Jo Nesbo, renowned Norwegian author of “The Leopard” and “The Red Breast”, explained it this way to New York Times interviewer Jessica Gross, “This was in 1997, and I was in Sydney. I had taken six months off from my job as a stockbroker, and at that time I also played with my band, and I’d had a year where I did 180 gigs. So at the end of that year, I was more or less burned out. So I went to Australia, and I brought a laptop. Just write a novel; that was my aim.” The act which propelled him from businessman to novelist was as casual as buying a laptop.
Thirty years ago, as I sat chatting long distance with my sister, smoking my 57th cigarette of the day, our talk turned to that very puff of smoke. “It wasn’t as hard as I thought,” she said, having just managed to quit after 15 years of heavy use. “I had a little mantra that I repeated every time I wanted a cigarette.” Just listening to her made me want one, too, so I stubbed out the half finished Belair resting between index and middle finger and lit a new one.
I so didn’t want to hear another tale of victory from this dear sibling who had taken her 4.Oh-so-awesome GPA from Berkeley to Yale for law school, who was skinny as a rail, well, yeah, she had been anorexic and still survived on carrots and kim chi, and who Mensa administrators regularly courted. “Nope, that’s about 17th on my list of important things to do,” I replied firmly. As a 3 pack a day smoker, I knew my limits, and they were 3 packs a day.
Still, after we hung up, the idea hung in the air like…well, like smoke. “What the heck,” I thought, “maybe I can just get to bed without lighting up.” That would be something. It was huge, because I was an omnipresent puffer. In bed, in the bathroom, before I opened the mail (a hangover from my days of unemployment), in the car, at work (Yes, you could in those days.), on planes, and even in some movie theaters (love those Brits).
Did you spot it? The moment that made a difference? It was “What the heck,” I thought, “maybe I can just get to bed without lighting up.” Please notice that no beam of light came from on high. No trumpets sounded nor cymbals crashed. No pleas from concerned family members echoed in my ears. Nothing except that second, that moment, that possibility, that granting of space for an idea.
I didn’t think about it. All that happened was that I left my cigarettes on the table next to the chair and went to bed.
Werner Erhard, he of EST and leadership training fame, wasn’t standing at my shoulder that night, but he might have been. “Since now is the only time you have in reality and now will never seem to be the right time to act, one may as well act now. Even though “it isn’t the right time,” given that the “right time” will never come, acting now is, at the least, powerful (even if you don’t get to be right).” The night I quit smoking, I was too scared to look closely at the action, so Erhard’s description of “now” is far more articulate than I was in expressing the notion that flitted through my mind faster than the beat of a hummingbird’s wing.
Momentous events, positive and negative, are set in motion in nano seconds. Other significant, even remarkable changes or circumstances evolve over time, unfolding with the diligent application of method, resources, and determination. Yet, I challenge you to source the genesis of those slower moving transformations and not find a single or short series of seconds when something went from NEVER to “what if?”.
Recently, I spoke with a man who had lost his daughter to murder, by a friend. A spirit-friend as well as child, the young woman who died was a vibrant, positive, caring human who lit up any room she entered. The loss was unimaginable, tragic, senseless, and painful beyond measure. When Dad stood up to speak at her memorial service, his speech took a startling detour, “One of the things I feel that Jessie wants me to say is that love is greater than hate, and always will be.” The crowd stirred and wept. Then, they clapped for the message of hope and compassion.
When I asked Buck Blodgett what made him think to say “love is greater than hate”, he didn’t know. The words appeared out of loss but also out of the person his daughter was. Soon, those words gave rise to an organization that seeks to wipe out all forms of male-on-female violence, LOVE>hate.
Mel Robbins, a respected criminal attorney, mom, and career coach, speaks of the chasm between thought and action as she coaxes clients to move off of their inertia and into the realm of doing. What does it take? Why do some have it, do it, achieve it, whatever it is, and others don’t? Like Werner Erhard before her, Ms. Robbins, doesn’t have a list of motivators, strategies, suggestions. Instead she moves from the obvious, “All day long you have ideas that could change your life, that could change the world, that could change the way that you feel, and what do you do with them? Nothing.”, to the preemptive, “You are never going to feel like it. Ever.[Emphasis mine] No one’s coming, motivation isn’t happening, you’re never going to feel like it… Scientists call it Activation Energy.” In fact activation energy, a term lifted from the world of chemistry, is the minimum input needed to initiate a chemical reaction. The tipping point. The application of activation energy is never cerebral; it is a physical thing. Something has to happen.
The myriad tasks we could accomplish, the spectacular feats we could achieve, the inventions, innovations, discoveries, connections, and miracles that exist unrealized in the ether, stagnate there because no action was taken. Glenn Llopis, a Forbes contributor, asserts “Most great ideas remain dormant because people don’t have the courage, resources, time and/or money to take action.” True, but what if the idea gets shut down even before you have a chance to be frightened, worried about time, or concerned that there won’t be enough money? Experts speculate that millions of great ideas die aborning, that is, in the moment they first surface.
In grad school, my cohort and I all had to decide what the topic of our thesis would be. Like many others, I had considered and rejected dozens of topics. I wanted a research idea that would keep me interested for a year, not something that would have me chewing my fingernails out of sheer boredom. Backstory – I’d recently returned from a tour in the Peace Corps in Morocco. Love that country! Naturally, I’d learned the language and its little quirks, like Arabic speakers continual use of words with “Allah” in them, each variation applicable to a specific life situation. As a grad student at a university with hundreds of international students, many of them Muslim, I found myself listening for the “inshallah”, “mashallah”, “alhamdulillah”, etc, when native Arabic speakers used English. Over time, I realized that those linguistic and religious markers were not voiced.
So, out of genuine curiosity, I asked a bilingual Arabic speaker, “Where does “Inshallah” go when you speak English?” He didn’t know, but he acknowledged that the use of English separated him from his religious beliefs, not in terms of practice, but in relation to familiarity and comfort. In that second, an idea popped, to investigate the loss of culture and tradition with a switch in languages. Thus, a masters project was born solely because the notion was anchored in action before it had a chance to flit away. In total, the time span between thinking about asking a student about his language use and doing it was less than 10 seconds.
William Kamkwamba, a recent Dartmouth graduate, possesses a story that so clearly demonstrates the power of taking action that I often use it in the classroom. William was born and raised the son of a maize farmer in Kasungu, Malawi. When the drought hit his area many years in a row, reduced circumstances meant he had to drop out of school. Unwilling to be idle, William took himself to the local library and read voraciously on many subjects. When his interest was caught by a book on windmills, he began to make connections between the windmills pictured and the possibilities for the production of electricity.
He was 14 years old when he took the information from the book, scavenged parts, supplies, and make-dos from the local dump and neighbors and contrived a working windmill strong enough to power several lights and a radio in the family home. The novelty of a windmill in the middle of a Malawian maize field attracted attention from near, and eventually, from far away. William’s first international appearance was at a global TED conference. From there, he received the support needed to fund an education outside the library. That led to a degree from Dartmouth. William took action, perhaps because he was too young to be swayed by the myriad concerns or obstacles he would face. Action, foot on the accelerator, is not a guarantee of success, but as Gandhi said, “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”
When the moment strikes, that almost subliminal blip on the screen, you need to act immediately. Researchers say we have mere seconds to go from standstill to super star. The countdown begins now! 10, 9, 8…