A Bias for Action
A neglected but necessary capability to help you build the life you desire, one decision at a time.
Think about this: we’re just days away from a new decade.
Looking back on the 2010s, think about all your ups and downs, all your challenges and accomplishments.
Is there anything you regret?
If so, chances are you're more regretful of inaction than action. A wealth of research suggests that people, especially in their later years, are more troubled by what could have been than what went wrong.
There's something in our conscience that nags at us for leaving too much on the table, or for knowing we never meaningfully chased our fullest potential.
Mistakes hurt, but not as much as missed opportunities.
Sometimes big heroes come in small packages.
In July 2020, an angry dog bounded toward Bridger Walker, a 6 year old boy from Wyoming, and his younger sister.
Without hesitating, Bridger says “I stepped to the side, in front of my sister so that the dog wouldn’t get her. I kept moving, so it couldn’t get past.”
The dog attacked the boy, sending him to the hospital for a 2-hour surgery and over 90 stitches on his face.
But he took action, and in the process, may have saved his 4 year old sister’s life.
But that’s not all. Bridger and his family continue to inspire, launching The Bridger Challenge, encouraging supporters to make donations to charity, perform random acts of kindness, and build connections (or “Bridges”) with others in their communities.
And it all came from one difficult but significant action.
An overlooked capability
A Bias for Action is the ability and tendency to make decisions, and act on them, quickly. It’s an innate skill for some, and for others a capability that is honed over time.
My first exposure to the concept was an interesting article on remote work, with the author claiming a Bias for Action is a non-negotiable key to successful remote working. This is true. But even more generally, it’s a prerequisite for any successful corporate career, and an absolute necessity for entrepreneurs and the self-employed.
In fact, while ignored by most other organizations, a “Bias for Action” is one of Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles:
“Bias for Action: Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.”
In any decision, there are innumerable variables to consider. Great leaders waste no time. They act decisively, and follow through with their decisions.
What it is not
A Bias for Action is not to be confused with a bias for impulsivity, which is uncalculated or spontaneous action. And it is certainly not blindly taking orders or rule-following – anyone can take action when they’re told exactly what to do.
It might be valuable to understand the concept by recognizing its opposites: avoidance, getting “stuck,” indecision, and analysis paralysis, where overthinking or overanalysis inhibit decision-making.
In some ways, we need to reset our circuitry so planning (and CYA) is not always the default, or worse, the end-all-be-all.
Kindergartners vs MBAs
The Marshmallow Tower Challenge is a famous learning activity where teams collaborate to build the tallest free-standing structure using 20 sticks of dry spaghetti, one yard of tape, and one yard of string, all topped by a marshmallow. Believe it or not, MBA students are routinely trounced by kindergartners. Forbes columnist Nathan Furr proposes an explanation:
“MBAs want to plan their way to an optimal outcome and then execute on the plan. Furthermore, adding incentives, like prizes or cash only makes the problem worse... In contrast, kindergartners do something much different. Instead of wasting time trying to establish who is in charge or make a plan, they simply experiment over and over until they find a model that works.”
It’s a problem of planning when teams should be experimenting. Of deliberating when they should be deciding, or analyzing when the solution is action.
Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.
At the end of the day, a Bias for Action involves acting quickly in the face of uncertainty. It is ability not to freeze. To move forward despite some open questions, without a bulletproof plan, without considering every single possible alternative, without perfect information or advice. To make a habit of taking initiative. To realize that in the real world, done is often better than perfect. To understand the minimum effective dose of risk assessment. To fail quickly and adjust as needed. To take a leap of faith, if necessary, and then surprise yourself with your ingenuity.
Most importantly, a Bias for Action enables you to do the hard but necessary things. The ones most people avoid. The challenging and scary things standing between you and your goals. In the words of Tim Ferriss:
“The hard choices – what we most fear doing, asking, saying – these are very often exactly what we most need to do.”
Fear breeds indecision. Fear of being wrong, of taking that risk, or having that challenging conversation, of putting yourself out there. But, to reference a famous but often clipped quote, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
Whether you're protecting a loved one, launching an initiative or venture, experimenting with a new hobby, or building a marshmallow tower, a Bias for Action is an often overlooked, but invaluable capability.
Now that you understand the Bias for Action, it’s important to recognize how it factors into your life, career, or venture. Think about times you’ve taken action despite being apprehensive or uneasy, how it felt, and the outcome.
Reflect on times when you were indecisive, especially when delay or extensive analysis ended up costing you in the end.
Think about people you admire, whether they make a habit of taking action, and what that decisiveness looks like.
How has a Bias for Action benefited you? How will you make it a routine or habit? How will you measure its impact?
Editorial note: The original version of this article opened with a personal anecdote, but after hearing the story of Bridger Walker, I felt compelled to share it in this context. This updated version contains Bridger's story, an additional quote from FDR, and other minor edits for readability.