Actions Over Words

Yogi Berra

In the classic film My Fair Lady, Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle goes on a marvelous musical rant in the song, “Show Me.”

Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars burning above;
If you’re in love, Show me!

She goes on to chastise merely talking about dreams for the future, longing for physical contact, how love is forever, and more, repeatedly demanding of others to actually show me!

Though the song is about romance in particular,

words, words, words, I’m so sick of words. Is that all you can do? Don’t talk…show me!

is insightful wisdom for life.

It’s easy to talk a big game. I’m going to be famous. I’m going to be an actor. I’m going to write a novel. I’m going to be president. I’m going to travel more. I’m going to be a better parent. I’m going to get healthy. I’m going to spend less. I promise I’ll do the dishes later.

The words sounds nice. Even praiseworthy sometimes. Wow, that’s fantastic! Way to be aspirational. It makes a person sound like a real achiever. But, of course, the words are empty without any follow-through. Hypocritical, really. You said you were going to do one thing, and instead you did another–or nothing at all.

Saying one thing and doing another is a rift in human nature inherent to each and every one of us. You and me, included.

It doesn’t take long to find examples more recent than Eliza Doolittle’s fictional Victorian England. American President Barack Obama is about to embark on an historic visit to Alaska to observe firsthand one of the states hardest hit by the early stages of global climate change. He plans to visit a number of different communities to bring attention to what’s going on, and give some fervid speeches about the need for worldwide action on climate. This is unquestionably an important trip, and hopefully putting the spotlight on places where climate change is already having a drastic, noticeable impact will shake some people out of lethargy or denial.

Except that there’s a huge action the Obama administration undertook recently that’s undermining the whole thing. A couple weeks ago, they granted final approval to Shell to drill in the Alaskan Arctic. It’s well-documented at this point that combustion of fossil fuels is the major catalyst of climate change, that we need to leave them in the ground rather than take more out, and that the Arctic in general is one of the most fragile places anywhere. If a spill should occur, it will be nearly impossible to clean up, and cause further environmental devastation.

Whatever your political affiliations or convictions, you don’t have to be a political scientist or staunch partisan to see the gulf between actions and words here. It’s hard to take the passionate words seriously when as recently as two weeks ago–in the very place you’re using as the example for your rhetorical force–your tangible actions were extremely contradictory. Don’t talk of climate change action. Show me.

I was moved this morning by (yet another) excellent profile of the brilliant Stephen Colbert as he prepares to launch his version of The Late Show. The TIME Magazine piece closes with the following story Colbert shared:

I went across the street, got myself a cup of coffee and looked at the theater from the outside for about an hour, and I realized that nothing we do right now really matters. I mean, we’ll do our best to have a good design and good logo and good marquee and hire all the right people and have the right sound and the right guests. But it doesn’t really matter until you go and do it. Everything is theory. As Yogi Berra beautifully said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

In the end, it’s the actions that matter–what you actually did or will do. We like gabbing about theory: university lectures, pub talk, dinner table chatter, cable news banter. We like flowery words: memes, speeches and sound bites, tweets and other snack-size sharable content. They feel good and profound. And they can be. But eventually we have to stop talking and just do the thing. It’s all about what happens in practice–the action. And if the actions don’t match the words then the words and all the theorizing were truly meaningless.

Whether for a social cause like the climate, or dreams for a career and the next chapter of your life, or simply taking out the trash…

May you be a person of actions over words.

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