When all you do is react, you never really act

I always wanted to go to art school. It was a dream I had, when I was a kid, because I wanted to be an artist more than anything. My hands were always covered in ink, pencil rubbings and paints, and I carried a sketchbook everywhere.

But when I realized my Dad wanted me to go to art school too, I suddenly refused to go. I refused to do it, because it was what he wanted. I reacted, and reacted badly, and never had the guts to act for myself. Years later, I barely draw. I can’t remember the last time I sat down with a sketchbook and drew, for the sake of it, or the love of it.

And it’s not always other people that I react to. It can be a bad morning, a late night, the success of someone I don’t like. I can admit that I react to things all the time.

In fact, we all react to things. We react, instead of acting. We let the actions and the decisions and the personalities of the people around us determine the paths we take and the reasons we take them.

And the same goes for the rest of our lives — we know, deep down, what we want to accomplish. But when we’re faced with taking a step towards our goals, we let external factors determine what that step will be, if we even take it.

Looking back now, I can see where this has happened over and over again in my life. I didn’t travel, because something always came up and I reacted without keeping my focus on what I wanted to do. I dreamed, and let those dreams be thrown in every direction, like a leaf in the wind.

And I can guarantee the same thing’s happened to you. Maybe reacting, and reacting fast, has enabled you to survive in the face of everything you’re challenged by. But maybe that’s an excuse, and maybe what you’re really scared of is that your reactions have been escape routes, conveniently pushing your dreams away.

Photo credit: Sarah Götze https://unsplash.com/@sarah_lu

Every Monday night, I hold “office hours” at a bar in Sydney.

It’s a nice place, low lighting and great scotch, with an atmosphere that makes folks want to talk. And I’m pretty open, if there’s a creative, a writer, an entrepreneur or a startup founder who wants to meet me, they can come down to the bar and have a chat over a drink.

I met a woman a few weeks ago who reached out over Twitter and asked for a meeting. We sat down, and we got to talking about her life as an entrepreneur, and she said something that really stood out to me. She said she’d been trying to start a digital publishing company for the past two years, but life kept on getting in the way.

We talked about how that had happened. When things got tough, or when the unexpected occurred, her reaction was always to push her business further down on her list of priorities. It was always less important, and she was too busy reacting to the world around her that she wouldn’t act on the company she desperately wanted to build.

Some of it was understandable. She’d suffered a personal tragedy, and it’d been difficult to deal with her loss. But there were other things, where her reaction hadn’t been checked, where she hadn’t considered the why or the how of it. For example, a project at work had left her stressed, so she had put off building her first product for her business.

The more we talked, the more we both started to realize that although she claimed she wanted to take that step as an entrepreneur, the way she let the rest of her life dictate her choices was constantly preventing her from doing anything.

She was at the mercy of the elements, when she should have been doing everything in her power to bend those elements to her will. After all, she wanted to be an entrepreneur.

And an entrepreneur’s job isn’t to be thrown around by the current. It’s the same for an artist, for a creative, for a writer, for the next rapper who’ll make it to the top. Your job is to stand firm, to be a rock, to let the world flow around you and not waver, not fracture, not crack.

I ended up explaining to her that she wasn’t unique in this. I said that struggling to control the level to which I react instead of acting is a major challenge in my own life, and I meant that. Hell, I’m writing this blog post because when I sat down this morning and pulled up Evernote, the first thing I saw was my list of personal changes that I’m trying to make, and “Be Less Reactive” is at the top.

Photo credit: Anton Repponen https://unsplash.com/@repponen

When you react, you’re letting the rest of the world shape, change, direct and move you. Sometimes that’s going to be inevitable. I say it all the time, life is chaos. But in that chaos, you have to find a way to stick to the actions that must be taken. You can’t let those actions always be dictated by things out of your control.

I wish I could draw more. Somehow, every time I pick up a pen or a pencil and start to sketch, I’m taken back to my teenage years and I can’t stop remembering a lot of things that I’ve tried to forget. For me, my reactions to my relationship with my Dad were so fierce, that they tainted something I deeply loved doing.

When you react, you do lose all power. And you will look back with regret. The choices that we make when we’re reeling, when we’re coming back up after a punch or when the world just gets in the way are never really ours. They’re choices made for us, that we accepted instead of fighting.

Because you can’t control your life. It’s too unpredictable. You can however change the actions that you take, and make sure they’re the actions you want. You don’t always have to be completely reactive.

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I’m a writer, a speaker, and a social media entrepreneur. Appeared and published in Business Insider, Inc.com, TIME & others.

Email: jon@jonwestenberg.com

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