Many of us think that, as long as we have good intentions, whatever we do will work out well. But if you have ever accomplished a goal and then were surprised there was no joy in the achievement, you know that’s not the case.
Anyone who has ever had an overbearing parent say to them, “I’m just doing these things because I want the best for you,” knows that quite often what they’re doing, despite their good intention, did not end up helping you.
There is a saying that has puzzled me for a long time. It says, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” For a long time, I thought, “How is that possible? How could good intentions lead to hell?” It puzzled me. And when I asked others if they understood what it meant, I never met anyone who did. They usually said, “Yeah, I’ve heard that saying, but I don’t really know what it means.”
When I began my counseling work, I had to figure out what that statement meant. Why? Because I saw over time that every single one of my clients was suffering due to a lack of understanding of the relationship between intentions and outcomes. What does this mean?
It means we have a hard time seeing what we’re doing! We intend to be happy and fulfilled, yet we end up creating an entirely different outcome.
We have the power to create suffering and we have the power to create happiness. So, it’s really important to not be confused about the nature of our own activity. We need to know what we’re doing, and how that activity relates to the results we get – the outcome.
There are 3 parts to any creative activity
- Every activity begins with an intention, an aspiration, that immediately projects the desired outcome.
- To get from that intention to an outcome, we need to follow the correct strategy.
- To ensure that our strategy is the correct one, we need to make a plan, and then examine it to see if it’s likely to work. Our strategy doesn’t have to be perfect; it just needs to make good logical sense.
Unfortunately, we often get so excited about the intention and the outcome that we rush into action before we’re clear about our plan. We’re in such a hurry that we don’t pay enough attention to, or give enough respect to, developing a proper strategy to proceed from Point A (intention) to Point B (the desired outcome).
What Is a True Intention?
How can we know what our true intentions are? In my experience, first we have to determine if what we want is really what WE want, or if it’s coming from outside us, such as a childhood program. Such programs often override our true intentions. “I love art and want to be a painter, but I have to be a doctor like my father and his father before him.”
Simply asking, “Why? Do you really have to do that? What if you didn’t?” can be revelatory. That’s because such programs typically go unexamined. We treat them as basic truths about US, when really, they’re only someone else’s hopes and dreams.
So how can we recognize when an intention is true? Look for the joy! True intentions generate feelings of joy, enthusiasm, and zest for life. Programmed intentions generate anxiety and stress because they really belong to someone else –– usually someone we’re afraid to disappoint.
Simply asking ourselves, “What would be so terrible about that person being disappointed?” can help us see past the veneer of a flimsy intention.
Let’s say you land on your True Intention. What’s the next step? You need to know what you’re doing. Before you leap forward, you determine whether your strategy –– what you plan to do –– makes sense, or not. Then you can proceed with joy and enthusiasm toward your intended outcome!
Strategy is a Path You Travel, According to Cause and Effect
1. Once you’ve examined your strategy and found it to be a reasonable plan, stay alert. Pay attention to the feedback you get, step by step, and be willing to recognize when your assumptions are shown to have been wrong.
2. When you notice a mistake, learn everything you can from it. Then adjust your assumptions accordingly.
3. If things seem to be going well, don’t lose your attention to detail. Remember that each step you take is a cause, and that a cause produces a certain result. If you stop paying careful attention to the results you’re getting, you can quickly veer off course.
A Story of Leadership and Fellowship
A client I worked with was struggling in a managerial position. They wanted to eliminate what had become a sadly toxic work environment.
Instead of so much tension at work, this leader wanted each member of their team to feel happy with themselves and see the value in the work they were doing. It was honorable work, so this wasn’t a stretch; it seemed quite achievable. They wanted everyone on the team to have mutual respect and enjoy working together. They were confident that these were wonderful intentions.
This leader decided to describe all of the excellent goals they envisioned for their team. And they assumed all members would be on board. Furthermore, as they laid out all these goals in a team meeting, everyone did seem to be on board and even excited.
But the office environment didn’t get any better. People kept coming to the weekly meeting with lots of complaints. The manager needed to figure out what was missing in their plan. Walking around the office, watching and listening, they discovered that people were so hooked into old fearful patterns, that they didn’t see the available options for acting in accord with the new aspirations they had all agreed to.
This leader began to realize that you can’t just give people a heartfelt vision and expect it to change their behavior. No matter how good a vision may make us feel, we have to be taught how to change habitual thoughts and actions that don’t really serve us. We have to be shown new, alternative ways of thinking and acting in accord with our goals. And then we need to practice those new habits daily.
When the manager realized this, they changed the agenda of the meetings from “all business.” They began to include time for sharing with each other about their inner lives. The more they did this, the more they began to recognize their shared humanity and feel tenderness toward each other. Instead of protecting their personal territory in a constant competition, they started reaching out to each other to offer and ask for support.
Having a felt sense of their humanity and their shared challenges made it easy for the team to accomplish the vision they had all agreed to earlier. Not only that, but the team members began to feel a much greater sense of enjoyment and meaning in their work.
In what had once been a toxic workplace, laughter and lightheartedness was now a daily occurrence.
The shift this leader and their team made –– from fearful competition and mistrust to mutual support –– reminded me of a video clip I saw once, of a children’s sprinting event.
At the sound of the starter bell, all of the children leaped off the line and into a full run. But after a few seconds, one of the racers fell. And instead of racing past their fallen friend to get to the finish line first, all of the children stopped and ran back to give the fallen racer a hand and help them to their feet. Then all of the kids resumed running until they crossed the finish line together, their faces glowing with joy.
And . . . Remember that everything changes
If you cultivate this kind of heart and friendship, you are best prepared for the unforeseeable aspects of life. You might make all the right moves to acquire your perfect dream home, for example, only to have it destroyed in a flash by a tornado or a fire. At times such as those, our friendly connections sustain us, and their great value is palpable.
A mature understanding that significant conditions are always out of our control keeps us humble and grateful and remembering to develop fellowship.
Life and intelligence are fragile gifts we are receiving moment by moment. The theistic way of expressing this might be, “My intentions are true, and my actions are clear. By the grace of God, may I be successful.” Such an attitude, whether theistic or otherwise, helps us avoid anxiety and self-pity at those times when our plans don’t work out.
Practice starting your day with gratitude and wonder, knowing that your life and intelligent awareness are a gift, and that your ability to use them is also a gift. Stay grounded in this type of appreciation as you discover your true intentions and how to accomplish them in fellowship with others.