Soul Searching #10: thinking vs doing

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Hello there! Welcome, this is the 10th episode of my Soul Searching series. The preceding 9 episodes can be found here:

  1. Introduction
  2. Values
  3. Energy
  4. Intuition
  5. Flow
  6. Personality Tests
  7. The human brain
  8. Non-duality
  9. Leadership

I think it is fair to say that I’m a thinker (pun intended ;-)). I enjoy thinking: observing the world around me, extracting concepts, applying these concepts to concrete applications, asking inquisitive questions, the feeling of understanding something, the challenge of not understanding something, dreaming about the future, etc. There is a part of me that just likes understanding things. Even if I never share my understanding of something, I can still enjoy it. Upon reflection, it is more than just thinking that I enjoy. It is also the interaction with my environment and the people around me that gives me a good feeling.

Of course, thinking also has downsides: I can overthink things, be indecisive, be prone to worrying, or skip on details. Over time, I learned to deal with this balance by actively signalling these downsides, and switching from ’thinking’ to ‘doing’. I discovered that I also have a need for achieving concrete results, so that is a nice counterweight to ’thinking’ and helps maintaining a ‘balance’. It will always be a balancing act, I think, but at least I’m managing my skill of ’thinking’ so that I can get the most out of it.

A few years ago, I went skiing with my family – my first experience with skiing. I consciously decided (ahum, after some motivation from a family member), that I was going to just go down the slope and try it. Fortunately, I quickly discovered how to break, and I was able to learn the basics without big accidents. I was very bruised, though, after the first day. It was a nice practical experience when the emphasis is on ‘doing’.

Recently, I have broadened my view of ’thinking vs doing’. This was motivated by my past career choices, because every time I switched jobs, I went through a long thinking process before taking the next step. And that never felt like the right way of going about it. So I asked myself: should I switch to more ‘doing’ in my career steps? For me, the intuitive answer to this question was a resounding ‘no!’. But more ’thinking’ was also a definite ‘no!’. There was something missing from the ’thinking vs doing’ paradigm. In my contemplations about career options, I used my ’thinking’ mostly when selecting potential employers, but the final choice I always made by gut feeling and by a personal match with the people. So should I just ‘feel’ my way around in my career? At this point, let me attempt to create a schema:

cycle containing words 'doing'-'evaluating'-'ideation'-'planning'

This schema still has the word ‘doing’ in it, because that is an important part of learning. The next phase is ‘evaluating’, where I evaluate that what I do is inline with what I want. Then there is an ‘ideation’ phase, where I create ideas about how to continue keeping the ‘doing’ phase inline with what I want. Finally, there is the ‘planning’ phase where, I try to think ahead a little while and translate ideas into actions. This is where ’thinking’ mostly takes place.

In daily life, I think that these phases are not separated by hard boundaries, but that I organically move from one phase to another. So it is possible that two phases are partially overlapping. I tend to think of the cycle more as items to distribute my attention over, and the distribution changes over time, but always in a Bell-curve shape with its peak in one phase. (By the way, this schema may look familiar, because it is very similar to the Build-Measure-Learn Cycle from The Lean Startup, the Scrum Cycle, and Plan-Do-Check-Act. I just adapted it to include my own words.)

So in terms of my career, when I start working somewhere I would ideally like to start the/a first cycle, and then very consciously spend my time there by going through the four phases, repeating various cycles. Looking back at my career, I’m not very happy about the way I’ve done that. I just seem to keep going through these cycles, sometimes at hyper speed, sometimes in a jolting manner, and now and then at turtle speed (e.g., a sabbatical of several months :-)). I think it is mostly the ‘evaluating’ phase that I’m handling badly. I have no clear objectives that I want to achieve, and very little attention for ‘it doesn’t feel right’. The jolting speed is probably the consequence of my own choices around the ‘evaluating’ phase.

Before making things more abstract, let me say that the learning cycle I described above is also happening on other aspects of my life: family, friends, relationships, money, environment, etc. These cycles also have ‘evaluating’ phases, and sometimes these ‘evaluating’ phases are in conflict. For me, the classic term of ‘work-life balance’ is an example of this.

All these cycles are happening at a relatively short timescale. I think that on top of these short-term cycles, there is a long-term cycle running where I’m determining ‘what I want’. Recently, I visited a workshop by Wassila Hachchi and that gave me some nice words (italic) to use for this observation (the mapping of these words on the concept of ‘cycles’ is my own, by the way). The long-term cycle is the process where I determine my ‘purpose‘, i.e. the answer to the questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?‘. My ‘passion’ is the way I currently express my purpose. The short-term cycles are related to ‘passion’. Note that a ‘passion’ can change over time, and I can have multiple at the same time.

In the past, I think many of my activities were aimed towards dealing with my own personal insecurities, and towards creating a secure and safe home for myself. I tended to focus on doing complicated things, thereby shining a positive light on myself. Also, I felt the need for creating a secure base that I can use as a fallback, in case things go wrong. As I got more experienced in life, I felt that I didn’t become any happier by doing more complicated things. The underlying insecurity is disappearing. Also, I have a secure home and don’t need to invest more in that. So when I took these objectives away, I realized that I had no method for making choices towards by own happiness. No purpose, few passions, no goals, and no way of ‘evaluating’.

I view my sabbatical period as a way to

  1. Stop or slow down the short-term cycles
  2. Properly evaluate some of the short-term cycles
  3. Formulate my current thoughts about my ‘purpose’
  4. Find a way to kickstart a new ‘work’ cycle that is aligned with my current formulation of ‘purpose’

The biggest challenge for me is having faith in my own ability to evaluate my activities once I get started again. Will I have the energy to deal with a setback? Will I have the power to pay attention to learning, to sharpening my definition of ‘purpose’, to ‘evaluating’? I don’t know, but I’m confident that this is the path I have to follow 🙂

Thanks again for taking the time to read this blog post. If you have any comments, feel free to leave them below. Also, I’m always open to connecting on LinkedIn. See you next time!