When You Don’t Do Anything You Don’t Make Any Noise
A case for being action-oriented in the face of doubting onlookers.
My grandmother was an extraordinary cook who expressed her love for her family by preparing delicious Italian meals. My grandfather was a dressmaker who worked six days a week. On Sundays, he sat in the living room reading The New York Times, while Grandma was in the kitchen putting pots and pans on the stovetop and thumping utensils on the cutting board while she boiled pasta, fried meatballs, and chopped garlic and basil.
One Sunday, Grandpa asked, “Why do you have to make so much noise in the kitchen?”
“When you don’t do anything, you don’t make any noise,” she replied.
My mother has told me this story approximately 357,000 times in my lifetime, but it wasn’t until I was a full-grown adult in the professional world that I understood. When you’re doing something–making something, making a decision, making a change, going out on a limb, taking a risk, trying a new approach–you’re inevitably gonna make some noise. You’re going to annoy and perplex people. You’re gonna get questioned, talked about, and doubted.
You’re going to have to be comfortable looking at that irritated, questioning onlooker whose world you just disturbed in the face and say, “This is what I’m doing. What is it that you’re doing?”
The most effective people I’ve worked with are impatient, decisive, and default to taking action. Whether they’re founders, VPs, middle managers, or individual contributors at the top of their craft: They make moves and get things done, even if they know it’s going to irritate some people.
These folks are intrinsically motivated to act, without being told, asked, or prompted. Usually it’s because they’re impatient. They’re dissatisfied with the status quo and they’re not about to wait around for it to get resolved on its own. Action is change, and the motivation for that change stems from an inner disdain for the way things are–and a vivid imagination telling them how things could be better.
Advanced players are dissatisfied with the status quo even when things are going well–when sales are up, when ratings are high, when trends are positive. It’s easy to react to a burning fire–an emergency mandate, an upset customer, a political hailstorm–but to be motivated and proactive when the weather’s sunny and all the lines are going up and to the right is something else.
These rare birds are constantly scanning the horizon for risks, changes, and opportunities that aren’t upon them yet, but that they can get ahead of now. Being heads-up while also attending to the daily grind of business and life is a special skill, and one that takes constant effort and vigilance.
Action-oriented people who are impatient, decisive, and willing to take risks are the engine that drive progress. But don’t get me wrong: Being action-oriented isn’t about constant hustle and grind. (That stuff is toxic.) Sleep enough, eat well, hug your children, take the weekend, and stare into space for a few hours when you need to. But when you’re on, be inclined toward making decisions, making moves, and making changes.
Back in my 20's I used to write and code on nights and weekends because I had free time and energy to burn. Twenty years later, I’m tired. When I have free time, I want to lay on the couch and watch the new season of Stranger Things. I want to do nothing.
Then I think of Grandma.
I don’t cook much, but my kitchen is a kid who needs me and a young company and a world that is pretty screwed up. I’ll watch some Netflix soon, but right now I want to be in that kitchen like Grandma was that Sunday, banging pots and pans, making the noise of doing something.