There is an old saying that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” The phrase enters the English language through Saint Francis de Sales (1604), who attributes it to Saint Bernard (although apparently it doesn’t actually appear in St. Bernard’s known works). The original French expression, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “ l'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs,” which translates as “Hell is full of good intentions and wishes.” I rather like this rendering, as it puts me in mind of recent controversies over extending “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings or Donald Trump tossing rolls of paper towels to hurricane victims. It is one thing to express good wishes and quite another thing to actually do something constructive to address a problem.
I think another version of the proverb is even more clear. This iteration is attributed to Sir Antonio de Guevara, taken from a letter to Charles the Fifth, which reads (as rendered into English by Edward Hellowes in 1574), “Hell is full of good desires; and heauen is full of good workes.” English industriousness and American pragmatism naturally gravitate towards this sort of sentiment: heaven, it seems, is for the doers, not the well-wishers. But we all know that it can be difficult to make the leap between wanting to do something good (intention) and actually making it happen (action).
It is hard to think of any good action that does not first begin as a thought in someone’s head. Maybe creatives don’t need a complete roadmap to the finished product, but getting any plan going does require at least the germ of an idea, whether we are talking about a new invention, a new company, or a charitable endeavor. It seems that heaven must borrow from hell, so to speak, to take some of those good intentions and translate them into something concrete in the world. Or maybe we are all caught halfway between heaven and hell, between our partially-realized plans and our utopian imaginings. The million dollar question is how we get better at taking good ideas and rendering them into working solutions.
Writers know that it is easy to come up with ideas for books: the hard part is having the discipline to sit down and get the words onto the page. Entrepreneurs know that it is easy to come up with an idea for a company: the hard part is executing that plan and making it profitable. Students know that it is easy to wish for an A in a class: the hard part is putting in the work to do well on tests and papers. The bridge between idea and execution is made up of the things that we do along the way, the habits that we cultivate each day. Having good habits is no guarantee of success: one can be creative and hardworking and still fail miserably. But the person who acts is able to take the hell-fired bricks of good thoughts and turn them into the celestial mansions of good works.
Philosophers distinguish between three different senses of intention. There is the preparatory, future sense: “I will file my taxes before the end of March.” Then there is the sense of intention accompanying action: “I am filing my taxes now so that I do not have to pay a penalty.” Then there is an almost legal sense of intention, as in the opposite of accidental: “I am filing my taxes on purpose and not because I have nothing better to do.” The first sense of attention, applying to future actions, is the most liable to various forms of laziness and procrastination. Aristotle used a specialized term for this, called akrasia (often unfortunately translated into English as “incontinence”), in which we know the right thing to do but fail to do it out of weakness of will (see this helpful James Clear piece). Procrastination might be viewed as a special case of akrasia, in which we do less useful things (like re-organizing the sock drawer) over the more useful or valued tasks (like filing taxes: can you tell I haven’t filed mine yet?).
Now note that these choices are completely value-dependent. Suppose I decide that my life’s goal is to make a scale replica of the Eiffel Tower out of mashed potatoes. In that case, working on my mashed potato sculpture would not stem from akrasia or its special case, procrastination. Someone else might deem my food sculpture a waste of time, but then they would just be imposing their values on me. Homogenizing sameness results from social pressure (a major source of akrasia), so that we avoid our own personal goals in favor of more socially acceptable ones. There is even a school of thought called personalism, developed by Max Scheler, who said that there are moral requirements unique to each individual (there is a related concept in Indian philosophy called svadharma, the concept of right or duty unique to me as an individual). According to Scheler, I am not free to not be myself: there may be a greater good that comes out of my idiosyncratic love that would not be expressed if I were to give into to social or rationalistic pressures. For Scheler, love, whether romantic or erotic love or cosmic love of nature, has an epistemological significance: I am not even capable of knowing something or someone unless I first love that thing or person (he calls this the ordo amoris).
Goal setting most frequently goes wrong when there is too much futurity involved with too little accompanying action. Goal-setting can be an armchair endeavor if it does not come along with a concrete plan of action attached to smaller steps along the way. Adding Scheler’s personalism to the analysis, we can also say that it is very difficult to achieve a goal if that goal is not something that we actually value. I may be able to force myself to do something for money or because I am otherwise coerced to do it (and the mere fact of a transaction having taken place does not mean that the act was not coerced), but I will likely perform the action in a perfunctory or slipshod manner unless I have some larger interest. When we fail to achieve our goals, it is usually because we have not understood our own values or we have some resentment attached to being forced to complete some activity that we do not find to be meaningful. Most workplaces, across nearly every industry, impose bureaucratic busy-work on their employees without bothering to discover what the workers themselves value. Usually “listening sessions” and “focus groups” are just empty gestures designed to provide the illusion that some sharing or communication has taken place, with the outcome predetermined in advance.
True communication is, in Scheler’s sense, a communion between people, a sharing of values across distance, requiring empathy for the other person and a joining of wills. Unless this sort of true sharing takes place, our intentions become lifeless things, nothing other than private fantasies, and weak ones at that. All of our intentions are in danger of becoming weak-willed notions unless we join them to specific actions and combine our willing with the willing of our peers. It is actually possible to achieve quite a bit through coercive and hierarchical forms of organization (as in recent revelations about Hollywood and Silicon Valley), but things of great and stunning beauty require love and cooperation. It all begins with the simple intention to bring something new into the world and then ripples outward through continuous action and sharing with others.
Too often, we are told to set goals and check them off robotically until we have achieved the desired vision. Philosophy helps us to see that this endeavor will be more likely to succeed and will be more satisfying if we first clarify whether we truly value what we purport to value. It may be that we have competing intentions that interfere with one another. The intentions that are most likely to be successful will be those that we make our highest priorities. The word “highest” bothers me actually, because it implies that we all have some sort of bar graph in our heads of ranked priorities. The reality is much more fluid and elastic, depending upon the changing circumstances. I think we achieve those things that we have come to view as indispensable, that we cannot imagine doing without. We have to be more than a little bit stubborn and single-minded to make great things happen. But that tenacity is useless if it only brings us to a place that we only half-heartedly wanted to reach. That’s why we are never really done looking inward through meditation and introspection: as creatures bound to change and time, our values and intentions shift. We constantly have to check in with ourselves, asking, “Are you sure you really want this?” and making adjustments as needed.
Too often we engage in throwing paper towels at the problem, taking half-measures when much more is really needed. In order to truly see a vision to completion—and this is really hard—we have to care really a lot that it happens, put in hard and often boring work, and also get other people to buy into the vision. The people who can do all three of these things succeed, but it is all meaningless without the sort of love that Max Scheler described. We are social beings, and, as I have tried to emphasize in much of my work, we are social across species boundaries. If we are not making the world a better place, and better in the cosmic, transpersonal sense (as opposed to merely more convenient for a select few), we need to go back to the drawing board. If we have this sort of big picture in mind and still fail, the failure will have been noble. And, when everything aligns in just the right manner, we have the possibility of making huge positive transformations in society at large.