The Work Of Knowing What You Want

So few of us know what we actually enjoy


If you don’t have what you want, it only means one of two things:

  • Either you’re in the process of achieving it and overcoming whatever’s in your way
  • Or you’re lying about wanting it.

I hired a coach to handle the latter recently, and from my session had two realizations:

  • I am not who I thought I was. So many of us are in denial and see ourselves in idealized light, and I am no exception. I saw myself as someone who was immune to feelings — both my own and, perhaps more importantly, others’. When I took personality assessments, I scoffed at suggestions of “peacekeeping” and “diplomacy,” pretending that I preferred rationale and cold, hard reason. I do — in the sense that we all do. I don’t roll around in my emotions, and that probably comes across in my writing, but I also literally get paid to anticipate and respond to the needs and wants of a market. (Pro tip: if you respond to anything, including a personality trait, with defensive dismissiveness or excessive pride, you’re overcompensating for something.)
  • The reason I am not pursuing something is because I reject everything. I reject jobs, partners, cities — I even rejected my own business (which was growing at an awesome rate.) Every time I reject something, I do end up with something better, but at some point in life we have to stop treating everything as an opportunity to “trade in and trade up,” and instead get deliberate, then go hard and deep on the thing we want (or have.)

I am so busy rejecting everything (including my own personality traits, apparently) that I haven’t gone hard and deep on anything.

And defining an interest to go hard and deep on is one of my goals for 2018.

Defining one interest to go hard and deep on should be a goal for everyone

I am not talking in terms of a new career.

I am deliberately talking about outside-career for the specific reason that I want to force myself to answer this question from a basis of true interest, and not money. (Also, personally, I rather like my career, thank you very much.)

The question has to be — needs to be — from a basis outside of external measures and validation, including “the market.” The question, in short, is “what would you do if you couldn’t tell anyone?” Or “what would you do if you could not post on Instagram, or humblebrag to your best friend, or choose on basis of what ‘sounded cool?’”

None of us want to admit that we do this, but we all do. One month from today is Valentine’s Day, when countless couples go through this charade of romantic gestures at least loosely measured on how well they’ll sound being described to our friends the next day.

And, furthermore, we think we come up with these things ourselves, but in reality we’re poring over articles or Instagram posts or asking around for “suggestions” or “inspiration.”

But what if you couldn’t tell anyone? And what if you also couldn’t go to anyone for their input or advice? Then what would you do?

Most of us are so out of touch with our own emotions, thoughts, preferences and values we have no idea what we actually enjoy.

Myself included — as I’ve said.

And one of my goals this year is to find something that answers that question.

The writing is one answer. Clearly. I do this because I enjoy it, plain and simple. This medium account is the culmination of like 25 years and millions of words of spare-time writing, and is only a fraction of the content I put down on paper (let alone read.) I like the work of writing and reading. Both count.

But what else? Or what, in addition? What supplements?

I want something for me as well as something to do with my partner, and because I am practicing a very deliberate relationship with him, I recently posed the question, “I’d love to find something to do together, but what do couples do if they don’t want to eat or drink or work out or watch TV for amusement? What if they don’t have kids to ‘give meaning’ to their evenings? What if they don’t cook or game or go to trivia night — and what if they don’t want to just grasp for something at random?”

Because I don’t. I want it deliberate, and with intent — not randomly, or because it’s “what we should do.”

What would give us the most joy, regardless of “how it sounds,” or “what others do?”

And, just to throw a wrench in the works, I also hope for something that “builds on itself,” rather than something that’s static or superficial, skill-wise, or “one and done.”

I am talking, of course, about the sort of thing that allows for flow — “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity… [and] complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.” But at the same time, we shouldn’t be pursuing it just to chase flow.

(And throughout all this — again —it’s so apparent I am still so quick to frame it all up as “elimination.” I’m so good at setting up a funnel meant to toss things out. This means I tend to get better solutions — eventually — but it also means it takes me a while to get there. Too long, more often than not.)

The whole point of this is to pick something — to get from start to finish faster. Because it’s not about the hobby, it’s about being able to identify what we want and then pursue it — in a timeline that allows us integrate this process consistently into our lives.

And really, at the core, it’s about understanding: what do you REALLY want?

We should all have something we do regardless of money, status, external validation, “how cool it sounds” (test: would you feel exactly the same way about it if nobody knew you did it?), whether it’s “in,” whether others are doing it, or whether it’s what we “should” be doing (i.e., the reason so many people work out, and the reason my partner and I probably won’t pursue that for this purpose.)

We should all have something we do simply for the sake of doing it

Something that satisfies three major qualifications:

  • We do it simply because it brings us pleasure (real and long-term, not hedonism)
  • It’s healthy (again, especially in the long term)
  • It builds on itself in terms of substance and skill (you can build skill in anything — literally anything — if you spend enough time on it, but not everything has the depth for real mastery or pleasure.)

Maybe I’m asking too much of a hobby, I don’t know — after all, after several forays into tons of different activities, I’m not quite convinced I’m cut out to get a lot of pleasure out of “Hobbies” with a capital H — not the sort of pleasure that inspires depth, anyway. (As I said, I’m more a “read and write” kind of girl.) But I still think it’s worth asking the question.

On the one hand, “it doesn’t matter.” It’s perhaps an odd concern or goal to have.

But on the other hand, it’s not about the hobby.

It’s about understanding our real interests enough to pursue them, rather than filling our time (and lives) with things that don’t delight our very being.

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