Peter Lynch is the legendary investor best known for turning his Magellan Fund into a $50 billion beast, from 1976 – 1991.
Plot twist: despite the portfolio’s massive success, most Magellan Fund clients lost money.
The parable goes that investors got impatient, didn’t stick to Lynch’s strategy, and incurred loses by overly managing their investments (e.g. buy high; sell low).
Stories like this make me wonder: in what other scenarios do we hurt ourselves by well-intentioned doing? Conversely, when can we benefit from doing nothing at all?
A watched pot never boils
As someone reads self-help books and collects productivity hacks, my default approach to life was a proactive one: solve every problem that comes my way.
It’s how I handled relationships, my career and inner life.
In 2015, I was “working” on myself so much that I got burnt out. I started meditating to manage my anxiety. In one particularly transformative session, a realization bubbled to the surface:
My obsession with doing came from a place of fear:
- I moved my investments around because I was afraid of losing money.
- I acted needy with women because I was afraid of being rejected.
- I obsessively planned my goals out of fear I wasn’t going to be enough.
Sounds exhausting, right? By anxiously trying to control every aspect of my experience, I was missing out on the simple experience of living. The life I wanted always felt deferred, rather than in the now.
I was a human doing, and not the human being I wanted to be.
Here are other examples of doing versus being that might strike a chord:
Talking to a loved one
Doing: Trying to fix their problem.
Being: Listening and being there for them.
Doing: Trying to be “good” at meditation, almost making it competitive.
Being: Just remembering to breathe.
Doing: Trying to impress your date with pickup antics.
Setting goals and career planning
Doing: Taking on too many responsibilities and burning out.
Being: Know your priorities and NOT sweating the small stuff
Investing in crypto
Doing: Reacting to the news cycle and trading to a loss.
Being: HODL with a good crypto strategy in place.
Doing: fighting the experience.
Being: letting it happen; enjoying the ride.
Doing: taking as many photos as possible.
Being: enjoying the view.
Why action is not enough
Mark Manson, one of my favorite personal development bloggers, wrote about the Do Something Principle:
The Do Something Principle works great with clear, discrete tasks like that article you’ve been meaning to write, or procrastinating on starting your blog.
Those are all good actions. But there are also bad, suboptimal actions.
Man gets dumped by girlfriend.
To avoid this from happening again, man dates several women, ghosting them before they have a chance to hurt him.
Man struggles to establish healthy, committed relationships.
Unexamined, action itself could lead to the most unproductive feedback loop of all: I’ll repeat this action to avoid pain, or until I feel enough.
This is particularly true for self help lovers whose brains are set to “problem solving mode” by default. This way of thinking can generate its own problems, creating issues out of non-issues.
When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail
The Do Nothing Principle
If you’re acting from a place of fear, give yourself the space to do nothing at all. Until you can do it from a place of love or curiosity.
As aforementioned, The “Do Nothing Principle” works especially well for…
- emotional issues
- experiences you’re supposed to go through
And any time when just being present is better than feeding our problem-solving mind.
This was the insight that I needed to properly heal from breakups, being alone and enjoying the present moment.
How to do nothing and still be productive
One of my favorite stories from Tim Ferriss: in fit of burnout, he left to go travel for months while his supplement business ran in the background. Upon his return, Ferriss was surprised to find that his business was not in shambles – it made more money while he was gone.
If the upfront effort is taken to establish a smooth-running, automated system, then it requires less and less active “doing” from the creator.
In the spirit of spectrum thinking, both “do something” and “do nothing” principles can coexist.
Do Something Principle: discrete goals, invest upfront effort in good systems.
Do Nothing Principle: let the system run, manage your internal states.
I’d love to hear any story of yours in which doing nothing benefitted you far more than getting involved.
I’ll end with some questions to marinate on…
- What if I did nothing?
- What if this was normal?
- What would this look if it were easy?
- Is this a real problem or am I making it a problem?
- Can this “problem” solve itself?