Right now. Right this moment. What do you really want?
It sounds like a simple question, but it’s often a difficult one to answer. So instead of answering the question what do I want? we answer a different question, an easier one, such as
- What do I need?
- What do I want that I think I’m capable of getting?
- What do I want that’s practical?
Some of those might seem like reasonable approaches, but they sidestep the actual question.
Identifying what you want isn’t an excursion into narcissism. The fact that so many of us are unable to answer this question with any degree of conviction doesn’t indicate we’re selfless beings who aren’t concerned with our own wants and desires. To the contrary, the less clarity we have about what we really want in life, the likelier we are to settle for—even grab at—whatever gratifies our immediate, short-term desires.
But it’s impossible to be truly satisfied if you don’t know what you really want.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about this phenomenon of answering an easier question than the one that was asked.
If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 [the unconscious] will find a related question that is easier and will answer it. I call the operation of answering one question in place of another “substitution.”
Substituting an easier question for the question, what do I want? has consequences that can be deadly—or at least deadening. If you can’t allow yourself to identify what you want in life, you diminish your possibilities dramatically. You lose touch with yourself. Your view of the world becomes narrower. You settle for less. And maybe every once in a while you’re kind of unpleasant to be around.
Could you want something that’s impossible (or seems impossible) to have? Of course! Wanting isn’t synonymous with having. The act of wanting something won’t somehow magically bring it into being, no matter how hard you wish for it. On the other hand, if you don’t even know what you want, then you’ve pretty much guaranteed you won’t go after it. It’s unlikely that everything you want will be impossible for you to have. So why not be honest with yourself and acknowledge what you want, whether or not you think you can have it?
When you ask yourself this question, throw reasonableness out the window and try answering the hard question instead of an easier one. If you keep doing that, the hard question actually becomes easier because you don’t have to keep censoring yourself. If it turns out that you want impossible, improbable, barely imaginable, or highly unlikely things, congratulations! You’re already a winner.
Here’s a simple exercise to help you uncover what you want:
For 30 days, preferably consecutive, write “What I really want” at the top of a blank page and then list 15-20 things that you want right then and there. They can be small, medium, or large; material or ephemeral; practical or pie-in-the sky. Don’t put an inordinate amount of thought into creating your list. Write down whatever occurs to you. Repetition is the key. Date your list. At the end of 30 days, you’re likely to have a pretty good idea of what’s important to you and what you want. If not, do the exercise for 30 more days.