The Road Past Self-Reflection to Action
THE WAY OF THE BLUE-COLLAR PHILOSOPHER
There comes a time to stop thinking about doing something and simply do it
Preface: An earlier version of this piece appeared as part of a series I published on beBee.com a few years back. The series was dubbed “The Road Chronicles” because it was organized around the central metaphor of traveling along a highway. Which, to my mind, makes solid sense if, like many, you view life as a journey.
At the time, the title for the series emerged organically from the recesses of my psyche — I think, upon reflection, in deference to Jack Kerouac's seminal work, "On the Road". My early reading of Kerouac's novel initially drew me into a period of narrowly focused introspection. Then, as I realized the limits of the fairly narrow view of the world it presented, I felt summarily spit out into the world, where I have since sought to connect with people, ideas and things across a much broader field of engagement.
Eventually, as I pursued what I consider to be a “blue-collar career” in boatbuilding, I also came to understand that working with your hands does not mean that your brain stops working — or that your mind becomes less adept at abstract thought. Indeed, quite the opposite. Over the years, I’ve come to believe the existential connection to the world that working with your hands provides, in fact, bolsters your ability to grapple meaningfully with “the larger” questions of society, life, and living.
With that said, I welcome you to this dedicated, admittedly somewhat oddball sub-section of “For Yacht Builders and Buyers”, where the conversation focuses on musings in blue-collar philosophy. — PLF
The unexamined life is not worth living ... (Socrates in Plato's Dialogues)
As philosophers dating back at least to Plato have been telling us, reflection and self-examination 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 far beyond the common sphere.
Unfortunately, reflection and, in particular, obsessive self-examination 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 easily 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 were 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 academic philosophers who rock climbed, rode motorcycles, raced sports cars, pursued martial arts (Yep, 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, eventually becomes 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 ...
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.
Moreover, I submit 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 unsolvable situation or problem suddenly comes to mind when you’re not thinking abut the issue. 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 one should treat one’s 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 unsolvable questions and potentially overwhelming situations in your life, you can fight off the destructive corrosiveness of excessive introspection.
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 introspection is the result of failure to understand the power of background processing ...
Years ago, a colleague of mine gave me some of the best advice I've ever gotten. He suggested 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, listen to music, or work on something else, like building or repairing a boat. 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, and 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, listen to music, or work on something else, like building or repairing a boat. Procrastination is not always unproductive. Creative procrastination can be a useful approach, as many successful executives have learned. For much of the time, issues and problems resolve themselves before you have to act. So. consciously prematurely thinking about those issues and problems 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, listen to music, or do something else, like building or repairing a boat. And just forget it. An important life-lesson is that things which don't really matter, really don't 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, in the instance, 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 gratuitous torment ...
Please understand, I do not pretend to be a life-coach or spiritual guru. If that is what you need or want, you can find plenty of them working their scams all over the IoBC (Internet of Bull Chips). I'm just outlining here what’s worked for me at critical times to find my way past reflection to action.
Fair winds and safe harbors!
— Phil Friedman
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