The Smallest deed is better than the great intention.”
Imagine that, unbeknownst to you, something extraordinary happened during the night. A miracle. Overnight you inherited $10 million.
What is the very first difference you would notice in your life? Ask yourself, with $10 million in your pocket, what do you really want?
The question is a version of what psychologists call the miracle question introduced within Solution Focused Therapy (Brief Therapy). Therapists Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg are credited with SFT(BT), which focuses not on the past but on what the client wants to achieve today. It focuses on intentions and subsequent actions. Clients intentionally create their ideal future and move toward their goals rather than the problems that drove them to therapy.
The Miracle Question imagines an ideal future, connects it to the present, and immediately internalizes the work between today and a future self. Clients are challenged to look past their obstacles and hopelessness, focus on the possibilities, and engage their intentions.
I am posing my version of the question with a slightly different end in mind. To compare your current intentions and action versus one aligned with your more inspired and idealist vision. For example, if you had $10 million, would you be on the same career track? Where would you live? Who would be your romantic partner? How would you dress, eat and choose as friends? How would $10 million alter your intentions? Spend a few moments allowing the $10 million question to sink in deep.
What is intention? According to APA (American Psychology Association), “intention” is defined as a prior conscious decision to perform a behavior.
Intention plus Magic= magic.
However, actions and intentions do not always align. Individuals often have good intentions that they fail to fulfill. Since it is that time of year, let’s consider “intentions” in New Year’s resolutions.
The ritual of New Year’s resolutions began in Roman times. In Roman mythology, Janus, the two-faced deity, was the god of doors, gates, and transitions. Janus represented the middle ground between concrete and abstract dualities such as life/death, beginning/end, youth/adulthood, rural/urban, war/peace, and barbarism/civilization.
Janus was also known as the initiator of human life, transformations between stages of life, and shifts from one historical era to another. Ancient Romans believed Janus ruled over life events such as weddings, births, and deaths and seasonal events such as planting, harvests, seasonal changes, and the new year. If you needed a good beginning, Janus was your god.
With the origin of the New Year’s ritual nailed down, I looked at the research survey around New Year’s change attempts. I found Professor John C. Norcross, the author of Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions, as the sole authority on New Year’s Resolutions from a paper written for the Journal of Substance Abuse in 1989. His report, The Resolution Solution: Longitudinal Examination of New Year’s Change Attempts, tracks 200 participants across two years. A reasonable study in concept, but the data’s limited sample size and robustness provide scant proof of solid conclusions.
But, yet, Professor Norcross is quoted again and again this time of the year. PBS North Carolina – The Science Behind Habits and New Year’s Resolutions by Frank Graff (revised December 4, 2021). A landmark 1988 study out of the University of Scranton found that while 77 percent of people who committed to a New Year’s resolution stuck to it for a week, only 19 percent of those who made resolutions kept them two years later.”
Others write about change. Most recently, Katy Milkman, professor of operations, information, and decisions at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, authored “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.”. In her book, Ms. Milkman notes in a 6,000-member study of 24 Hour Fitness gyms around the United States that members were 10% to 14% more likely to exercise with one of her strategies employed. Broad and robust, the study tackles more extensive data with ease. However, the marginal 10-14% improvement barely moves my needle.
Many extremely bright and highly professional social scientists toil away at modeling, coaching, and predicting future human action to no avail. Even big techs’ sophisticated algorithms get predictions more wrong than right. How do I know? Simple. If I or anyone else had “the answer” for effecting change in human behavior, everyone would be changing. At best, we get results similar to Ms. Milkman’s work.
“One of the key things I feel like I’ve learned in the last decade of studying this is that goal failure is the norm,” Milkman said in a CNN interview. “The whole ball game is figuring out how we recover from failure, keep trying and get better.”
Allow me to offer a different take on our repeated resolution failures. I believe research by Dr. Milkman and others has highlighted a disconnect from the thinking “intention” to the repeated action to necessarily achieve the intention. I think the source of that disconnect is revealed when we ask the $10 million question.
What do we really want? And who are we hidden behind a mask of small compromises rationalized by our version of our current reality? I contend that our New Year’s resolutions are not what we truly want. They are further compromises rationalized by constraints we apply, like money.
It’s straightforward. Does your current life mirror the $10 million version of yourself? Why is there a difference? Is it just money? Or are you and I more comfortable sitting in emotions like fear, jealousy, and scarcity, stewing in our excuses?
The $10 million question allows us to think and act on a grand scale. To imagine a different version of ourselves. And that insight contains the raw power to change and energize our intentions.
Do you want New Year’s resolutions without excuses? Ask yourself what you really want if you had $10 million dropped in your lap. Set your intentions and act accordingly, then bear witness to the Magic of your dreams coming true.
Intentions + Actions = Magic.
Until next time. Travel safe.