A Life Unlived.

There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.

John F. Kennedy.

Imagine you are standing near a fork in a trolley track when you see a runaway trolley barreling ahead. On its current track are 5 unaware workers who will surely perish. However, you notice a lever that can redirect the trolley to a second track, where just 1 person stands. Do you actively switch the trolley, killing 1 but saving 5? Or do you refrain from action, allowing 5 to die through your inaction? This moral dilemma, known as the trolley problem, reveals our deep bias for inaction over action, even when lives are at stake. Research shows most people default to passive inaction, feeling that not personally causing harm absolves responsibility.

When we fail to act due to fear of action’s discomfort or consequences, we enable far greater suffering through our complicity. The temporary ease of inaction belies the long-term harm it breeds. Much like the trolley dilemma on a smaller scale, we often face choices where action brings some pain, but inaction leads to the dismantling of all we hold dear. We must gather the courage to act skilfully, weighing all outcomes through a lens of moral wisdom.

Through inaction, we run the risk of being mere passengers to our own lives. We went through the motions, but we did not really live.

Is inaction truly bliss, or is it a subtle poison that slowly destroys our lives? I think we all know the answer, but that knowledge is still not enough to motivate us to take the actions that we know we must take.

As human beings, we inherently seek growth, meaning, and self-actualization. Yet paradoxically, we often sabatoge these deep-seated needs through the inertia of inaction. When we settle for what’s comfortable and familiar rather than stretching beyond our comfort zones, we stifle our inner drive to flourish. We yearn for lives of adventure, close connection, and purpose – but inaction leaves these dreams unrealised, our highest potentials unreached.

This psychology of inaction stems from present bias, the tendency to over-value short-term pleasure and avoid immediate discomfort, even at the expense of greater rewards later on. Watching one more episode, skipping the gym, hitting snooze – in the moment, inaction feels like a relief.

But fleeting inaction cannot compare to the deep fulfilment earned from actively bettering oneself. Seeking this timeless satisfaction requires rejecting the false highs of inaction and embracing some necessary discomfort on the road to growth. Of course, the ease of inaction will always beckon us. But we must find the willpower to live our lives, not to merely be spectators.

The Dichotomy of Pain.

Life brings inevitable suffering and difficulties. To live is to suffer. The Buddha worked this out a few thousand years ago.

But we can control how we suffer. In navigating challenges, we have a choice between two types of pain: the pain of action and the pain of inaction.

The pain of action is the discomfort we feel when exercising, learning new skills, having difficult conversations, or getting out of our comfort zones. It’s the pain of growth. Though sharp and visceral in the moment, this pain transforms us, expands our capabilities, and leads to fulfilment.

The pain of inaction, on the other hand, is the gradual suffering bred by complacency, procrastination, and the deterioration of neglected dreams and relationships. While often less acutely felt than action’s pain, inaction’s pain erodes the foundations of a worthwhile life. Over time, avoiding discomfort leads to stagnation, regret, and a life squandered.

We may temporarily numb the pain of action through inaction. But we cannot numb the pain of life itself. To live fully, we must embrace the honing pain of action over the hollowing pain of inaction.

Life begins as an unfinished block of marble, full of potentials yet unrealised. When faced with this nascent possibility, we have a choice. Do we pick up the sculptor’s chisel and begin the laborious process of self-actualisation, chipping away faults and revealing latent beauty? Or do we walk away, leaving the marble to gradually wither, untouched by human hands?

Nothing beautiful without struggle.

Plato — The Republic

The former path brings the pain of action – the blisters and blood from hammering away at our flaws, the mess of mistakes made. Yet with every chip and crack emerges a work of art reflecting back our highest ideals. The alternative is the subtle pain of inaction. No sharp hurts, but a creeping melancholy at dreams left dormant and relationships allowed to ossify. Slowly the marble becomes covered in the dust of wasted potential.

We cannot avoid pain, for life brings suffering to all. But we can choose pain that transforms rather than pains that diminish. The sculptor knows the ecstasy of creating truth and beauty from the raw stone. There is no greater pain than looking back on a life that faded away, when it could have been art.

Inertia vs Momentum.

Sometimes, I take weeks to accomplish something. People are waiting on me to get it done, and yet I don’t do it. When I do finally force myself to do it, it takes hardly any time at all. It wasn’t painful, it wasn’t (too) dreary, I just could not get started.

This is the power of inertia, of procrastination.

That resistance we feel towards action breeds a cycle of avoidance. The more we put something off, the harder it feels to begin. Our momentum stalls out completely.

Yet the smallest of steps can set things back in motion. Writing just one sentence of that report. Calling one person on my to-do list. Doing one push up after weeks away from the gym.

These miniature actions may seem trivial on their own. But they leverage the power of compound interest, with each small effort building on the last. The chain reaction of momentum this sparks can rapidly escalate my productivity.

When I finally work up the willpower to take that critical first step, I find myself gliding effortlessly once again towards major goals that once seemed so daunting. My inertia fades away, replaced by the flywheel effect of forward progress.

And sometimes we don’t even do that tiny effort, which is a shame because this strategy really does work. I heard of a man that once lost a huge amount of weight in a year. He was hugely obese, and he gave himself the goal of putting on him gym clothes and just turning up to the gym. He didn’t have to do any workout, he just had to get out of the house, go to the gym, and show up. That’s it. Now this may seem ridiculous, but this is actually absolutely required for someone to develop a gym habit. If you fail at even just showing up, there is no point is setting any other goals.

And this gets to the heart of the problem. We often set goals that are far too grandiose, even if they are not that big. I am not saying we should not aim, and that we should not aim up, but we should be careful of the gradient of our aim. Make it a gentle slope, even if deep down you have huge ambitions. Our minds cannot grasp compound growth and progression anyway, so its better to just focus on the short term actions that are aligned with our long term goals.

Find the “minimum viable effort” that sets the flywheel spinning in your life, so you actually live it.

Related Essays