Do what you mean and mean what you do
I don’t remember who said it, or what I had meant to do – but clearly hadn’t. Perhaps I forgot, perhaps I got distracted or busy doing something else… But I’ll never forget the visceral, even physical reaction I had when someone first said to me “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It was a casual, off-hand comment – probably just repeating some cliché he had heard and not said in a malicious way. It was perhaps odd that I hadn’t heard it before – I was, after all, probably near or around 20 as it was definitely in college. It wasn’t meant to be profound. Yet it hit me like a ton of bricks and has stuck with me all these years.
This saying doesn’t mean that having good intentions is a bad thing. Contrary to the “It’s the thought that counts” sentiment, this saying highlights that having good intentions is not enough if you don’t act on them and/or if the impact of your actions is negative. Yet setting intention can be one of the most powerful things.
At the simplest level, intent without action is irrelevant, incomplete. An intention itself is like a seed. Just having it doesn’t lead to much. Setting an intention is like planting the seed. Setting an intention is an active process of really feeling, envisioning and expecting that which you desire. But just planting the seed is the first step. For a seed to grow and flourish it needs sunshine, rain and nourishment. Your actions in alignment with the intention are just that: the sunshine, rain and nourishment.
Having great intent and even acting on it may still not be enough. We also must pay attention to the impact of our actions. Sometimes people mean to do great things but the result is actually the opposite. Or sometimes people do things without any real intent that have negative consequences, hurting others.
I heard a story once about two guys riding a double bicycle up a hill. When they get to the top of the hill, the guy in front says, “Wow, that was really tough!” “Yeah,” says the guy in back, “lucky I was braking so we never slid back down!” The guy in back had a great intention – founded on a very risk-adverse mentality – and was doing what he thought was a very useful thing. But he wasn’t actually helping them get up the hill which was the ultimate objective. He could just acknowledge this and apologize for making it harder for the guy in front.
Now this is a slippery slope… because we can’t control how anyone (let alone everyone) will interpret what we say or do. Sometimes people really do take things to mean something different than we meant. And sometimes the interpretation or reaction is really unfounded. But, there’s no harm in apologizing even if you didn’t intend the outcome. And there’s grace in accepting a genuine apology.
Living intentionally means saying no to the things that aren’t important to us so we can say yes to what matters most.
Setting an intention can be done on any level. You can set an intention for your entire life. You can set an intention each morning. You can even set an intention for a particular moment. On whatever scale, the intention is like a grounding force, if you listen to it. A way to check whether your actions are in line with your bigger purpose. Plus, having a solid intention behind an action can make it immensely more powerful and purposeful. It is the secret sauce in a recipe. It is the difference you feel when you are doing what you love vs. going through the motions.
If you’re wondering what the difference is between an intention and a goal – you’re not alone. That’s a great question and there are different interpretations. I think of intention mostly in terms of being: being compassionate, being philanthropic, being present. Being healthy, being wealthy, being worldly. It’s about how you want to live. Goals define the specific “whats” that support that life, and the “hows” to achieving those things.
I heard John Maxwell tell a story about once getting a present, a book titled “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” He was intrigued and excited to read it. Yet when he opened it, it was a blank journal with a heartfelt note. That, he says, inspired him to become the author of his life. From then he started living intentionally.
When your intention is clear, so is your path.
I titled this blog as a tweak on the common expression “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” I think living intentionally can be summed up by swapping out “do” for “say.” Implicit, hopefully. is that the first step is setting your intention. You have to know what you ‘mean’ in order to act on it. Intentional living is being purposeful, deliberate, consistent. It is taking action on your intentions. It is not leaving things up to chance, hoping and wishing. It is about defining your Greatest Story!