Why some smart people don’t take action?

Why some smart people don’t take action?

By Rajesh Setty on Sun 14 Mar 2010, 12:10 AM – 38 Comments

Why some smart people don’t take action?

I mean “action” that will lift them to a whole new level in life and in business.

This is a question that has haunted me for a while. I meet so many smart people during my travels and speaking engagements. when I hear what these people are involved with and think about what they “could be” actually involved with, it is not difficult to see the “gap.” They could be doing much more but it seemed like they have resigned to be just “good.”

When I get close to some of them, I openly discuss this and honestly, it is not news to them. They know that they are not living up to their full potential. They are aware of that. Some of them say that “soon” they will make a change.

I kept thinking about this “gap” and wondering about the reasons for just doing “good work” when they could be doing “great work.” Why limit the contributions to making a difference to a dozen people when they could make a difference to a thousand people?

The reasons for this seemed like:

  • They were waiting for the right opportunity
  • They had obligations that they had to fulfill before they take on big challenges
  • They had personal or family reasons beyond work
  • They were simply happy with what they were doing
  • They were not aware of their true potential
  • They had become comfortable with their present situation and didn’t like change

    and so on..

Valid reasons but I was not satisfied with any one or combination of them. They were true for a specific case but I could not find a more generic reason for inaction.

Last month, when I was reviewing  my notes from a few meetings over the years, the reason became clear.

It was not ONE reason but there was a complex system at play contributing to the inaction. Let me explain it the best way I can.

Here is the quick summary:

Most smart people want to make a BIG difference. But they don’t think they are ready to take that plunge to live their dream. They don’t want to raise the stakes (by quitting their job, investing in something, joining a movement) yet until they are ready. They keep discovering that something else needs to happen before they raise the stakes. The more they wait, the higher their current obligations making it more complicated to raise the stakes. So on one end, they keep discovering that there is so much more to know “before they are ready” to take the plunge and on the other end, the stakes are low for them to take any action to make a change.

Let us look at this in a bit more detail

Whatever someone pursues (an idea) the step before taking action is to build the “capacity to take action.” Smart people know that they need to build that capacity first before they take action.

When they start building their “capacity” they make up a “threshold of capacity” required before they can take any serious action. After that they start building that capacity ( capacity for example may be some skills such as marketing or sales or they might think they need “X” dollars and “Y” strong connections) and being smart they quickly realize the gap between “their current capacity” and the “threshold of capacity” required to take action.

They make take several actions to build that capacity. Their efforts may include attending a course like an MBA. They act in their own way but always to build capacity so that ONE day they are READY to take that necessary action (the Plunge.)

Over this time, they realize that the threshold capacity is higher than what they originally envisaged. The gap is probably bigger than their original estimate. They need to work hard to get to that threshold capacity.

Over the next few years, they aggressively work on increasing their personal capacity and as they learn more about themselves and also about the world around them, they realize that to guarantee their success, they need to increase their threshold of capacity” to an even higher level. The gap between their “personal capacity” and the “capacity threshold” further increases.

The quest to “get ready” continues.

While their capacity expansion continues, they have ensured that they are “safe” – meaning the stakes were “low” for them to take any action. There is really nothing they would have “lost” (at least in the short-term) by NOT taking any action. They were doing well in their current jobs or in whatever they are doing. They were “above average” from the society standards and they needed a really good reason or two to do anything different. The stakes were low to make a significant change.

But they do want to change. Yes, as soon as their personal capacity matches the “capacity threshold” that they have identified to take the plunge.

Unfortunately their own “smartness” contributes to the continuous expansion of the “capacity threshold” before they take the next plunge.

REQUEST: If you know of someone super smart in your life that is on the fence, please send them a link to this article. Or, if you know many smart people, simply share the article via one of the social networks. Just increasing the awareness helps people to get out of their “stuck” state.


You may also be interested in other mini-research outcomes:

Here are the outcomes of the previous mini-research initiatives:

1. Why some smart people are reluctant to share? (Dec 26, 2009)

2. Why nice people will win BIG TIME in the long run? (Jan 15, 2010)


Related Articles:

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38 Comments so far, Add Yours

Shannon – SKS Designs  on March 14th, 2010

Absolutely brilliant! There is a direct correlation between current capacity and threshold of capacity. Fear is what makes people sit on the fence and the longer they wait, the higher the fence gets and the further they have to fall. Sometimes something will happen that will make them fall off the fence but people are most successful when they take a deep breath and jump on their own.

Rajesh Setty  on March 14th, 2010

Thanks Shannon. You are right – sometimes an event like getting fired or laid off will force people to rethink what they are doing in life. What seems like an “unfortunate” thing becomes a “blessing” when they look back at their life.

In most cases, it is just “waiting and waiting” and finally blaming someone or something for their inaction.



Dilip Saraf  on March 14th, 2010

Great analysis, Rajesh! What I find in my own coaching practice is that people are obsessed with “success.” To them it means few things that the society has acknowledged as yardsticks of that measure: wealth, status, fame, etc. So, achieving its converse paralyzes them. If we move our focus from “success” to “achievement,” I think that more smart people may be able to look at making the necessary change favorably. When they do, I also find that they then go on to achieve all the the things that they were originally pursuing! Ironic, but true!

Dilip Saraf

Rajesh Setty  on March 14th, 2010

Thank you Dilip for stopping by and for your comments here. You bring up a point that made me think. Thanks for that.



Dave Schoeff  on March 14th, 2010


This is a wonderful analysis. It makes me think that dealing with aversion to risk is almost more important than building capacity! In that case, it might be better to learn to skydive than to learn some technical skill seen as an important “brick in the wall”. Thanks for the obvious effort you put into these posts. Your blog is always one of the highlights of my day!

Keep up the good work.

Dave Schoeff

Rajesh Setty  on March 14th, 2010


Thank you for your kind comments. You bring up a good point. In my conversations, the topic of “aversion to risk” did not come up very much but that may be because they didn’t want to openly talk about it.

Wanting to build capacity is probably their way of managing the risk.

Thanks again.



Blogreader  on March 14th, 2010

For me it isn’t so much fear but more that I follow things to their logical conclusion. For example I would have never started Netscape as it was obvious msft would eat them alive. In the end I was right but who cares? The starting of a new company that ultimately fails could be a rewarding expeience anyway.

Rajesh Setty  on March 14th, 2010


It is true – “When you focus on who you are becoming rather than what you are getting,” amazing things will happen (in the long run)



Sardar Mohkim Khan  on March 14th, 2010

I agree with that – – i have had that moments of clarity and then a fog. The gap continues to expand with time, we continue to grow stronger but that ‘leap’ just appears to become a bigger challenge – many eventually take that up and others just quit taking that leap.

Thanks for sharing the article –

Rajesh Setty  on March 14th, 2010


Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts here.

To ultimately make that jump – there has to be one switch that needs to happen and that is hard for many smart people – it is to become comfortable with the fact that they are not capable of doing everything on their own – in other words being more humble than normal.

Once you make that switch, they will start looking for “good” help and that will make a ton of difference.



Benedict  on March 14th, 2010

Super stuff. The strength of the smart people makes them rigid that they fail to focus on their untrained zones to move forward. Somewhere down in life as one progresses ones strengths can only get you thus far, to break free one might have to work their under trained/untrained areas to do new things and charter a new course. This is real difficult.

Creating a crisis for themselves can be a possible solution

Rajesh Setty  on March 14th, 2010

Thanks Benny for stopping by and also for your comments.

I like the addition and also the possible solution that you outlined.



Tiendq  on March 14th, 2010

Thanks, your post is really attracted me and makes me think about my situation myself.

Rajesh Setty  on March 14th, 2010


Thanks a bunch for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. We all have gone through this one time or the other for sure.

Have a great week ahead.



Pushed to an edge | Life Beyond Code  on March 15th, 2010

[…] Why some smart people don’t take action? (March 13, […]

Schmoo  on March 15th, 2010

That’s a whole lot of words you’ve used to say “fear of failure”… ;)

David Meerman Scott  on March 15th, 2010

Great ideas here. In my own discussions with people around the world about inaction, the main thing I see is FEAR. Fear of change. Fear of the unknown. Fear of striking out alone.


Rajesh Setty  on March 15th, 2010


Different people get different things by reading things. At least I know that you reduced the entire article to “fear of failure.” ;)

Good luck with everything that you do.



Rajesh Setty  on March 15th, 2010

Thank you David for stopping by and for your comments.

Yes, the FEAR of < > was high in my conversations too.

Have a great week ahead.



Transeunte  on March 15th, 2010

Rajesh, thanks for the great insight on the matter!

As one of those aforementioned procrastinators that are missing several key moments just because they are trying to “get everything right” to start, I feel their pain!

I feel that many may relate to it, and even get motivated to change that kind of improductive behavior. To those who might need a place to start, I’d like to give my complement for the already great article:

To break out free from this vicious cycle of “seeking-then-meeting demand”, one must keep the focus on it STRENGHTS and minimize their efforts on covering areas where they lack interest/natural skills.


Because SUCCESS only meets talented people where they are skilled at – wether those skills are natural or learned.

Picture it: Michael Jordan was one of the Greatest athletes of all times, as a Basketball player. He did play Baseball after his retirement from NBA, but was he AS GOOD? No.

Luckily Michael Jordan get back to playing Basketball, and proved, once more, to be one of the best – at Basketball.

But what would have happened if he kept “training harder” in order to become better at something he wasn’t supposed to be? Would he ever be one of the greatest baseball players of all times?

(pause, it’s retorical)

The same happens to those SMART PEOPLE who get STUCK at trying to clear areas where they don’t belong. If everything goes well, they’ll have spent a huge amount of time just to get to a mediocre level of performance. If they fail.. well, they may even mistake SMALL IMPROVEMENTS for progress (it’s not the same thing).

The greatest achievers are naturally drawn to view their challenges differently, and can easily succed because their planning usually sees SMALLER requirements – not because they overlook the risks, but because they manage to overcome their weaknessess – whithout losing focus on what they really excel!

There are lots of smart people around, but the successful ones just had to be the best at ONE or TWO things – things that they were so natural at, that it doesn’t even surprise them to be so good at it.

Take athletes, musicians, artists: No one has ever expected Ayrton Senna to be good at painting, Frank Sinatra to be good at driving or Picasso to be a great singer.

If you have a plan, make it fit what you CAN do, what you LIKE to do, and your NATURAL SKILLS.

Cover your weak spots – or get someone who’s better than you to cover them up – and MAXIMIZE YOUR TIME INVESTMENT BY FOCUSING ON WHAT REALLY MATTERS.

You can’t fail that hard, if you keep investing on what you’re already good at! ;)

My regards,

Lucio Amorim

Subba Reddy  on March 15th, 2010

Great post Rajesh, this post sheds light on my own situation as I am planning to change my carrier direction from technology to financial services sector.

Thanks for the Great post.

Tasmijn  on March 15th, 2010

Reading this post earlier today was like looking at myself in a mirror. I really needed this post to get back on track with my life design plans and I just took steps to finally outsource myself.

Many thanks!

Tim Bursch  on March 15th, 2010


Well said. Looking at times that I have jumped, it was when I overlooked my fear and “gap” and just took action. Very encouraging post.

Kind regards,


BlogReader  on March 17th, 2010

Rajesh: thanks for the quote of “When you focus on who you are becoming rather than what you are getting,” as that sums up the situation perfectly. I’ll definately keep that in mind.

Casper Bang  on March 17th, 2010

It’s similar to something my old physics teacher used to say: The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know!

joel  on March 17th, 2010

Thanks for the article, I have worked with a lot of brilliant people in my career and I hear the “why have you not done…” often.

I would say in personal experience I have stopped volunteering to do work projects as I end up overloaded. It is kind of disheartening when this happens as you end up doing twice the work for the same pay rate. It is the ‘no child left behind’ mentality where everyone is expected to be at the same level and to help the ones who are not. When you display that you can vastly surpass your coworkers you alienate them and just end up doing more work.

As for a solution to this, I typically do side-work or personal projects. Your capacity diagrams show at least ‘one’ of the reasons, but in the tech field you are often dealing with peoples ego’s and their identification of self worth and intelligence and some do not want to discover those limits, they want to stay comfortable.

Personally when I find myself getting comfortable I uproot myself and move to another state/job.


skill-guru  on March 17th, 2010

Good analysis Rajesh. But I disagree that to build threshold of capacity , one needs to an MBA.

The more you get educated , less chances of taking risks. The person would think , I have really invested x amount of time and y dollars so I will take risk if only someone funds me a million dollar for an idea of which I do not have prototype.

Threshold of capacity is also increased by society and government. Society does not mock down when you fail , does not criticize when one takes an alternative path and rewards and respect you when you succeed.

Govt provides infrastructure and tax support. Govt builds the ecosystem.

lolcatwut  on March 17th, 2010

Smart people do make change. By definition.

I know Amazon delivers everything the next business day. But important thing happen, change in YEARS, DECADES or CENTURIES.

We should learn to be more patient and do our stuff the best way we can, if we want to make change.

Wanting something in return, like change things the next day and elected hero of the week, ain’t sounds smart.

awright18  on March 17th, 2010

I think for the most part you are correct. The argument presupposes that a smart person wants to make a change in their life to possible do something bigger or better order or to help more people. A few reasons you listed as to why people don’t probably are extremely valid reasons.

“They had become comfortable with their present situation and didn’t like change

and so on..”

“They were simply happy with what they were doing”

If you were truly “happy” with your life, why would you want to change? Who wants to be unhappy just to change things up? Assuming that a “happy” person wants to “take action” do something “bigger” or “better” with his life, they would probably realize that any relativley large change or alteration of anything that has the opportunitiy succeed is done in many small successful iterations. I beleive you are claiming is preperation or “becoming ready” or increasing your “current capacity”, which can shorten the gap from the big goal.

The point I think you are trying to make though is you will never be 100% ready for any change you will take in life no matter the size. No one can ever know all the variables involved in those equations. The best skills to develop for any of these kinds of things would be learning how to find information and/ or learning how to more efficiently learn and develop new skills and think quickly in order to deal with the unknown variables of larger risk actions.

Senthil Kumar  on March 17th, 2010

It is true

Alex Galkin  on March 18th, 2010

“Capacity” is a reflection of a mental game. Comfort is the worst enemy of evolution. To reach certain capacities, means to continue evolving (mentally, spiritually, even physically). So, in a way, we are never ready, and, vice-versa— we are always ready. We have to stop living in the past and in the future (although reflecting is fine), and practice being “present” in the moment. When we say “I am”— that is a reflection of a “now” moment. Not tomorrow, not a year from now. So, the time is NOW, and that fills up our capacity storage. LOL!

Ram  on March 19th, 2010

Good one, makes one wipe some of the fog that always creeps back onto the mirror. A sequel will help!

Ravi Char  on March 19th, 2010

Foolish & hungry people have a better chance to make that big leap than smart & risk-averse people.

I recently came across a lady music teacher who did not have any accomplishments and had a very avergage domain knowledge. She was able to rope in several dozen students for her music class and she started earning more than her husband who is in IT!

Why some smart people don’t help other people? | Life Beyond Code  on March 25th, 2010

[…] 2010) 3. Why some people work hard but don’t get appreciated for that work? (Feb 22, 2010) 4. Why some smart people don’t take action? (Mar 14, […]

Just a Kid  on March 25th, 2010

Thanks you for the brilliant article,and I could not help but notice that you answer almost every comment.

Once again thank you and wish you success in taking the plunge,though I suspect you must have taken at least one by now

Thank you,

A young reader touched by your wisdom

Rajesh Setty  on March 25th, 2010

@JustaKid, thanks for the sweet comment here and also thanks for the good wishes on taking the plunge. Yes, I have taken a few plunges and most of the time I fall flat and sometimes I land safely :)

But that has not stopped me from taking more plunges, though.



Ravi Char  on March 25th, 2010


This is what amazes me. A person cannot just go to diving board and perform Olympic quality diving in one attempt- it is a process of constant refinement, then attains consistency. Why is the marketplace judgemental in terms of people that take a plunge to start new ventures? Why are they unreasonably expected to produce great companies in one plunge or just a few plunges?



Rajesh Setty  on March 25th, 2010

Thanks Ravi for the question.

Really, all the marketplace expects is to see something “remarkable” to take notice. There is so much noise in the marketplace that adding more noise is no way to take a step forward.

Now, how a person gets ready to produce something “remarkable” is not the concern of the marketplace.

One does not have to take a plunge to produce something “remarkable” tomorrow. The person can find someone who is producing something “remarkable” and just help him/her. That can be the training ground to get prepared to later go and produce something “remarkable” on their own.



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