Nathanael Garrett Novosel, November 1 2023

Finding What You Want through What You Don’t Want

You know that one person who always drives you nuts: they say that they don’t care where they go out to dinner, and then when you suggest a series of several places, they nix every single one. Similarly, it’s a famous stereotype that women won’t order their own French fries but will immediately eat some off of someone else’s plate when his or her order arrives. In either case, there’s a lesson to be learned about figuring out what you want in life if you are indecisive.

The first example is one of either indecisiveness or not being able to think of and evaluate options. When someone says they don’t know what they want, you can immediately stimulate a response by stating things that they don’t want. There’s a famous example of this where a parent might say, “If you don’t tell Santa what you want, you’re going to get coal,” to elicit toy interests from a child. Another example might be in a prioritization meeting in a company that your needs won’t be met by IT or other support services teams if you don’t clearly state them but instead focus on how others’ ideas aren’t worth doing. In these cases, you use a negative outcome to stimulate a decision regarding deciding on the desired outcome.

In the second example, there’s the pull of something you do want once it’s right in front of you even if you thought you didn’t want it. It could be food when you didn’t realize that you were hungry or the opportunity to sleep when your adrenaline made you not notice that you needed it. In this case, it might even be that you were overlooking or even denying your want or need. But in any case,  the idea is that you can use what you don’t want to help springboard you to something you do want.

A lot of people get indecisive around food choices, choice of major in school or career in work, or choice of partner for a relationship. And it can be hard when we live in such an abundant society filled with various foods, jobs, and people. But it can be a nice process of elimination to work back from what you know you don’t want until you get to a more limited set of options where you can more easily choose (or, in the case of long-term choices, you can pick a direction and delay the ultimate choice between the final few options). For example, you might not want a job where you have to be outside, a major that requires extensive math skills, or a partner who smokes. By eliminating all of the options that you do not want, your options for what you do want become more limited and, therefore, easy to choose from.

You see people employ this methodology all of the time. A child doesn’t know what he wants to eat? “Do you want Mexican?” “No.” “Chinese?” “No.” “Pizza?” “Yeah!” By eliminating options, you are able to narrow down your list to the ones that you might actually want. The same process occurs when you go onto a website to buy a car and filter your options by size, color, engine power, trunk space, make and model, and price. Your understanding of what your needs are and what won’t meet them will help you lock down the right option for you.

Now, there is one risk of the methodology: the process of elimination requires you to be accurate that you don’t want the option, which requires that you have the right understanding of the option and whether you like it. You see this all the time when children refuse to try a food that they find out years later that they love. They thought they wouldn’t like it because they heard that vegetables were yucky or that seafood looks weird. Similarly, it is now infamous that women using dating apps—i.e., because they have so many men contacting them, they get picky—begin to adopt the strangest criteria that filter out all options: 6’0” tall, 6-figure income, 6-pack abs, no one younger than they are, no one who plays video games, etc. There is nothing wrong with having preferences, but if you are 4’1” then not dating a man under 6’0” will eliminate the overwhelming majority of men from the dating pool and will have nearly zero indication of whether they would be a compatible match for you. The same thing will happen if you choose a product based on its logo or packaging: what really matters when you consume it is whether it meets your needs.

Unfortunately, we all have weird reasons why we make a certain choice. It’s well known from the popular book, The Optimism Bias, that people with a name starting with H are more likely to run a hardware store and that people with the first letter L are more likely to be lawyers. The alliteration between your name and your profession is a completely irrelevant factor to your life, and yet it clearly has some influence as to people’s life choices. Therefore, when you use the process of elimination to make a decision, it’s important that you make sure that both your information and your feeling about a particular option is accurate and justified before eliminating it. That will prevent you from eliminating otherwise perfectly acceptable options and choosing from a narrow set of wrong options because you think that they are all that’s left.

As a final point, you should make sure that any time you assert what you don’t want that you rephrase it as what you do want. For example, if you’re against war, you want peace; if you hate asparagus, maybe you like broccoli. There are several reasons for this:

There are many ways to use what you don’t want to figure out what you do want. And once you find out what you actually want, it’s best to focus on it going forward. If you are ever indecisive, use what you don’t want as a springboard to getting to what you do want; if you are vehemently against something, then state it in the opposite way to get clear about what your preference actually is so that you can start fostering a better world instead of railing against how bad the current one is.

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Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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