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How to Decide What You Want

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.

Join the discussion
  • Thank you, I enjoyed this post and have a feeling I’ll read it a few more times over the next couple of days.

    Putting meaning and love into what you do rather than doing something “important” is a really powerful lesson, and one I don’t think we can learn too much.

    Again, thank you.

  • hey some truly innocent but true statements i am not one to listen to other people or indeed a person to read this sort of material but i think of every thing logically and sometimes think i am above people of lesser thinking despite there theorys and qualifications but i have alot of respect what has been said in this article its nice to see there are straight sensible people in this world with helpful uncomplicated logical answers for people instead of over paid shrinks confusing people and convincing them there is a deep reason for the way they feel and only they can fix it for them if u give them x amount of money over x amount of sessions. till they are more messed up than they started i could go on but i wont i will just thank u for posting this with respect a.mgr

  • hey some truly innocent but true statements i am not one to listen to other people or indeed a person to read this sort of material but i think of every thing logically and sometimes think i am above people of lesser thinking despite there theorys and qualifications but i have alot of respect what has been said in this article its nice to see there are straight sensible people in this world with helpful uncomplicated logical answers for people instead of over paid shrinks confusing people and convincing them there is a deep reason for the way they feel and only they can fix it for them if u give them x amount of money over x amount of sessions. till they are more messed up than they started i could go on but i wont i will just thank u for posting this with respect a.mgr

  • You said: “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.”

    I think it is important to note that there are 2 kinds of caring. It is from this fact that the concept of “care free” comes from. When you are care free or without a care you are happy. Children esp. those who are the most care free are that way because they haven’t yet learned to want more than certain basics. As we grow older we are taught and we learn that various things are “desirable”. Wanting more means hurting more when we can not or do not have what we want.
    Together with that is this; that you can be happy with things as they are. This kind of happiness defies caring because you don’t need to care about about anything to just be happy. Once you let go of “clingy” caring you become happy simply by being.
    The mere act of breathing is pleasing when you aren’t distracted by cares and concerns.

    This doesn’t stop you from doing what you need to do in life and pursuing your dreams. You still have cares and concerns you have simply let go of many of them, and reeducated yourself so you realize that you can also on occasion temporarily let go of all of it and be spontaneous.

    There are many techniques that can help one achieve this. There is the cognitive approach, an adaptation of the psychodrama, rerunning memories of concerns over and over till it no longer matters,just doing something unusual without thinking about it or hesitating, playing kids role playing games as if you are still the kid you used to be (You have to play it so well you relive the experience.), and meditation are just some of the tools. For some you can even just intend to let go.

    Remember Nothing matters BECAUSE everything matters.

  • Here is an idea, to find out what matters to you deep in your heart, here is an idea….

    To decide what really matters to you, drop all of what you want and rid of those selfish desires and think of it in a new way, thats’ what will really matter to you…

    Think about it for a moment, I think it could make sense or does…

  • I have moved many times and the side benefit is every few years I’m forced to sort through my material belongings and decide what to take with me and what to leave behind.

    This physical exercise is very revealing. Things I couldn’t live without a decade ago, have no purpose in the life I’m living today.

    On the other hand things I actively care for and am caring for grow more precious with the passing of time.

    Goals change as we grow and progress through the stages of life. When you no longer want or care about anything you’ve entered a passive, if not vegetative, state of existence.

  • Very nicely written. It helps you to resolve inner conflicts and start the journey of doing the things which makes you worthwhile and helps overcoming internal fear. Indecisiveness is one of the biggest enemy which I have realized with time. To achieve something you mus know where you want to go.
    Thank you so much for you efforts to write this. This has helped me a lot.

  • Great post. Leaves a lot for people to think about as they ponder their goals. But deciding what you want is not the same as deciding to go after it. That takes another step, and it is that step that stymies a lot of people.

  • First of all, it is very rare that I stand at awe at what someone has written. This just happened. I assure you, your course won't suck, no matter what you sound like. 😉

    I have been struggling with deciding what I want for a long time, since I found my husband. Before that, all I really cared for was finding someone to share my life with. Now that that is done, I had to decide what it was that I wanted to share exactly. 😀 I never thought about what matters, but I thought a lot about what didn't matter. How simple are those things that sometimes jolt your thinking into the right direction. I will read this again, and again, I'm sure…

    And I too, thank you for writing it. You just may have changed my life – that remains to be seen.

  • thank you.

    i used to always know what i want but i always found it very difficult to go for it. i used to always go back to my old habits and i was waiting for something big enough to wake me up to make me see to get me to work and 'that thing' was never big enough so i used to always come back to the same point where i started

    after reading your post i feel as if i finally embraced the truth that is my decisions that influence the future and it doesn't have to be something i like or want at the moment and there it comes: involvement and fulfillment.

    and the best of luck in the future

  • I'm female/61 and find your article and the project you are pondering remarkable. Certainly, you are very in touch with your inner self and have thought-provoking ideas. Trust in yourself that your ideas will be accepted by those who likewise ponder on these concepts, and not so much worry over the physical 'voice' interprettation by others. Good Luck and I will keep checking back -Sheron

  • Thank you for the great posts. Your words are simple and to the point. You helped me to understand some of the causes of my behavioral problems. Keep doing what you doing. Good luck and thank you again.

  • thank you for the lovely post.
    I wish you would make paypal donations available to readers of your site, instead of promoting your book. that would be a win-win for you and your customers – for you to receive what you deserve for the light you shine over readers who stumble on your site and are happy with having just read this one article, and for the readers to be able to take what they can from this post and never come back.

  • I love this blog post and come back and read it again and again. Its truly inspiring. The example with the little Prince.. think its something we dont really often we have to give meaning to our lives by pouring oursleves into our lives.. and what matters to us is what we spend time on and not the other way. Thanks alot very insightful and inspiring

  • Thank you for laying this down so simply. Decisions may be many and none of them ending in what we "want", yet without choice we stop in a limbo. To make a choice leads to another choice and by each decision our character is formed, we form more refined choices, we make our "luck" and our future.
    Good luck.

  • Simply Brilliant….I have one question….you said stand aside and watch yourself doing something. Who is standing aside and who is watching the movie (for example) or studying in my case(which I always get tired off) ..isn't it a personality split? Similarly, can we follow the same paradigm in day to day life…talking to someone (part of me standing aside) and other talking or responding to someone?



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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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