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The best way to undermine yourself.

The best way to undermine yourself.

Having intention is in vogue. But it just might be the best way to undermine yourself.


The magic of intending.

Every other business out there now intends to do something wondrous for us all. Intention is the cool, smooth, mystical term of the moment. It evokes smart people gathered together in swanky offices, or these days, virtual spaces with swanky backgrounds, intentioning1 their way through the world’s toughest problems. You can do anything if you intently intend to use your elevated intentions with intent to make a better world. Easy!

What does it mean to have intention?

To have intention or to intend is to be bent upon some goal, purpose, or direction.

That’s all you need. Intend something and attain it. It’s a simple formula: intend to create an enjoyable lavatory experience, and you can surely invent the most enjoyable toilet the world hath ever known.

Sounds simple. Except that it isn’t.

It’s so hard, in fact, that even all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, all-seeing God, Gods, and even the definitely not God or Gods but yet divine and enlightened characters throughout human religions have struggled to grapple with the side effects of their intentions. We get some great cautionary tales out of them.

The Eastern religions were slightly more direct in the matter: you don’t attain enlightenment by intending to be enlightened. If anything, intention moves you farther away.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Intending to save higher education.

If you’re in the United States, there is no finer example of intentions backfiring than the Higher Education Act of 1965. Part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society initiatives, the intent of the Higher Education Act of 1965 was to, “strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students in postsecondary and higher education.”

For you and I who live in such unbearably pessimistic times, this of course sounds absurd. But the 1950s and 1960s were a special time in America. Anything was possible. We had defeated one of the most heinous empires the world had ever seen2. We had developed a functioning atom bomb. We were even well on our way to solving one of the most extraordinary engineering problems known to our species3.

So we turned our collective engineering brain to solving complex societal matters. Like how to give people better access to higher education, so that they could have a higher level of education, so that we could create a great society and a more optimistic and brighter future4. The one you’re living in now5.

To realize this noble intent, we developed a system for our government to provide loans (on fairly generous terms) to people who want a higher education. The idea being that they would use this debt to attain a degree, become wealth-generating members of society, and pay back their debt and then some.

Here’s the thing. When you create a system around an intent, the system will get to work backfiring on that intent. The reasons are numerous, but suffice it to say that no system exists in isolation. The complexity of systems and interactions between them and the underlying non-linearities in those interactions make it really difficult to introduce an input and get the output you want. If you can even find the output. Or if the output even shows up within your lifetime. Or if it’s even directly visible at all.

In a complex world, your intentions get delivered in a package with unintentions. If you can attain an intended consequence, you will also take delivery of many fun and not so fun unintended consequences. What’s more, even if you * don’t* attain your intended consequences, you will still have to take delivery of those unintended consequences. You don’t hit your intended goals more often than not, but you do get unintended results — lots of them.

Don’t fret. Unintended results aren’t all bad. They can be quite good or just neutral.

So, for higher education in America, you’ve got a massive entity, in this case, the government, with a substantial supply of money that it lends to people who go to college.

What’s the first thing the colleges do? Well, they realize there’s a lot more money on the table. All they have to do is just reach out and grab it. They raise their prices to get that money. That means tuitions skyrocket over time.

In 1960 you could attend Harvard for under $2,000 per year (inflation-adjusted to 2019’s dollar, you’re looking at ~$17,000). Today the tuition portion is almost $50,000 per year, plus another $20,000 of fees, room and board, and other nickels and dimes.

Public schools have seen huge increases as well. Public universities in the early 1960s had tuition and fees around $250-$300 per year. These days you’re looking at $4,000-$5,000 or $15,000-$30,000 depending on where you live while attending these universities.

One of the goals of the Higher Education Act of 1965 was to increase the resources available to universities. Universities are making more money off each student, so that’s an intended goal met, right?

When we increased resources available to universities, our goal wasn’t richer universities, but more productive, innovative universities. Instead, much of the newfound wealth of universities has gone straight into these universities’ administrative bureaucracies. In other words, universities are not innovating or teaching more, but in essence, shuffling paper or these days, bits at an unprecedented scale.

The bigger debt that students have to take on, not only means that higher education is less affordable to them, but it reduces the amount of risk graduates can take on with their education after they’re done. Risk is how you innovate and invent. A person with debt over their head can’t take as much risk. So they take a safer job in society (say shuffling papers and bits at a university) that helps them pay off their debt.

If our definition of a great society is one filled with administrators shuffling paper and bits to pay off debts, I suppose we have met our intentions with flying colors. I doubt that is what we envisioned in the 1960s.

Despite all appearances of piles of money, the financial situation of universities is precarious. Today the higher-education system is on the brink of collapse. More and more, it looks like it’s not a question of if, but when the whole thing will implode on itself. Google recently announced a $300 course that, for hiring purposes, it will consider the equivalent to a 4-year higher education degree6.

In the face of such competition, can the university system survive? Can it continue to be rich? If not, it may well turn out that the Higher Education Act of 1965 temporarily provided more resources to Universities, but that in the end, it was a nail in their coffin.

Intention + system = the opposite of your intentions.

Which brings us back to intentions and systems. When you design or build a system around an intention, it can seem like a good thing, especially in the beginning. Systems may start out small and look like they are achieving their intent. But over time, they change and react to the world around them. Inevitably, the system begins to oppose its own original intent.

A system designed to boost higher education and make it more affordable to more people can end up doing the opposite. A system to dam a river and provide economic wealth to one country can end up triggering conflict and tension with a neighboring country that suppresses wealth7. A system to make you feel over-the-moon happy, in the form of drugs, can send you and those around you spiraling into something very dark indeed.

The best way to undermine your intentions is to create a system around your intentions.

  1. I intended to coin that previously non-existent word, so bugger off! ↩︎
  2. Whilst allied with an even more heinous empire led by an even more sinister man with a fuller, bushier mustache. Turns out that was a bad idea.  ↩︎
  3. How to get humans on the moon within a decade, and then get bored and completely drop the matter within another decade.  ↩︎
  4. If by chance you get to pick when and where to be born, it’s better to live during times and in a place where society is optimistic. The immediate generation or two after are a bit of a crapshoot if the earlier optimism doesn’t pan out. But all this is fairly cyclical, so you should have ample opportunities.  ↩︎
  5. You may like to whine about it, but it’s still (as of this writing) much better than what most of your ancestors had. Heck, it’s even better than what people in some corners of the world right now have.  ↩︎
  6. This number does not fill those who paid $30,000...or $160,000 for that 4-year degree with optimism. See how intentions don’t pan out?  ↩︎
  7. What could possibly go wrong? ↩︎