Action not knowledge

Often the issue is about taking action, not about knowing more.

We often find orselves in a more or less  critical or important situation where we have to make a decision, and we find ourselves hesitating. We are not sure what to do. We say to ourselves, “If I only knew more, I could decide.”  And sometimes, there is more to know, which means our decision at that point in time is to do the research and exploration that will give us the knowledge in question.

I want to buy the most inexpensive car. I have narrowed it down to two possible cars. I need to check the costs, the gas mileage, the kind of repair history likely, and when I have those numbers I will know which car costs less. I do the research, find out the cheaper car, and then I can make the decision. These kinds of decisions all fall in the domain of knowing enough  to make the right decision.

But there are decisions where I have that same feeling. If I just knew x or y or z I could decide. Do I want to marry this person and make a lifetime commitment to them? Do I want to have children or not? Do I want to take that new job offer and move myself and my family halfway across the country and live in a new community? Is this the career that I want to pursue?  Do I want to change careers at this stage of my life? These kinds of questions are usually the more important questions we invariably encounter as we live out our lives.  There is only so much research and knowledge we can accumulate with such questions, because they are all about the future, and the bottom line is we can’t predict the future. In fact, the further out into the  future we look, the less we can reliably predict what will happen.

When faced with such questions we scramble around looking for some reliable course of action that we can count on working.  And, we say to ourselves, If I knew how this would turn out, I could decide.  There is no way  to know. Standing on the cusp of our future, we know all we can know, and the option we face is to decide and take a risk, a risk whose outcome is unknown, because we can’t know for sure where our actions will lead us.  Or we can not  take that risk thinking we are playing it safe. The hard reality is that not acting simply presents us with a different set of risks. There is no playing it safe.

Fresh out of the army, I wanted to give up becoming a civil engineer which is what my NYU degree said I was, and pursue philosophy instead. I really knew nothing about philosophy, other than that it deeply intrigued me.  I wasn’t sure I could get into a Master’s program. I didn’t know if I could do the work required to get good grades in philosophy. If I did get the degree, I didn’t know if I would ever find a job teaching philosophy; such jobs were very scarce. It was a very limited, static market. And there was no way I could “know” how any of that would turn out. The risk of not acting was I would work as a civil engineer doing work that did not sing to me, that did not nurture me, but I would have a safe career. The risk of acting was I might fail and end up a civil engineer, anyway.

The point is it wasn’t about knowledge. There was nothing more to know. It was a case of acting with uncertainty and risk or not acting with a different risk, the risk of being immersed in a career that would drain my life. I took the risk. It turned out to be the best “career” decision I could have made, and now looking back on 43 years of teaching and studying philosophy, I shudder to think what I would have lost had I not taken that risk. But I didn’t and couldn’t know that at the time I made the decision and took that leap into the unknown.

So, if you know all you can know, and you still don’t know, it’s time to act. It’s time to risk. It’s time to embrace the uncertainty. Nike has the inside track. Do it!




About The Practical Philosopher

I am a retired Philosophy professor. I taught philosophy for 43 years, and I would like to share some of what I have found pursuing the fascinating journey of philosophy.
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