Good intentions are not enough—no matter how well intended they may be. Paradoxically, if we become fixated or obsessed with our intentions, we may actually work against ourselves, which is a concept (and technique) known as, you guessed it, "paradoxical intention." This is one of seven core principles that we explore in our bestselling book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts. Let us explain.
Have you ever worked so hard at something that the more you tried, the harder the task became and the farther away it seemed you got from your goal? In other words, one step forward, two steps backward? We know that we've experienced this kind of situation many times in our lives, including our work lives. Just like you, we've had many good intentions. And just like you, we believe that there is an undeniable power of intention that cannot (and should not) be ignored. In this connection, my (Pattakos) mentor, the world-renown psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, wrote the following in a 1953 letter: "It is said: where there is a will there is a way; I add, where there is an aim, there is a will." [Emphasis added]
So, put differently, having an intention is an important driver, if you will, for accomplishing our aims in life. Unfortunately, in our lives, and we learned this the hard way, our fixation on outcomes often, if not more often than not, "backfired" and we were unable to achieve or fulfill our ultimate goal.
Of course, we could easily blame such situations on others or, at least, shift to others the bulk of responsibility for failing to reach our objectives. We choose not to do so, however, for we now can see how our own actions can (and do) often work against us. Paradoxically, as we review these situations with the benefit of hindsight, we now can say that we had become our own worst enemy and at the time didn't even know it! Has this ever happened to you?
"Ironically enough, in the same way that fear brings to pass what one is afraid of, likewise a forced intention makes impossible what one forcibly wishes."—Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
As a case in point, let's consider our work. Our jobs are always more than our jobs. They represent relationships: to ourselves and to others; to our customers and consumers; to the products we are designing, creating, and selling; to the services we offer; to the environment; and to the way in which what we do has an impact on the world. These relationships weave together through our work, they have meaning individually and collectively. When we focus too intently on outcome, these relationships suffer. In other words, the harder we work for success, the more elusive it becomes.
Meaning is found in awareness of the moment, and when we get too far from the moment we start to lose our effectiveness. Even when the stakes are high and our success essential, focusing on the results rather than the process can actually get in the way of a successful outcome. We all know how it works: our nervousness and anxiety about "getting it right" keep us from getting it right. The higher our expectations about something, the more disconnected we are from the actual accomplishment of it all and the less able we are to participate in its successful unfolding.
Dr. Frankl called this paradoxical intention. Our good intentions actually become the cause of our failure. When a specific success is so fervently sought that we overlook and neglect the relationships that are an integral part of the process, we lay the seeds for something to go wrong. We fly in the face of our own success. We neglect our own meaning, the meaning of others, and the meaning of the process.
"My boss is a jerk." "My boss hates me." "My boss steals all the credit." How many times have you made or heard statements like these? Time out. Think about what you are saying, what it really means, and how it may be affecting you or your co-workers. True enough, bosses have flaws and many of them are significant. On the other hand, most bosses are not the pointy-haired characters portrayed in Dilbert cartoons. More often than not, they have moved up in the company for some good reason. So, if you dismiss your boss because of flaws, you may actually be cheating yourself out of a chance to learn and grow.
When we overlook the opportunity to have respectful and meaningful moments with others—be it at work or in our personal lives—we undermine our chances of long-term success. And when we do take the time to nurture our relationships, the definition of success expands exponentially. Our day-to-day, minute-to-minute lives become success in and of themselves; our specific goal-oriented successes become more accessible.
Few of us, of course, get through our lives unscathed. We get divorced; we lose our jobs, sometimes after many years of dedicated service; our health fails us in some way; our kids fail us; we fail one another. Life can be as full of "failures" as it is of successes. Yet in our failures we can find tremendous meaning, and only in meaning do our failures have a useful legacy. When our failures become useful, we triumph over them. Instead of leading with our disappointment and bitterness over a job loss or a lost relationship, we lead with our ability to have compassion and understanding—for ourselves and for others. Then, in our search for our next job, our next friend, we project wisdom and experience. Our appeal is heightened and our possibilities increase.
Meaning rests in appreciation of the moment, in gratitude, in awareness, and in relationship. When our awareness is only focused on the future or the past, we lose all connection to now, where we are, where others are, and where the meaning is. When we don't appreciate the present, we aren't appreciating the process. When we aren't grateful for the meaning in our life, right now, we aren't honoring ourselves or others.
Our lives are inherent with meaning, no matter how we measure our success. And even when we do reach the pinnacle of professional success in some endeavor, the feelings that come with such success are fleeting. The goal is reached, mission accomplished, now what? Suddenly there is a sinking feeling, emptiness settles in, and we wonder what it all really means. Is that all there is? If we have forsaken the means for the end, then the end really is the end!
When we stay true to our core values in our personal and work lives, we lay a foundation of meaning. When we live and work in awareness of the moment, we stay connected to meaning. Our existence, and the existence of all life, is meaning. It is simply waiting to be discovered, whether we work at a construction site, a bakery, a high school, a movie theater, a multinational corporation, a landfill, a restaurant, a home office, or the White House. By not being a prisoner of our thoughts, and by not working against ourselves, we bring meaning to life and work.
Note: For more about both the concept and technique of paradoxical intention, see Chapter 7, "Don't Work Against Yourself," in our book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts. And, of course, if you have any questions to ask, or thoughts and/or experiences to share with us, please do so!
Dr. Alex Pattakos is the author of Prisoners of Our Thoughts (www.prisonersofourthoughts.com) and Elaine Dundon is author of The Seeds of Innovation (www.seedsofinnovation.com). They are co-authors of Innovating with Meaning (forthcoming).