I believe that we all want to be a part of something purposeful and leave an impact on this world. Some call it making a difference, others call it leaving a legacy, and some call it living a purposeful life. To be able to do this however, we need to focus on other people and learn to meet other's needs, thus leaving them better than we found them each day. This requires us to look beyond ourselves and be intentional when it comes to the choices we make and how we interact with others each day.
In James C. Hunter’s book The Servant, he states Intentions - Actions = Squat. Isn’t that so true? We can have all the positive intentions in the world, but if we don’t actually put them into action it doesn’t amount to much. In fact, we all have fallen short when it comes to aligning our intentions + actions. This is our will and each one of us can strengthen our will the same way we strengthen our physical muscle...by working it out. How have you intentionally worked out your will today?
When I was in high school my student leadership adviser, Brent Grothe, once told me that the eighteen inches from your head to your heart is the longest journey that you will ever take in your life. At first I did not fully understand what he meant, but as I matured and developed in my own leadership and experience it became more clear. The battle is in the mind. We constantly are being influenced by outside forces in our world that are vying for our attention. Some of these things are true and many of these things are not true. Messages like, “Buy this and you will be popular,” “Wear this and you will be beautiful,” or “You are enough or aren’t enough”. The battle is whether we choose to believe these messages or not. This is the eighteen inches from the head to the heart. We hear and see daily messages all around us and they enter our mind (head). We then choose whether to believe (heart) those messages or not. When we believe that the world does not revolve around us and that we were built to make a difference and leave people better than we found them we can be freed up to be intentional in choosing against the negative messages, thoughts, and lies that prevent us from living intentionally.
Here are three ways that you can practice being more intentional in your life. Over the past twenty years of working with schools and students, organizations and teams, as well as individual leaders working in a variety of different environments, I have found the following to be true regardless of age, experience, or position.
Big Idea: Put your focus on the little things and the big things get better.
#1 - Be Intentional right where you are
I once read an article written by Kenneth V. Lundberg titled, “My Twenty Foot Swath”. The article struck me because it posed a thought that I believe many grapple with in life. What do I as one person do when the world seems to have so many overwhelming problems and I am only person? What kind of difference can I actually make? Well, from what we know about influence a lot more than we sometimes realize. In author King Duncan’s book, The Amazing Law of Influence, he calls it “The Rule of 250”. He shares that if you have just 50 friends, and each of those friends has 50 friends, you have 2,500 friends of friends. If each of these 2,500 has 50 friends, you have 125,000 friends of friends of friends, and, if each of them has 50 friends, you now have 6,000,000 friends of friends of friends of friends. Obviously there would be some overlap, and that number would be slightly smaller, but Duncan reminds us that we did start with just 50. It may be that we are only 6 levels of contact removed from everyone on earth. The Twenty Foot Swath article went on to talk about how the author had gone through a time in his life where the daily morning walk from his car to his office caused him to pass by a grassy area approximately twenty feet wide, next to some tennis courts on a college campus. He would regularly get frustrated by the garbage that was left behind by the athletes and spectators and would call and complain constantly to the university, but nothing would ever happen. Eventually he decided that if change was going to happen, it would need to start with him. So, the journey began to take care of his Twenty Foot Swath. Each day on his way to and from his office, he would pick up as much garbage as he could and throw it away. He was amazed that after taking care of this twenty foot area for a few weeks, one day some new trash and recycling bins were set out where they had never been before. He was amazed at how others started to jump in and help once he stopped complaining and started acting. He later learned that this was a metaphor for his life. When we are intentional about taking care of that which is right in front of us, each day, we do in turn change our world one small bit at a time.
#2 - Be Intentional with one thing, but be consistent
For over a decade I worked daily with high school aged students on improving the climate and culture of our school and community in my classroom. We knew that by focusing on the little things connected to our everyday relationships, that our families, our school, our community, and ultimately our world would improve day-by-day because of the collective influence we had. We also knew that there would be many distractions and obstacles that could prevent us from being intentional to accomplish these little things that make such a big difference. In fact, the first thing that goes away when times are difficult, adverse, and stressful are the little things. We need to be disciplined with our everyday actions to be able to be intentional and act from a strong will and not emotions, which are up and down constantly. The strategy that we used each year was to make a Character Card each week that included a consistent overall character goal for the year, a way that we were going to serve our school (organization) and lastly a way to serve at home that week. Each week the school/organization and home goal changed, but the overall goal always stayed the same. This overall goal is essential for effective leadership and organizational change. Leaders need to be consistent and predictable in mood and action to make a lasting difference. One administrator I worked with for a decade that oversaw the student leadership program that I advised was my accountability partner each week for ten years. Her overall goal was to right five notes of appreciation or encouragement to students and/or staff each week. I always ask, “Do you think she wrote five notes every week?” Of course not, some weeks she wrote less and some weeks she wrote more than five, but the better question is, “Do you think that she wrote more notes over the ten years than she would have if she hadn’t intentionally created a process for aligning her intentions + actions?” How are you going to be consistent in your role as a leader? What kind of accountability system are you going to put in place to make this goal as important as anything else on your "To Do List"?
#3 - Be Intentional with your everyday interactions
In education we teach reading, writing, and math skills amongst many other core subject areas, but what about the relational skills that make emotionally intelligent young people? We know that these “soft skills” are really the new “hard skills”. We know that they are actually higher indicators of success than the academic ones we focus on so heavily in school. Of course these academic skills are incredibly important, don’t get my wrong, but they aren’t the only thing. We need to teach our students how to be intentional with their everyday interactions. The number one way that we are going to teach them is by role modeling these skills ourselves. Two simple examples of how I taught young people to be intentional were to:
1. Ask the second question
2. Stop to open doors
Think about it, there is potential to have so many interactions everyday and walk through so many doors that these are perfect opportunities to practice being intentional! The next time that you greet someone and ask them how they are doing, instead of just moving on, ask a second question. It costs just a few extra seconds but it makes a huge difference in the quality of your connection and practice of being intentional. Each time you pass through a door, just spend an extra couple seconds to check and see if someone is coming behind you and hold the door open for them. This gives you an opportunity to smile, greet someone, or even compliment them. Each time you do this it is practicing living intentionally and thinking of others instead of yourself. What an important habit to create!
John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.