Your Action or Your Life

Thief: “Your money or your life.”


Thief: “Your money or your life!”

Jack Benny:  “I’m THINKING, I’m THINKING!”




I had a recent exchange with a reader who complimented me on a powerful post.  I replied with thanks, but made it clear: the sign that such  communications  have power is not that it triggers emotion or thought but that IT TRIGGERS OR CHANGES BEHAVIOR.


I would go so far as to say that in a very real sense, no information that fails to change behavior has any real meaning or impact.  It is just…data.


This triggered a conversation about how hard thought is, and how intense mental evaluations can be. This is true. And…until those thoughts and feelings cross over into the domain of action, I suggest that they are irrelevant to the domain of action. Of life, in other words.


I find it frightening the degree to which the modern world has severed the connection between cause and effect, between action and reward, allowing people to remain in a domain of thought and feeling without running into the reality of existence.  In other words, in a very real sense…they are dreaming that they are awake. 


I have suspicions about some of the problems we’re seeing right now being related to this disconnect.  If maturity is sort of learning to mesh your gears with nature, dreaming that your gears are spinning is just great…but if when you try to actually engage nothing happens, you are a child or a fool if you blame reality.


The “Incels” would seem young men who have a CONCEPT of the way the Mating Game works,  and become frightened (and therefore angry) when the world doesn’t respond as they expect or fantasize they deserve.  Their map doesn’t match reality. Would you want to be in a car driven by someone who brought the wrong map, and keeps blaming the road?


Writers who have books in their minds that they are afraid to commit to paper.


People who hallucinate that they “don’t make enough money to save” but have plenty of non-essential possessions and experiences.


People who “think about” meditating, exercising, learning a new skill, finishing their degree program, changing jobs, or whatever…but never do it.


Thinking without measuring the actions is another symptom of “awakening your Kundalini backwards”.  While certainly a problem related to spiritual development, it is DISASTER for your material life.




Most stories are about a character being confronted with a challenge (One).   Initially they reject it (Two)–a REAL challenge will change you, and people hate change.  But then they are forced to accept it.  In Star Wars: A New Hope, for instance, the “Three” point where the challenge is accepted comes when Luke’s Uncle and Aunt are murdered by Stormtroopers, leading to “teach me to be a Jedi like my father.”  This leads to the road of trials, the gathering of allies and the gaining of powers (four and five).   But note something: step six is the Confrontation with Evil and defeat.


This is terrifying. We KNOW when we start any significant journey that there will be pain, fear, doubt, despair.  How do we know? Because we’ve gone through this process a thousand times before. But there is a bizarre analogue to the process of childbirth.


Several women with multiple children have told me that they were SHOCKED by how painful it was…every damned time. That somehow, they never seemed to remember the intensity.  More than one has said: “Steve, if women remembered how painful childbirth was, they’d never touch their husbands again.”


We forget the pain of birth, or we wouldn’t try?

Or…we forget the pain of birth, so that when the pain begins we forget that we have experience this before, and there is joy on the other side?


I know that every time I write a story, and I mean EVERY TIME,  I experience the “dark night” where it feels as if I can’t do it.  Every time.   The negative voices rise up when I’m about 1/2 the way through, telling me that it’s crap, that I have no talent, that the only reason I’ve ever had a career is affirmative action…you know. THAT stuff.


And what I used to do was ask Toni, Nicki’s mom: “Sweetheart…do I go through this every time?”


And she would laugh and say “yes, Steve.  Every time.”


And I’d soldier on.   The truth is that even after we divorced, I STILL called her up a few times and asked her that question. And she always laughed and reassured me.


The pain is real. The fear is real. The fantasies are not.  The way through is  to keep your eyes on the desired outcome, the thing on the other side of the fear and pain.  KEEP ACTING.  Otherwise, you fall back into a loop of pain, a downward spiral, where you know there is something you need to change, but don’t have the motivation, clarity, strategy, or resources to change it.  And every time you fail, it gets worse.


ACTION is the key. Now, that’s not to say thoughtless action. It is true that directed action is better than thoughtless action. But unless you have a natural bias for action, ANY action is better than inaction. This is why “a book a year in a sentence a day” works.  Why “1-4 stories a month” works.   You are forced to take contained, directed, purposeful action. If you take it, you win. A guaranteed path to success. Yes, there are other paths, and if you take them I wish you well. But there are also many, many paths–the MAJORITY of paths in fact—that lead nowhere.



In fiction, we watch the lead character dealing with a problem.  The motivations will build up until they are forced to take action. With James Bond, no motivation is needed: he is handed an assignment, and he goes.   Very little conflict.  With Sherlock Holmes, his tendency to sink into ennui  and lethargy must  be overcome by a unique challenge.


The story doesn’t start until the challenge is taken, until ACTION is taken.


A beautiful example of this principle extended to the max is the movie “Ordinary People.” In it, protagonist Donald Southerland has a loving and passionate relationship with his wife, Mary Tyler Moore.    Then one day, in a SCATHING scene at the breakfast table, he realizes something horrifying: she hates their son. Blames him, in fact, for the death of his older brother, her favorite. And this unspoken hatred is tearing their son apart.


He realizes that he will have to make a choice: he can save his marriage, or he can save his son.  He CANNOT save both.  The entire movie is about his slow-burn decision process, and the filmmakers utilized sub-plots to carry the audience across this long abyss of inaction.  Then finally, at the end of the movie, a decision is made.


If he had never taken action, all the thought in the world would have been meaningless.   And it is EASY to get caught in the “I’m thinking!  I’m thinking!” trap.

How can you know if you are thinking too much?

Set small, measureable goals you must achieve daily, that dove-tail into weekly, monthly, yearly, and five-year goals. Are you accomplishing them?  Then fine, you can take all the time you need to think…so long as you hit your benchmarks.


This is like a newbie writer working on an apparently endless trilogy.   I’ll STILL tell them to write AND SUBMIT 1-4 stories a month.  I don’t care if they are 1-page stories that can be written in a day. Write. Polish. Submit.  Then, if you want to, spend the other 29 days a month on that endless trilogy. Your business.


BUT TAKE ACTION.  The rest is fantasy and the door to neurosis and paralysis.


Here are some tiny actions I have to take every day/week, or I know I’m off track:

  1. Writing: one sentence
  2. Martial Arts: Tai Chi/Morning Ritual
  3. Finance: 5% of my checking account transferred to my investment account weekly
  4. Personal: connect with Tananarive, Jason, and Nicki to tell them I love them.


Every week, or something is WRONG. I don’t have to wait weeks or months to know I’m off track. I can usually tell in 2-10 days.   DANGER WILL ROBINSON.


Action. Guided action.  That’s the key to living in the outer world. As long as you have a body and an ego you need to deal with it…or you will throw your life away.





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