Before That First Step

“The journey of a thousand li begins beneath one’s feet.” – Lao Tzu

If you don’t quite recognize the quote above, it’s because the action-oriented West has long changed and misquoted this ancient Chinese proverb. Just as we as leaders, founders, creatives, and innovators mistake powerful action for powerful intentions. In this post I want to explore deeper what it means to really choose, and how most of us are running old programs that prevent us from creating something totally new.

Looking back at the quote, its original meaning doesn’t point to the moment of first action, but to the state and the space from which your first action arises. In this space lives the intention and courage you need to overcome the obstacles ahead. In this space lives the innate wisdom and compassion for yourself and others you call upon as you step into purpose.

In working with incredible leaders and innovators, I’ve found three important elements to create a solid foundation from which to act:

  1. Intention – The process of choosing from a higher state
  2. Why – The why or meaning we put behind or around our choice
  3. How – The boundaries and structure we place around our container of practice, to support our journey towards intention and to maintain a relationship with our context along the way.

After everything written by Simon Sinek, and every productivity master out there, most people know a fair amount about the latter two. Which is why I want to focus on the first foundation…


We tend to think about choice as a momentary reaction to stimuli. I decide to drink this glass of water, I pick it up, and I drink it. But choice is often ruled by our biology and the strong internal reinforcement to stick to our well-worn habits. It’s why diets fail and why we have a dating type even if we don’t want one.

But intention cuts through this. Intentions are choices made from a larger perspective. They are choices that are made and remade until new patterns are formed. At least if we’re persistent in our intentions.

My former coach Jeff Riddle use to say, “A baby intends to walk and then months later it does, despite all the various attempts that resulted in non-walking. It intended (I will walk), attempted (I’m going to try to get upright), accepted (OUCH!, I fell over) and intended again (I will walk).”

This is how we grow through a process of persistent intention. Ideas take time to catch on. Even ideas we want to instill in ourselves. Which is why it isn’t enough to simply choose once. If you want to choose, you have to choose again and again.

This is what the quote is really about. It’s not about the steps you take on your pathway to what you want. It’s about the ground beneath your feet. It’s about the intention you set in this moment, again and again.

My intention is to help leaders, founders, and innovators master themselves so they can master their world. Not so they can rule and build fame and fortune, but so that we can have a world led by wise leaders.

The difference between a wise leader and a self-absorbed one is profound. Which is why I set my intention again and again. I fail on this intention all the time. I myself am not this leader on a regular basis. But just as the practice says, I simply intend, attempt, accept, and intend again.

This is what the path of mastery asks of us: not for perfection, but for practice. So if you want to be different, create something different, don’t stop with choosing. Step back. Take a bigger view and choose an intention to come from again and again. This is how we last on a journey of a thousand miles or more.

[Editor’s note: a li is also known as a “Chinese mile,” and is a distance of 500 meters.]