How do we know what we want?

Self development always seems to start with a hefty presumption. It’s taken for granted that, deep down, everyone knows what they want (what they really, really want) and a bit of psychological archaeology can uncover this crucial piece of the puzzle and set us on the path to eternal happiness.

In my experience, that’s just not how it works. We have different things we want and they don’t even have the good manners to work together; they can be completely contradictory. We can want both a high flying city career and a reclusive life spinning wool in the Shetlands. We can want to enjoy the extra sleep and to see the sunrise. And to complicate matters further, not every type of wanting is about having.

There are different types of things to want. It’s easy to forget this, when the desires we are trained to focus on are generally the individualistic, mental muscle-tearing personal ‘stretch goals’. It’s possible to want things for others, for example, or to want something to exist for itself — not for one’s own career.

I was talking to a creative friend recently when we hit on something that felt quite profound. We realised that the reason we make things or give talks is not because (or not purely because) it feels good to be told how clever and creative we are. The vast majority of the time, the feedback we get is slight at best (if you don’t believe me, look at the level of response to these posts!) No, we do these things because we have an ineffable feeling that there is something that should be said. It’s more like a sense of responsibility or righteousness. It’s about the message, not about the midwife who helps to bring it into the world.

I suspect a lot of art is like this — in particular (by definition, I suppose) the stuff that hardly anyone ever gets to see. This work is made independently of the author’s identity, it serves a different master. These are the true ‘ideas worth spreading’, not the ones that place you on a red Ikea carpet to be judged on YouTube.

Creative work can be a kind of caring work. It can put you behind the scenes so that something else can thrive. This is also about time — it’s the opposite of shortcutting results. There’s no future abstract goal the carer or creator is shooting for, the work is its own reward.

When do we need reminders that life is a journey? When we’re being trained to hyper-focus on results. There are many worthwhile daily desires that aren’t about attaining a SMART goal — that aren’t even about us.

A challenge

Forget everything you’ve read about goals and ‘finding your why’, and today think about something you want that isn’t about you. Write down three things you want to be true, but not for yourself:

  1. One thing you’re already succeeding in every day (e.g. ‘I want my kids to feel cared for’).
  2. One thing you want for your work to do (e.g. ‘I want my writing to change someone’s mind about x’).
  3. One thing you want for the world (e.g. ‘I want people to find peaceful resolutions to conflict’).