job.  Meetings you don’t want to go to, coffees you don’t want to have.  I’ve always been suspicious of the hostility people have for “meetings that could have been an email”, not because they necessary produce any benefits directly, but because they at least stir the pot, and thus elevate everything else you do.

With this realisation, I am now more prepared to embrace the parts of life I wasn’t missing during lockdown, when they finally return.  Bring on pointless travel, dutiful social commitments, trips to the post office, and taking the car for its MOT.  I won’t necessarily like them any more than I do now.  But I will at least know what they are for.

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