I’m haunted by a scene from Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt. It is a mundane scene, not one that would seem to be the stuff for a haunting. This is the scene: after the character Babbitt shaves, he removes the used blade from his razor and puts in on top of his mirror, presumably to dispose of later. There is already a large pile of old blades there. The pile bothers him, though I don’t think Babbit recognized why. The scene has stayed with me since I read the book decades ago, and I think I’ve gradually learned why.
As a teen I had a sign over my desk that read simply, “Initiative”. I think in my discomfort at Babbitt’s razors, and in my desire to remind myself to take “initiative”, I was beginning to recognize something profound about human life.Babbitt’s razors were a visible reminder of his failure to overcome inertia in his life. As readers of the novel will recall, Babbitt was a conformist, or what Ayn Rand called a second-hander, who lived his life according to his perception of what was expected of him, not according to his own beliefs, plans or decisions.
My sign “Initiative” was a reminder to make the effort to overcome inertia in my life, to avoid becoming a Babbitt. Because that’s what initiative is, it is the force that counteracts inertia. We have all heard Newton’s famous maxim: “That which is at rest tends to stay at rest”. This is a law of psychology as well as of physics. Jack Canfield has some good examples in the first chapter of Success Principles, for example “You didn’t take the time to take the dogs to obedience training, and now they are out of control”, “You didn’t attend any sales and motivational seminars becasue you were too busy, and now the new kid just onw the top sales award” and “You didn’t take time to maintain your car, and now you’re sitting by the side of the road with your car broken down”. Dogs don’t train themselves, cars don’t repair themselves, and you won’t be enrolled in any classes unless you take the initiative to make it happen.
This is why initiative is so vital. One must overcome the inertia which had been making that first step seem more difficult than it really was. But in doing so, it also provides mental momentum. As Newton also said “That which is in motion tends to stay in motion”. The completion of even a small step toward an important goal shows that the goal can really be achieved, for after all the first step already has been. This raises one’s self-confidence, and gives a boost of optimism and energy that make it that much easier to take the next steps. If Babbitt had cleaned out his pile of discarded razor blades, it may well have made him more willing and able to take on other dissatisfactions in his life.Babbitt did not take any initiative in his life. But you can. The thing is, only you can, you are responsible to take inititaive in your life. Or as I like to put it: you are the prime mover of your life.