Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

Inaction: The Secret to a Disappointing Life

It seemed like a good idea 10 minutes earlier. But standing at the edge of a cliff staring at the sea 100 feet below, I was not sure. The cold water of the Adriatic beckoned and my friends chanted encouragements. Only one step was missing—I had to move.

Photo by Daniel Flower, Creative Commons

Photo by Daniel Flower, Creative Commons

One of the shortest paths to disappointment in life is inaction. Overcoming indecision is not enough. Unless you take steps to reach your goal, you are no closer than before.

Because deciding is not enough. Without action, our decision is only words.

Why are we prone to inaction? Why do we hold 8-hour staff meetings but nothing ever changes? Why are we making the same New Year’s Resolutions year after year?

What allows us to make a decision without acting on it? Here are a few ideas from my life.

Not knowing where to start

You want to write a book but you are not sure whether to start with research or an outline or the first sentence.
You want to start a movement and you are not sure whether to begin with a mission statement or fundraising or programs.
You want to work for yourself but you are not sure whether to quit your job or take classes at night or draw up a business plan.

You feel trapped in inaction because you don’t know where to start.

Here’s a secret: the best place to start is . . . anywhere. Pick the thing that makes most sense to you and start there. It really isn’t that important (although I wouldn’t recommend quitting your job without a plan, just so you know).

In April 2010 I decided to write a book. It was to be a historical account of a heroic English woman, Miss Irby, who started one of the first schools for girls in Bosnia 150 years earlier. I resolved to complete the book before September 2011—the 100th anniversary of her death.

The problem was I had no idea where to start. I had never written a book. During my four years in college studying engineering, I never wrote a paper longer than 10 pages. Should I research first and then write? Should I write and research at the same time? Should I look for a publisher?

By the end of the summer, I had completed only 6 or 7 horrible pages of text. I mean horrible.

Then I met someone who came alongside me and told me to just start writing. I started moving forward as best I could—reading historical books, researching old documents, and writing. As I moved forward with the project, elements began to fall into place. A publisher appeared at just the right time. So did an editor and designer. The book was released on time.

Without that shove from a friend—start anywhere, just write—I might still be thinking about writing a book “one day.”

Worrying about the end before facing the beginning

Pessimism is growing in Western society. And where pessimism flourishes, inaction reigns.

Why write? No one will read it.
Why clean up the park? It will only get trashed again.
Why help the family on the street? Their poverty won’t go away.
Why pursue change? Corrupt politicians will win.

Why act when you may fail in the end? Because action is right. Because the only other choice is despair. Because no result is certain except the barrenness of inaction.

Letting Fear determine Reality

The cliff always looks higher from the top than it does from the bottom. Fear has a funny way of distorting reality. When the moment of action arrives, you have to rely on your earlier research. You read the skydiving pamphlet. You completed the pre-jump training.  You watched the instructor pack the parachute and researched the safety history of the company. Standing in the open doorway of the airplane there are no new facts. Just fear. So jump.

I almost broke up with my wife, Taylor, when we were dating. After six months of chasing her she finally liked me. We had only been dating a month and I was having second thoughts about everything. I had no reason to end our short relationship, but fear was distorting my perspective. I was driving to her house to tell her the sad news and I decided to call my dad for advice. I never was able to bring up the topic.  From the moment he picked up the line, he talked about how lucky I was to find a girl like Taylor.

That’s when I realized the only thing keeping me from moving forward was my fear. Fear of a broken relationship. Fear of making a wrong decision. Fear of failing as a boyfriend and a husband.

That night, instead of breaking up with Taylor, I shared my fears with her. She said, “Can I pray for you?”

Last month we celebrated our 10-year wedding anniversary. I am glad I did not listen to my fear.

You can’t steer a parked car

Some of the best advice I ever received came from an older man in my church. I was single and complaining. He asked, “How many girls have you asked out this month?” I looked at my feet. “None.” “So why are you surprised you don’t have a girlfriend? You can’t steer a parked car.”

Not long afterwards, I met Taylor at an event. We talked for about 15 minutes. The next day I called and asked her to go out for coffee. A year later we were engaged.

His words, “You can’t steer a parked car” have stuck with me through the years. They apply to more than dating and marriage. The truth is, you can do something with momentum that you can’t do with inaction. If you don’t know where to start, just start somewhere. Get moving. Then steer it in whatever direction you want. The best way to kick inaction in the teeth is to start moving.

There are two ways down off the cliff: the walk of shame or the leap of joy. Only one is a story worth telling

What action do you need to take?

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