jinnyuppal Uppal

Jinny Uppal is no stranger to driving contrary and innovative thinking. Uppal’s 20+ years of experience driving transformational growth by challenging existing norms in business is key to her success working with Fortune 500 telecom, ecommerce and retail companies. As a business and tech growth strategist, board advisor and thought leader, she continues to pave innovative paths to progress and success. Most recently, she was Vice President of Strategy at a $12B North American retailer.

In her new book, IN/ACTION: Rethinking the Path to Results, Jinny Uppal explores the downside of the prevalent cultural bias for action even when it’s unnecessary or counter-productive. Capturing insights into the benefits of reflective thinking and strategic inaction, author Jinny Uppal presents a less stressful and more efficient way of achieving more by “doing” less.

Uppal grew up in Mumbai and is a graduate of Florida International University and Harvard Business School. She has been a practitioner of Vedic and Buddhist meditation and breathwork since 2008. Her other interests include hiking and horseback riding.

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This book explores the downside of the prevalent cultural bias for action even when it’s unnecessary or counter-productive. Capturing insights into the benefits of reflective thinking and strategic inaction, Uppal presents a less stressful and more efficient way of achieving more by “doing” less.
IN/ACTION: Rethinking the Path to Results
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“The skillful leader subdues the enemy without any fighting, he captures their cities without laying siege to them, he over- throws their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field. With his forces intact, he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.”

—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It’s 1812, and Napoleon is headed your way with over one hundred thousand soldiers, his Grand Armée. You are a Russian general, Mikhail Kutuzov, an old, battle-worn, wizened soldier and general, holding firm in Moscow. Napoleon’s planned attack on Moscow is the highest form of aggression. It is, in fact, an attack on all of Russia.

Fully dressed in your soldier’s uniform and battle ready, you stand over a mass of maps, pouring over them, while surrounded by your staff and comrades. You all review Napoleon’s path and how long it will take for him to get to Moscow. Your lieutenants make recommendations on where and how you should counterattack. The boss man, Czar Alexander, expects to hear of your plans to attack and arrest Napoleon’s progress.

Your entire military career has centered on taking decisive action. The enemy approaches. The threat is clear and visible. You need to take action before he gets to Moscow. You need to stop him.

What do you do? Do you attack him on his way? Or do you get ready to defend?

General Kutuzov chooses neither.

He chooses to retreat. He evacuates and abandons Moscow. His comrades keep urging him to take action, but he chooses to wait. He says to himself over and over, like a mantra: Time and patience. Patience and time

Napoleon marches on. His plan was to take over Moscow. And he does just that. He now expects a formal surrender.

But no one is there to surrender. Everyone is gone. The troops are gone. The residents are gone too. On the way out, the army and civilians have set the city on fire.

Here is Napoleon, in an abandoned city with no food for his troops, helplessly watching the fires burn everything in sight. It’s October—it’s cold in Moscow, with subzero temperatures. He knows he needs to head back, or his troops will not survive the winter without food and supplies. He orders his troops to start for France. But he has underestimated the harsh conditions of the Russian countryside. Hypothermia sets in for many of his soldiers and horses. His army is decimated. Napoleon makes it back to France but with only a fraction of his Grand Armée.

According to Jesse Greenspan in his historical analysis, this defeat was the beginning of the end for Napoleon.

Kutuzov wasn’t paralyzed into inaction because of fear. His apparent inaction was a thoughtful choice to not default to a counterattack or defense. He achieved his goal of defeating Napoleon. You might say he exceeded his goal by dealing a crushing defeat without expending the usual cost of delivering such a defeat: lives of soldiers.

To Act or Not to Act

We tend to celebrate action, especially acts of heroism and bravado. Most success stories are associated with what the protagonist did. Kutuzov didn’t win any kudos for retreating and letting time and weather take its toll. Stories of pausing, patience, or waiting aren’t glamorous or heroic to tell.

Why is that? Why don’t we celebrate the pause? The strategic waiting. The off-playbook but thoughtful inaction. Is it because that approach usually doesn’t lead to a win? I wondered if Kutuzov’s was a one-off fortuitous story or an approach that could be studied and repeated.

What I found has changed the way I see ambition, action, results, and the relationship between them.

The definition of ambition is closely linked with a desire for success and power. And yet, the more ambitious we are, the more likely we are to struggle with stress and anxiety. A 2014 research study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, found a “strong correlation between the highs and lows of perceived power and mood disorders,” especially among the young. The world has become more competitive. There are more options to choose from; more information comes at us than ever before. Technology has disrupted every part of our lives, in both good and destructive ways. Newer ways of working and newer opportunities pop up everywhere and every day. Fifty years ago, the world had less of everything to choose from: fewer professions, career paths, and even dating platforms (you met your sweetheart through family, college, or work, instead of swiping right on dozens of dating apps in existence today). Now there is more of everything to choose from. Even the choice of college majors has grown in the United States. There are thirty more majors today compared to fifty years ago.

All this advancement has a downside. The more information that we are taking in, which needs to be processed, the more overwhelming the task of making a choice has become. We think we need to work hard to achieve our goals. But no matter what choices we make, there’s always a feeling of uncertainty. Maybe we should be doing more or working harder. The more there is to choose from and to achieve, the more action we take toward our goals.

In chasing our goals, we start chasing action.

In our lives, hard work translates into a lot of doing. Action requires expenditure of resources, both mental and physical. Doing takes effort, which in turn consumes energy. Most productivity hacks are about doing more. Unfortunately, time doesn’t expand; only the list of to-dos does. To compensate, we give up on rest and load up on stimulants, like coffee or prescription drugs, further compromising our energy levels. According to a Forbes article, people between twenty and thirty-nine are the fastest growing population segment for stimulant prescriptions.

Hard work then translates into long working hours, which lead to poor health. A 2021 global study from the World Health Organization found that working fifty-five hours or more a week was linked to a 35 percent higher risk of stroke and a 17 percent higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to a thirty-five-to-forty-hour work week. This study included data from over 154 countries across multiple lines of work and measured the impact of long hours over several years.

Chasing action is not sustainable in the short term either. No matter how much we employ productivity tips to cram more into the day, there’s always a feeling of falling behind. We never have enough hours in the day. In our single-minded pursuit of our goals, we ignore aspects of life such as health and well-being. When we are young, we think we will have time to attend to that later. Before we know it, this habit of chasing action turns into a behavioral trait that stays with us as we age. For many, a wake-up call comes in the form of burnout, sickness, or estrangement from family and loved ones. Often, in our determined pursuit of results, we choose the wrong actions that either push the result away or create another set of problems. Chasing action can lead to avoidable mistakes. I have made a few mistakes myself, which I will share in later chapters.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Ambition is something to be celebrated. There’s nothing wrong in wanting results or success. A desire for success is an innate part of who we are. It’s what drives progress. I believe we can achieve desired results without paying the price of chasing action. In my interviews and research, I found it is possible to avoid unnecessary or counterproductive action. In looking back into my own life, I have deployed this approach with better-than-expected results.

I moved to the United States from Mumbai, India, for grad school in my early twenties, highly unusual for unmarried females with my cultural background. I pivoted twice in my career, moved cross country and back while working at companies ranging from $250 million to $19 billion dollars in sales, growing to become vice president of strategy for a $12 billion–dollar North American retail business. Somewhere in that journey, I took a sabbatical to work with artisans in Morocco. I noticed that every one of my big and bold moves was preceded by a phase during which I felt underproductive, even lazy. I hated those phases. Looking back, it was in the middle of apparent inaction that the seeds of the next big idea were being sown. A kind of momentum was building up during these outwardly inactive phases. And when I felt ready, I made my move. More recently, this book was borne out of my boredom and restlessness during the inactivity imposed on us all during the 2020 pandemic.

What has changed after writing this book is that instead of hating the periods I would have described as wastefully underproductive, I better appreciate the power of what looks like inactivity but isn’t.

As part of my book research, I interviewed over thirty people across Europe, North America, and India—each considered successful in their sphere of life. What I have discovered from these interviews, my own life experiences, and from established research studies is this: While chasing action can very well lead to results, it takes mastering action to achieve remarkable results. And the fastest way to mastering action is by leveraging strategic inaction.

Action uses up time, mental and physical energy, and other personal resources. While some action is required to get to results, there is almost always a less expensive way (by taking less action) to getting those results.

Mastering action is knowing when to act and when not to act. Strategic, or thoughtful, inaction is a lever that leads to results with less expenditure of resources.

Think back to Kutuzov. By retreating, he conserved his main resource: the lives of his soldiers. He didn’t officially surrender even after Napoleon took over Moscow. He did nothing but wait for Napoleon to decide on his next course of action, which was to head back to France. Kutuzov leveraged strategic inaction.

While Napoleon was on his way back, Kutuzov finally acted. He strategically attacked Napoleon, forcing his army on a route that increased the probability of starvation. By choosing to retreat at first, Kutuzov built up momentum: His army was rested and strong; the opponent’s was fatigued and weak. He let the unexpectedly brutal winter cause damage to his opponent’s army. When he did take action, he weakened Napoleon’s army enough to make sure they wouldn’t rebuild or return.

By conserving energy you would have spent on chasing action, you leave your mind open to discovering off-playbook and nonlinear paths to results. You allow unexpected and serendipitous events to reveal opportunities to you. You build up momentum and then deploy resources to maximum advantage when the circumstances are right.

Strategic, or thoughtful, inaction is different from inaction that comes from fear or inertia. That would be inaction caused by helplessness and mental paralysis. Strategic inaction is a choice; it requires original thinking. It is not “letting the chips fall where they may.” It is awareness that the default action is not the right choice in that moment and that inaction is the better option.

It is a period of pause to allow for inspired action to show up.

About This Book

This book is not about pausing for the sake of it or about slowing down as an end goal. In fact, this book is about developing a path to results and success—without paying the typical price of nonstop doing.

Platitudes such as “money/success aren’t everything” aside, we are always working toward something: a job, a life partner, buying a home, a startup exit, a nonprofit launch. Contrary to the usual action-packed formulaic advice such as “ten things you need to do to [fill in your goal],” this book is about leveraging the power of strategic inaction to find a nonlinear path to great results.

Kutuzov is one example; we will visit other stories of strategic inaction. What if we don’t do what the experts, wisdom of the masses, or our own mind compel us to do? What if we are like Singh, CEO of a major global medical imaging firm, who was informed of the death of a child on a machine made by his company and went for a two-hour walk instead of immediately calling an emergency staff meeting and lawyering up? What if we, like Tyler Hayes, a successful Silicon Valley founder, shunned the proven venture capital route for fund- raising and chose the far easier and less stressful (and less used) crowd-funding path for our fourth business? Spoiler alert: They both got far better results and unexpected wins.

This book explores stories of those who have “made it” by usual social standards: success, wealth, overall life satisfaction. It explores the approaches and mental models they used. It looks into research on the science of inactivity and doing nothing. Lastly, it provides an approach to developing mastery of action through strategic inaction. Ultimately, this book is about making room for inspired action to lead us on a nonlinear path to great results.

In part one, we will explore why and how we got here. We will explore how ambition, aspiration, and even self-awareness create progress, as well as the tendency of chasing action.

Part two is about the major obstacles to mastering action and our tendency to default to a playbook, create narrow and rigid goals, and create cause and effect where none exists.

Part three explores habits we can develop to counter our action bias. We will discover how daydreaming, mind-wandering, laziness, and procrastination—usually scorned behaviors—can provide access to creative ideas and inspired action.

Chapters in parts one through three have questions at the end that are meant to be contemplated. I recommend chewing them over; don’t be in a hurry to answer them.

While action and inaction may seem like black-and-white choices, in part four we will discover a perspective on mastery of action that requires going beyond this apparent dichotomy. The last chapter has a summary of takeaways from the book.

By the time you are finished reading, I will have demonstrated and hopefully convinced you of this:

Life is not as hard as it seems. Life is not a hamster wheel, which runs only if we keep running. Something much more than our actions makes our world go around. It is worth stopping long enough to connect with the undulating flow of life. It is worth riding this flow of life, which can carry us further than we could ever go with our own doing alone.

Additional content, (beyond 10 pages) in case you prefer to read an actual chapter.

Chapter 1: Ambition and the Action Bias

“To do nothing is often the best course of action. But history was not made by those who did nothing. So I suppose it’s only natural that ambitious and driven men want to go down in history.”

—Queen Elizabeth II’s comments on Prime Minister Eden’s actions as depicted in the Netflix show The Crown, Season 2

The Suez Canal Crisis began on October 29, 1956, when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal, a valuable waterway that controlled two-thirds of the oil used by Europe. Anthony Eden had become prime minister of the United Kingdom the prior year. Vowing to reclaim the “great imperial lifeline,” he decided to take action. He orchestrated a covert agreement with Israel and France to launch an attack on Egypt. This agreement came to light soon after the three countries attacked, seemingly independently. In a rare show of unity, the United States and Russia condemned this overt act of aggression and demanded an immediate withdrawal, which the three countries had no choice but to follow.

Some historians believe all that actioning was Eden’s way of demonstrating his power and leadership as prime minister. Unfortunately, he was forced to undo his action, causing enough humiliation that he had to resign, ending his short- lived time as prime minister. Unlike Kutuzov in the previous chapter, Eden couldn’t wait to take action. His misguided urgency to act cost him his job, not to mention risking inter- national relations.

This episode in history was depicted in the 2016 Netflix show The Crown. Queen Elizabeth’s quote above, lamenting the tendency of people wanting to act even when doing nothing is the best choice, isn’t limited to ambitious prime ministers.

Humans are wired to acknowledge and celebrate action far more than inaction. Action can be perceived and discussed in a tangible form. It’s easy to see the effects of our action and effort. Inaction is harder to acknowledge and appreciate. It’s hard to demonstrate causality between what we didn’t do and positive outcomes. On the flip side, it’s easier to see the causality between what we don’t do and a negative outcome. Our ancestors foraged for food. If they didn’t take the action of foraging, they didn’t eat. When farming was introduced and we domesticated animals, we had a lot more to do with the land and farm animals. We introduced automations such as a yoke and other early technologies to make life easier. We associated all that doing with progress. Instead, life kept getting more complex, and we kept adding even more to-dos until it became a trap. The only way to get out of that trap was waiting until the next generation took over, retirement, or death.

In modern times, we have gone beyond our need to survive. We now pursue success, accomplishment, power. We are commended from our childhood for what we did, achieved, or accomplished. We, especially male children, start idolizing action figures of young heroes and heroines who do brave and bold things to save the world. The phrase “action figure” itself came into being in 1964 when toy maker Hasbro launched their new G.I. Joe, a toy soldier targeting boys. They didn’t think “doll for boys” was going to sell, hence the more exciting phrase. As per Merriam-Webster, the meaning of the word “power” is inextricably linked with action.

All these words capture our imagination and give rise to our earliest aspirations. They teach us that doing and exerting ourselves is the right way of being successful and worthy. In turn, this creates an illusion of control over outcomes through our actions. The greater our ambition is, the more we want to control outcomes.

The pursuit of success is ironic. In our youth, in life, and in work, we train ourselves to work hard and put in effort toward our goals. If we are not successful in getting results, the more ambitious and intrepid among us double down on our “efforting.” Say we succeed. We get the wonderful spouse, family, job, or business we always wanted. That creates another problem. Those around us—families, employees, teammates—start expecting us to do more. The higher up the ladder of life we go, the more people around us expect that we are the ones to make things happen. In addition to all the pressure we put on ourselves, we are now faced with compounding pressure from others to act. But the fact is that the more complex our life and work is, the less we control outcomes with direct action.

In 2012, I joined Kohl’s, a large retailer in the United States, to help drive their business transformation. Then-CEO Kevin Mansell had embarked on an ambitious plan to transform the company inside out in the next few years. As he unveiled his grand plan of driving business growth—fittingly called “The Greatness Agenda”—to the leaders of the company, he said something about power and control at top levels that left a deep impression on my mind. He started off by sharing that people often think CEOs have the power to make things happen.

Paraphrasing, he said, “I wish I could tell you how different things look from my point of view. From where I am stand- ing, you have the power. You, who owns specific functions, can do something about it. I can only share my vision and try to influence you.” He shared that when he was a merchant, in a junior role, he had control over specific aspects of the business. As he climbed up the ladder, the ability to control outcomes through his actions reduced. His body language, more than his words, communicated an authentic helplessness and a plea to his audience that without their participation and action, “The Greatness Agenda” was doomed.

As Mansell went on to lead his company through a successful transformation, his final act of non-doing was executing his own succession. When he retired in 2018, he replaced himself with someone he had previously hired. As of this writing, Kohl’s continues to be more successful than many of its peers in an otherwise struggling retail industry.

You don’t have to be a CEO to be higher up in life. Do you have a team you work with? Do you have children? Are you married? Are you a student enrolled in classes while doing volunteer work? Do you have a side hustle and hobbies? Then your life is complex enough. You have enough responsibilities to know or to find out you can’t control everything around you with your actions.

Even though we celebrate qualities such as action orientation, determination, and decisiveness, I have come to learn, from my own personal experience, that the same qualities can get in the way of the very goals we are trying to achieve.

Jumping From the Frying Pan Into The Fire

It was like any other summer day. I had come back home from office to find the red button blinking on my voicemail machine. This was 2000, back in the day when we had landlines with an attached recording machine that stored voicemails. On this day, like any other, I pushed the button. It was a short, terse message from my brother in Mumbai.

“Mini,” it started, addressing me by my nickname. “Mom is no more. She is no more Mini. Call me.”

I sat down on my bed next to the phone. Thoughts raced through my mind: How could this be! I was in Mumbai just three weeks ago. We had celebrated my birthday. She was fine. My mom had a heart attack ten years before this and an angioplasty after that. We had no indication her heart was in trouble again. She looked fine when I saw her. How was this possible? And yet, there was no mistaking what my brother had said. A short conversation with him told me the rest: It all happened suddenly, and she died of a cardiac arrest before reaching the hospital.

This is not how it was supposed to turn out. I am the youngest of five, a fourth daughter, raised in a middle-class family in Mumbai, the biggest city of India, during the 1980s and ’90s. Life in our circle was fairly predictable. If you were a boy, you got married at around twenty-three years of age and joined your father’s business. If you were a girl, you got married at twenty-two and became a homemaker. Some girls went to college, but it was a matter of passing the time while waiting to get married. Your parents would find a suitable mate for you. My parents were the exception. Rather, my mother was. Knowing she would never raise enough dowry for four daughters, she was clear that she would get us a higher education so we could “make [our] own money and not depend on anyone else.” And so, three years before this event, I had traveled to the United States for grad school. The plan was to graduate, get a year of work experience, move back to India, get a job, get married, and blend into the rhythm of normal life.

And now this. In those few seconds, sitting at the edge of my bed, thoughts continued racing at top speed. All my older siblings are married, with children, complete with families of their own. While my father was still alive, the gender roles of those times were such that my mother would have been the one to watch out for my social future. She would have ensured I got married, which was the next step in the plan. Now, I am on my own. I need to take care of myself.

By early 2001, I got more bad news. My father had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C. The doctors had given him two years to live. I decided to take matters into my own hands and fill this fast-widening hole in my family life. I decided I would get married. I started dating Greg, whom I had met at work. Every few weeks, I got an update from home, with a reduced life expectancy for my dad. In equal measure, my commitment to Greg went up. He had his own reasons to get married soon. He was turning thirty, which was late in his Armenian circles. We set a date for October.

One weekend in July that year, I got a call from my brother. Our father would not make it through the weekend. During that time, Greg was away with poor cellphone reception, and I couldn’t reach him. I couldn’t speak to my father either. By the end of the weekend, one year and one month after my mother’s passing, my father died. The voice in my head grew more urgent: I have been left behind; I have been abandoned. Normally, when a family member dies, the tradition in our family is to postpone celebrations for a year, especially weddings. I, on the other hand, made another decision to act. I would marry right away. I insisted I did not want to wait. Everyone agreed with the plan. My siblings were distraught with the rapid turn of events and seemed to trust my decisiveness. Greg agreed. And so, less than six months from our first date and a week after my father’s death, we were married.

Almost immediately, I knew I had made a massive mistake. Our temperaments, lifestyle, and value systems were a significant mismatch. What had I done? In my fear and insecurity, I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. I had no one to blame. This wasn’t an arranged marriage. This was on me. My determination combined with a decisiveness had led me to speed up action on a bad decision. Taking the chance to postpone the wedding when my father died would have given me time and space to reconsider. But my action orientation compelled me to act right away.

The Action Bias

Action bias is a widely researched cognitive behavioral pat- tern in humans. In their seminal work on the topic, researchers Patt and Zeckhauser define action bias as “a penchant for action...[which] is a product of non-rational behavior.” The key part of the definition is that it is a result of “non-rational behavior.”

Action bias does not discriminate by age, gender, ethnicity, or social status. Having said that, the more ambitious and determined we are, the more susceptible we are to action bias. It doesn’t matter whether our ambition is to end hate crime or to get a promotion; the more goal-oriented we become, the more we are susceptible to irrationally chasing action in order to chase results.

There are three main triggers of action bias that we will address throughout the book:

• Acting without thinking
• Overconfidence
• Regret of loss or potential loss

We will also look into indirect triggers of our action bias: how we set and pursue goals and our tendency to follow a default action playbook and create false causality between our actions and outcomes.

Action bias is not an illness or a disorder; it’s a behavioral trait. We are all familiar with some examples of irrational action, for example, reacting to an email when upset. However, biases have a tendency to operate in our subconscious. More often than not, we are unconsciously operating under the influence of action bias. And like all biases, we can choose to address action bias once we become aware of it and that it doesn’t serve us. In the chapters that follow, I will share stories and research on how each of the triggers above can create the tendency to act irrationally and ideas on how to preempt or mitigate that tendency.


1. Can you think of a time when you jumped into urgent action with undesirable results?

2. Can you think of a time when you didn’t jump into the most obvious action path, and it was a hard thing to do (or not do!)?

Book Cover showing a hamster wheel and a person break free of it.