Nothing versus the wrong thing

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James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, writes “3-2-1,” one of my favorite newsletters. I rarely disagree with his practical wisdom. Today I do.

At least: I offer some caveats.

In his 11/11/2021 newsletter, James said this:

“It’s better to do nothing than to work on something that doesn’t matter.” — James Clear

I get what James is saying — doing nothing is better than wasting time on the wrong things. Say, pursuing work or a project that doesn’t point in the direction you want to go.

Time is our most precious resource. His point is powerful and important. It’s just not absolute.

In my experience, what does and doesn’t matter can change suddenly, without warning. Meaning and context are inextricably connected, and we don’t control context.

Also, MATTER and DOESN’T MATTER are rarely binary. There are usually multiple choices. There are also gradations of mattering and not mattering. 

Finally, very little in life has signs attached that flash MATTERS and DOESN’T MATTER. Sometimes the only way to discover what does matter is to do what doesn’t matter until it becomes obvious.

Bottom line: everything matters. Everything matters because everything we do teaches us, makes us wiser, more compassionate, more accepting.

For folks at a crossroads, my saying “everything matters” is about as helpful as “nothing matters” (i.e. not helpful at all). But I’ve found that doing nothing while trying to define/divine what matters leads to paralysis. “Does this matter? Does this REALLY matter?” I could ask these questions forever. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Life is more navigation than decision-making. Perhaps that’s just semantics, but it feels more accurate.

When you’re unsure what to do next, it’s most useful, I think, to take a small step in the most promising direction. Do something, even if you’re not sure whether it matters. Gather a tiny bit of data. Then sniff the wind.

There have been times when I’ve had to go the wrong direction for a long time before I realized I’d lost the scent. But I couldn’t have known that any other way.

Photo credit: Brendan Church

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