One of my favorite pieces of life philosophy comes in the form of a commencement speech by the late, great David Foster Wallace (which you can read in full here). He talks about how all people, himself included, experience the world in a profoundly self-centric way: You are reading this on your computer that is right in front of you, and you are drinking your coffee that you bought for yourself just how you like it, and that noise the fan makes is really annoying to you. This is what he calls our ‘default setting,’ our natural orientation to experience the world primarily as it relates to us.
If intentionality means anything at all, it must mean doing the work of getting outside of our default setting. So acting intentionally must mean doing things that are not driven by this innate, hardwired self-centeredness.
This tells us two things about intentionality: it’s self-denying, and it’s hard, because it requires that we overcome a deeply rooted, natural orientation to the world. It’s work. So when you hear the term ‘intentional living,’ you can interpret it as ‘selfless, difficult living,’ or if someone writes about ‘intentional community,’ you can read that as ‘unselfish, challenging community.’
If our intentional actions are not driven by our default self-centeredness, what are they driven by? The best answer I can come up with is: Our deepest values. Not cultural consensus or family expectations, but that unique mix of core beliefs and commitments that make us individuals and define each of our distinct potential. After all, intentionality is hard, so it’s going to take the deepest stuff we’ve got to see us through.
If you are interested in living more intentionally, spend some time on your core values, decide what it is you care about most, and then get ready for the difficult, selfless, often maddening work of fighting through your hardwired default setting. I think you’ll find that it is some of the best work you have ever done.