Turning Old Cliches into New Maxims:
“Act, Don’t React”

By Richard Eyre

Note: This column appears every two weeks .with an old clich replaced by a new maxim each time.  Click here to read the full introductory column.

This one was the favorite clich of a professor of mine, at the Harvard Business School no less. He was a John Houseman type of character with a slow, gravelly voice and heavy-lidded eyes that looked right through you. I almost expected him to say, “Make money the old-fashioned way . earrrrrn it!”  But what he did say was:

“Act, don’t re-act!”

“Never be surprised. If you are surprised, it means you didn’t preparrrrre well enough, you didn’t do enough contingency plannnning.”

“Be in controoooool . be in charrrrge . act, don’t re-act.”

He was one of my favorite professors, so it took me years to realize that his motto was ridiculous, that it actually caused stress and frustration and put a damper on all kinds of joy and spontaneity.

“Act, don’t re-act” may have some limited, narrow application in certain business situations where you want to stay on your won agenda and stick with your own strategy. But in life, where the constant is surprise, the motto becomes a joke. Things happen every day to which we need to respond. Surprise is another name for opportunity. The faster our world moves, the more important our ability to respond and react becomes.

In families, some of us have noticed that children have a fascinating knack of always needing us at the most inconvenient time. And just try saying, “This is not a good time, let me pencil you in for three-thirty tomorrow so that I can think of a strategy and can act rather than re-act.” It simply won’t work. Children need us when they need us, and the best time to answer them is when they ask!

Friends call at unexpected times. Sunsets surprise us. Ideas come along at random times. Circumstance change. Unpredictables – from the weather to the market to our own metabolism – surprise us and dwell inside us. What a world in which to say, “Act, don’t re-act.” What pretension even to imagine that we control enough to make our days always unfold according to our plans or lists!


We once gave a seminar to a group of business people and challenged them to make their “action lists” on the left-hand side of their planning page and then draw a line down the center and leave the right side blank to symbolize the possibility of unexpected opportunity, needs, or spontaneous ideas that might come into their lives, unplanned and unexpected.

Then we redefined the perfect day – not as one in which everything got checked off the list but as one in which at least two or three things came along that were better or more important or more timely than what they had planned. Serendipitous things, things they would re-act to rather than act on, things they would do instead of what they had planned, things they would write down after the fact on the right side of their pages.

We challenged them to be observant enough to notice the unplanned, unexpected things – and to be flexible enough to appreciate them, even to relish the surprises rather than resent them.

After one week we met again for debriefing. We analyzed what was written on the right-hand side. Ideas, new acquaintances, beauty observed, spontaneous time with children, unexpected problems that were dealt with.

We analyzed the planned things that didn’t get done on the left side because of the “interruptions” on the right. Some were rescheduled, some were “caught up on” later in the day. And some were simply forgotten because they weren’t that important or because the surprises or “serendipities” on the right superseded them or made them unnecessary.

The most interesting lesson came when we asked the participants where the greatest value was – left or right. We asked them if they had to throw away everything they had made happen on the left (the planned, listed activities) or to throw out everything that had happened to them on the right, which would they hang on to?

After some thinking and comparing, everyone said that if they had to choose, they would keep the right – the ideas, beauty, relationships, opportunities, needs – things they re-acted to rather than the “thing” things that they acted upon.

But life isn’t a choice between acting and reacting. We all do a lot of both. In a well-lived life each side complements the other. It is the goals and plan we have that give us a direction and a track to run on. The challenge is to see more than the track, it is to see both sides and down the line. We need to cast off the blinders and notice the unexpected. We need to relish rather than resist surprise and add flexibility to discipline and spontaneity to structure. Let the right enhance the left. Get the creative, poetic right side of the brain to work as well as the logical, strategic left. Remodel the old clich about acting and not reacting so that it reads:


In basketball (and most other sports), a good defense causes offensive opportunities, and a strong offense makes the defense more effective, more natural. In life, clear goals and the offense of “acting” can enhance, contrast, and complement our defense of responding and reacting well to events and circumstances we did not plan.

The concept of serendipity is a bridge that can span and connect our actions and reactions. Serendipity, defined by Horace Walpole (who coined the word), is a state of mind and of awareness by which one consistently discovers something good while seeking something else. A serendipitous attitude, in other words, is one in which a person acts on his goals, plans and directions, but with an awareness and flexible attitude that allows him to notice, respond, and react to unexpected needs and opportunities along the way.

Join me next column for a clich that everyone seems to say to us.

2005 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.