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Doing Nothing

June 23, 2009

“One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.” –Will Durant (1885-1981)

Saying nothing and having nothing to say are clearly very different positions.  A few years ago, I began to appreciate the value of keeping my mouth shut even when I think I have something to say.

In a world, where silence is often taken as a sign of tacit agreement, knowing when to speak up and when to keep quiet can be quite a tricky proposition.  As someone who spent a great deal of my career among people who were very action-oriented (firefighters), I often took for granted the need to speak up and only learned the hard way when my input or opinion was not appreciated.

Over the years, as practitioners in my first profession (firefighting) came to appreciate the value of taking a more considered approach to new and potentially risky situations (like hazardous materials incidents), we learned that this approach often worked better even in situations where we had not previously considered it appropriate.  Waiting to see how things unfolded helped us confirm (or not) the accuracy of our expectations about a situation before we acted.  Although these tactics produced minor delays, they often yielded better outcomes (especially fewer injuries).

As I have learned to let go and see how things unfold, I have also learned the value of letting mistakes happen, especially when the outcome will teach important lessons at relatively low cost.  Some mistakes, I have found, are well worth making.

We all consider our own ideas and opinions worthwhile.  The opportunity to offer a word or two of wisdom often seems very compelling at the time, especially when we sense failure looming.  But before we speak up, we would do well to ask ourselves first: “What will it add to what we know and how will it improve the outcome?”  We lose very little by resisting the temptation to restate the obvious, cover our own arse, apportion blame, or question others’ motives.

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