Good Intentions Are Not Enough
Sam Trumbore | Jan 03, 2018

Were it only this simple!  Just set some good intentions, codify them in an agreement or a policy, pass a law or set up an agency or a program, and enjoy the fruits of those actions.  Those of us here in Albany are wise about the good intentions that turn into laws.  We know that, not infrequently, when enacted and enforced, these laws can end up doing more harm than good.  Legislating morality is fiendishly difficult if not impossible when flawed and imperfect people are involved.

Yes, the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but that doesn’t stop us from having them.  I for one am not going to stop advocating for laws designed to help people in need, right social wrongs, and build a more just, peaceful and sustainable world.  What I wonder about is how to improve the odds on good results rather than bad in the sausage making process.

I appreciate the start of a new year as a time to consider what I am doing with my life and energy and pondering what intentions might need to change to get a better result.  Many of those efforts aren’t really changes, just renewed commitment to old changes that have lagged since a year ago.  Eating a healthy diet is a perpetual struggle as is getting a sufficient amount of exercise and reading more books that remind me of my neglect as I see them on my shelf. There are video and blogging projects that are not getting my attention either.  And there is the commitment to ministry that is all consuming of every good intention I can muster. 

So how do I improve the odds that all my good intentions will turn into good results or not?  My I suggest that what makes the difference is what happens after each failure.

As I was researching the topic of good intentions gone wrong, I found a lot of examples of government programs that had failed.  I read about one jobs program that was funded with 1.6 million dollars to help up to 200 Appalachians retool for programming jobs.  At the end of the not very successful program, 17 had found jobs.  Each of those jobs effectively cost the tax payers over $94,000.

What was missing from the article was what was learned by the program about preparing the folks accepted into the program to join the high tech economy.  When I read this article I wanted to know more about the students who had some problems.  Did they successfully learn to program?  For the ones who didn’t complete the training, what teaching methods might have helped them be successful?  Maybe they contracted with an organization who didn’t know how to teach older adults effectively.  Were there a lack of jobs that the graduates were now qualified to perform?  Did they have high speed internet capability or computers in their homes they could use to work online?  And how long were people tracked before they found employment?  Maybe the number working doing programming has increased by now.

Measuring the results of good intentions just can’t happen once.  What really matters is what happens next.  The good intender needs to see clearly the results of their actions, make changes and try again.  There are many ways to act on one’s good intentions, some that will be skillful and effective, others that will be unskillful and ineffective … or even harmful.  And sadly often our actions have no effect at all.

We will not know ahead of time the results of our good intentions.  What is far more important than making a mistake acting on one’s good intentions that result in something bad, is learning through observing the results of one’s actions and then making positive and effective changes.  And if those changes don’t work, try and try again.

So I suggest as you contemplate making resolutions for January, look back carefully at the good intentions from last year, take stock of the results and the modes of success and failure, then make changes and try again.  Few if any of us get it right the first time.

It is persistent action doing what we know is right and good while continually learning from our successes and failures and continuing to make adjustments that makes all the difference.