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What’s the connection between clarity and action? Can you achieve better clarity just by diving in and taking lots of action?
The short answer is yes. In fact, often this is a superior approach to making advance plans, at least in terms of the clarity gains you’ll experience.
A key reason that direct action can help you gain clarity is that when you take action, you map out more of the possibility space. Action usually involves exploration. The more you take action, the more you explore. Even when your actions don’t work out, you’re still mapping out part of the possibility space. And this can easily help you gain clarity about your path through this space.
Suppose you go to Disneyland for the first time in your life, and you don’t know the layout of the park. You won’t be able to spend your time there very efficiently, at least not without help, since you won’t have a good map of the possibility space. You won’t know the most efficient way to navigate the park. You won’t know what times to go on certain rides if you want to avoid the longest wait times. You’ll end up spending more time waiting in line, and you won’t be able to take in as many rides and attractions as someone with more experience.
In 2016 Rachelle and I did an experiment where we went to Disneyland every day for 30 days in a row. So we spent a lot of time there, and consequently, our minds now contain detailed mental maps of the park. Whenever I want to, I can picture myself walking around there in my mind’s eye. You can name any two rides there, and I can mentally navigate an efficient route from one to the other, as if I’m seeing all the scenery on a movie screen. And that’s simply because I took lots of action for 12-16 hours a day for a month. As a result of doing this, I can now navigate that space with greater ease than ever before.
Now I could have done a bunch of research online first, and I could have made written plans for what I was going to do. But I don’t think any of that would have given me as much clarity as just diving in and taking action day after day. The mental maps I gained through action and experience are more useful and accurate than those I acquired through learning from others.
I experienced something similar when I got into public speaking. I read many books on speaking. I attended workshops. I had conversations with professional speakers. All of that helped to some degree. But nothing moved the needle forward nearly as much as just diving in and doing a lot of speaking.
My friend Darren LaCroix, who’s the 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking, likes to say that there are three steps to getting good at speaking: stage time, stage time, and stage time. He gained skill through direct action, and he had a mentor that encouraged him to never turn down stage time. Darren was taught to always say yes to stage time, even if he had to drive hours to participate in an open mic night for a few minutes. That’s some dedication!
When Darren began building his comedy and speaking skills, by his own admission he was atrocious. Less than a decade later, he was a world champion. That’s a nice success story, but it’s also a clarity story. Darren created refined mental models of his area of expertise by speaking a lot, by doing stand-up comedy, and by traveling around the world for stage time, stage time, and more stage time. Darren is also one of the more focused people I know in terms of his goals, projects, and actions. His clarity largely comes from direct experience.
If you try to minimize how much action you take, thinking that you’re trying to be more efficient, that’s understandable. It seems logical at first. But it’s generally a mistake because you won’t map the possibility space as well if you resist taking action.
A common reason people resist action is that they have limiting beliefs about the exploration phase. They think it’s risky. They don’t want to fail. They don’t want to waste time doing things that don’t yield immediate results. And again, that’s very understandable.
But if you’re too focused on getting an immediate result, you’re surely going to struggle with clarity because you won’t develop a deep enough understanding of the possibility space around you. You won’t have a good map of the territory that you’re in.
During his championship speech, which was called “Ouch,” Darren purposefully fell down on stage to demonstrate the value of failure and how it’s all part of the learning process. It’s is also part of the mapping process.
Now if you’re in a situation where you can’t afford to map the space first, like if you’re going to Disneyland only once in your life for a single visit, and that’s it, then what’s the best way to have a good visit that packs in a lot of value? Well, you could muddle through on your own, but perhaps the best way would be to have someone with superior experience show you around and be your tour guide for the day. You’ll probably get at least 50% more value out of the experience if you can enlist the assistance of someone with a well-developed mental map.
You do something similar whenever you pay for expertise. You pay for access to the mental maps of an experienced doctor, dentist, lawyer, accountant, and so on. Realize that you’re often paying for clarity when you do this, and the way you purchase clarity is by paying for access to superior mental maps. Let that be a hint that experience gained through direct action can be an equally effective avenue for building clarity yourself.
In some spaces you can do both. When I learned public speaking, I did a lot of speaking to map the possibility space through action. I also learned from mentors like Darren with vastly more experience. That’s a quick way to learn new skills and also to gain clarity.
But between these two choices, I still think your best bet is to favor learning through direct action when you can. Put in the time to map the space. As you build a stronger mental model for the space you’re in, you’ll naturally experience an increase in clarity.
When I get an opportunity for more stage time, I still hear Darren’s “stage time, stage time, stage time” mantra echoing in the back of my mind, which nudges me to say yes most of the time. I know that more stage time will further refine my mental maps. That’s one reason I accepted an invitation to perform the emcee role at an event last week in Panama. I was already going to the event anyway, but being an emcee isn’t a role I normally do, and that means I’d learn something from it. It was a great experience and upgraded my clarity about public speaking in a way that sticking to the familiar wouldn’t have accomplished.
When you set a goal within a space that you’ve done a good job of mapping, you’ll be able to traverse the space more efficiently because you’ll know the territory. You’ll know how to get from point A to point B, just as if you were walking from one part of Disneyland to another after you’d already spent a month there.
But if you stubbornly refuse to map the space you’re in, well… good luck with that approach. I think you’re always going to suffer from a lower level of clarity and more confusion when you do that.
Ultimately this boils down to some pretty simple lessons: Explore the world around you. Explore the field you’re in. Explore the possibility space. And if you don’t know what to explore, then pick anything because any exploration will improve your mental models more than no exploration. Be willing to fall on your face now and then as well; that’s also part of the exploration process.