The quantum mechanics of intentions

Think about a Spotify playlist for a minute (or whatever music service you use).

Today it’s easy for a computer to put together a list of songs on a common theme or genre, and it’s just as easy to have that same computer create a playlist that weaves together a few different themes. Once you’ve got that – voila – you have a playlist that’s indistinguishable from one made for you by a friend.

What I can’t help but wonder is: what, specifically, is the difference between the two playlists – the one made by a machine and the one made with thought, care and intention? What role does the intention play when I listen to the music?

Is that intention real? Is it tangible? Does it have a weight and a meaning? Or is my experience listening to the music, potentially insulated from that intention, all that matters?

Of course, hard-to-experience intentions are everywhere, not just in playlists but in works of art, say, or even hidden within the work of an impact investor.

I bring this up because, lately, as impact investing veers towards the mainstream, it’s become common for some investors to wake up and say, “look at the impact my investments created! I’m an impact investor and I didn’t even know it!” And then it’s just as common for those whose cup runneth over with intention to say, “Not so fast…without intention you cannot be an impact investor.”

Who is right?

To be clear, intention alone is not enough. It needs to be coupled with material, measurable impact to mean something.

But, taking a half a step back, are we able to articulate why, exactly, intention matters?

The end customer of an intervention is likely to be oblivious to the intention (of the investor) that led to that experience. Doesn’t she simply experience – like the person listening to the next next song on a playlist – what she experiences? And if she doesn’t care about intention, why do we?

Here are some thoughts, meant to open not to close a conversation.

Intention might matter because you could learn about it later. When I discover from my friend why she put two songs together, or when I hear the story of a particular song’s meaning to her, that discovery creates meaning and connection between us. But this one falls apart in the absence of a real relationship between the two parties involved, so I don’t think it’s useful for the broader conversation.

Intention might matter because it influences current and future behavior. To argue this, you’d be saying that the fact that, in this case, the customer doesn’t experience intention doesn’t matter. What matters is that the person deploying capital (or running an NGO or a social enterprise) has a purpose guiding her actions. We believe that having purpose oriented towards positive change is likely, in the medium- and long-term, to result in more decisions and actions that create positive change (and less harm) than being agnostic or skeptical of making positive change. Similarly, the existence of this purpose could influence how durable the experienced impact is: if the going gets tough (profits down), we believe the person with intent will stick it out longer.

Intention might matter because it influences others. A person with intent inspires others to have a similar intent. A person with intent might cause those lacking intent to question why they don’t have it. It might also rally others to the cause.

Intention might matter in and of itself, in a way that is neither instrumental nor quantifiable. It just exists out there in the world in ways that are positive and worthwhile. Juju is a good thing, the light in me touches the light in you.

I find it surprising that I struggle to make a longer list, and hope that you have more to add (here, on social media, in an email to me, wherever).

The conclusion I’ve come to for now is that I’d always prefer that someone have intent than not. But at the same time I won’t go so far as to say that intent is a necessary ingredient to creating massive positive social change.

What do you think? Does intent matter? Where, why and how much? It is the roots of the tree, or one of many ingredients in a big stew: seemingly important, but not necessarily required?

6 thoughts on “The quantum mechanics of intentions

  1. Thank you for bringing up this complicated issue, Sasha! I tend to lean toward the last item on your list – that intention is something more metaphysical than tangibly measurable. I once heard a financial advisor say that money is neutral, like a brick. We can take a brick and build something with it or we can smash it through a window; the brick is not morally responsible for either of those actions but the person who chooses to use the brick is.

    In a similar way, we may be tempted to say that as long as impact as positive, the intention is neutral (or doesn’t have meaning). But from a more spiritual perspective (mine :-), I would say that intention carries something with it that will eventually play itself out on the other side.

    I am reminded of a story of a nonprofit who was offered $1mm from a large corporation. That $1mm meant a lot to the nonprofit (as you can imagine), but the director knew the corporation was offering the money more from a PR perspective than out of a generous heart. So she refused it.

    Perhaps we have a responsibility, on the receiving end of the gift, to consider the intention of the giver with our own values and decide, if those don’t align, if the gift is worth it.

    (as I’m re-reading this, my thoughts seem scattered — not sure if this was a useful contribution to the conversation, but it obviously brought up a number of diverse thoughts for me!)

  2. This is wonderful thank you Nicole. I wonder if what’s at issue is being instrumental at all about intention…..?

  3. While accidental good is always preferable to accidental damage, intention shows that the giver genuinely cares about the situation, thoughts, and feelings of the recipient, and that the giver genuinely wants to make the life of the recipient better in some way. When impact investment organizations say, “We see your pain, we see your struggle, we have more than we need, so we can share some of it with you to alleviate that problem,” it very definitely matters. It creates better juju because the giver is giving with an open heart and hand to someone they know desperately needs the gift. The receiver not only gets the benefit of the gift, they get to learn that others do understand their pain, do understand their struggle, and care enough to help make life better for those without so much. Sometimes knowing that another empathizes with our problems makes the troubles that much lighter.
    Another insightful and thought provoking post, Sasha! Enjoyed it immensely, as always. You always make me think!

  4. As always, another thought-provoking post.

    One more that quickly came to me as I was reading this excellent piece was that INTENTION carries with it PASSION. Have you ever noticed that the founder of a business, when describing the intention behind something is so much more passionate about it? Even six-figure “C” level senior managers don’t have the passion behind their intention as founders do.

    That’s my VAC (value add comment) . . . hopefully value-added.

    Keep up the great work Sasha.

  5. Intention matters because accountability matters. And you can only be fully accountable for the impact if you stated an intention to achieve it.

    Intention also matters, besides the reasons you raise, because it helps one choose among different avenues of intervention. There are generally multiple options available – the one you choose should be predicated on what you are maximizing for (the environmental aspect? reducing wealth inequality? avoiding negative unintended consequences?), and that in itself requires intention.

  6. Andrea – what if intention is poorly informed, or loosely held, or exists without strong feedback loops or is overrun by stronger forces (eg money). I’m not asking if it simply does not matter – of course it does! I’m asking about where and why it has meaning, and how much, and to whom.

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