Intentions vs actions: 6 reasons why your intentions don’t matter

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 even more than your actions are 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 Clinton’s didn’t intend for them to die. Yet this was the result of his actions.

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.”

Addressing Clinton’s bombing of Sudan directly, Chomsky wrote:

“Clinton bombed al-Shifa in reaction to the Embassy bombings, having discovered no credible evidence in the brief interim of course, and knowing full well that there would be enormous casualties. Apologists may appeal to undetectable humanitarian intentions, but the fact is that the bombing was taken in exactly the way I described in the earlier publication which dealt the question of intentions in this case, the question that you claimed falsely that I ignored: to repeat, it just didn’t matter if lots of people are killed in a poor African country, just as we don’t care if we kill ants when we walk down the street. On moral grounds, that is arguably even worse than murder, which at least recognizes that the victim is human. That is exactly the situation.”

Can you imagine the public outcry if we were asked to judge Nazi Germany based on their intentions, rather than their actions?

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

If we can accept the idea that our actions matter more than our intentions, we start to live life in a different way.

We start to shift our focus from what we are saying and how people respond to what we say we’ll do. We focus more on the actions we’re undertaking, and even more importantly the consequences of our actions.

Here are six reasons why it’s important to focus on the actions you’re undertaking in life, as opposed to your intentions.

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).

These were my reasons for pursuing my mission of building Ideapod. But the reality was very different.

Now, I’m much happier to be judged on what I’m actually doing 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 once told me 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. 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.

Last year I recorded the following video about why setting intentions doesn’t matter as much as our habits, routines and actions. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Notable replies

  1. @eleprocon I’ve been thinking about #lovestory and a theme I think worth exploring is covered in this article.

    Handwritten love letters is a really beautiful idea. Putting more consciousness (our awareness) into how we communicate can only be a good thing.

    However, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about intention vs action. About how ultimately, our thoughts aren’t all that important. What matters are our actions.

    When you think of it that way, expressing the love we feel for others isn’t all that important - whether that be through handwritten letters or whatever technology we have at our disposal. Rather, it’s how we behave, how we treat them, when we’re not even thinking about it at all.

    What do you think? I know you put a big emphasis on words.

    Also, have you read the article above? It’s one of my favorite on Ideapod. I think the way Sam Harris behaved in this exchange, and how we speaks about it afterwards, is truly deplorable.

  2. @justinbrown not so sure it is so easy to contextualize this notion into such a simple statement… “our thoughts or intent are irrelevant while our actions tell the entire story.”

    This seems like another statement that sends us into the tailspin of what comes first the thought or the action?

    I’m not convinced there are any clear demarcations between our thoughts and actions.

    It may well be that our inability to think clearly and articulate those thoughts with the best words (and intention) that incite the receiver are what lead to an action, inaction or reaction that will set the tone for how the actions are interpreted… which rekindles the cycle once again.

    I think the biggest challenge we each have is interpreting truth. Who’s truth and how we received it.

    Whether it is guised in thought, words or actions.

    For me this conversation loops back on the topic of duality and how we seem to reduce things to black and white, good and evil, right or wrong…

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