2 minute read

I just spent an hour on a motorcycle listening to Tim Ferriss and Matt Mullenweig sit in an tent in Antarctica, drinking whiskey and waxing philosophical. A point where they disagreed: do actions matter more than intent?

I’ve thought a lot about this one, and it’s never been a satisfying experience. So imagine my surprise when the right answer just bubbled up and punched me in the nose.


It depends.

I don’t mean to be an asshole. But I am an engineer, and as soon as we trot out the word more my ears perk up. Because more implies numbers, and numbers imply we’re measuring something. So I start looking for the metric.

So a more correct answer is: It depends on what you mean by MORE. You have to choose a metric. Otherwise matters more is just a meaningless noise.

Let’s play with that. Here’s a stab at a better question:

Do actions matter more than intent for getting into Heaven?

Short answer: I don’t know. Moreover, I don’t care. I’ll let somebody else answer that one.

Here’s another:

Do actions matter more than intent for staying out of jail?

In most countries there is at least some wiggle room on this one. But in ALL countries, if you don’t do the action, then your intent is never questioned. So I think we can safely answer yes to this one.

But here’s the question I think Tim & Matt were really getting at:

Do actions matter more than intent in matters of effectiveness?

Their conversation was about having a positive effect on the world, and Tim’s argument was that a cynical fat-cat who massively supports a worthy issue to pimp out his social resume has still managed to move the needle way more than the true believer who devotes his last dollar to the cause. Matt—who generally favors intent—felt compelled to agree.

Here’s my insight: compound interest beats the lottery almost every time. A single bold move might move the needle in the right direction, but it will rarely fully accomplish a non-trivial goal. Checking off a really big box takes commitment and vision, and in the real world that almost never happens by accident.

Tim’s fat cat will change his giving strategy the moment his incentives change. He MIGHT see a big cause through to completion… but he probably won’t.

On the other hand, that true believer is capable of learning. If his intent is sincere and his commitment is real, then there is every reason to expect that his trivial impact of today will become significant tomorrow, perhaps massively so, especially as fellow travelers—some of them quite possibly fat cats—join him in the scrum.

So, in the long term, intent really does matter more than any individual action. Not for any airy-fairy hippy-dippy reason, but simply because it is more effective at actually getting the job done.