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Intentions vs actions: 5 reasons why your intentions don’t matter

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

It 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 five 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. It’s worth reading the email exchange in full, but I’ll summarize it here for you.

Harris argued that Chomsky has never thought about the ethical importance of intentions when it comes to American foreign policy. To make his case, 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.”

In this case, Harris is asking us to evaluate the Clinton administration more favorably because they didn’t intend for Sudanese children to die, whereas Al Qaeda did intend for Americans to die from their attacks on 9/11.

Chomsky was brutal in his response to Harris. 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.”

Chomsky is comparing the US with Japanese fascists during the Second World War. Both regimes had self-professed good intentions. They both wanted to create a world of peace, based on their own political and economic systems.

This point already exposes the futility of judging the US based on their intentions. If we judge the US in this way, we should also judge all imperial regimes in history for whatever their intentions were.

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

We don’t do this, for obvious reasons.

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.”

In this passage, Chomsky highlights the reality of Clinton’s intentions when he directed the bombing of the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan.

The US didn’t even factor in the collateral damage of their attack in their intentions. The thousands of Sudanese deaths resulting from losing access to medicine wasn’t a consideration.

Chomsky argues that we should judge actors based on the consequences of their actions, without reference to their intentions, or the ideology which shapes their intentions.

Intentions must be aligned with actions

The exchange between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky shows me the importance of aligning intentions with actions, especially in the modern age.

What is an intention? It is a guiding principle or vision that guides your thoughts, attitudes, choices, and actions.

An intention on its own simply makes us feel good for the beliefs we have. Intentions only become relevant when aligned with actions.

With the rise of social media, it seems easier than ever for us to express our intentions to each other. During the recent black lives matter protests, millions of people expressed support for the movement.

But what actions are they undertaking? Are they contributing to civil society actors trying to impact policy? After joining the protests, do the people professing good intentions get active in their local communities and lobby for change?

Many people are engaging in effective action, aligned with the intentions they have for equality and dignity for all races. But many people profess good intentions without doing anything about them.

For me, I judge myself and others on their actions.

The reason is simple:

It’s easy to profess good intentions based on the beliefs we have about who we are. It’s far more informative to take a look at our actions and the actions of the people around us.

Political identity based on intentions

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

The media rarely holds politicians to account. It’s easier to report on what politicians say they’ll do than go through the diligent research required to evaluate the actions of politicians over time.

But rather than judge someone based on ideology (or professed intentions), we should get into the habit of looking at the consequences that result from actions.

Intentions do provide the guiding framework for our actions. Political ideology can be evaluated and discussed. But intentions without actions won’t interact with the physical world.

Intentions 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.

5 reasons to start focusing on your actions right now

I believe the most essential commitment you can make to yourself is to live life as though your actions are more important than your intentions.

Good intentions help to provide a guiding framework for your life. But it’s very easy to get lost in our intentions.

In the online workshop Out of the Box, Rudá Iandê talks about the dangers of mental masturbation. He explains how we can easily become lost in our dreams for the future, distracting us from taking action with the resources we have available to us right now.

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people like Rudá who don’t get lost in intentions, instead emphasizing our actions. It’s resulted in a much more fulfilling life for me.

There are five key consequences to living a life focused on action.

1. How you treat people is what matters

I began this article by focusing on intentions and ideology.

The thing is, intentions and ideology also justify how we treat people.

In my case, I tend to get busy with my work. I become obsessed with the next stage of Ideapod’s development.

My intentions are good. Ideapod has the potential to be a positive force in the world.

But when I get so busy, I can slip into the habit of thinking my work is more important than the lives of people around me. I can lose touch with friends. I become grumpy and am probably not such a tolerable person to be around.

If I judged myself for my intentions, I wouldn’t question my behavior.

Instead, because I don’t focus on my intentions, I am more able to reflect on my actions and change how I behave. I am learning to slow down and appreciate the people in my life.

How you treat people is what matters, not the intentions that drive your behavior.

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2. Judge yourself for what you’re pursuing in life (not why you’re pursuing it)

Nietzsche has a famous quote: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”

The “Why” in this quote refers to the intentions you have. The “Why” is essential, but only when you judge yourself for the actions you’re undertaking in pursuing your “Why.”

I fell into the trap of judging myself for my intentions in the early days of building Ideapod. My co-founder and I used to tell everyone that we were aiming to organize the world’s collective intelligence, just as Google organized the world’s information. We were doing this so that ideas could more easily change the world. We even spoke about upgrading human consciousness (without really knowing what that even means).

Big mission. Fantastic intentions.

But the reality was that what we were building was far from the sincere intentions we had. I had to get out of the habit of judging myself for the positive intentions I had and instead needed to learn to evaluate my actions consistently.

Now, I feel great fulfillment in life for focusing on much smaller actions. I still want to positively impact the lives of people who interact with Ideapod. It’s not changing the world the way I originally intended Ideapod to do. But it’s having a more positive impact now than it ever did in the past.

3. Surround yourself with people who collectively act in concert with you (not those who share your intentions)

This was a hard lesson to learn.

I used to be wrapped up in the world of intentions and ideology. I believed I was changing the world, and I loved associating with people who shared similar ideas to me.

It was addictive. The people I associated with made me feel good about who I thought I was, and vice versa.

Over the last few years of shifting from focusing on intentions to actions, I started to change the people I spend time with. It wasn’t so much about what we said as opposed to the actions we were undertaking.

Now that I focus more on actions than intentions, it’s easier to identify the kinds of people I can work with. We’re able to act in concert together.

For me, the magic of bringing ideas to life comes from acting in concert with like-minded people.

My good intentions gave me the excuse to keep the wrong people in my life. When I started focusing on action, I quickly learned who was up for the challenge of working hard and who wanted to escape the reality of hard work and keep living their lives based on intentions.

4. Love is based on action, not feeling

In our free masterclass on love and intimacy, Rudá Iandê shared a profound thought: “Love is much more than an emotion. Feeling love is just part of the game. But it’s too shallow if you do not honor it through actions.”

Us westerners can easily grow up bewitched with the idea of “romantic love”. In our movies, we often see images of a romantic couple, walking hand-in-hand along the beach, with the sun setting gently in the background.

The thing is, these ideas of “romantic love” often filter the way we view our relationships. We want desperately for the partner in front of us to fit with the vision we always have for the true love we would finally find.

These concepts of love form the basis for the intentions we have for our relationships.

In the masterclass, Rudá encourages you to face up to these intentions, so that you evaluate love by looking at your actions and the actions of your partner.

The greatest moments of love didn’t come from the way he felt, but from how he acted in certain situations.

6. The way you live your life is what really matters

I decided in the last few years that the way I live my life is more important than my reasons for living it.

The life I have created is the sum of my creative expressions and acts. My intentions have provided the guiding framework for my life, but when I look back, it’s my actions that really matter.

I believe we’re living through an age when it’s never been so easy to get attention for the intentions we have. We can share a Facebook post with our thoughts about an issue and feel validated for the likes and shares we receive.

Our actions don’t get as much attention. They’re more difficult to explain.

Sam Harris says that ethically speaking, intention is nearly the whole story. I don’t think this is appropriate when it comes to American foreign policy. It’s also inappropriate when designing the life we want to live.

Your actions are what matters. Judge yourself for what you’ve done, not for what you’re intending to do. Without action, the best intentions in the world are nothing more than that: intentions.

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Written by Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibly.

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