Actions are always about goals.


  • Our actions, including things we say, are driven by our goals.
  • Some goals are harder to achieve and require more of our attention than others.
  • Different actions may be used in different environments to achieve the same goal.

You’re probably just as familiar as I am with the proverb, “Actions speak louder than words.” I can’t even remember when I first heard about it or when it snuggled into my nest of handy hints for living a good life. The general idea of the proverb is that we should judge people by what they do, not by what they say.

According to Grammarist (and probably lots of other sources), the proverb dates back to a sermon given by St. Anthony of Padua in the 1200s. You might think that anything that has lasted since the 1200s must be on pretty solid ground. Unfortunately, you, like St. Anthony, would be wrong.

Separating what people say from what they do is based on an inaccurate, or at least incomplete, understanding of the way we work. Speaking is just as much part of our doing as knitting or meditating or landing the Jurkowska-Kowalska dismount. The crux of the matter all hinges on what we mean when we talk about what people are doing.

In a nutshell, what we do is achieve goals.

From before our first breath until our very last one, all our activity is geared around the task of keeping things the way we want. Our goals are our wants. They are also our needs and preferences and ambitions and habits and proclivities and dreams and set points and routines and desires. We have lots and lots of ways of describing the ceaseless task of making sure those things that we care about stay the way we want them t

Some goals, like a stable body temperature, look after themselves without too much conscious oversight on our part. Other desires, like a long and happy marriage, demand a lot of our attention. We have relatively simple goals and much more complex goals. Each of us is a unique and magnificent kaleidoscopic menagerie of stipulations about how we like ourselves and our world to be. The constellation of goals we assemble is our blueprint for living. It is who and what we are.

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Uttering a word is just as much action as clicking our fingers or kicking a ball. They are all part of our doing. We can increase the saltiness of our food by saying, “Would you please pass the salt?” or by reaching for the saltshaker. Both methods are actions and ways of getting what we want.

It is definitely the case that the actions people produce can be contradictory. We probably all know people who, from time to time, seem to “say one thing but do another.” If you buy into what I’m suggesting here, you might now think of them as people who “do one thing and also do another.” Why might that occur?

Again, it all gets back to goals. We can use words to achieve goals, and we can use other actions to achieve goals. If one of my goals is to impress you, it’s a lot easier to use words to say, “I just got 95 percent on my chemistry exam,” than it is to spend the hours necessary to actually produce a 95 percent result.

We won’t gain a clear understanding of what people are doing by simply focusing on their actions, whether those actions are producing words or something else. We need to constantly keep in mind the unseen and omnipotent goals in the background of any action.

Actions are always about goals. The environment is important too.

People often need to use different actions in different environments to achieve the same results. A teenager could use the words, “I really aced that chemistry exam. I got 95 percent,” and, “I really bombed that chemistry exam, but who needs chemistry anyway? I couldn’t be bothered studying for it,” to achieve the same goal of impressing others, depending on whether their environment at the time contains parents or peers.

The goal perspective provides an opportunity to rethink our ideas about truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty. When someone produces a string of words that don’t seem to correspond with any actual event or occurrence, thinking about background goals that might be relevant could help to clarify the situation.

While on a family vacation, perhaps Shiloh says to Kai, “Are you checking work emails again?”

“Absolutely not!” Kai replies with a quick swipe of the smartphone screen. “So which movie did we decide on?”

“Kai, we were planning where to go for dinner.”

“Oh! Yep, sure. Got it.”

Shiloh could get annoyed at what seems like a blatant fib on Kai’s part and a reneging on an agreement they had made, or what might be of greater interest could be thinking about the goals that are uppermost in Kai’s mind. Perhaps Kai has a goal to enjoy this family time together and another goal to maintain a good impression with an overbearing and demanding manager. Discussions about goals and how to gratify them can be helpful for increasing contentment and harmony in individuals and relationships. This is not a comment or judgment on the morality of truth but a suggestion for deepening the appreciation we have of ourselves and each other.

Actions don’t speak louder than words. Words are actions. To understand another person as clearly as possible, we need to consider all that they do in terms of the goals they might be tending and the environments in which they are tending them.

Goals are what it’s all about. Actions, including the words we produce, are what we do to ensure we continue living in the world as we like it to be.

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