This is the most important life lesson that I have ever learned. Intention is at the root of self-directed learning and being successful in the modern economy and life.
Over the past six years, I’ve been on an intense journey of self-education and learning. 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 and coaching adult clients.
I was never able to articulate what I understood 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 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 single communities or companies. But 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.
Even worse many of us are never taught to listen to or to set our own intentions. Then we are left unable to learn the following steps of self-directed learning. The process is simple but important:
So how do you do this? How do you take control of your learning, your career, your life, and your trajectory? You set an intention. You don’t need to be right. You don’t have to be even close. Fear, doubt, society, and your industrial education will tell you that you should wait to set your intention, wait to be given the next step, or wait to know the right step. But in reality, we learn much faster through trial and error than we do by planning.
If you look at children and artists and makers and designers and entrepreneurs you’ll notice that they all PLAY. Set your intentions with a playful mindset but make it real, make it physical and share it with a coach, mentor, facilitator or accountabilibuddy.
You must remember your intention. You must create a container where you can confront and play with your intentions so that you can nurture, connect, and visualize your asspirations, picture your outcomes and later define your goals. This place must have ground rules that allow you to detach yourself from your outcomes so that you can confront your intentions, actions, feedback and later your aspirations and outcomes and goals as you make progress and create your own context for your container.
The most important thing is that you show up to confront yourself, your actions, the feedback you’ve gathered and the context you’ve created by mapping your intentions, asspirations, outcomes and goals. If this was a place of judgement where you are afraid to fail it simply won’t work. Intention without action is fantasizing and action without intention and reflection is wasted opportunity.
If you can maintain your intention through repeated cycles of action, feedback and reflection you will begin to make progress. Because the four steps to confidently learn from the past and move on into the future are:
First, restate your intention - what you wanted.
Acknowledge what actually happened.
Learn from your reflection and feedback.
Change your behavior, learning mode or intention
Now you see why so many people are stuck. Why so many people are lost after college or the end of a relationship or the loss of a single all-encompassing job. They lost touch with their own intentions and their own learning process within themselves and the people they surround themselves with.
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.
Because just like 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 reengage what your intentions were after a bout 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 know 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. You don’t wait until January first. You start thinking about your intentions and aspirations today and you develop a system and ritual of gathering the feedback that matters to you and reflecting on your progress every month for a year. Over time you will construct your container, define your constraints, and how you define success. By taking ownership of your learning process and setting an intention, taking action, gathering feedback and reflecting on yourself and your progress you will get unstuck again and again.