Beat the Nirvana fallacy: why doing something is better than nothing
Ever found yourself in a position where you were going to contribute to a good cause: for instance, volunteering at a women's shelter to directly help victims of domestic abuse, only to find yourself rebuked a friend who went, "Why bother? More women will just get beat up everyday."
It probably stung. Do you remember how you reacted? Did you decide not to help, or did you press on ahead?
The Nirvana fallacy is for people who waste their lives.
It basically states that if you can't do something perfectly (like solve all spousal abuse problems or world hunger in the twinkle of an eye), then you shouldn't bother at all. The problem with that is simple: there's NEVER a perfect solution, only shades of choices that are better than others, and mistakes you make and can hopefully learn from. Most mistakes aren't grievous and are fantastic "Lego blocks" to build progress upon.
Ramit Sethi, author of the new hit book I Will Teach You To Be Rich, makes this point. He was recently blogged by Will Chen on Wise Bread, and this quote from the book is the moment I knew Ramit was onto quality (as opposed to being just another yappy guru):
It sounds sexy, but when individual investors talk about complicated concepts like this [referring to buzzwords like "hedge funds"], it's like two elementary school tennis players arguing about the string tension of their racquets. Sure, it might matter a little, but they'd be much better tennis players if they just went outside and hit some balls for a few hours each day.
Ramit doesn't specifically cite "Nirvana fallacy", but that's what he's talking about. Everyday progress in increments, even when you don't feel like it, is far better than delaying and waiting for a "perfect day to start getting rich". That day will NEVER come. Ramit also compares personal finance to weight loss — the latter being plagued by buzzwords and too many arguments over which diet works best. I connected fad diets to social media snake oil salespeople earlier, so you can clearly see all these fields have a strong commonality:
Too many words, not enough action.
Words are overrated.
Yes, they have many uses but they're often used as an excuse for action. Words are often a stall tactic to debate points that disintegrate once you begin moving. Just like Tiger Woods must follow through on his golf swing after observing the scene and knowing what he has to accomplish, you must follow through on your plans — which are just theory. Words set the scene for what's to come, but will NEVER be a substitute for making progress, even if it's small victories.
9 steps to combat the Nirvana fallacy:
- The vast majority of criticism is useless, as I've written before, so throw away those doubts like you treat email spam. Critics don't like to hear this (and look where they are).
- Ditch unsupportive friends and family, or at least distance yourself. Harsh, but they need to be contributing positively to your life (and you to theirs).
- If you find yourself in the middle of an argument, whether it's offline or on the Internet, quickly consider (trust your gut) if it's worth continuing. The answer is most likely NO: feel free to stop in the middle of a sentence and leave. Humans are drawn to many self-destructive behaviors and you need to be keenly aware that artificial conflict is bypassed by acting; blabbing on is stupid slop.
- Even if you can only devote 15 minutes a day to a goal, that's substantially better than 0. True, many things require intense focus, so ask yourself: "What can I chop out of my day? What would I not recall fondly on my deathbed?"
- Accept that the biggest gap lays in between not doing something and getting started: your mind may be set against exercise, but once you're mid-routine, it feels easier to climb higher. Think, but don't overthink: always be observant of how your words can flow into actions, and over time, you'll be more confident. The impact of growth becomes most relevant in hindsight, so dive in!
- Be biased towards iterating swiftly, which means making many changes in a short period of time so you can spot mistakes and adapt quickly. Do cheap, lightweight experiments to test the waters so even if you fail, it won't destroy your dream. For instance, if you have your sights set on being a master painter, buy an affordable kit and dabble. Not just casually, but make the most out of your tools — really MacGyver 'em! Then, you can tell in weeks, even days, if you're ready to move up.
- It pays to be prolific. You simply can't gain experience in work or play without putting yourself through a variety of life situations. Some of these can be accelerated (making productivity more enjoyable), others can't (pregnancy). The effectiveness of nearly all experiences can be improved by your attitude towards them.
- Live with your fears. Things don't turn out the way you expect, but they might turn out better if you allow yourself to be more playful than worried. When I composed music, I was under the pressure to deliver a masterpiece. Then my counterpoint went: "If I have a great idea that doesn't make it into this song, I'll include it in the next one." The ongoing result of pairing courage + prolific-ness was that I had plenty of ideas and plenty of songs, instead of freezing at the starting line.
- Realize that combating the Nirvana fallacy, in turn, leads to a heightened state of consciousness — not just a spiritual one, but you can apply that if it suits you. And you'll be more aware of others' failings in the world around you due to lack of action, which means you should give back and encourage more achievements. However, be graceful about how you help others (don't lambast them with words, that's hypocritical).
The above isn't an end-all (like I said, words are overrated), but will help get you started.
The Nirvana fallacy may not be well-known yet (shy of 3,000 Google hits as of this writing), but its effects — too much talk, too little action are a common inhibitor to human potential. In fact, it almost stopped me from writing this article. That's when I ran through the list above, which I've had floating around in my head for some time now, and didn't just decide to do something about it — I did it.
Do you see the Nirvana fallacy taking a foothold in your life? Then it's time (now, not tomorrow) to make your move. Let me know your experiences!
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