To know and not to act is not to know

Today, the 1st day of November 2015, and exactly the 46th year of my ‘long’ very ‘African’-life, my mind is pondering over a critical, at times invisible aspect in ones’ life – ‘the ability to act on what you get to know’. Lao Tsu, the Chinese Philosopher and author of the Tao Te Ching (The Way of Virtue) has this to say to us all: “To know and not to act, is not to know.” When we do not know, we are certified ignorant. When we are certified ignorant, we naturally default to a category of humans that lacks knowledge, is uneducated (partially or in whole), and is incapable of understanding complex issues.

Simplicity is one route to 'acting when you know' - a simple + happy 46th B-day!

Simplicity is one route to ‘acting when you know’ – a simple + happy 46th B-day!

I have spent much of my 46 years in life, trying to understand why humans choose to certify themselves voluntarily ignorant. Going by Uganda’s life expectancy, men like myself shall die at 58 years of age. Therefore, everything going to plan, God can allow me another 13 years of effectiveness, before I die. A lot of time, yet short, if you choose to waste it in voluntary ignorance.

Since it is my birthday today, for once allow me to blow my trumpet, but also share an important tip – I am a very effective man and moreover, in many facets of my life; that ability to ‘effect’ is mainly down to one personal trait: when I know, I will act.

Action to many equals: fighting others, reprimanding, firing colleagues, doing without thinking, taking on too much, etc. On the contrary, good action about the things you know equals: reflection and analysis, open dialogue, asking the right questions, honest and respectful feedback, consistent action, organisation, etc.

On this, my 46th birthday, I want to renew my unwavering belief in ‘acting, as long as I know’. I hope that I will get a few more followers. That is what makes me effective and informs much of the discourse on this Effectiveness Lab blog. Friends, acting on what you know does not come cheap. For those that want learn more on the cost of acting on what you know, my professional journey especially in Tanzania but also Rwanda caused me some sleepless nights. Acting on what I knew, put me in trouble with the authorities, and at times with colleagues, I shared with offices. It was stress, the pain of which, I was happy to take – why? Because based on what I knew, I was doing the correct thing.

So what makes it hard to act on what we know?

Well, let us try and understand this seemingly simple aspect, but one that has undermined the effectiveness of thousands of individuals, managers, leaders, fathers, mothers, to mention but a few:

  • Why do we know something that requires action, but chose to do nothing about it?
  • Why do we voluntarily allow ourselves to be certified ignorant?
  • Why do we steer clear of truth or even distort truth, when taking decisions?
  • Why do we continue to perform in business as usual manner, when faced with decisions that are not authentic?

I have observed, as well as talked to many people on the above subject. It is easy to judge those of you that cannot act, even when you know the facts. Yet, in listening to some of you, I pick out two unique situations many of you need help, to escape from.

Apparently, you know, but choose not to act because:

  • Individual and organisation culture – in particular cultures, we just shall not discuss the truth in front of others, especially negative truth/facts.
  • I need my job – we all need to put bread and butter on the table at home; and anything that others may use to deny you employment is usually a no-go. Facts and truth, powerful as they are, can get you fired

Join me today in the commitment to ‘act, as long as you know’:

There is no shortcut to gaining genuine respect and professional growth, then being: authentic, truthful, ‘consequence-ready’ and respectful of others in all your actions. I share three tips below, to help you ’act whenever you know’:

  • To the Christians reading this blog, on this All Saints day, you can learn from scripture a key principle – sacrificing self to a cause. Those that act when they know, also believe in self-sacrifice.
  • To the professional manager, avoiding self-deception and betrayal at work is fundamental to being able to act when you know. Avoid developing habits where ‘you know what to do, but avoid doing it’. Recommended reading – Leadership and Self-Deception: The Arbinger Institute
  • Finally, a very personal tip to those that want a third option to choose from: live a zen-like life. You certainly aren’t being told to live like a Zen monk; I think you cannot, but you can learn a lot from their ways and achieve tranquility. Not many things in life can make me go against the values I have believed and lived for 46 years. I have a life warranty in a zen-like life. Life can continue back in my mother’s village with or without what I have today. We are humble servants in this world; that should serve those before us with integrity and humility and remain tranquil

In the above zen-like spirit, on my 46th birthday today, I got up to my usual early morning ride in Nairobi; returned home to give my Silverback-Solo4 bicycle a good wash; ate some cereal and porridge from Lillian; and finally and most important, was given a home-made, folded A-4 paper birthday card, by my two daughters – that is my life and my 46th birthday! Don’t make matters too complicated for yourself

My takeaway: In life, we are free to choose, but we cannot run away from the consequence of our choice. Friends, if you know, please act.



Categories: People

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8 replies

  1. ….and as I increasingly thank the Great Architect for such longevity and the git of human understanding and the strength to go on with good work, I add, in this long sentence: carpe diem! Asante, Apollo. Peter

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  2. ABG Happy belated birthday. I know what you mean by your philosophy and testify to that effect. Keep cycling youngman and stay healthy. You are a wealth to most of certified ignorant and will try to disqualify myself thenceforth.

    Happy Birthday bro.

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  3. Happy 46th belated BD Apollo, and congratulations to Lillian, Phillipa, Peter and Eliina for such a simple but wonderful home made card.

    To know and not act is indeed selfish and can be criminal as well! Actually Africa’s biggest problem is those who know and decide to keep quiet.

    All the big corporate scandals, corruption deals in NGOs including INGOs are known but “guys” just decide to keep mum about it – annoying!!

    Happy 46th birth day waama Apollo,

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    • Thanks Seddu for reading the blog and the birthday wishes – talking about civil society and not acting – imagine the number of times project evaluations happen, yet miss opportunities to address failings in development,
      simply b’se staff ‘know but decide not to act’ – challenge this and you may quickly get into trouble – I will still challenge, albeit, in a politically acceptable manner

      If many in development joined my call in this blog – can you imagine what that would do towards changing and doing good and effective development?

      I seriously believe that in living a zen-like life, we address some
      of the fears that prevent us from being truthful in life!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow Apollo! First my sincere wishes to you for a very Happy Birthday! I was just thinking of my late sister who was born on 1st November and remembering all her virtues and next I set my eyes on your blog. I am left wondering if all those born on All Saints Day have something in common about being principled enough to act on the truth even if it means facing dire consequences. It is so true that very few of us will take the courage to expose the wrong-doers in our midst for fear of being intimidated by those whom we shall expose but indeed History teaches us that it was the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and others who exposed the truth in their own noble ways who made a difference to our world. So I pray that the world has more and more of these ‘risk-takers’ who are ‘principled’ enough to “act if they know”. Thanks and God Bless!

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    • Kheirunnisa – thanks for the birthday message + reading the blog. I am humbled to know that I was born on the same day as your late sister. Even happier that she was the principled type – the world needs more of them!

      You are right when you write that many lack the courage to stand by the truth – it’s human nature; we all have to keep working hard to change for the better.

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