Intention vs. Volition

One of the questions that has been fascinating me in my work as both a coach and business owner over the past couple of years is this:

How do we create in a world where we are not in control?

In last week’s blog , I pointed to two key elements that seem to always be present in any answer to this question – effort and grace, or more specifically putting in the hours and cashing in on the inevitable bits of luck, synchronicity, and “happy accidents” that accompany any successful endeavor.

This week, I want to explore a simple distinction at the heart of this apparent conundrum – the difference between intention and volition.

1. Volition

“I will either find a way or make one.”

-Hannibal, shortly before losing the Punic Wars

In the late 1980’s, posters began appearing in sales offices around the United States featuring motivational slogans underneath pictures of soaring eagles and epic vistas.

One I remember in particular, probably from a slightly later era, was a lone figure standing at the edge of a rocky promontory staring off into a seemingly endless sky filled with clouds hinting at as yet unseen worlds waiting to be conquered. If memory serves, the quote underneath it was from the basketball player Michael Jordan, saying “Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.”

While I certainly found the poster inspirational, I also found myself wondering how different that quote would sound if it was written underneath a picture of Adolf Hitler reviewing the Nazi troops in Berlin or a terrorist planning an attack on innocent civilians.

With apologies for the imagery, the point is that slogans that point to our apparent ability to assert our will onto others and the world only sound like a great idea when we agree with the person whose will is being asserted. (As my wife once pointed out after we had the opportunity to meet with an influential leader, “I know he wants to take over the world, but I suppose if someone’s going to do it at least he seems like a good guy.”)

And this is one of the big problems with a volitional “if it’s to be it’s up to me” approach to creation. We’re creating from pure ego – our personal, often petty, invariably neurotic thoughts about ourselves, others, and the world. And since all egos are unstable, what gets created from that place in us is inevitably unstable as well. Even if it “works” in the short-term, the moment our own will wavers the whole house of cards collapses.

This is one of the reasons why so many of the companies featured in best-selling business books like In Search of Excellence wound up bankrupt or sold off within a decade. When the only thing propping up our success is our own force of will, exhaustion, distraction, jealousy, and self-doubt are the ever-present “barbarians at the gate”.

And it’s why Shelly’s sonnet “Ozymandias” has an evergreen resonance centuries after he wrote it:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

2. Intention

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson


In Creating the Impossible, I share the following definition of creativity:

There is an innate creative energy in all of us. It’s the animating spirit that separates the quick from the dead – the life-force that expands our lungs, makes our heart beat, and takes care of every one of our biological functions. If we let it, it will bring fresh new ideas to mind whenever we need them, enabling us to solve any problem and move forward in any creative endeavor.

Our relationship with this energy is the basis of what we call ‘creativity’. And since this energy is a part of us and we are a part of it, we are all inherently creative.

If we think we are the predominant creative force in the universe, the power of will is the force we must harness to create what we want to see in the world. But if the predominant creative force in the universe is the universe itself, then it is in our relationship with that force we find the power to influence creation.

In that sense, all acts of initiative and creation are actually co-creations. And whether “God is our co-pilot” or we are the co-pilot to the gods, understanding that it’s not up to us but it’s not not up to us is a pivotal piece of the puzzle.

In this co-created universe, clarity of intention becomes our primary tool in the game of creation. Simply put, when we’re really clear and unconflicted about what we’re up to, the universe has a way of moving the pieces around behind the scenes to make the impossible possible.

But what’s to stop us from attempting to use intention as a tool of volition?

Nothing but the fact that it doesn’t seem to work anywhere near as well. Telling yourself that you intend to create something you don’t really want to create is as ineffective and self-defeating as attempting to commit to it and use discipline and willpower to follow through and make things happen. In this sense, intention is something we uncover, not something we create.

The power of intention is already at work in the daily creation of your life. It’s just that much of that intention is unconscious and often self-conflicting. For example, many years ago one of my coaches pointed out to me that I had an apparently unconscious intention to fly under radar. She pointed to the years of coaching and teaching I had managed to do with thousands of people without anyone who hadn’t worked with me directly having any idea of who I was.

Attempting to assert my will onto the situation, I declared my intention to fly ‘over the radar’, not quite seeing that that would still be off the radar of the vast majority of humanity. So not knowing what to do, I do what I know to do when I don’t know what to do. I sat with it. All sorts of thoughts came to light, ranging from “if I become known, people will see that I’m a fraud” to “if I become famous, I’ll wind up doing drugs and cheating on my wife.”

Then one day, quite by chance, I had my car parked outside a friend’s apartment in Hollywood when a beautiful woman started walking down the street towards my car stripping off her clothes. When my lower jaw rehinged and I was able to regain my senses, I realized I was in the midst of a guerilla style porno shoot, and that the woman wasn’t actually walking towards me, she was walking towards a camera crew that were standing in the middle of the street behind where I was parked.

Something about the absurdity of the situation popped me out of my habitual thinking, and I realized two things in quick succession. Firstly, I don’t particularly enjoy drugs and I don’t ever want to cheat on my wife. Secondly, being at least willing to become more well-known was an essential part of any business growth strategy I could think of.

In that moment, my thinking clarified itself and becoming more of a public figure went from a “good idea/bad idea” conundrum to a clear and simple intention. Within a week, I received and accepted a teaching offer that put me in front of tens of thousands of people over the next few years and led directly to my first book deal.

Coincidence? Yes, but as I mentioned last week, coincidence and happy accidents on the journey to success are 100% reliable even if how and when they happen is 98% unpredictable.

So what do you do with all this information?

Here are three suggestions to get you started:

1. Have a look for yourself and see where in your life are you trying to make things happen through force of will as opposed to harnessing (or being harnessed by) the inner creative forces of innate intelligence and unlimited thought?

2. If your life as it is today were a product of your intentions, conscious and unconscious, what intentions would be revealed?

3. What do you honest to goodness know you would like to see happen in your life, your business, and in the world?

With all my love,