Reflections from the Cockpit
"Doing Nothing"

When I was an active first aid instructor one of the basic concepts I tried to instill in my students was the idea that "doing nothing was sometimes the best course of action." I recall reading an article that stated the number one mistake made by first-aiders was moving the victim. If they did not moved them (do nothing with respect to moving them) the injuries would have been less severe. In some cases the movement caused death.

The concept of "Doing nothing" has been a main theme in my staff training, teaching, guiding and personal life. Of course I am not suggesting that nothing get done. Anyone who knows me can tell you I am a doer. If you are a regular reader of my writings you know I enjoy certain sayings that fit my sense of order. One that is appropriate for this topic is: "There are three types of people. Those that make things happen, those that watch things happen and those who wonder what happened."

I enjoy making things happen. I also can purposefully sit and wait for things to happen because it was the wiser course of action. In staff training I teach that a "non action" can be the best course of action to take. I define a non-action as the conscious choice of doing nothing. There are those who do nothing because they cannot decide what to do. Even though the result is the same, nothing gets done, I do not call that a non-action. It is simply indecision. The consequences may the same but I believe the process of accepting responsibility for one’s actions is very different.

If you decide on an action or non-action you are actively putting yourself in a position to take responsibility for the consequences which resulted from you taking that action or non-action. Those consequences can be good or bad. Regardless of the outcome you have the satisfaction of taking an action. I also believe that there are more lessons learned by those who have gone through the decision making process and have decided to take an action or non-action.

Those that do nothing through indecision can try to shirk responsibility by saying, "it is not my fault I did nothing." I have also seen those same people try to take credit if their indecision happened to work out for the best. Either way indecision is not a good trait for those who lead or need to assist others.

In last month’s reflection’s I broached the topic of doing nothing through the example of staying put in camp rather than going into risky conditions because of the planned itinerary. Some people could argue that staying in camp is just sitting around doing nothing. In fact it could be a very prudent action to take for the safety of the group.

Another form of non-action that I regularly employ is letting folks work through their difficulties on their own. There are many reasons for this. I am an experiential educator. I believe one learns a great deal through experience. Experience can be very difficult. However, too often difficulty is associated with bad. I feel, as a society, we have tried to make it too easy for people. A great deal of learning happens through frustration and hard work. We find how our self imposed (perceived) limits can be expanded when we reach and push our limits. Of course there is a point when one needs to step in to help because the frustration is too great but my experience has shown me people jump in way too soon and cheat the individual from a real learning and growing experience. I think the main reason for the intervention is the watcher feels a need to help because they cannot deal with the frustration of the individual in question.

I have endless examples to share. One of my favorites involves my godson and a trip along the Na Pali Coast of Kauai. Instead of sending him birthday gifts as he grew up I tucked the money away for a present that would leave an impression. When he was sixteen I wrote him and told him that I wanted to send him on an adventure for his eighteenth birthday. He replied he wanted to go on an adventure with me. A group of us were going to spend 6 days kayaking along Kauai’s rugged Na Pali coast and I invited Alex along. Alex freely admitted he was not an outdoor kind of guy. By day two of the trip I heard him frequently saying "Yo quiero Taco Bell." Even though this was his first paddling experience I figured he could handle it because he was very athletic and strong enough to do the paddle.

On the last day we had about a ten-mile paddle to take-out. As the day progressed Alex was getting more and more frustrated trying to keep his kayak straight. He was also feeling some fatigue. My very empathetic wife Hadley, cam over to tell me we needed to do something for Alex because he was having a tough time. I told her he was fine and I am keeping an eye on him. A few miles later Hadley came over again to tell me if I didn’t do something she was going to do something. I told her I was doing something. I am letting Alex push his limits. Hadley gave me the benefit of the doubt even though she thought I was being a bit harsh. That evening when the group was feasting on pizza and salad at the all you can eat buffet, Alex proclaimed that he felt so proud he made it out on his own. There may be one day where Alex may need to draw on that experience. What would he have to draw upon if we would have towed him out?

There are times to intervene and times to let things unfold. A common fault of some leaders, usually the less experienced ones, is feeling a need to prove they are leaders by stepping in and solving problems. There is this great need to "do something." It is very difficult to be patient and let things run their course because the perception is "I am not leading.

There are many different reasons for taking a non-action. Rather than give example for each I will list many of the reasons so this reflection does not become a novel. I am sure you can add to this list.
Reasons for taking a non-action (doing nothing).

1- First-aid because an action may cause further injury
2- Allowing a person to learn from experience
3- It is not your responsibility to take an action
4- You are not skilled enough to do what needs to be done
5- You are physically and/or emotionally unable to take an action
6- It may be too soon to take an action
7- The consequences of the action are too severe

8- Something is being done and you will be in the way

Regardless of the reason for taking a non-action I want to re-emphasize the importance of "doing nothing" when the circumstances call for it. There is a fine line of knowing when to take action and when to do a non-action. As you walk that line you will make mistakes and hopefully learn from your experiences. A question I ask myself when I think there is a need for action is, "is action or non-action the best course of action?"


Wayne Horodowich


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