This one goes out to all my restless, conflicted, idealistic and inquisitive peers. For the ones who are making it, who are broke and who have a different idea entirely of what wealth means. For anyone who, at some point in their lives, has asked themselves the question, “what do I really want?”
While there are some really good philosophical essays and horoscope apps that can help you answer this question, most of us eventually settle for the very reasonable conclusion that nobody can really ever figure out what they really want, but we do the best job we can and that’s what counts.
While you might agree with this sentiment, or at least commend its sensibility, you might also feel slightly uneasy at how anemic this explanation is. This might be because:
A. You’re a pretty competent person who generally knows what you want and how to go about getting it. It’s actually pretty annoying when you can’t figure out what you want and you believe you can do better.
B. You never really have anything figured out, and this disposition usually doubles as an explanation for why you also can never figure out what you want. Everything always turns out for the best, but you wonder if you really had to go through so many poor life choices and/or unfortunate events to get there.
C. You’re easily dissatisfied and blame your high expectations for why you can never figure out what you really want. You sincerely hope there is more to it than “do the best you can” because it sounds an awful lot like “you might be missing out on what you really want,” and your greatest fear is settling.
Whoever you are, you may be hoping there is another explanation to this age-old question, ideally one that affirms your secret belief that it's all too possible for you to figure out exactly what you want and be truly happy.
Disclaimer: I make no guarantees that you will finish this article with any kind of renowned purpose or sudden clarity about what you are meant to do in this life. However, I can discredit something you may be telling yourself: that you "want too much," possess "poor judgment" or are simply "indecisive." I can suggest another explanation: that we struggle with figuring out what we want because most of us are unfamiliar with how our bodies tell us what we want.
Here's the thing: our bodies actually have some amazing equipment that can do more than many of us realize — we just don’t take full advantage. For example, you can command yourself to stop coughing by raising your arms above your head. You can command your leg to stop falling asleep by rocking your head side to side. You can go through a book in minutes if you re-learn to read from top to bottom instead of left to right.
The point is, we've learned to do things not the optimal way, but in the way we've always done them.
We usually try to suppress our coughs by drinking water. We try to suffer through sleeping limbs by not telling our evil best friends and wiggling our toes. We try to understand textbooks by re-reading each line 10 times.
We usually try to figure out what we want by weighing the pros and cons, consulting others, visualizing ourselves in Situation A as opposed to Situation B and going with what makes us feel better. We ask for a sign to drop down from the sky. We wake up in the middle of the night with an epiphany, only to look back and realize that we fooled ourselves yet again.
When we realize our limitations exist not in our equipment, but in the way use our equipment, everything makes much more sense. It opens up possibilities we didn't know were possible, because we realize that they are not just "possibilities." They are viable options that you have been preparing to take throughout your life, whether you knew it or not.
Here are some basic steps you can take to start figuring out what you really want:
1. Understand why you have emotions.
Besides making you more likable, did you know that emotions are actually an incredible design feature that allows you to hack your perfect memory? Believe it or not, you technically have perfect memory. Your memory remembers everything about what you're doing at any given moment and stores it away. Your brain is an incurable hoarder.
It’s your recall that isn’t so hot. You forget something because there's so much information locked inside your head that you don't know where to look. Imagine you owned 365 keys and only one works for your car on any given day. It's a serious pain in the ass to wake up every day, having to figure out not only which key you need, but also, where you put it. Every time you "remember" something, this is what you put your brain through.
Emotions are amazing because they quickly crunch all the information you've ever experienced into a feeling — a flash verdict on what you should do in the face of all the evidence you've gathered in your entire life.
How are your emotions so good at detecting what you really want? Because, by scientific standards, they are experts at choosing what makes you the happiest, because by scientific standards, it takes between 6,000 and 50,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. Since the day you were born, however, you have been trying to figure out what makes you happy.
Your mind and body have been scheming together since Day 1 to figure out what makes you tick, what makes you smile and what makes you drool. If you're between the ages of 20 and 30, this means you have logged between 175,316 to 262,974 hours of practice in figuring out what makes you happy. Even experts make mistakes — so don’t expect a clean record.
One of the most incredible things about our emotions is that they can detect a good decision way before you understand why it's good. For example, if you were to take four stacks of random cards with two decks holding a higher ratio of winning cards and 2 decks holding a higher ratio of losing cards, you wouldn't be able to consciously identify which decks you preferred until around the 80th card. Your body however, would start lighting up about the "winning" decks by card number 10.
The takeaway? Follow your gut instinct and pay close attention to your first impressions. The tricky part, however, is reading your first impressions correctly.
2. Discover how your body experiences emotions.
Do you know how your body experiences emotions? Yes, when you are angry, you feel angry and when you feel great, you are happy, but do you know the more subtle signals that distinguish your personal signs of frustration from impatience? Can you pinpoint the unique series of bodily reactions that take place when you get truly excited? Can you tell how that's different from what happens when you're simply curious, amused or surprised?
I ask these things questions because all humans are susceptible to a common flaw: skipping observations and heading straight to explanations. This is a problem in identifying what we want because it tricks us into choosing the emotion. It's as if we have not yet trained ourselves to understand a loud reaction from a positive reaction.
Get to know yourself. Next time you're confronted with a choice, take note of the physical reactions that take place (upward gaze, elbow lean, sweaty hands, wider peripheral vision, tapping finger, twitchy eye, that feeling where the air in your diaphragm floats out of you) and reflect on the order in which they take place. Trust yourself. It's like learning a new language, but this time, you have a major advantage — you already speak it, you just need to learn how to read it. Remember, it's not how much knowledge you have that counts, it's what you do with the knowledge that counts.
3. Correct for error.
In life, we don't have perfect information. We are limited to the information and experiences to which we expose ourselves. We have a rational side that complements the emotional side. The rational side calculates and weighs the pros and cons. It doesn't necessarily care about whether or not you’re happy — it cares about you surviving, about you being realistic, about you being loved and about you fitting in. Without this side, you would be a hot mess; you need rational thought, but in appropriate moderation.
Balancing authenticity with practicality is a delicate endeavor that you can achieve by making sure your decisions don’t contradict each other. Avoid closing yourself off to the best option by expanding your pool of experiences. Continue to do this, and it'll become easier to distinguish between what you want, what you need and what will meet both your needs and wants.
Figuring out what we really want is both a science and an art. It's possible, but not easy; it's solvable, but not for the faint of heart. Like everything else in life, it takes practice, but the answers exist so long as we make the concerted effort to chase them.