“The Next Right Thing”, Revisited

For the first fifteen years or so of this blog, I always felt I had a kind of professional obligation, after imparting what I thought was useful knowledge, to proffer suggestions on what we should do as a result of the particular situation each article addressed. It was always as if an article that provided no advice on appropriate action was somehow incomplete.

About seven years ago I gradually, mostly, stopped doing this. I might still suggest what would seem obvious common sense (eg in my articles on CoVid-19), but otherwise I try not to tell people what they ‘should’ do. This is mostly because, in the case of complex situations like ecological, political and economic collapse, I really have no idea what anyone can or should do ‘about the situation’. And it’s partly because my sense is that anyone who’s inclined to do what I might recommend, was already inevitably going to do it anyway.

But refraining from offering advice, when you’ve given people really bad news, seems almost rude. And if there’s nothing that can be done, as I said recently, is there really any purpose in knowing the news anyway?

But it’s hard to give up the habit, and I do relapse. And, I’ve discovered, this is true for most collapsniks. For example, I love the rigorous analysis that Erik Michaels brings to collapse, particularly issues related to energy, the economy, renewables and the challenges of predicaments vs problems. He’s written a multi-part series recently entitled, appropriately enough So, What Should We Do?

When I’m asked this question nowadays, I either decline to answer (just admitting I have no answers) or defer to Derrick Jensen’s answer which is to find some local activist/restoration project that interests you where you can make a difference, and focus on that. Small, direct actions that immediately and obviously make things better. It seems as good advice to offer as any.

A year ago, in my review of a David Snowden presentation, I outlined his argument that, rather than inventing and designing an idealistic aspirational future, it is far more productive to focus on what is known about the current situation and do the “next right thing” to move things in a (hopefully) positive direction. This is because, in most complex matters, you can never have enough information to plan many steps ahead, nor can you accurately predict what will happen in the future that will render your wonderfully idealistic long-term plan obsolete.

David suggested the expression was taken from a song from a Disney movie, but, as Maria Popova has explained, it’s actually a Jungian expression (and was later taken up, with an altered meaning, by the AA movement). Jung’s advice was essentially to trust your instincts to guide you to ‘know’ the next right thing to do, given your personal situation and the circumstances of the moment as best as you can understand them. Only you can know what that next right thing is, he said.

I thought this was intriguing for a number of reasons. It resonates somewhat with the processes that “time management” experts have long recommended. David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, for example, focuses on “immediate next actions” as the key to making progress on an imposing and complex project.

I wrote about the GTD methodology many times during my first years of blogging (2003-06) and used it quite diligently. But finally it dawned on me that all I was doing with my complicated activity flowchart and lists was precisely what I would have done anyway, even without using these tools*.

Surely, I thought, with a wonderful-sounding expression like the “next right thing”, there must be something to it beyond doing the obvious, beyond trusting your instincts — some definition or explanation with a little rigour to it. So I did a little digging.

Books have been written on the subject of knowing what the “next right thing” is, and most of them, not surprisingly, advise you to trust some higher power to tell you what it is. Not very useful if you don’t believe in “higher powers”!

Also not surprisingly, the AA articles on the subject, and the articles by psychologists advising you to do the “next right thing” lean on the same circular argument: pray, talk to people, pay attention, walk in nature, meditate, and magically the “next right thing” will come to you! You’ll know it when it comes to you! You’ll just know!

I have no objections to people using ‘centring’ techniques before they make important decisions, and using creativity-sparking tools and exercises, but really, this is the most rigorous explanation of a critical discernment process that highly-paid professionals can come up with? WTF does “next right thing” mean anyway? Is it just a feel-good expression that means “whatever I intuitively or emotionally think based on everything I know”? Because what else would I possibly do? Nothing, perhaps, if I’m paralyzed by indecision? Is there anything really to “doing the next right thing”, beyond it sounding earnest and sensible and hard to argue with? After all, you’re never going to be told that you should do the next wrong thing. The word right seems to me a weasel word here (though just omitting it doesn’t help either).

I had the same instinctive reaction the first time I was told about the Eightfold Path of some forms of Buddhism. It includes “right” everything, including “right action“. How is this defined? How does one discern what “right action” is? Well, a mere lifetime of study and devotion to a “teacher” might get you started. And then you’ll understand what’s “right” because, well, its “right”! Someone wiser than you told you so. The definition is utterly circular — a non-definition:

One tries to abandon wrong action and to enter into right action: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong action and to enter and remain in right action: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, and right mindfulness — run and circle around right action.

Well, that clears it up, right?

David Snowden at least offers us a few clues. He talks about learning as much as possible about where we are now, and then identifying “adjacent possibles” which he describes as being like “stepping stones” that take us in a hopefully positive direction based on where we think we would like to end up. But then we’re back to goals and objectives and imagined ideal future states. What if we don’t know, beyond some likely-hopeless idealistic vision, where we’d like to end up?

When I read the book A Thousand Small Sanities, I had hoped it would be a book that would prescribe, or at least describe, significant, perhaps “adjacent possible” steps that we could take to at least feel useful, as we grapple with the predicaments of our time. Sadly, the title has nothing to do with the book — it was the publisher’s deliberately ambiguous choice, designed to sell more books. The “sanities” are not described or defined. Like “random acts of kindness”, performing “a thousand small sanities”  — or doing the “next right thing” — sounds like a good idea. But what does it mean?

There is something about certain homily expressions that set off alarm bells in my head. “Small sanities”, “random acts of kindness”, “cultivating an attitude of contemplative gratitude“, and many expressions that incorporate the term “justice”, “patience”, “perseverance”,  “generosity”, or “grace”, seem to me, like “next right things”, designed to shut down one’s critical thinking by appealing to their inherent tautological unarguability. They are wonderful-sounding expressions that actually mean nothing. Or, worse, they can be taken to mean whatever you want to believe they mean. They are, I think, like empty calories — beyond the pleasant crunchy taste, they offer nothing of value.

If there is some actual meaning to such homilies, they should be able to pass a test of actually applying them to a real-life situation. So let’s try:

My country (Canada), like most of the major countries in the US Empire, is poised to have an election soon with two Tweedle choices, both of them ideologically and utterly committed to a US-led war with Russia, China and Iran, and both of them wedded to the idea of continued expansion of the use of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

I’ve done my homework; I know what the current situation is, and have a pretty good understanding of the monstrously-complex elements and events that have led up to it. Both ‘choices’ available to me present an existential threat to every living creature on the planet. So what’s the “next right thing” to do in this situation?

Perhaps I’m afflicted with the horrific imaginative poverty I keep writing about, or perhaps I’m a lazy defeatist who just wants to shirk responsibility, but my answer to this question is: nothing.

My instincts, my intellectual analysis, and my emotional responses, all tell me to do what I would have done anyway, which is nothing — pass on voting, and on any involvement with the political process connected to it, which probably means (if as I suspect I’m in good company) that the ideological authoritarian right-wing extremist will prevail over the so-called “lesser evil”. And I refuse to feel bad about this. Instead, I will get on with my life, and do things that bring me joy, and do things for the people I care about, because that brings me joy as well.

And that, I think, is what “the next right thing” and the rest of the aforementioned homilies amount to — an attempt to make us feel better about doing the only thing we could have possibly done anyway. To believe any of these expressions have a deeper meaning is just magical thinking. A form of faith.

What we are going to do, in any situation, is no more or less than what our biological and cultural conditioning makes us do. We have no choice, no ‘free will’ in the matter. If our conditioning drives us to work on some local ecological restoration project, then that’s what we will do. If our conditioning compels us to give money to the homeless and volunteer at a seniors’ home, then that’s what we’ll do. If our conditioning moves us to participate in an insurrection against the government, then that’s what we’ll do. If our conditioning leads us to vote for Biden or Trump or Trudeau or Poilievre or Sunak or Starmer, in the vehement belief that he is the “lesser evil”, then that’s what we’ll do.

So, what should we do? How do we discern “the next right thing”? The questions are moot. The decisions “you” think you are making are already made, and not by “you”.

That’s a lot to come to accept. And because of their conditioning, most people will never accept this. They’ll keep thinking, intuiting, researching, stressing, reacting, hoping, and praying that with the “right” effort, the “right” process, they’ll discover and do what they ‘should’ do — “the next right thing”.

And then they’ll do the only thing they could have done anyway.

POSTSCRIPT March 9, 2024: On Instinct and Intuition:

I wrote a follow-up article to the above on the nature of instinct/intuition, but I decided I could pretty well sum it up in a single paragraph, so here it is:

What does it mean to ‘trust your instincts’? What are your instincts (or your intuition) anyway? I would suggest that they are nothing more than a ‘feedback loop’, telling us what our biological and cultural conditioning is inevitably going to lead us to do anyway. When we ‘change our mind’, it is only our conditioning and/or the circumstances of the moment that have actually changed, and which have inevitably produced a change in our beliefs, worldview, or behaviours. Nothing else — not our ‘volition’, our ‘consciousness’, our ‘minds’ (conscious or unconscious), our deliberate thought processes, our ‘decisions’, our clever instincts or our intuition — had anything to do with that change.


* Breaking major projects into manageable steps and picking the “immediate next actions” for each was brilliant in theory, but essentially just systematized what I was already inevitably going to do. A far more useful lesson was training myself to ignore unimportant tasks, even if they were supposedly urgent (I was ultimately forgiven for not doing them, since they were not important anyway, and saved a heap of time in the process). But I also found that breaking the project into multiple sequential steps was largely futile anyway, because complex projects cannot be understood well enough to do so usefully, and the situation changes so fast that even during the first step it becomes clear that those second and third steps are going to be very different from what was anticipated. As I’d come to learn about complex projects, the understanding of the real problem and the identification of possible solutions co-evolve. Trying to plot it all out in advance, towards some grand ultimate objective, is just idealistic wishful thinking, and, despite what zealous “systems thinkers” would have you believe, generally pointless. In the end, the “immediate next action” — that “next right thing” to do — is almost always intuitive anyway. You don’t need a “system” to do it.

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7 Responses to “The Next Right Thing”, Revisited

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    Surely there is some difference between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee, even if it is only a matter of preference in the sound of their voice. Not voting only makes sense to me if one knows nothing about either candidate or if the difference is so small between every choice on the ballot that the effort of voting is greater than the value of choice.

    For example, if one is going to the polls to vote on the special levy for the local school district, one might as well include a vote about the president or prime minister. And if you’re not going to the polls to vote on local issues, shame on you. Voting on local issues is a “next right thing”, just like a nod, a smile and “good morning” to your neighbors.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Makes sense, Joe. In Canada it’s just one ballot, one X for one candidate in a first-past-the-post election.

  3. Paul Heft says:

    The elites are asking us to be good citizens and vote for one of their proffered candidates. Nope, can’t do that in good conscience. There’s a lot of conditioning, learning, and thinking behind that, so I won’t be easily persuaded otherwise.

  4. Joe Clarkson says:

    Well, I just can’t help but agree with Snowden, who, as Dave puts it, feels that “it is far more productive to focus on what is known about the current situation and do the “next right thing” to move things in a (hopefully) positive direction”. Everyone’s take on “positive direction” differs, so that’s why we have the world we have, but I find it hard to see how anyone gets even minimal satisfaction from deliberately not participating in civic life. In a democracy, participation in civic affairs is just common courtesy, like using a turn signal when changing lanes. It may not be very satisfying that change is always so excruciatingly incremental, but that’s all we get.

    On the other hand, if one’s day is so busy making good decisions about the “next right thing” that there aren’t even a few minutes to spare for voting, or if taking a nap is deemed far more important than the difference between candidates, then taking the time to vote would be a bad decision.

  5. Vera says:

    Hey Dave. This is what the Hill says about time changes. Turns out… some have done it already (lucky dawgs):

    Hawaii and most of Arizona stay in one time zone year-round, meaning they don’t switch their clocks in March and November like the rest of us.

    Since 1968, Arizona has observed Mountain Standard Time year-round, with the exception of the Navajo Nation. For Arizona, the decision was based largely on the amount of sun the state already gets.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Vera: Yep. I’ve even been in Hawai’i when the non-switch ‘happened’. Several places here in Canada don’t switch either, including parts of my province BC. The Yukon stopped changing a while back (an extra hour of sun doesn’t matter much when you’re in the land of the midnight sun), and urged us, their southern neighbours to do likewise. It might have to come down to that. Someone has to go first.

  7. Brutus says:

    The ambiguous notion of the “right thing” arrived at by consultation with some higher power or one’s own intuition is a sneaky resort to emotion-based decision making that happens routinely below the level of consciousness. Think of it instead as “getting right” with a decision, i.e., learning to living with or tolerate one’s decided-upon imperfect path forward and perhaps sometimes even to revel in it. Maybe that’s just hindsight rationalization, but it closes open loops that cause distress. Whether the decision itself and its results are positive can be waived away with “well, I did my best.”

    On doing (something) or doing nothing, I find that more and more things are removed from consideration as I get older and lose capacity. I would never counsel someone who, upon learning of the awful trajectory we all face feels passionately that Something Must Be Done, should stand down and relax (don’t worry; be happy). However, I appreciate the earnestness but observe that one comes round immediately to determining the right thing — no easy task. In my own experience, the right thing is often cessation of whatever I’m doing to cause harm, or in other words, to stop digging the hole I’m in. Won’t be enough to forestall the inevitable, but then, nothing ever will be.

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