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What Keeps Us From Action?

If you can do it, should do it, and want to do it, what are you waiting for?

If you can do it, should do it, and want to do it, what are you waiting for? Many things in life that we excuse or misplace blame for are not created by what we do but by what we fail to do. Maybe we just procrastinate and just don’t get around to action. Or maybe it’s just a thought, something that we think would be nice to do, but we just aren’t serious about it.

What keeps us from action? Can, should, and want ought to be pretty compelling. Several years ago I was asked by a group of editors to write a book chapter on “Neurobiology of Agency” for a scholarly book. Don’t worry. I won’t burden you here with what I wrote for the book chapter. But that task caused me to reflect on agency from the perspective of the everyday issues of what we do and fail to do.

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Have you pulled off the road of progress?
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Some possible answers come from my own experience. One excuse is that we just can’t seem to find the time. That won’t wash. Whatever we do in life, we have found or made time for. Final choices are matters of priority, and sometimes we don’t prioritize well.

Fear is an obvious cause of inaction. There are many kinds of fear that cause inaction. There is:

  • Fear of failure.
  • Fear of being different or out-of-step.
  • Fear of rejection.
  • Even fear of success.

Fear of failure arises from self-doubt. We may think we don’t know enough, don’t have enough time or energy, or lack ability, resources, and help. The cure for such fear is to learn what is needed, make the time, pump ourselves up emotionally so we will have the energy, hone our relevant skill set, and hustle for resources and help. These things can be demanding. It is no wonder there are so many things we can, should, and want to do but don’t do.

All our life, beginning with school, we are conditioned to consider failure as a bad thing. But failure is often a good, even necessary, thing. The ratio between failures and successes for any given person is rather stable. Thus, if you want more successes, you need to make more failures. This truth is recognized even in the corporate world, and the most innovative companies practice it. Jeff Dyer, in his book The Innovator’s DNA, says the key to business success is to “fail often, fail fast, fail cheaply.” It’s okay to fail, as long as you learn from it. Our mantra should be: “Keep tweaking until it works.” This is exactly how Edison invented the light bulb. Most other inventors and creative people, in general, have operated with the same mantra.

Fear of being different can cause people to join groups, causes, and lifestyles that are not good for them or even harmful, criminal gangs are an extreme example. The corollary is that bad social commitments make it harder to experience better alternatives. Not everyone can be a leader, who by definition is different from the crowd. But all of us are better off when we are our own person, march to our own drummer, become “captain of our own soul.”

Fear of being different often arises from personal insecurity and lack of confidence. These are crippling emotions and one’s life can never be fully actualized until they are overcome. This comes to the matter of self-esteem. One thing many people don’t realize is that self-esteem has two quite distinct components: self-worth and self-confidence. Self-worth is given (by being valued and loved by others). Self-confidence cannot be given, it has to be earned. People who lack the confidence to “put themselves on the line” deny themselves opportunities to enjoy the fruits of success. Their life becomes a vicious cycle that begins with a lack of confidence, lack of agency, lack of success, and increased justification not to be confident.

If we are different, the in-crowd may reject us. Rejection is certainly depressing. Nobody in his right mind wants to be depressed. But no life can be fulfilling when it is lived to satisfy the opinions others may have of us. We need to be true to ourselves, to trust in our values and standards. If who we are is not worthy of such trust, we can certainly fix that. This dictum lies at the heart of Socrates’ great admonition: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Fear of success is often learned by watching how others have failed to adjust to success. Witness the entertainment celebrities who end up committing suicide. Most of us probably know personally some people who have become conceited, aloof, condescending, arrogant, or otherwise unlikable as a result of their success. We don’t want that to happen to us. But when we surrender to our fear of success, we affirm our lack of trust in ourselves. Do we really need to reinforce such a lack of self-trust?

So, when life offers you the chance to do something you can, should, and want to do, just DO IT!


Klemm, W. R. (2015). Neurobiological perspectives on agency: 10 axioms and ten propositions, p. 51-88, in Constraints of Agency, edited by Craig W. Gruber et al. New York: Springer.

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