More often than we care to admit, intention accomplishes nothing. Yet for some reason it has become imbued with a sense of magical fairy dust.
Intention is everything.
Set your intention and the rest will follow.
But intention isn't everything. It's a sometimes thing. And even as a sometimes thing, it's one small step along the way to the sometimes thing. And even as a small step along the way to the sometimes thing, there are a few things to consider if it's going to have any sort of useful impact.
When I first thought about writing this piece, I scribbled this metaphor into my journal.
Intention is a load of horse shit. Very useful for fertilizing your own fields so your crops will grow. But blast the neighbors with it, and it might end up in their swimming pool.
And really, that metaphor still sums up my three main issues with the word's overuse and misuse.
But first, let's take a look at why intention works. Sort of.
Why it Works, When it Works
Or, and I would argue more accurately, intention, in some situations, acts as a subtle, organizing impulse that helps guide one's actions.
If George sets an intention to find a new job in the next six months and then gets a new job in the next six months, chances are that he actually did some searching for a new job, talked with people about wanting a new job, applied and even interviewed for at least one job before getting hired.
So, was it George's intention that got him his new job? Maybe. A little bit, yes. At least it was a first step.
But what about Joe? Joe also set an intention to find a new job in the next six months, but that was three years ago. Joe has submitted twice as many applications and interviewed for three times as many new positions, but the positions have always gone to someone else.
Is Joe not wielding his intention correctly or strongly enough? Or is it possible that multiple other factors could have come into play for both of these characters? Maybe various components of skill, privilege, opportunity, and luck.
Should we judge or evaluate George's capacity for intention differently than Joe's?
Intention means we don't have to think about specific goals or have a clear plan.
When envisioning a change, we don't always have enough information about how things will play out. So, there's some good in this. Intention, at times, stands in as a soft goal. There's an emerging or evolving quality to it.
I really, really want this and I have no idea yet how I'm going to make it happen, but right now I'm going to start figuring it out.
I know I want something different with my life (or to react differently to this person at work who always pisses me off) and I recognize it's going to take some time to figure it out, but I'm setting an intention that things will change.
Cool. So an intention can be like a thought or an idea that is to be further explored. It's a starting point with a vague idea of an end point. If this has that subtle organizing effect that we talked about above, this might get a person somewhere.
Three Rules to Follow
Intentions work well when they are about the person making them.
My intention is to be more kind to people at the office.
Awesome. That's a great intention.
My intention is to be more kind to people at the office so that they will listen to me more often in staff meetings.
That's where intention goes wrong. When an intention for ourselves gets mixed up with a desire or goal about how others will respond to us, it's no longer intention. It's an agenda.
Of course, it's quite reasonable to imagine a correlation between one's ability and tendency to be kind to others and the way that others will respond to us.
My intention is to be more kind to people at the office and notice if there are any differences in how my coworkers respond to me.
Now that might guide a person's actions, change the way a person shows up in their interactions, and likely bring about some interesting discoveries.
2. Intention without reflection is worthless.
If you take away only one thing from this piece, I hope it would be this.
Intention is a step. One. Small. Step.
This is true whether an intention exists in relation to interpersonal interactions, to how one shows up for their coworkers, clients or patients in the workplace, to the completion of a specific action, or around a desire to create some sort of change in one's life.
Sometimes, in spite of all best intentions, what follows goes very wrong.
- A friend's feelings get hurt, even when we didn't intend for that to happen.
- A client or coworker is disappointed with our work, even though we had every intention of meeting their expectations.
- That new life/job/artistic endeavor we were intentioning our way toward never became anything more than that, an intention untouched by the fairy gods.
How we show up in the moments when intention seems to have gone wrong has huge significance.
There's a question that I have heard so often it scares me.
If my intention was to be helpful (or kind or supportive) but their feelings got hurt, that's not my fault, right?
Wrong. Okay, it's not exactly a blame thing, but you are still part of the interaction. Part of the interpersonal equation of human communication, values, perceptions, beliefs, and emotions.
If you need validation that you aren't a terrible person. Fine, I'm pretty sure you aren't a terrible person.
But you still have to show up. You still have to be willing to listen to how your words or actions were perceived by another person and had an impact that you didn't anticipate.
Even if the other person's reaction is so strong that they aren't able to engage in an interaction like this, you can still show up.
Reflect on the various ways that your good intentions went wrong. Allow yourself to observe, to see, to feel the nuances of misunderstanding, miscalculation of outcome, and emotional reactions. Yours and anyone else involved.
- You might notice the moment you didn't actually listen when another person was talking.
- It's possible you'll notice that your actions weren't very well aligned with your intention. Maybe you had the intention of learning to paint, but never bought supplies or signed up for a class or even watched a youtube video on painting.
- Or, maybe you'll notice that another person's emotional reaction is causing a very different emotional reaction within yourself. It's possible that your desire to consider this not your fault is built around your own insecurities, your own reaction patterns.
- It's also possible you might notice an underlying value behind your intention that you hadn't been aware of. Maybe you'll realize that value clashed with another person's very different values from your own.
There are thousands of things you might notice. Each one leading toward a reflection, a re-evaluation of intention, and a willingness to look at whether your actions, your participation was really aligned with your intentions.
Whatever you learn, don't let intention be the last step. Let it be the first one, a continually re-evaluated one. Let it set you up to try again, differently.
3. Use the right word.
There are times when intention is the right word. It can represent a direction of focus, an emerging goal or plan, an organizing impulse to guide one's actions and decisions.
But there are times when it acts as a decoy. And we get caught by a pretty, shiny fairy-dusting wand that distracts us from a different reality.
Here's a list of words that I find are often more accurate, more specific, and more useful for me than intention.
It's okay to have goals. To have desired outcomes. To have agendas. All of these things are very useful in different contexts.
It's okay to explore thoughts and ideas that you feel might be really important to you or represent some big shift in your life.
It's also okay to have aspirations, a vision for yourself, a desire for a different future.
It's okay to want to bring attention to something in your own life or in an environment that you are a part of.
But call them what they are. Notice what changes.