Thursday, August 10, 2006

How to Decide What You Want

Earlier this week, reader Betsy Nein had this comment:

I'm 68 years young living in Fla. and wanting to do much more in my remaining years. Problem is, I've always knew what I didn't like to do, but not exactly it was that I did like to do. What's my problem? Thanks.

Well, Betsy, your "problem" is most likely that you believe you can't have what you want, and thus you don't think about it.

There are two ways this can happen.  For me, before my Self 2.0 change, I didn't think I could have anything I wanted, due to a childhood experience that convinced me that successfully going after what I wanted would lead to terrible consequences.  (If you're interested, I tell the full story of that experience -- and how I turned it around -- in the last chapter of You, Version 2.0.)

But this can also happen another way.  As I wrote about in Little Secret, Big Life:

To disconnect from pain is to disconnect from joy.  Not because of some mystic unity of opposites (as some self-help books seem to imply), but rather because your emotions respond to the perceived gap between what you want and what you care about having.  You can't turn off this gap-measurement system, so when you disconnect from pain, all you're really doing is deciding not to care about the thing that's important to you.

What this means is that if we encounter too many losses or setbacks in a particular area of life, we tend to stop "liking" or "wanting" those things.  Or at least we appear to do so on the surface.  The truth is that we still like or want them, but we no longer "live" in the part of our brains that does the wanting.

Thus, if you have this kind of block, the straightforward way to approach it is to ask yourself what you can't have, and then see if you would want those things if you could have them.

If you could have it, would you take it?

Robert Fritz's books have quite a bit of material in this vein, providing lots of questions you can ask yourself about what you want.  Fritz uses a very simple test for knowing if you want something.  He asks, "If you could have it, would you take it?"

This may seem like a ridiculous question.  You might argue that if someone offered you a million dollars, it would only be sensible to take it, whether you wanted it or not!

But this masks a deeper assumption that most people have about wanting: we assume that there is a link between what we want and what we should try to get.  If we can't get something, or it's hard to get, we may decide we don't want something that we really do want.

We all want a million dollars, because if it just dropped in our laps, we'd take it.  This is not the same thing as saying that the money matters to us.  That's becase what you want, and what really matters to you are often two very different things.

Sometimes, the most rewarding experiences of our lives come about as a result of things we didn't actually want at the time.  And sometimes the things we did want turn out to be disastrous.

You can't really control what you want.  Pretty much, we want everything!  Even things that contradict each other!  Thus, living your life according to your wants, likes, and dislikes is ultimately a disaster.

Your dreams are not always what you want!

Now, at first glance that may appear to contradict the very theme of this blog: Live Your Dreams or Die Trying.  But living your dreams isn't all about your wants.  It's about doing the things that actually matter to you, not the things you like or want.  And sometimes the things that matter most are things that involve challenges.

For example, I'm currently struggling with recording the CD audio for my new Instant Willpower course.  Do I want to do this?  Heck no.  In fact, I'm struggling with it precisely because of my wants.  I want it to be impressive.  I want people to learn from it.  I want the audio to sound good.  I want it to be expressive and let my personality and spirit show through.  I want it to cover all the points it's supposed to.  I want the exercises to be challenging and exciting.  I want the speaking to be natural and engaging.

The problem is, these wants are often conflicting or contradictory.  To make sure I cover all the points, I want to write out what I'm going to say, but that makes me sound less natural, because I don't quite speak the way I write.  (I tend to be even more verbose when I speak than when I write, if you can believe that!) 

Meanwhile, I want the first lesson to quickly convince people to actually do the exercises, because I'm afraid that people will skip ahead and ruin their learning experience.  But spending too much time on that will bore the people who already decided to do the exercises.  And so on, and so on.

Welcome to the real world!  Reality and imperfection are synonymous, as I've been saying since the beginning of this blog.  You can't have all your wants; you have to prioritize them.

It's important to choose...  and sometimes it's more important than what you choose!

So, the idea of living your dreams is that you need to decide what really matters to you -- not just at the level of likes and dislikes, but at the level of what you want to make with your life.  And the idea behind both Life is Every Moment and The Island Within  is that what matters, matters right now.

When I work on the Instant Willpower course or on writing this article, it's to achieve goals that are in my future.  But I do them because of what they do for me now.  I experience growth, learning, and an increasing confidence in myself because I know I am working towards something important.

This is not something that I "want" or "like" as such, but it is something that matters, and thus it brings me two important things that mere wanting or liking cannot: involvement, and fulfillment.

To get these things, however, you must give up other things.  You must decide which things are more important, and which you are willing to give up.  I've spent most of my "38 years young" life trying to avoid giving up anything, and thus not really getting anywhere.  When you don't decide, your consciousness is divided and pulled in many directions.  To decide is to live, but indecision is fatal.

The next trap that people fall into is trying to "figure out" what to decide is more important, or what matters most.  If you are trying to "figure out" what to decide, you are missing the point altogether.  Deciding is not about figuring things out, nor will you "find" what's most important to you by looking.  It's not like there is some already-existing thing floating around out there that you want, if only you could find it!  Rather, it is the act of choosing that makes it matter!

The most important things are invisible to the eye

In The Little Prince, the title character cares for a flower whose seed fell on his asteroid home and grew there.  Later, he finds on Earth that the flower is called a rose, and discovers a garden filled with hundreds of them.  He then becomes angry at himself for having thought his one flower so special, and spending so much time caring for it.  "I thought that I was rich, with a flower that was unique in all the world; and all I had was a common rose."

But later, he meets a fox who tells him that he is wrong to think his flower is not special.  It is special, he says, because it is the one that the prince  chose to spend his time caring for: "It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important". And so the prince returns to the garden, seeing things with new eyes:

"You are not at all like my rose," he said. "As yet you are nothing. No one has tamed you, and you have tamed no one. You are like my fox when I first knew him. He was only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world."

And the roses were very much embarassed.

"You are beautiful, but you are empty," he went on. "One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you--the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.

The meaning of life, in plain words

You see, it is not the purpose of life to provide us with meaning.  Rather, it is our purpose to supply the meaning to life, by our actions.  And what we choose is our meaning.  In every moment that we live, we decide what the meaning is.  There is no "right" meaning.  There is no "wrong" meaning.  Whatever we devote ourselves to, becomes our devotion.  What matters is what we care for -- actively, not passively.  The prince cared about the rose because he cared for the rose, not the other way around!

And so it goes with all of us.  If we care for nothing, we will care about nothing, and this applies as much to caring for ourselves as anything else.  If we don't take care of ourselves or do things for ourselves, then by our actions we say we are worth nothing, and it should be no surprise when we feel worthless as a result!

When we do something in the present that we don't want to do or don't like to do, in order to obtain a future result (like exercising now to be healthy later), we are saying that we are worth something.  This makes us feel better about ourselves now, whether we eventually achieve the desired result later or not.  That's why goals are valuable: they call on us to care for, and thus make us care about, not only the subject of the goal, but ourselves.

This is how you build character, and confidence, and everything else that is worthwhile to have in yourself.  In fact, that's why I decided to go ahead and take a big chunk of what I'd originally planned to put into my Get Ready To Change course, and split it out as a separate Instant Willpower course, so that I can get this message out to a wider audience sooner.  It's something that could change a lot of lives for the better.

Now all I have to do is finish writing, illustrating, and recording it...  while dealing with the fact that I hate the way my voice sounds when I play back the segments I've recorded so far.  And that I'm afraid I'm in way over my head producing this thing.  And that it's going to take forever for me to finish it.  And that it's going to suck.  And so on, and so on.

I beg your pardon...  I never promised you a rose garden!

So don't be deceived.  "Living your dreams" does not mean making life into a perpetual picnic, or even that you get to do what you love to do all the time.  Rather, it means that you must bring your love into whatever needs to be done, as the little prince cared for his rose.  This is the big secret at the heart of Instant Willpower, but of course it is no secret at all.

So as I work on the course, I try to practice what I preach in the course itself.  Love is a verb, and love conquers fear.  The sensation of effort is a measure of your unwillingness to accept the present moment.  Accept your fears and you will move past them.  On and on they go, a hundred truisms coined by me or others, but they aren't any substitute for practice.  Practice makes perfect.  Practice pays for all.  Practice what you preach.

Tonight I spent two hours trying to get just six minutes of audio track laid down -- the opening segment of lesson one.  Tomorrow morning I will get another few minutes down.  By the end of the weekend I will have at least one lesson recorded, even if I'm still afraid I sound terrible and boring and whatever else I find to worry about between now and then.  Reality is tough, but love is tougher.  Better still: when I finish, I will be tougher.

I've heard that some people have a saying: "Pain is weakness leaving the body."  If that's true, then fear is also weakness leaving the mind.  So, go ahead and do what you are afraid you can't.  It is not the way to an easy life, only a worthwhile one.