Question 69 of 365: Why is action such a surprise?

Question 69 of 365: Why is action such a surprise?

I have had a number of conversations recently that have resulted in someone saying that they were surprised that things were getting done. They were surprised at action. While I was somewhat baffled by the reaction, it made me think about what the root of this surprise might be.

Getting things done has traditionally been hard. It has required labor, huge amounts of time, or many people who were highly skilled in the areas that needed attention. Action has required a level of organization and planning that almost insurmountable considering everything else that needs to go on. It also has necessitated permission to actually “do” something. Meetings must be had, protocols must be followed, the chain of command had to remain intact.

In fact, we had so much protocol, there is even an entire mystique and formula for who you should cc or bcc on an e-mail. We have created a space that requires little action in any given day. We have set up systems to look like getting things done: Things like conference calls with the vast majority of participants muted, like conferences without the time to implement what you learn, like tracking systems for time/milage/payment that are removed from the ideas and the tasks that generated them.

Action has become foreign to many. Because we don’t produce any products, we don’t have things to show for our work at the end of the day. We have become inbox cleaners and document hounds. We wait, in a bad way, for people to finish their part of the problem for us to start on ours. Action is a surprise when we find it.

I am a firm believer in creating at least one thing every single day of my life, and I believe that this is my humble (or not so humble if I keep talking about it, I suppose) way to make action unsurprising in my life. The things that I create (Blog posts, trackable conversations, online courses, companies, learning objects, and collaborative spaces) may not look like much in the face of people who create real objects, but I believe that in my own way, I am trying to stave off the starvation of ideas. I am trying to figure out how to solve the problems, and then actually solve them. I am trying to answer my e-mail, not pass it around to someone else. I am trying to engage those who are unengaged in the process. I am trying to solicit others as directly as I can to act on their own behalf.

Because action should not be a surprise. It should be a regular part of our day, something that we celebrate and see in everything that we do. We should see the change we create. We should see the products, even if they take some time. We should see the spaces that we inhabit as malleable, because getting things done isn’t hard anymore.

It stopped being hard when we could create virtual goods and services. It stopped being hard when we could create things on our own and solicit help from people outside of our organization. It stopped being hard when organization became as easy as a hashtag.

So, start a school. Start a business. Start a project that requires something important of you. Be deliberate in engaging others in conversation. Intentionally break protocols in your organization so that you can get things done. Not haphazardly. Not unreasonably. Purposefully and with a huge amount of hope: Act. Do things. Now.


  1. I've been trying to act in ways that are bigger than my norm lately. Maybe you've heard about it.
    What I'm coming to realize is the difficulty of chain reactions. For part of this, I worry my call to action is being filtered out as the clutter we've talked about before. What if this piece I'm passionate about, this thing that needs such clear and direct attention, is everyone else's noise?
    The conversation we've had before was about tuning out or using the noise provided by the world around us.
    In this moment, though, I need to figure out how to do the things I always hope the noisemakers will never do. In other ways, I suspect you're doing the same with Open Spokes. It's not about filtering, it's about getting through the filters. No small task.
    When you say, “getting things done isn’t hard anymore,” I need to push. I worry this is a trap we've fallen into. Or, maybe it needs to be more specific. Indeed, getting things done is much easier. Getting the big things done, the important things, that's still difficult.
    It could sound as simple as getting a phone call returned that could have deep results, but it's not so easy.
    I can easily do other things, fill my days with getting little things done so as to see some intangible list get checked off. Still, the big things take time. They're still big and still difficult. I have to remind myself that getting some things done doesn't let me off the hook for the big things.
    I like that. I like the inconvenience of hard work.

  2. I recognize that the big things are still hard. They are hard because they
    can't be done with just one person. You can't move an entire multi-million
    dollar entity (schools, businesses, countries) to do something different
    without huge effort. What I mean to say is that it is no longer too hard for
    one person to start that movement. It is no longer hard to keep on chipping
    away at the bigger problem and garner support until you have a groundswell.
    It is no longer hard to start creating resources for others that eventually
    get noticed by the bigness of an institutional problem.

    We are our own skunkworks. We can provide the disruptive force, even if it
    is hard to do so. There are no barriers to checking these kinds of things
    off of the list too. I talked with two people from Israel this week. Two.
    They were both experts in their fields and they both had ridiculously good
    advice about how to move forward with my ideas. It was so easy to find them
    and court them. It was so easy to connect. It wasn't a surprise that it
    happened, but it was no less amazing that it did.

    As for breaking through the filter: The only thing that I have found to
    break through other people's filter is to engage them directly. You can
    ignore something that is broadcasted out to you, but you can't ignore when
    someone is speaking to you one-on-one. The personal connection is still how
    things get done, and we forget that within organizations and networks that
    are too large.

    We would like to send out e-mail blasts or post things on twitter and have
    everyone respond to us, but it requires the @ and it requires the specific
    plea. We need people to come and get us and incite us to action. We always

    But it isn't hard, and it shouldn't be a surprise.

  3. “[I]t is no longer too hard for one person to start that movement. It is no
    longer hard to keep on chipping away at the bigger problem and garner
    support until you have a groundswell. It is no longer hard to start creating
    resources for others that eventually get noticed by the bigness of an
    institutional problem.”

    I feel like these are all predicated on conditionals.

    If you have the knowledge…
    If you have the access…
    If you have the ability…
    If you have the time…
    If you have the curiosity…
    If you have the need…
    If you have the connections…

    Am I wrong about that?

    Others probably exist that I can't think of. I'm first in line to pipe up
    about the ease of sparking change. I try to do it everyday in the classroom.
    Not directionless change for its own sake, but thoughtful reflection on the
    world my students would like to create. I don't know where the majority of
    people stand on the requisites here. Choices and opportunities in my life
    have given me access. Every time I speak to a room of teachers, I remind
    myself that's *my* story and that I could do damage to what I'm trying to do
    by supposing the people I'm listening to have the same story and access.

    The image of the personal skunkworks is a great one in my mind.

  4. Fortunately (and I mean that whole heartedly), these aren't conditionals for
    me. You are describing my life.

    My parents both have a masters degree, and my Father is an
    electrophysiologist. Knowledge and specialization was never my problem. I
    have had access to a computer since I was 3. I wrote my name in the
    autoexec.bat when I was 4. Access was not an issue. I write without even
    thinking about it. It is what I do. Ability hasn't hindered me. I live in
    the most leasure-based society the world has ever known. We have to invent
    ways of exercising because we have so much time, even with kids and jobs and
    daily planners. I must know what others know. I have the need to create
    something new every day. I network as an instinct.

    While some people may not have this environment, I have had the happy
    fortune of living it. While I may come off as trying to say that action is
    easy for everyone, I hope that I am telling my story well enough for others
    to notice that I am not an Everyman. These are simply the facts as I see
    them. Dispute them if you like, but learning comes easy to me. And as you
    may know by now, for me, learning is change. It is a revolutionary act.

    You don't have to be me to know that at least part of this is true for you.

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