The most important thing I ever learned.

Intention is the key to success in modern life.

I’ve known this to be true since high school when I started racing triathlons, I learned it again when I quit college to race bikes, I learned it again when I got a job at a startup without going to college, again when I became a sales professional, and finally it made itself clear when I began working with self-directed learners at UnCollege. I was never able to articulate what I understood from my own life experience until now.


What do an artist, an entrepreneur, and an athlete all have in common? The entrepreneur makes or builds something. The artist creates or designs something. The athlete runs or does something. When you get to the core of what they do, what is there? What is that thing? Where does it start? I believe this thing has a name. It is a spark. This spark is the intention.

It was once sufficient to rely on the intention of others because the pace of change was slower. The majority could build stable lives, careers, and families off of single communities or companies. Today, I would argue that giving up on or losing touch with your own internal intentions is, in fact, a choice to live by the whim of others and constantly react to the pace of change. You must learn how to notice and listen to your intentions to find your way in life and work.

Many of us are never taught to listen to or to set our own intentions. We are left unable to learn the following steps of self-directed learning. The process is simple but important:

  1. Intention
  2. Action
  3. Feedback
  4. Reflection

How do you take control of your learning, your career, your life, and your trajectory? You create a safe space (container) to listen to your intentions through repeated trials and bouts of action.

To get started you don’t need to be right. You don’t have to be even close. You just have to listen to yourself and start answering your own questions. Fear, doubt, society, and your industrial education will tell you that you should wait to for inspiration to set your intention, wait to be given the next step or wait for some deeper moment of introspection. In practice, we learn much faster through trial and error than we do by planning.

If you look at children, artists, makers, and entrepreneurs you’ll notice that they all play. Approach your intentions with a playful mindset but make them real, make them physical. This is how you shape your intentions into aspirations. You must remember and come back to your aspirations over and over again. After repeated trials of action, feedback and reflection your aspirations will shape into outcomes and finally goals.

From this process, you will build context and story that will build a wave of momentum that you can use to power you through challenges and puzzles you would have previously never solved. For this to happen you will need a safe place to come back to and a partner to create space with. This place must have ground rules that allow you to detach yourself from your outcomes and your accomplishments so that you can confront yourself and your intentions without fear of judgment.

This is your container and every growing designer or artist or entrepreneur has one. The most important thing is not your achievement or success but rather that you show up to your container between bouts of action. You must show up to this place to reflect so that you can learn and grow from the actions you take. If this is a place of judgment where you only come if you were successful or nearly successful it simply will not work. At some point you will fail, you will be ill prepared, you will forget to do your homework or life will get in the way and you will be afraid to show up and the process will break. Intention without action is fantasy and action without reflection are opportunities wasted. You must show up to your container to allow the process to happen.

You should choose a trusted partner that you are comfortable reflecting with. Your partner might need to be an authority or guide or a facilitator or coach depending on your needs and stage of your process. The important thing is that they respect and prioritize you and the ground rules of your container over your achievements.

Choose your partner with care because it is important to stick together between milestones of growth and change to maintain continuity. Mark the beginning and ending of this relationship using a ritual that makes sense to you as we commemorate similar important relationships and stages of life and work. It is important you have a beginning an ending and a middle. This will strengthen your process.

If you can maintain your intention and show up to your container through repeated cycles of action, feedback and reflection you will begin to make physical and mental progress. Because the four steps to confidently learn from the past and move into the future are:

  1. First, restate your intention — what you wanted.
  2. Acknowledge what actually happened.
  3. Learn from your reflection and feedback.
  4. Change your behavior, learning mode or intention

Now you see why so many people are stuck. Why are so many people lost after university or the loss of a single all-encompassing job? They lost touch with their own intentions and their own learning process.

I’m not saying that this knowledge will make you impervious to the trials and tribulations of life. But I am saying it’s a process and if you know the process, you can begin to learn how to think and act and you can apply it, again and again, to get unstuck in your career and life. If you believe that behavior change is a skill (it is) then you can get better and better at running this process in your work and life and art.

Mark Twain said, “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education”. It is possible to go to college and never learn. It is possible to walk through life and never wake up. It is likely most people will never build a relationship with their intentions and aspirations let alone shape those aspirations into outcomes they can visualize, goals they can achieve and next steps they can take. It is possible to never re-engage what your intentions were after about or trial or semester or job or quarter or year. It is possible then to never acknowledge what actually happened.

This isn’t new. The artists, creators, and builders we deitize have known about this process and have made it their own. What is new is the pace of change and how quickly you can lose sight of your own intentions on the busy noisy streets of life.

What happens if this is you now? You are out of touch with yourself and the world around you lost, disengaged, drifting or stuck. Stuck in a job you don’t want, stuck by physical constraints that seem to bind you, stuck in debt or doubt. You are left to rely mostly on the feedback of other people and communities. You are constantly changing for them or simply trying to keep up.

You start with a year on in life where you create a learning process of your own. You don’t wait until January or a milestone event like graduation or a heart attack to spur you to action. You start today by asking what is success to me? You look around for your intentions and aspirations and you develop a system for prioritizing the feedback that matters to you (values).

Over time you will construct your container, define your constraints, and how you define success. By taking ownership of your learning process and building a relationship with your intentions, taking action, gathering feedback and reflecting on yourself and your progress you will get unstuck again and again in work and life.

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