I’m a cheerleader for creative action. Getting things done. Making ideas happen. But I want meaningful things done. And I want to make ideas happen with the right intention. Some people might argue that intentions don’t matter and are a waste of time. Instead of making intentions, just act. Ship ideas out. Granted, intentions without actions are of no use. But the right intention with the right action can make for a doubly powerful creative life.
Action is the what and intention is the how that informs the what. An intention gives action flavor, flare, and integrity. Anyone can flail their arms and jiggle their legs and shake their hips when music plays, but how a person executes a move can distinguish a good dancer from a great dancer. Likewise, anyone can scratch words across paper, but the voice and verve that infuse an image or string out a sentence, in part, distinguishes a good writer from a great writer. Likewise, a lot of creative professionals can spin out ideas and market their wares. But how you do so day in and day out will likely distinguish the creative who crashes within the next ten years from the one who thrives and masters not just a craft but also a creative life.
Consider how the right intention influences some corporations. Several businesses are leaping on the social responsibility bandwagon. The IKEA foundation has contributed millions to bringing clean electricity to people in India and East Africa. Intel has helped conserve billions of gallons of water. It would be easy to be cynical and claim that these companies are simply cashing in on customers’ desires to do good in the world. But the truth is more complex.
Granted, there’s profit in charity. But millions of people with really cool ideas are also benefiting – including my neighbors at the Rosendale Theatre Collective who received $50,000 to help transform an established historic cinema theatre into a collective community performance and educational space that now offers ongoing programs such Dance Film Sundays and an Artist’s New Work Forum. And the truth is that several CEOs and CMOs have vision and desire to do good in the world. With L3Cs, social business, socially conscious companies, and for-benefit organizations popping up, doing business as usual no longer means simply making a buck.
In fact, profit without purpose makes for a world of sad jacks. Dan Pink lays this fact out in a section of his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead Books 2010). He describes how a team of psychologists tracked students at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, and quickly compared to students who had extrinsic aspirations, such as the need to succeed outward, acquire material wealth, build a certain number of companies, with the students who had intrinsic aspirations and wanted to ultimately learn, discover, and feel fulfilled.
“One of the reasons for anxiety and depression in the high attainers,” psychologist Richard Ryan, told Pink, “is that they’re not having good relationships. They’re busy making money and attending to themselves and that means that there’s less room in their lives for love and attention and caring and empathy and the things that really count.”
The things that really count. That is what right intention is meant for.
So you might have a goal to earn $300k this year or to meet with twenty clients a week (all a part of your “what”). What about the “how?” How do you reach down in your core to bring these ideas to fruition? Can you create one or more intentions drawn from your best self if not your genius – that will inform your actions? Can you bring the intention of joy, delight, and wonder into your work? Can you intend to act in ways that build meaningful relationships and deep long-term connections?
Intention gives actions purpose, and that purpose will help insure you don’t burn out. An intention plants a seed, a suggestion that may manifest that very day, or in the next two weeks, or a month later. Not incidentally, action with intention also stimulates more portions of the brain and can lead to actual changes in our neuronal pathways (1), so we create and act with more mind and brain, literally.
In this way, intention deepens volition – the capacity to get things done and to become a creative action figure. Working with intention is a simple, effective way to re-train the automatic mind and to re-engage with unconscious emotion, gut feelings, unconscious impulses, and physiological functions that comprise about 95% of what we call the “mind.”
Ask yourself these intention questions, as you shape your creative purpose:
You can introduce each work day with an intention question. Intentions will help shape your purpose and contribute to the overall quality of your work.
Each day I ask myself, “What am I writing for? What am I consulting for? The “What” instead of the “why” puts me in a receptive, present-tense mode, and helps me to focus on my mission, leading me to be more purpose-driven in my day-to-day work.
It’s an admittedly intuitive process, but imagination and intuition are faculties that will sustain our creative actions. Working with intention gets us closer to the province of wonder and opens our minds to purpose.
(1) M. P. Kilgard and M.M. Merzenich. 1998. “Cortical map reorganization enabled by nucleus basalis activity.” Science, 279 (5357): 1714-18. And Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D., The Mind & the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. HarperCollins: NY, 2002.
Originally published on Psychology Today.