Intent vs. Effect: Improving Performance

Years ago, I got rear-ended while waiting to turn into a gas station.

The other driver told the police officer, “I thought he was going to turn at the light, not into the station. He stopped short!”

The police officer told the other driver, “Sir, the other driver had his turn signal on while waiting to turn. You plowed into him from behind. Do you contest that?”

“No,” the guy told the officer. “I hit him. But he stopped short! He was going to turn at the light, and then he changed his mind!” the bad driver argued.

When I left, they were still arguing. But the other driver got the ticket. The reason I know that is because it didn’t end there. The driver fought the ticket and took me to court, claiming that I intended to turn at the light and then, at the last minute, stopped short to pull into the gas station.

For this, I had to take a day off work. And in the end, the judge told the other driver something like this:

“Sir, it doesn’t matter where you thought he was turning. Drive defensively. Don’t make assumptions about what you think other drivers intend to do. Forget his intent…or even your intent. The reality is that you hit his car! Be alert, and be prepared to react when other cars turn, slow down, or stop.”

The urge to focus on INTENT instead of EFFECT  usually stems from trying to cover up a disappointing outcome.

Do you ever make the excuse that you had good intent behind your actions even though the effect of your actions fell short? In legal terms, intent means the planning and desire to perform an act. Legally, intent is important. In practical terms, intent is interesting but irrelevant. Intent is a synonym for aim, goal, or objective. Intent can point you in the right direction, but at the end of the day you are measured by the strength of your outcomes.


INTENT: Work on your chip shot (golf). ACTIONS: Take some swings in your backyard. EFFECT: Broken window/angry neighbor.

INTENT: Arrive early at work tomorrow to meet a critical deadline. ACTIONS: (Insert excuse here…traffic, sickness, lost car keys? Lost car keys?) EFFECT: Missed deadline.

INTENT: Pay credit card on time. ACTIONS: Write check, lick stamp, seal envelop, put in mailbox…where it blows out and is lost. EFFECT: Billed late charges.

What you purpose or aim to accomplish matters less than what you actually accomplish. In terms of improving your performance in any endeavor, keep your eyes on the key metrics that tell you the end result of your actions. Have good intentions, certainly. Do create goals and objectives to improve. Use the results of your actions to make adjustments to further improve. But don’t believe that good intentions alone will improve anything other than your self esteem once you fail.

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