6 brutally honest reasons why your intentions don’t matter, but your actions do

In the world I live in, intentions mean very little. Your actions do, though.

This seems obvious. We’re living during a time of constant propaganda and lies, so it makes sense to judge people based on what they do rather than what they say or intend to do.

We could take this further.

What matters to me even more so than your actions is the consequences of your actions. This means that intentions do matter, but only insofar as they cause you to engage in actions that make your life and the lives of people around you better.

Below I’ve shared 6 reasons why your actions are way more important than your intentions. But first, I want to share what provoked this article.

Sam Harris: The podcaster who believes what you think matters more than what you do

Seeing as I think it’s fairly obvious that actions matter more than intentions, I was surprised to discover that the American author and podcast host Sam Harris believes that “ethically speaking, intention is (nearly) the whole story.”

Harris is the author of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion and is an incredibly popular modern day public intellectual. He’s followed by millions of people.

I encountered Harris’s perspective on intentions in his fascinating email exchange with Noam Chomsky.

Harris tried to argue that Chomsky has never thought about the ethical importance of intentions when it comes to American foreign policy. Harris suggested that the 9/11 terrorist attacks (killing several thousand people) were far worse than Bill Clinton’s bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory (resulting in the deaths of over 10,000 people), because of the difference of intentions.

Here’s what Harris said:

“What did the U.S. government think it was doing when it sent cruise missiles into Sudan? Destroying a chemical weapons site used by Al Qaeda. Did the Clinton administration intend to bring about the deaths of thousands of Sudanese children? No.”

The families of the tens of thousands of people killed by Clinton’s bombing would unlikely be comforted with the knowledge that Clinton’s intentions were pure.

Chomsky was brutal in his response to Harris (and I encourage you to read the dialogue in full). He wrote that if Harris had have done some more research, he would have discovered that in fact Chomsky has spent decades considering the intentions of foreign powers in their imperial acts:

“You would have discovered that I also reviewed the substantial evidence about the very sincere intentions of Japanese fascists while they were devastating China, Hitler in the Sudetenland and Poland, etc. There is at least as much reason to suppose that they were sincere as Clinton was when he bombed al-Shifa. Much more so in fact. Therefore, if you believe what you are saying, you should be justifying their actions as well.”

Can you imagine the outcry if we were asked to judge Nazi Germany on the consequences of their actions based on the intentions of Hitler?

This for me strikes to the heart of what’s wrong in the modern day and age.

We’re so quick to justify our own worldview based on intentions rather than the actions we’re carrying out. It’s most pronounced in the political landscape, where politicians will say one thing and then go ahead and do another.

But rather than judge something based on ideology (or professed intentions), we should instead examine the consequences that result from actions.

I think that in general we are so focused on our intentions and don’t pay enough attention to what we’re actually doing with our lives.

Having good intentions is an important part of the story; but our intentions don’t interact with the physical world. They don’t shape society, culture and the planet.

Our actions do.

It’s time to start living our lives based on our actions and not our intentions.

6 reasons to start focusing on your actions right now

Here are 7 reasons to start focusing on your actions right now, as reported by Paul Hudson.

1. You’re defined by how you treat people, not by how you justify your treatment of them

Just as every government has an ideology that drives justification of its policies, we also have our own narratives for why we treat people in certain ways.

Yet these narratives change over time. But the way we treat people will live on.

2. You’re defined by what you pursue in life, not by your reasons for pursuing them

I used to fall into this trap in the early days of building Ideapod. I would tell everyone that we were building a place to organize the world’s collective intelligence so that ideas could be better put to use. I even used to speak about upgrading human consciousness (without really knowing what that even means).

Now, I’m much happier to be judged on what I’m actually in life as opposed to the reasons for why it mattered. It’s incredibly liberating and has given me extra freedom to get things done.

3. You’re defined by the people you surround yourself with, not by your excuses for keeping the wrong people around

This was a hard lesson to learn. Over the last few years, I consciously made sure that the people I spend time with shared my values about actions mattering more than intentions.

It created a big shift. My friends now are the kinds of people who get things done rather than constantly talk about getting things done.

I had many excuses for keeping the wrong people around me. Usually these excuses were tied to my reasons for what I was pursuing.

Once I let go of these reasons, I didn’t need to make any excuses for the people in my life.

4. You’re defined by your beliefs, not by why you believe them

It matters way more what you believe than the reason you believe something. You can’t live life justifying your beliefs by explaining that your parents taught you something, or that’s how you were educated. You are an individual and you have the autonomy to change what you believe.

5. You’re defined by the way you love, not how you feel when you love

The shaman Rudá Iandé said to me once that his greatest moments of love didn’t come from the way he felt, but from how he acted in certain situations.

This was something I needed to hear. As I’ve written about before, I’m 36 and still single. I feel like this fairy tale emotion of love is absent from my life.

But when I look back at how I treat people, I can see that the love is there (and sometimes it’s not – I’m working on this!). It’s there because it’s actions of love that matter far more than how it feels.

6. You’re defined by the life you create, not by the excuses you manage to adopt along the way

Nothing defines you more than the life you have created for yourself. It is the sum of all your creative expressions and acts, your passions, your beliefs and your choices.

Despite what Sam Harris suggests, it doesn’t matter what you intended to create. It does matter what happened from your actions.

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  1. Marie Green

    Yes, I agree actions speak louder than words. Simultaneously, it all matters stemming from the concept that thoughts lead to words lead to action or inaction. Final results come from actions within daily habits compounded over time, or in the extreme examples above from poor choices in implementing action based on false intention, a facade if you will for ulterior motives?

  2. Debra

    Excellent, EXCELLENT article. There is just one thing though: You need an editor. In your paragraph header, you refer to “seven…reasons.” in the very next sentence, you refer to “six…reasons.” At any rate, I just thought I would just send you a friendly “heads up.”
    Thank you for Ideapod!

    1. Justin Brown Post author

      I couldn’t find where we referred to seven reasons in any paragraph header. Can you advise where this is?

  3. Mike Herzog

    Hmmm. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a live where people would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. That dream was his intention. Does it mean that he was a failure for never realizing this dream into reality? Of course, not. Intentions matter tremendously. Sometimes outcomes are beyond our control. If we get too hung up on outcomes we can swing the pendulum too far in the other direction.

    I don’t think Sam Harris was trying to say that actions and consequences don’t matter. He was simply saying that understanding intentions is crucial. It’s been a while since I heard that conversation, but I remember something like this…If the US intends to bomb a high value target and there are unanticipated outcomes such that a non-combatant is killed, should this be distinguished from someone who intentionally kills non-combatants without regard? I think the answer is yes, these two scenarios can and should be distinguished. It is reasonable and right to scrutinize the intentions that underpin behaviors. To ignore intentions is to ignore a significant amount of relevant data.

    I think you are trying to point out that “actions speak louder than words.” I agree with that. However, intentions matter and to ignore them is a mistake, IMHO.

  4. O Solheim

    More falsehoods. For sure actions matter, but. There are no actions without It, so to say this as a fact is a falsehood. It is a contradictory statement at least. There may be things said which give the impression of Intention, but if not followed by action. There are none intention. If none intentions noting will happen. To say “…honest Reason why your intentions don’t matter, but your actions do.” Is wrong. Thinking do not matter in many things, but intentions do, they are different terms. If it was none intentions none of the above mentioned thing would have happen. The 6 things above is right, but it do not take away intentions. So. The intention behind the article above is questionable. The action of it is noted thinking. There consequenses of actions and none of undone intentions. There are also, most likely, an angeling issue here. The heading meat it self in the door.

  5. Pamela Gold

    I think you are missing a vital level of depth in this discussion, which is a huge opportunity for empowerment. No one (of the sages) is ever saying actions don’t matter, nor saying that just by having intentions in one moment but then being in the next moment and no longer acting in alignment with those intentions would ever be in integrity or a demonstration of higher principles… but what the sages are saying is that the spirit behind our actions in the moment of the action is of the highest importance, and then the results will be a combination of what level of wisdom/skillfulness we were employing while taking the action, AND the collective flow of ALL — that is why we talk about owning the process, and not living or dying by the results. Do your best in the process and surrender the outcome, get back up and do it again. As I say, do your best, surrender the rest. I usually love your stuff, just felt called to chime in here because all of this is of the utmost importance. If we act from a place of love, intending to be of service for the greater good (not our ego!) always, the outcome will be as positive as possible based on how wise and skilled we are at what we are doing. The outcome will teach us more how to be more skillful and wise in the face of the collective truth of what we are dealing with.

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