Acting Skillfully

Have you ever done or said something under pressure which you later regretted? Have you been paralyzed by fear when making a major decision? Have you acted on a decision, only to spend the next few days or weeks pondering “what if” you’d only chosen otherwise? These things happen to all of us. When they happen to me, I remind myself that I aspire to act skillfully.

A skillful action is one that moves you closer to your goal without causing suffering. This assumes a few things:

  • You have a clearly defined goal you’re working towards.
  • Your goal is worthy; that is, it’s beneficial to you and others.
  • You understand there will be outcomes that won’t be immediately apparent to you. (You should aspire to not cause harm or suffering indirectly through the second-order effects of your action.)
  • You can perceive the situation clearly.

This latter point is worth digging into because it’s one we often get stuck on. Perceiving clearly means you have ways to evaluate the context you’re operating in, the options open to you within that context, and the effects of your action — to you, to others, and to the context itself. The inability to perceive clearly is called delusion, and much suffering in the world is caused people with worthy goals who are nevertheless delusional.

I’ll give you an example from my career. When I was starting out as an independent designer, I was eager to get new clients. I’d sent a prospect a proposal for what would be my biggest project to date. This was in the very early days of the web, and the prospect rejected the proposal on the grounds that the quoted price was much too high. I understood the work to be done much better than they did ​and knew that my estimate was fair. Being naive and full of myself, I fired off an angry email to the prospect berating him for not understanding what needed to be done.

In retrospect, ​it’s obvious this was a stupid thing to do. An angry email wasn’t going to convince anyone. Why would I do such a thing? I had a worthy goal: creating a viable web design business. I could’ve looked for a way in that situation to further that goal. However, my anger and pain over the rejection blinded me to what needed to be done. Instead of furthering my worthy long-term goal, I replaced it with an unworthy near-term one: to prove the other person wrong. The result was painful and humiliating to him and ultimately to me as well. This was a highly unskillful action. Not all was lost: A friend who worked for the client company — and who was wiser and more experienced than I was — took me aside and explained why my action had been wrong. (I am very grateful for the lesson he taught me; it’s the only valuable thing to come out of the incident.)

Now, when I’m about to undertake an action that I know will have important repercussions, I stop to evaluate the situation. I want to make sure I’m clear on:

  1. what goal I’m working towards with this action,
  2. what other courses of action are open to me,
  3. what effects the action will have, and
  4. how I will measure these effects and the progress towards my goal.

This framework has helped me act more skillfully. I’ve found it especially useful in highly charged situations, where emotions such as anger or elation can easily delude me. (In these cases, taking time out to speak with a trusted advisor helps.)