It is the holiday season and I assure you I’m the last when it comes to being Debbie Downer ( I’d rather be Debbie Harry, thank you very much ), but maybe because it’s the holidays, we might finally have some time to reflect on what we do when we are not holidaying. Of course, work and effort aren’t the same thing. We understand work to be simply what we do, primarily to serve the dual ends of making (another kind of) ends meet, as well as give us something to define ourselves by. Hi, my name is Amrita, and I am an aspiring writer. Notice the word, “aspiring”, a fancy, positive word with quite deep connotations but in this context it just means – I don’t get paid. Focusing on the other word, “writer”, which is what I do, effort would then imply the actual writing that gets done. To put it more precisely, writing is what I sometimes do to generally call myself a writer. Now, how much writing do I have to do, quantitatively and qualitatively, to think I’ve made enough of an effort to justify calling myself a writer?
That is really two questions in one. Think of it as an equation where we call the doing of the work action, sufficient work effort and the justification of that work the job title, in this case writer. Therefore,
n * action = effort = job designation
n * writing = enough writing = writer
Now, according to a recent study that confirms an ancient Chinese concept wu wei, which means “effortless action”, our efforts are best when there is some lack of effort involved in it. And that means, you go the distance when it comes to reaching your goal, but you also stop in between, an arbitrary number of times, to smell the roses. Now, we humans like to design our lives obeying symmetry. We wouldn’t exactly call it perfectionist, because it isn’t the 1980s any more when perfectionism was cool. We still work hard, but we also understand the importance of fun, which is why we have created social media to do both simultaneously. But, that amalgamation of work and fun isn’t exactly effortless action. Effortless action is best understood as that old cliché – do your best, and leave the rest. Now, the problem with being in a competitive world, whether you are competitive or not, is realizing that your best is only understood relatively from what is best around you.
Nearly every inspirational story out there is about a person who breaks away from his or her background or community – where the best is clearly defined and is not them – and goes off and becomes the best somewhere else. But, while you are in your setting, you constantly have pressures, obvious or subliminal, pushing you to do your best. Teachers, parents, gym instructors, work reports, all forms of assessments, whether emotional or statistical, try to obey that same underlying perfectionist symmetry humanity wants to achieve, The Best. Not your and my, but some unknown the, which can never be known qualitatively or quantitatively.
So, effortless action isn’t just doing your best and leaving the rest. It is being realistic about your best. It is knowing when to stop, when to draw the line. Let’s face it, work isn’t exactly an attractive word. Maybe for Type A personalities, but we’ve managed to figure out over the years that people can’t be reduced to types, no matter how scientific they look. And effort is different. Even more different is action. Marlon Brando shared a lovely idea with Al Pacino, one that definitely needs to be applied to things besides acting. He said that even when the director shouts “action!”, you don’t need to do anything. Because, action is even possible in apparent inaction. Our problem with work is that we tend to see it as this giant, colossal thing that must be done to keep us going. People advise you to break it into small, manageable chunks, take frequent breaks and just keep going at it. And that is great advice, but another way of looking at it is, just focus on the action. You may have a pile on your desk, or a long to-do list. And the best thing to do isn’t necessarily plan your efforts around that symmetry the world has taught you. But just to start, and then to stop a while when you can’t go any longer. Do it, but only till the point when it feels right for you.