Nathanael Garrett Novosel, July 13 2022

How to Figure Out What You Want

Most simple motivational talks could be summarized as such: “Find what you want; believe you can attain it; and go out there and get it!”  Similarly, when you go to the self-help section of a bookstore, you’ll find a whole list of books claiming to provide anything from the belief system to get what you want to step-by-step guidance to attain what you’re after.  But what if you have no idea what you want and don’t even know where to get started?  There are What Color Is Your Parachute? and the Venn diagram misattributed to Ikigai for your job or career, but what about life in general?  Where’s the guide for that?  Well, I guess it’s right here.

Desire is a funny thing.  On one hand, desire is innate: you don’t have to have any knowledge or experience in life to instinctually suck on a nipple to get nutrient-giving milk.  You might not even know why you’re doing it, but your body wants food and so you go after it.  On the other hand, you only get a strong desire after witnessing something or someone: a winning athlete, a space shuttle launch, or some other life-changing event.  So when you are not desiring to eat, drink, sleep, have sex, or other biological functions, how do you determine what you want out of life as a whole?

Well, when it comes to experience, there are three main ways to stimulate desire in you:

Now, there are pros and cons of each.  Imagining requires you to guess as to what would happen, and so if you’re wrong in your assumptions then you might trigger the wrong level of desire/disgust for what you’re thinking about.  Observing it gives you more real-world results but still requires that you make some assumptions about whether you could reproduce the experience or result.  Experiencing it gives you the best feedback, but it requires the most effort/investment to do and can also mislead you if the experience you had didn’t properly represent what typically happens.

The good news is that you don’t have to get it right immediately.  You can and should explore many new and different things in life and see which ones you like.  The thing that holds most people back is that they’re afraid that they won’t like it.  To quote the Seinfeld episode, “The Secretary”, where Jerry had to go out for a meal with Kenny Bania: “Yeah, yeah I know.  This would be good, but it would be the same.  But if we go some place else, it would be different, but it might not be as good.  It's a gamble.  I get it.”  So what do you do?  You make the goal to have the new experience and enjoy doing something different—even if it’s not your favorite thing to do.

But what actually signals to you that you want it?  Well, if you’ve read the book, The Meaning of Life, or any of these posts on emotions, you’ll know this formula to your emotional feedback mechanism:

Emotions = Desire + Belief + Experience

In this case, you solve for the “Desire” part of the equation by plugging in the “Experience” with your imagining/seeing/experiencing of the thing you think you might want and see how you feel.  Do you feel good or bad?  Excited?  Worried?  Overjoyed?  Your emotions will tell you what your desires and beliefs are, narrowing it down to just two variables.  One more to figure out, and you’ll know whether you want it.

To figure out your beliefs, you have to ask yourself what you believe is true about that experience that would make you feel that way.  If you think it’s difficult or dangerous, you might feel scared.  If you think it’s too easy or unimportant, you might be bored by the idea of doing it.  So by unpacking why you feel that way, you can identify the beliefs causing it.  And once you surface those, you’re left with just the “Desire” variable left.

Now, some things are going to be pretty obvious; as we said, you want food, drinks, sex, sleep, etc.  Similarly, if you see someone else experiencing pleasure, you’ll likely use that social validation to think that you might like it, too (i.e., you’ll believe that the experience must be pleasurable and so you might like it—unless it’s something you believe you will dislike such as a food you find disgusting).  But for the things you’re unsure of, you really have to test your beliefs to see if your emotions and desire change because your beliefs can squelch your desires.

Take, for example, winning the Super Bowl.  You might see your favorite team win and that might be the thing that makes you happy.  Therefore, you want to continue watching football.  Maybe you want to be a part of the sports/football industry in the future, or maybe you just enjoy watching in your free time.  Or maybe you want to play yourself.  Those are all possible, but here’s where beliefs come in.  If you see the win, imagine yourself playing, and then believe that you couldn’t do it, you might tell yourself that you don’t want to bother if it’ll never happen.  So what might’ve been a desire to pursue football gets squashed before it even gets lit inside of you.

So to find out what you want, you just need to imagine, see, or experience the thing/event/activity, determine how you feel, and then identify your beliefs to figure out your desire.  It’s that simple, but you do have to actually do one of those three things.  Yes, someone can tell you that you should want something, but it won’t really light a fire inside you until you do one of those three things to fan the flames.

This is why “window shopping” is a thing: sometimes you only know what you want when you see it.  That’s also why daydreaming is a thing: sometimes you know what you want when you imagine how great it would be to have it.  Finally, that’s why experiments, “free samples”, and trying new things exist: you’ll never really know what might be the next thing you want to do in life until you try it and see if you want (to do) more of it.  Expose yourself to the thing/person/activity/event, see how you feel, test your beliefs, and find out how much you want it.  If you do that, you’ll figure out what you want and don’t want, and you’ll be on your way to pursuing the major interests in your life.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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