Act, Don’t React

I dropped my belief in free will long ago, many years before I became familiar with the rules of persuasion. We’re the victims of circumstances far beyond our control more times in life than not. Therefore, we can’t freely choose how we want to live. We can choose our immediate actions and general path, kind of, though the obstacles the world throws at us changes things a lot. Knowledge of persuasion cracks the free will illusion even more, since you’ll know that most decision-making is done irrationally.

All the same, though you’ll be presented with many things not of your own making, you can at least, in practice, make good decisions when options are presented to you. Chiefly, you have the option of acting to circumstances instead of reacting to them. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a difference, but astute minds will recognize the dichotomy instantly.

When you react to something, you’re making a straight emotional decision in the moment. Though we arrive to most of our conclusions based on emotion and instinct, it is possible to remind ourselves of the presence of these things to make sure reason gets its say, however small. Furthermore, reason plays a bigger role in how we execute our decisions. Executing a decision based on reaction, which usually means an in-the-moment move with no contemplation, will usually come back to haunt you, though sometimes it’s absolutely necessary (a good example would be approaching girls you like).

The better response is to act instead of reacting. By this, you take in the new information, calmly assess the situation, become aware of your emotions and cognitive biases, and make the decision that you think is best. That sounds complicated, but the time span before making a decision doesn’t need to be too long.

According to Louis XIV, “the surest path to glory is to always follow the dictates of reason.” The Sun King might not have known just how much emotion plays a role in human decision-making (though as a master of spectacle, he was certainly aware of its importance), hut he tried to make decisions as best he could based on what he thought was right. As readers of The 48 Laws of Power are aware, he would always simply respond with: “I shall see” to those who requested an action of him. Feeling no pressure to react, he would mull it over and then simply act without telling the interested parties. Louis XIV obviously had a long and successful career as king.

Louis XIV
Louis XIV kept his intentions masked, allowing him to act on new developments instead of reacting to them.

Not every decision will come this way, but it’s close to an ideal. As much as possible, separate yourself from the initial reaction to new information and find ways to act instead. By acting, you’re seizing back the initiative and bending circumstances as much as possible to your own will instead of being at their mercy. Reacting to something means the opposite – you’re surrendering the initiative.

We can use mythology to illustrate the difference. The entire Iliad dealt with the saga of Achilles reacting, first to his slight by Agamemnon, and then to Patroclus’ death. The first reaction ultimately caused Patroclus’ death, which Achilles would in turn react to in a way that would cause his own. Achilles’ instinctive reaction of rage got the better of him and caused events which “hurled many fighters down to the house of death,” including ultimately himself.

Achilles embodied many masculine virtues, but wisdom wasn’t one of them, and it’s notable that Homer never describes him as being particularly smart.

In contrast, Odysseus’ is explicitly marked as being wily and intelligent by Homer. His MO was to take in new information and calculate. It’s why he didn’t react with unfettered rage to the suitors in the Odyssey, but instead acted against them on his own, with success. It was only the last of many times he acted, kept the initiative for himself, and triumphed, winning glory all the same.

The first response we have to something usually isn’t the best one. To the extent you can, you need to be aware of your emotions and cognitive biases. From there, you’ll be better able to act on the new developments instead of reacting to them. Pre-Suasion and Gorilla Mindset are good books that will help you do this. The former will help you be aware of your biases and tell you how to use them for good purposes, while Gorilla Mindset can help you re-program your brain to act differently.

Scott Adams likes to say that we’re programmable robots. In many ways we are. Programming yourself to act instead of react is one of the secret ingredients of success that not many people talk about.

In fact, Stumped’s entire third chapter will tell you how brilliantly Donald Trump the candidate acted instead of reacted (though he’s far from perfect at this).