Those who wish to lead a productive life need to know how to proceed. They need to anticipate the pitfalls and obstacles that will come in their way and have an idea how to cope with them. How many people who start on the path of great and important works never follow through with them? Soon enough, one inevitable problem or another dissipates all their initial zeal. Some people cannot take negative criticism. Others get distracted by problems with their family or their jobs. Some people are just easily distracted. One thing cannot hold their interest for too long.
Long experience shows that there are two paths industrious people can take. The success of their efforts depends on which path they choose. One leads to greater and greater success. The other leads to disappointment and frustration.
1. Going for the Sun
This is the straight path to success. It is the path of initiative, forward-thinking, and focus. Being on this path means not to look back too often. It means not to let yourself get distracted or preoccupied by what other people are doing and saying. You might make a mistake in your efforts, but when you do, you do not let it stop you. Instead, you remedy your mistake by engaging in even more work and renewing your efforts. You do not let discussion and debate get so excessive that you let it stop you in your tracks.
It is related about one of our pious predecessors that an idle man with nothing to do wanted to stop him from the work he was doing to talk with him. He said to the idle man: “Go for the Sun.” [This is attributed to `Āmir b. Qays. see: Ibn al-Jawzī, al-Tabsirah (2/315)]
This is where I get the name for this path of action. Life is short. You need to maximize the investment on the days that you have by engaging in as much productive work as possible. This does not mean you should be arrogant about it, or hold yourself aloof from the criticism of others. It certainly does not mean that you are perfect. Far from it. Other people have the right to criticize your efforts and to rectify your mistakes. At the same time, you do not need to stop and reply every time someone disagrees with you. You do not need the unanimous agreement of everyone around you for your work to be something important. Say what you have to say and let others say what they have to. Time will tell whose opinions bear the best fruit. Many ideas and suggestions, in the course of time, prove to be ineffectual, and all the debate that accrued around those ideas are exposed as a wasted effort. Some issues are only seem important under particular circumstances and show themselves to be irrelevant once those circumstances change – an historical dead-end.
Going for the Sun means keeping yourself focused on the path ahead, to always think about what more you can accomplish, and to seek out new opportunities. It means to minimize as much as possible the tendency to discuss the same things over and over again, or to seek clarifications on clarifications. Sometimes, time has to be allowed to tell whether something is right or not.
2. Going Around in Circles
This is the other path. A person on this path – whether a thinker, activist, writer, or what have you – focuses over and over again on the same activity. That person is always responding to objections, always defending and justifying what he or she is doing. There is a tendency for people on this path to focus heavily on other people and to categorize them with various labels. Some are labeled as insincere, others as envious, and others as genuine. This is because people on this path are forever waging intellectual and verbal battles with those around them, so they need to identify their enemies and allies.
However, this constant debating, reassessing, and entertaining of objections takes its toll on a person’s outlook, heart, and approach to life. Such a person becomes excessively focused on his or her own self and on a single project that becomes an obsession and preoccupation, and which never comes to completion. The constant need to defend that project and debate with others consumes too much of the person’s time and resources. As a consequence, all of the person’s efforts revolve around that one project. The project might, in reality, be something small, or something of moderate importance. Even if it something genuinely significant, it does not warrant the expenditure of more time and effort than it actually takes to carry it out. All the time spent justifying and defending the project is wasted time.
It is unfortunate that people fall into this trap. They do so of their own free will, inspired by their zeal for the work they are undertaking, buoyed on by their competitive spirit and desire to support what means so much to them, believing that they are in the right. However, instead of all that zeal helping them to bring their great work to fruition, it turns against them and consumes all of their efforts.
Once we realize that our time and energy are scarce resources, and that our productive years are limited (usually we do our best work between the age of 20 and 50), it will dawn on us that we do not have time for all these distractions. We need to get out of whatever rut we are in and on with new and creative work. We need to pay less heed to our detractors, and we should certainly not make accusations about them. Leave their affairs to Allah. “Indeed Allah is never unjust to His servants.” [Sūrah Fussilat: 46]
True criticism is never destructive to a good idea. It can only strengthen it, confirm its correctness, and bring it to maturity. Its role is to hone the idea and remove and shortcoming that may exist in its conception. If we are dealing with an idea whose veracity is uncertain, criticism can bring to light its strong points and weak points.
It is often pure egoism that makes people fall into the second path of action, that of going around in circles. Believing too much that they have to be right and have to prove to others that they are right, takes them off the path of action and productive work and onto the wearisome path of debate, justification, and fruitless disputation.
These, then, are the two paths. It is naive to think you can follow both these paths at once. Consider that you have only one stomach. If you fill it with junk food and fizzy drinks, you will have no room left for nutritious food. Likewise, if you spend all your time in listening to what other people are saying, reading their responses, researching their objections, and writing refutations, you will have no time left over for anything else. You will simply waste precious years of your life in unproductive effort.
Remember that refuting the objections of others is rarely the most prudent choice of action. This is because it usually amounts to defending your own established position rather than learning something new from what those other people are saying. Rarely does such an exercise lead to your improving and fine-tuning your own ideas. It is best to wait before responding until your own zeal has subsided and you can consider things calmly, and deliberate the points being made with a degree of neutrality – and do so with the purpose of benefiting from what people are saying, not to refute them. Meanwhile, you can get on with your work.
“There shall be no sin (imputed) unto those who believe and do good works for what they may have eaten (in the past). So be mindful of your duty (to Allah), and believe, and do good works; and again: be mindful of your duty, and believe; and once again: be mindful of your duty, and do right. Allah loves those who do good.” [Sūrah al-Mā’idah: 93]