Intentionality and meaning

So far, I’ve been talking about intention as a fairly straightforward, singular thing. I have an intention, you have an intention, the bunny has the intention, and so on. As you probably suspected all along, this is at best a gross simplification of “spherical cow” proportions. I am pretty sure I can’t describe the full complexity of what’s actually happening. But here’s a story that tries. 

We live in a world teeming with intentions. We are surrounded by them, we are in them, and they are within us. Intentions permeate us. Many (most?) of these intentions are not easily visible to us. When I was discussing mental models, I used this image of a massively multi-process computer, which might come in handy here. Imagine that our consciousness is a lone terminal connected to this computer. This terminal can only track a tiny fraction of the intentions at a time. Most of them exist in the background, without our awareness.

It would be nice if our intentions operated on some unified model of “what is” and “what ought to be”. But no, turns out that is way too much to ask of a good old human brain. Since mental models are diverse and inconsistent, they produce a dizzying array of intentions pointing in all different directions, creating tensions and friction amongst each other. 

Sometimes we feel intense suffering of two internal intentions being at odds with one another — and it may take years to recognize that the conflict was entirely due to mental model inconsistency. We may even recognize with sadness that the intentions that caused us so much suffering were one and the same, just viewed through the lenses of two mutually inconsistent mental models. Worse yet, a particularly severe tension might trigger adversarial adaptation within ourselves, where two intentions form entire conflicting parts of us locked in a battle. Through this lens, bad habits and addiction are bits of the infinity-problem sprinkled onto us.

It’s like we are these cauldrons of intention stew, spiced with infinity. In this stew, intentionality is the practice of observing our own intentions, orienting them in relation to another, and deciding to act on some and not others. This description might trip something in your memory: these are the steps of the OODA loop, known also as the solution loop. And if there’s a solution loop, then there’s definitely a problem lurking about. What is this problem that the practice of intentionality aims to solve? Why would we want to understand our own intentions?

It is my guess that the problem behind the practice of intentionality is the problem of meaning. This is a big leap, and I am in a thoroughly uncertain territory here. I am definitely intimidated by the largesse of the topic I am gingerly stepping into. Yet, it seems useful to imagine that the more our internal intentions are aligned with one another, the more meaningful our lives feel to us. Conversely, when intentions within us are less aligned, we experience loss of meaning. Put differently, a sense of meaning in our lives is proportional to how well we can navigate the multitude of our internal intentions. 

If we believe this, the crisis of meaning that many adults encounter in the second half of their lives might not be due to the lack of intentions, but rather due to their overabundance. If I lived long enough, I would have accumulated a great cache of mental models over the years. And if I didn’t practice intentionality, that would necessarily leave me with a boiling soup of intentions. The sense of being lost and without purpose emerges from every single intention seemingly conflicting with another, like a giant ball of spaghetti. What is up with all the food metaphors? I guess it’s spaghetti soup now.

Building on that, if I imagine an environment where compressed mental models are abundant and easily accessible, the crisis of meaning might be something that arrives much sooner than middle age – and becomes much more pervasive. Rapid acquisition of mental models without accompanying intentionality seems like a recipe for disaster. In the age where knowledge is so easily acquired, teaching intentionality becomes paramount.

If I click the zoom level up from individuals to organizations, I can see how the same applies to organizations. The challenges of coherence that manifest in large, mature organizations might be the result of an overabundance of individual intentions (teams, sub-teams, people, etc.) that do not add up to a single intention that brings the organization together. It is that intention that can only emerge through a rigorous practice of intentionality – both within the organization and individuals that comprise it. We can call this practice by many different names – be that self-reflection, mindfulness, or strategic thinking – but one thing seems fairly certain: without mastering it, we end up in a crisis of meaning.

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