Seizing the Initiative
The Modern Survival Guide #8
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. I may not have thought of them first, but I’m doing something about them! And on that subject, this time we’re going to be talking about initiative, and seizing it.
Ah yes, the initiative! That thing you heard about on history channel documentaries of World War II. Why’s this in an article on modern survival, you might very well ask? Well, because seizing the initiative is usually the key to getting what you want. Not always. But surprisingly often.
“The initiative,” in the workaday sense, means simply this: what you want to do, or are doing, is at the forefront of other people’s minds. Therefore it sets the trend. Therefore it is easier for many people to just go along with it than it is for them to argue against it.¹ Seizing the initiative means quite simply that you state your idea first or do your thing first. This is most clearly shown in one of the most common points of frustration you will ever encounter in life: that moment with your friends when someone says “what do you guys want to eat?”
We all know how this goes. Everyone hems and haws and prevaricates by saying things like “I don’t care (subtext: anything but the things I don’t like, which I expect you to know)” or “whatever you want (subtext: what I want, and I’ll be mad if you don’t pick it).” This might seem like a social minefield, and it is, but it’s also a clear example of initiative.
Because whoever picks first wins. They set the tone. If the first person to make up their mind says “I want pizza,” then salad is probably not on the menu for that group.
Another example is with Great Ideas. Have you ever had a Great Idea? I have. But you don’t make anything out of it unless you act on it first, because copyrights and patents are a thing. If you have a Great Idea, and you’re the first person to bring it to the patent office or put it on paper, and you get it legal fastest, you win. It’s now Your Great Idea, not Some Other Person’s Great Idea. This is why we remembered Edison instead of Tesla for eighty years.
The first key to initiative is action. This usually takes the form of an actionable decision. Before you can have your favorite dish for dinner with a group of friends, you have to first decide what that dish is, and then get your hat in the ring by stating it clearly. Before you can patent the light bulb, you have to first design a light bulb. Ideas in your head can be fun, but they do not translate to changing the world without action.
The second key to initiative is certainty. You need to be sure and confident in your choice or action. Most people can sense hesitation and indecision. So don’t hesitate and don’t be indecisive. If someone asks, “What do you want for dinner?” have an answer. If someone says, “Who invented this light bulb?” be ready with your prototype. Speak up, use the correct tone, and be heard.
The third key to initiative is consistency. Keep acting. Keep being certain. Pretty soon you’ll be known as the person who is certain and is capable of action, and people are more likely to respond to such individuals. Seizing the initiative reliably can translate to becoming a leader. Some people would argue it’s the only qualification of a leader.
Initiative is a survival skill not necessarily because it guarantees success, or guarantees happiness. There’s still plenty of room to miss those marks. Initiative simply opens the door to those things by making sure your needs, desires, and goals are expressed. If no one knows what you want, they can’t give it to you. If no one knows what you’re doing, they can’t help you. If no one knows about your accomplishments, they can’t acknowledge you for them.
As a final note, it’s worth saying that it is not always advisable to seize the initiative. Sometimes you need to let other people have a go. Folks generally won’t respect people who never seize the initiative, but they hate people who always seize the initiative. So you know… use in moderation.
¹In other settings, particularly large businesses and bureaucracies, this is called inertia, and it’s basically the same thing: the way that things have been done in the past is often the way they keep being done in the future.