Finding Your Way Past Self-Reflection to Action
THERE COMES A POINT WHERE YOU NEED TO STOP THINKING ABOUT DOING SOMETHING, AND SIMPLY DO IT...
Preface: This series of somewhat self-indulgent philosophical reflections began with "Social Media Is a Highway, Not a Destination", and I am moved in this piece to question when one should get beyond self-reflection. Links to the previous articles in the series will be found at the end of this post. My thanks to all of you who have followed this series.
The unexamined life is not worth living...Socrates in Plato's Dialogues
As philosophers beginning with Plato have been telling us, reflection and self-reflection are activities of the highest intellectual and moral order. And those who expend significant time and energy in such activities are thought to be rewarded with insights that reach beyond the common sphere.
Unfortunately, reflection and in particular self-reflection can become off-road detours that delay progress along the highway to wherever it is that we're going. And when the detour becomes ever muddier from repeated traffic, we can find ourselves mired down for who knows how long, perhaps forever.
One needs to be able to tell the difference between productive reflection and obsessive self-concern...
When self-reflection become an exclusive focus, all forward movement stops. And we find ourselves traveling in unrewarding, unproductive circles.
Being a former academic philosopher, I can tell you that many of my former colleagues are driven by the frustrations of over-reflection to pursue in their "spare" time action-based activities or avocations, as a psychic antidote. I've known philosophers who rock climbed, rode motorcycles, raced sports cars, pursued martial arts (Yea, better think twice the next time about telling that philosophical nerd to take his Hegelian dialectic and shove it!), built houses, farmed, made furniture, and yes, even sailed and built boats.
They did so because they came to realize that undiluted reflection, especially about fundamentally insolvable issues, can easily become psychologically corrosive and destructive of any and all quality of life.
Most overt rational deliberation is actually conscious rationalization of sub-conscious decisions already made...Phil Friedman in If I Do Say So Myself
Let me tell you a secret. Most of the overt rational deliberation we undertake during waking hours is the conscious rationalization of decisions already made at the sub-conscious level. And in that respect is more accurately understood as Rational Reconstruction of thought processes already completed in the background.
I submit that the bulk of our analytic and decision-making processing take place in the background. By the time you are consciously deliberating, you've already drawn your conclusions and simply working to convince your conscious self — and, perhaps, others as well.
"Let's sleep on it..." is not a meaningless expression...
Consider how many times a solution to an apparently unresolvable situation or problem suddenly comes to mind. Well, don't be fooled: Eurekas do not actually pop magically into existence from nothing.
There is significant psychological evidence to indicate that our minds or brains or mind-brains (whichever designation winds your philosophical watch) continue to work on issues and problems even when we have pushed them out of the spotlight of direct awareness. Indeed, it is often better to learn to push such deliberations into the background, where it appears that much more extensive and rapid processing of information, data, and judgment occurs.
I suggest you treat your mind as a muscle and train it to respond to questions and problems with "muscle memory" — otherwise known as instinct and intuition. Then, when you face apparently unresolvable questions and potentially overwhelming situations in your life, you can fight off the destructive corrosiveness of excessive reflection. And instead eventually take action against a sea of troubles. (Sorry, I was reading some Shakespeare the other evening.)
By the way, please let's not get hung up on the semantic distinctions between conscious, sub-conscious, and unconscious levels of mind or brain function. Let's instead just agree to talk about foreground and background processing. Which, no doubt, makes more sense anyway in our contemporary computer-obsessed culture.
Excessive self-reflection is a result of failure to understand the power of background processing...
Years ago, a colleague of my gave me some of the best advice I've ever gotten. He suggested to me that, when faced with issues and problems, begin by asking certain questions, and take certain actions based on your honest answers to those questions:
— Can I do something about this right now? If not, then put your feet up and watch TV, read a book, or listen to music, or work on something else. But put all deliberations of the issue or problem at hand out of your conscious mind. Being able to do this takes some practice, but yields big benefits, because you will often find that when the time comes that you are in a position to do something about the problem, you "somehow" and suddenly know what to do.
— Is this something about which I must take action right now? If not, then put your feet up and watch TV, read a book, or listen to music, or work on something else. Procrastination is not always unproductive. Creative procrastination can be a useful approach, as most successful executives have learned. For much of the time, issues and problems resolve themselves before you have to act. So consciously thinking about them prematurely is a waste of time and mental energy.
— Is this something that is critical to my life or well being, or to the life or well being of those around me? If not, then put your feet up and watch TV, read a book, or listen to music, and just forget it. An important life lesson to learn is that things which don't really matter, don't really matter. Save your spirit and your energies for doing something about the things that do matter.
Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant taste of death but once...— Shakespeare writing in Julius Caesar
Look at it this way. Much, if not most of the time, issues and problems either resolve themselves or turn out not to be problems at all. Which is not to say that you are never, or never will be faced with genuinely dire matters.
It is to say is that, if you worry or deliberate about all the potential problems and issues in your life, much, if not most of the time you will be fixating on things that never come to pass. Better to deal with potential issues when, and if they materialize as real and current than to excessively and consciously reflect upon what could, but which may not ever happen.
Of course, you will end up processing your deliberations in the background anyway. So that, if and when the potential problem turns into a real and active one, you are likely to have a plan of action completed and standing ready just outside the fringes of conscious awareness, waiting to be acted upon.
The over-examined life can be full of unnecessary and gratuitous torment...Phil Friedman in If I Do Say So Myself
Understand that I do not pretend to be a life coach or spiritual guru. If that is what you need, you can find plenty of them working their scams all over the IoBC (Internet of Bull Chips). I'm just sayin' here what has worked for me at critical times to find my way past reflection to action. And I am suggesting that you consider it as an approach going forward.
May the Force be with you. — Phil Friedman
Authors Notes: This piece is the sixth in a series of philosophical reflections which I've dubbed "The Road Chronicles" because they are organized around the metaphor of travel along a road. If you would like to read one or more of the previous installments of the series, they can be found at:
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About me, Phil Friedman: With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation. In a previous life, I taught logic and philosophy at university.
Text Copyright 2016 by Phil Friedman — All Rights Reserved
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