What Makes a Person Do a Thing?

This question has fascinated me for a long time. Why does anyone do a Thing, when doing no-thing is so much easier, more secure, and more comfortable?

  • What makes a middle-aged man with a young family quit his steady job as a computer programmer and spend five penniless years retraining as a chiropractor?
  • What makes a retired marketing manager, who had until his sixties showed little to no aptitude or interest for music, suddenly join a community choir?
  • What makes a woman in her thirties quit a lucrative career as a management consultant in the city to row single-handed across the Pacific Ocean, and become a United Nations Climate Hero for her environmental work?

(These are all people I know, by the way, all great role-models.)

Inertia, doing nothing, is the favoured course of (in)action for a human being. Inertia is defined as:

The tendency of a body to maintain its state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force.

Do you recognise this tendency to inertia in yourself? I certainly do.

  • Staying in a dreadful job or a miserable relationship.
  • Not breaking the silence and telling someone exactly how you feel about them.
  • Pushing to the back of your mind that day-dream of cycling around the world / writing a novel / falling in love.

(All things I have done…)

If the natural disposition of a person is to keep going as they are, then what makes someone divert course, and do a Thing? The answer to this question is crucial for anybody interested in pushing their own boundaries of existence – and encouraging others to do the same.

I should say right up front that I don’t have the answer. But I do have a few answers, which I’ve noticed over the past few years of trying to do Things. Using myself as Subject Zero, in this blog post I’ll examine three different Things I did, and try to dig down to that critical Why?

Why did I break university rules and go abroad to study Arabic in Egypt and Tunisia?

In the summer of 2007, I was miserable. I was studying for a part-time Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS in London. I scraped through my first year, passing gruelling courses in history and music despite my complete prior ignorance of those subjects. For my second year I just had to learn Arabic and write a dissertation. But I dreaded going back to London, where the rain fell in spadefuls and the teaching was dry as desert sand.

I have never felt so uninspired, so lifeless. Emerging into adulthood had been a shock and I could scarcely believe what I found there. Surely there was more to it than this? Continuing along this path might not have killed me, but I’d have certainly failed my Arabic exams, and even today I’m scared of imagining the hollow person I might have become.

Inertia was not an option. In this case, doing a Thing came from hitting a road block. I felt that I could not go forward any longer, so I changed direction.

Realising that I could learn much better Arabic in an Arabic-speaking country, I spoke to my course convenor and proposed the idea that I go abroad to study. I was shocked when, from behind his paper-strewn desk, he told me that university rules stipulated I must attend a certain percentage of classes (I think it was something like 70%). This rule, he explained, was protection against legal action. Apparently SOAS receives a lot of wealthy young Arab men, who are sent to study in London, but spend all their time and money on sex and drugs. Then the families sue when the university fails their sons.

So I wrote SOAS a letter promising that I wouldn’t sue them, and left for Cairo.

Why did I leave everything behind and spend 2 months cycling 4,110 miles around Britain?

Hitting a brick wall in your path is one motivator, certainly, but it seems to be more of a stimulus to the essential process of imagination. You need to have the idea of doing a Thing before you can do the Thing. This seems obvious, but I think is often overlooked. Without engaging the imagination, when you hit a roadblock you risk descending into frustration.

For me, this act of imagination manifests itself as an idea that I can’t shake off. I dream up a million and one ideas every year, but only a few lodge themselves in my head like spines I can’t pluck out without action. Cycling around Britain was one such spine.

The idea bubbled up from a soup of disatisfaction with what I’d seen of the world. I knew Cairo better than I knew anywhere in Britain beyond my bubbles of London and South Oxfordshire. I wanted to fix that.

An inciting disatisfaction is not quite enough to stir me into action, however. I need to know that my idea is possible, that I can turn imagination into reality.

Somewhere on the BBC, I ran across an article about a kid who’d walked around the coast of Britain with his dog. So I stole his idea, thinking that if he could do it, then I could too. The only problem was that he’d taken 9 months over the journey and I didn’t want to commit to something so vast. So I decided to cycle (despite not having a touring bike or having cycled further than 10 miles in the past 2 years).

This was the idea that I couldn’t get out of my head. But still the question remains: Why did I end up acting on that idea, rather than suppressing it like so many others?

There are a few influences that I could draw on here, including some pretty life-shattering experiences, like the death of my nan and the messy break-up of a relationship. But these are distractions from the true first cause, only coming after I had committed to the journey. No: the moment when this imagination started to become reality was forgettably insignificant.

I told someone.

That was it. I just mentioned my idea of cycling around the country in passing, in casual conversation with my sister and my (then) girlfriend. While an idea stays locked inside your head, it is neutralised, safe. It’s only when you let it out into the world, first as a vocalised intention, that it takes on a power of its own and action becomes inevitable.

That first step is always the smallest, but takes the greatest courage. It’s only after you’ve vocalised your idea that other factors conspire to push you out of the door. For me, those other factors were not just losing my nan and my relationship, but also a question: Do I really want to be the person who walked away from such adventure?

Telling my sister and girlfriend was the tiny first step on a journey of more than four thousand miles. The bike ride changed my life in many ways, but there was still something missing. To this day, I don’t feel like I got the most out of my Thing.

Why did 80 cyclists ride 70 miles to give their bikes away to migrants and refugees?

Last Spring, a friend I didn’t quite have yet had an idea: to cycle from London to Calais and donate her bicycle to the destitute migrants living there. I thought this was a great idea. We put a call out on Facebook and very soon people from all over the UK were messaging us, joining the ride.

At Barnehurst train station, the set off point for the ride, shivers ran up my spine as more and more people arrived, saddle bags full, chattering excitedly, bikes oiled and ready to ride.

Why did all these people come together on the ride? There are two answers to this questions, the Big Reason and the little reason.

  • The Big Reason we were all doing this was to ride in solidarity with those migrants who had travelled thousands of miles to escape certain death in Syria and Sudan, in the hope of a better life in the UK.
  • The little reason, though, was friendship. Everywhere you looked on the ride were little clusters of pals, three or four here, five or six there. Anybody who came alone was soon embraced. By the time we arrived in France, we were brothers and sisters.

The Big Reason could be called our higher purpose, the lofty ambition that bonded us all, but it was the little reason that actually held the ride together. It was the little reason that gave us belief in our higher purpose, and it was the little reason that gave us the belief in ourselves to persevere through the hard ride.

Over the next 24 hours, we went through the full 70 miles of hills and woods, rain and thunder. Strangers worked together to navigate the back roads of Kent, leg muscle massages were passed around, food shared, bikes repaired. We became a community and that community sustained our belief that we could succeed in our endeavour.

A higher purpose is needed to make your Thing about more than just you, but it’s surely impossible to sustain belief in any higher purpose without support from your friends and your community.

  • I would not return to Calais again and again if I wasn’t certain that I would find friends there (even if it’s just ones I haven’t yet met).
  • I would not still be living in London if it weren’t for my friends.
  • I have forgotten almost as much as I learnt at school, but I will always remember the friends I made there, and the lessons they gave me.

If you doubt the centrality of friendships to doing Things, then perhaps the following true story will help.

In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, volunteers from across the Untied States travelled down to the deep south to help register black voters. This was dangerous work, even for privileged whites. On the 21 of June, three young volunteers were killed, one black and two white.

Understandably, this discouraged some from making the journey from their safe homes to take up this deadly cause.

Fascinatingly, however, social scientists have been able to discover what kinds of people followed through on their initial enthusiasm: friends. Those volunteers who had equally committed friends or who were part of a committed community (a political organisation or church group for example) were much less likely to drop out of the mission.

Friends hold us to account and inspire us to be the people we would like to be. Friends help us believe in ourselves and in the value of our Thing. If you’re unsure that you can commit and follow through on doing your Thing, invite a friend and do it together.

Side note on relationships versus friendship

Relationships can be inspirational in the same way that friendships are, particularly in the early stages, when the fires burn strongly. But friendships are more powerful. Perhaps surprisingly, friends are more likely to influence our behaviour than our partners or families.

Over time, we tend to take even the most passionate partners for granted. We start to believe that they will never leave us, and we can comfortably let our tendency to inertia show. But because our friends can drop us any time, we tend to make a bigger effort to live up to our best selves.

What makes a person do a Thing? Four stages.

  1. You feel some dissatisfaction in your life, some hole that stimulates the imagination.
  2. You let your imagination play over the possibilities, gradually solidifying the idea that you can succeed. Here is where other people’s stories help: “If he can do it, so can I.”
  3. Tell a friend. Don’t boast, but feel the courage to take the first tiny step towards pulling the idea out of your head and into reality.
  4. Connect your idea and action with a higher purpose, supported by the belief you find in friendship and community. This will help you persevere through difficulties, and get the most out of your Thing.

EXTRA: One bizarre reason why people do NOT do their Thing

It sounds counter-intuitive, but one of the biggest reasons why people don’t do a Thing is, not because they lack the dissatisfaction or the imagination, and not because they fear failure, but because they fear success.

It seems extraordinary, but we do get scared of our power, we do fear our greatness; we sometimes feel like we don’t deserve such responsibility, or we feel like imposters when we do presume to act. There are a couple of explanations for this strange modesty that I can think of:

  • Success means putting your heard above the parapet, putting yourself up to be shot at, perhaps more than failure might draw mockery.
  • If we believe that we are powerful, then what excuse do we have for not acting? Remember that inertia is the default setting for human beings. But if we are powerful, then we must act; we have a moral duty to use our power for good, and that takes us well out of our comfort zone.

So, in addition to the four stages outlined above, there must also be a courage to act up to your potential greatness.

This can actually manifest itself, less as courage, but more as an entitlement to greatness and power. Some people are raised with this sense of entitlement, the schools of Eton, the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge seem to raise students who have no trouble believing themselves powerful enough to act on a global stage. Other young people draw such belief from their religion, or from powerful role models and mentors who lead them through their early successes, expanding their scope of the possible.

For the rest of us, we must “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Slowly, that feeling of being an imposter will dissolve, as our comfort zones expand into new territory, and we realise the extent of our power and feel the humility of our greatness.

Good luck!

2 thoughts on “What Makes a Person Do a Thing?”

What do you think?