Deferring action is equally important as deliberate action. This is the essence of Zen and Tao teachings which suggest the value of non-action: to simply allow the natural order of things to take shape. It’s not apathy or avoidance, nor is it acting prematurely. It’s a balance of attention, trusting the process, and having awareness of the dynamic range and greater flow of life. In music, when and how one hits the strings is what produces the emotional connection and sense of rhythm. Timing is everything and empty spaces in between notes support the musical experience.
1. Look at the big picture
In Gestalt Psychology, it is said that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. It’s the classic example of the vase and two faces present side-by-side, and focusing on one tends to block the other from view.
Fixating on one event in isolation doesn’t bring value nor the full truth. It’s like having a big beautiful garden and focusing on one small area to pluck weeds. Every day going back to that same area just out of habit or some irrational fear. The practice of mindfulness is about letting go and shifting our attention to the larger context of “a garden,” acknowledging its ecosystem and nurturing its growth.
2. Slow down to reflect
In a loving relationship, it’s the ongoing ebb and flow, giving and receiving, the conversation unfolding naturally and unforced. And at some point maybe you’re asked to watch a movie or join an activity that you may not want to do. Would you argue or just go with it? The latter tends to be more appreciated.
If the reflex is to argue, you can take a moment to quietly examine and ask yourself, “is it worth it?” and consider deferring the argument, a simple advice from Marshall Goldsmith, world renown executive coach. It’s not far from the wisdom of Lao Zi, “By letting go all gets done.”
3. Bet on your strengths
Being a professional means fully inhabiting your passion and strength with a blend of self-awareness and raw hustle.
Being a professional means inhabiting your passion and strength with a blend of self-awareness and raw hustle. It’s not muscling your way to the spotlight with clever gimmicks or fines. It’s devotion to a craft and fully embracing the many rhythms of change.
Self-awareness is not a goal. It’s the capacity to observe and discern what comes natural to you. Not all of us is a Michael Phelps. We all have different talents and flow zones. Billionaire Warren Buffet calls it our circle of competence, where the majority of our time and energy should be spent.
Being self-aware means knowing your flow zone inside and out and the kind of people it attracts. It’s knowing how to stretch one’s limits and turn flaws into strengths.
Acting on what we’re good at is equally valuable as not acting on our shortcomings. Some call this the 80-20 rule, where 80% of your time is spent on things you actually care about, and 20% on things you’re willing to accept. It’s a conscious choice.
4. Let talent speak for itself
Phil Jackson, the acclaimed Zen master of basketball, is known to mold star players into championship teams, winning Eleven NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. He is known for his focus on fundamentals and using unconventional techniques like meditation and practice drills in pitch dark to foster one breathe on mind. Jackson’s story inspires responsive over reactive leadership.
In Jackson’s book Eleven Rings, Rick Fox, Lakers’ forward, reflects on Jackson’s approach to coaching as a three step act:
“During the first twenty or thirty games of each season he’d sit back and let the characters reveal themselves. Most coaches come into a season with an idea of what they’re going to do and impose that on the players.” he explains. “But I always felt Phil came to the table with an open mind. ‘Let’s see how each individual expresses himself. Let’s see how the group responds under fire and whether it’s capable of solving problems.’ He never appeared too concerned about the team at that point. Never any panic. Never overanalyzing anything because that would be premature.
Act 2 would take place during the twenty or thirty games of the middle of the season. That’s when he would nurture the team, when guys were starting to get bored, Phil would spend more time with each of us then. He’d give us books. I always felt that he drove me the hardest during that time.”
Then during the last twenty or thirty games leading up to the playoffs, act 3 would begin and, according to Fox, Phil’s whole demeanor would change – the way he looks, talks, and moves his body – as if he was saying “this is my time.” He’d restrict media access to the team and let them focus on their game. Fox continues:
“Phil gave us new confidence and an identity we didn’t have before. But he would also take the pressure off of us and put it on himself. He would turn the whole city against him. And everyone would get upset at him and wouldn’t be thinking about us.”
Jackson’s job as a coach was to provide a safe sanctuary for players to take refuge amidst the many possible distractions, keeping their minds sharp and in the zone.
By letting go all gets done.
In portraying Kobe Bryant’s path to greatness, Jackson writes, “I admired Kobe’s intense desire to win, but he still had a lot to learn about teamwork and self-sacrifice. Though he was a brilliant passer, his first instinct was to penetrate off the dribble and drunk over whoever was in his way. Like many young players, he forced the action rather than letting the game come to him.”
5. Learn to accept
While I feel confident to present a case on non-action, I have to admit my own perfectionism while writing this. I hate being too wordy, explicit, or overly polished. They are the weeds in my garden and sometimes I pay too much attention to them. Flow is a delicate balance that confronts the nuances of language and my flaw is clear as day. Nonetheless, the whole process is contained like tending to a garden.
Self-restraint and seeing the big picture are central to emotional intelligence. Essentially, to be conscious of our inner happenings without judgment or the need to react, which promotes choice and learning. In the words of neurologist Peter Levine, simply “tracking sensations” and just noticing what arises. It is this foundational awareness that allows one to readily adapt and take the right action in the right time. Timing is everything and in the sweet and simple words of my girlfriend, “Good timing is happy time.”