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Why You Probably Don’t Know What You Want, & How To Fix That

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“What do you want?” It seems like the simplest possible question. We all know what we want, right? I mean, seriously, do you even have to think about it? Isn't it so clear and embedded in our minds that it's instinctual?  Isn't this a stupid question?

Nope. [At least not for most people I know]

The truth is, it's a difficult question. In this article, we are going to explore the question, “what do you want?” and examine why it's such an important question to answer, what's standing in our way of clarity on this question, and what to do about it.

Why Is It Such An Important Question to Answer?

Before we invest the time to dive deep into the question, “What do you want,” let's step back and make sure we know why this is such an important question.  The answer is simple:  if you don't know what you want–with amazing clarity–you will never get it.  It's really that simple. Think of a trip you're taking…if you're not entirely clear what your destination is supposed to be, will you ever get there?

And the flip side of point is even more important, and potentially more startling:  when you know what you want, it tends to come to you.  It's true, and it's a long-known phenomenon. Have you ever heard of the books “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill?  Perhaps you've heard of “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne?
Both of these books describe a well-known idea: The Law of Attraction. The Law of Attraction basically states that you get/become what you think about most.  So if you think often about your fears, worries and concerns, they are attracted to you. On the other hand, if you think often of your goals, dreams and intentions, you they will come to you as you move toward them.

What Do You NOT Want?

In my experience, people often spend a fair amount of time and energy thinking about and focusing on what they DON'T want.  They don't want to have to work, or to be fat, or to be lonely. Well, I guess this is helpful in a certain way, because they're eliminating some possibilities for what they DO want.  But as we just discussed, focusing too much on what you DON'T want may actually, ironically, give you more of what you don't actually want.

Specificity Matters

When you're getting clear on what you want, specificity matters a great deal.  You're painting a picture in your own mind of what you want, and that picture needs to be in high definition. It needs to be in tremendous detail, so that it's extremely vivid in your mind.

Let's look at a simple, relatable example: part of your “want” is to have a beautiful home.  It's not enough to say “I want to live in an awesome house.” Instead, you need to break it down in much greater detail. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Where exactly is this house?
  • What color is it?
  • What's the landscaping like? Grass? Brushes? Stonework?
  • What type of furniture and decor is in the house?
  • What does it look like through your eyes when you're sitting on the couch in the living room?
  • It's Saturday morning–what are you doing in your house?

Imagine you're writing a script for a movie, and you're describing the set so that the set designer can get it just right–how much detail would you need to give them in order for them to see the vision you have in your mind?

Is It What YOU Want, Or What Others Trained You to Want?

OK, so you think you know what you want.  The next question is also a big one.  Just a fair warning, as you really think about it, it might hit you hard.  The question is this:  “this thing you want….is it what YOU truly decided you want, or is it something that was implanted in you (whether on purpose or not) by those who have influenced you?”

Let's go back to our previous example:  you want to live in a great house (and you've painted a specific, super-vivid picture in your mind).  Why do you want to live in this house? Is it because YOU truly want to, or is it because all around you, friends and family are always striving to live in the best house they can afford? Is it because you love architecture, love being at home every night, or love hosting dinner parties?

It doesn't matter what your reason is…it only matters that you HAVE a reason for wanting this, and that the reason is YOUR reason.  I think there are many people who have told themselves they want to own an awesome house….because that's what society has told them they should want.  It never occurred to them that this was not their own conscious choice to desire; it was just an assumption, because that's what everyone around them was doing.

Ouch. I told you, this one can hurt.

This, however, is not a criticism; it's just an observation.  Don't feel bad–we are all very subject to the influences around us. And at certain times in our lives–like when we are young kids–we are especially impressionable.  Those influencers (ie our parents) probably didn't even intentionally instill some of these things in us.  Just being around them made you absorb and inherit many of their beliefs.

Can You Have Multiple Answers?

Yes!  In fact, you really need to have multiple answers.  Why? Because you are a complex person, with many different hats you wear, roles you play and sections of your life.  Really what you need is a clear, specific, thoughtful answer for each and every area of your life.  In other words, what do you want:

  • For your health?
  • For your financial life?
  • For your relationship with your significant other?
  • For your business or career?
  • For your legacy?
  • For your various passions?
  • Etc

Take the time to think this through in all areas of your life, and create your crystal clear painted picture of your vision of what you want.  Will this be quick and easy? No, probably not at all. But is it worth the effort? Absolutely.

Why It's So Hard To Answer

People often find it surprising just how difficult it can be to answer these questions.  Once they dig deep, they are baffled that they didn't already know the answer, and that they are having such a difficult time coming up with answers that feel genuine.

I have a theory, based on my own experiences with myself and my friends, family and colleagues.  I think there are two things that get in our way of being honest with ourselves about what we really want.

Problem #1: “What Do You Want?…<Within Reason>”

If I look you in the eye and ask you, “What do you want your financial life to be like?,” what you actually hear is different. What you hear me ask is “What do you want–within reason–for your financial life?”

In my experience, people tend to automatically apply a filter to the question “what do you want”–that filter is reasonability.  What, within reason, do they want? People have a difficult time getting comfortable with saying they want things that they don't feel are reasonable or even possible.  The result is that deep down what Jane wants is a yacht off the coast of Monaco, but she feels this is not a realistic want, so she says “I want an annual European vacation and a small boat we can take to the lake on weekends.”

Be conscious about turning off this filter when you ask and answer the question, “what do you want?”

Problem #2:  What Do I Deserve?

The second problem people often face when they ask themselves the big question, is that they feel there is a limitation on what they should want, based on what they feel they deserve.  They may want that yacht in Monaco, like Jane, but their automatic internal voice tells them “come on now, you don't deserve that! Who do you think you are?”

This, too, is a dangerous voice that can really get in the way of us being honest with ourselves about our wants.  As a mentor recently told me, “You're not entitled to anything, but you deserve everything, because you are part of humanity.” I thought this was an important and profound point, and it begs the question: “that guy that actually does already have yacht in Monaco–why does he deserve it more than me?”  He's just a human, like me–he puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.

Side Note: I do think there is a difference between “deserving” something and having “earned something.” If you're looking at the guy with the giant boat and asking him why he has that but you don't, the answer does likely lie in the fact that he did something to earn it.  But he didn't just deserve it more than you–he made it happen through focused work and intention.

How to Determine What You Want

If you've read this far, then you know the answer is right in front of you.  What you need to do may not be easy, but it's simple.  Here are the steps I'd recommend.

  1. Make a list of all the areas of your life that matter to you.  Don't edit yourself, just make the list; it's OK if it's long.
  2. One at a time, ask yourself the question:  “if I could waive a magic wand and have this area of my life be exactly what I want it to be, what would that be?”  Answer the question in bullets, drawings, voice memos or whatever format you need to use to capture the ideas. It doesn't have to be pretty.
  3. Look back at your answer and see if your “reasonability” and “deserve” filters were turned off.  If not, go back and revise your answer.
  4. Take your notes, and go back through them, to craft a single, focused sentence. Now is your opportunity to make it pretty.
  5. Repeat for every area of your life.

A Few Additional Tips for Success

  • Grab a good pen, a fresh notebook, and treat yourself to some solitude; this way, you can do your best thinking. Go to your favorite place, and get some peace and quiet.
  • Don't beat yourself up if you don't have all the answers the first time. This is an iterative process. Work on it for a while, then leave it alone–let your subconscious work on it for a while. Then come back to it and pick up where you left off.
  • Give yourself permission to revise your answers over time. You're not a stationary object–you can change and move!