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Mindset #5: Reactive vs. Responsive

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Mindset #5: Reactive vs. Responsive

“No man is free who is not master of himself.” – Epictetus

In Tron Legacy (2010), Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and Sam (Flynn’s son) are reunited after 20 years apart. Sam opened the portal to the Grid via the arcade and got sucked-in. Now Clu – Flynn’s digital creation gone rogue – is hunting them both. When Sam and his father are reunited they are in Flynn’s Zen enclave off the Grid, the only safe place for them.

But the portal is open and Sam desperately wants to “…go now. Go home. We make a run for it.” At Sam’s pleading and prodding, the more patient, experienced, and thoughtful father says, “Don’t rush.” Sam reacts with an emphatic “So what do we do? Nothing?” And Flynn responds, “It’s amazing how productive nothing can be.” The conversation ends with Flynn telling Sam that, “The only win to win is not to play.” And Sam demurring in frustration with a clear intent to take action immediately. The next morning Sam is on a “light cycle” hauling-ass for the Grid to find Clu to pick a fight!

Whose approach is more appropriate? Is it Flynn’s bias to patience, or Sam’s bias to action? Whose tendencies end up being “right” in the end doesn’t really matter. What matters is recognizing the difference between being Reactive versus Responsive. And looking at the nature of our own tendencies.

For me, being Responsive is simply a matter of asking myself “am I able to respond.” Do I have the ability to respond? Do I have the knowledge, the context, the perspective to respond? As Nobel Laureate (Physics) Richard Feynman says, there’s a difference between knowing the name of something, and knowing something. “Knowing something” allows us to be Responsive. I see being Responsive as a function of knowledge and as complete an understanding of a situation as possible.

Conversely, when I’m Reactive, typically something happens and I literally activate based on some incoming stimulus. The dark side of the story is that I tell myself this is useful. Look how well trained and smart I am! I’m able to respond so quickly! And with no need to reflect! Well, I’m not responding. I’m Reacting. And reacting is both primal and deeply conditioned.

However useful at times, and in certain situations, being Reactive rather than Responsive hardly involves thinking. From a decision-making standpoint reacting is far from optimal, and not possible to do well, consistently. Reacting is purely intuitive thinking (System 1), and amygdala driven, and a terribly inconsistent and inaccurate way to deal with situations, both in work and in life.

Ultimately, Sam was correct. He and his dad (Flynn) needed to be aggressive, get to the the Grid and make something happen. What happens? Flynn dies saving his son, and Sam and Quora (his girlfriend) get home. Happy ending.

However, Epictetus (advisor to Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius), and father of Stoic philosophy, would likely caution Sam. Being Reactive is a version of slavery. When we’re Reactive, we are slaves to stimuli, other people’s inputs, other people’s actions, and primal urges. When we learn to be Responsive, we become free! Happy 4th of July!

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  1. Jon Brianas
    July 4, 2018 at 3:15 pm — Reply

    Always love reading your posts and gaining knowledge from your perspective… thanks for sharing and happy 4th!

  2. Bret Bussanmas
    July 4, 2018 at 3:27 pm — Reply

    Continue to be enlightened by your posts. As always thank you for sharing so much.

  3. Matt Sladky
    July 5, 2018 at 3:38 am — Reply

    Happy 4th Coleman. Great post. I had never given much thought to the difference between the two. It is a good distinction. Biggest hit home point for me was the idea that by being reactive you are a slave to outside influences. That is a powerful thought.
    Happy 4th! Oh yeah, thanks for working the movie TRON in there. What a classic!

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