I grew up knowing what I wanted to do with my life. But then I turned 35 and discovered that my education had only prepared me to get so far.
I thought: “Oh no, I don’t know how to be older than this.”
The past four years have been about trying to find a new direction, with the increasing urgency of age. After years of dilly-dallying and experimentation, 40 fast approaches and, tired of procrastinating, I’m ready to reach for what I want.
But this requires…knowing what I actually want!
Maybe it’s crystal clear for you. But for me, it’s an ever-moving mountain, a forest of conflicting possibilities: do I want to do this or that? Do I want to live here or there? What do I actually want dammit?!
I think it’s possible to just relax and let life happen to you; but I’m just too Western in my ways to be able to do that. My ego is real! I’m ambitious and craving of recognition; establishing a direction seems like the only way to marry my desires with reality as best I can.
How to figure out what you actually want
If you feel the same, the following exercises might help. I have tried all of them over the last few years; unlike a lot of internet advice, I find they work!
1. Disconnect from social media
It starts here. The internet is full of people telling you what they want, which pollutes your own vision. Start by taking an intentional break of a month or so. Let the silence return in order to hear your own voice.
2. Reconnect with your entitlement
There’s a bad kind of entitlement, but there’s also a good kind: the belief that you are a child of the universe and you have as much right to reach for what you want as anyone else. You are allowed to take up your space! Like many of us, you might be a ‘people pleaser’: the occasionally withheld affection of a parent in infancy taught you to subjugate your own desires for other peoples'. The compound interest of that over many years makes it feel radical to even consider your own desires as valid.
3. Answer the question, every day
Buy a cheap notebook. Every morning, turn to a new page and at the top, write the question “What do I actually want?” Then spend a couple of pages answering that however feels right in the moment. Here’s the important bit: do this every morning for at least a month. Over time, patterns will emerge: the same answers will appear in different forms; an answer that excites you one day will never appear again. These patterns — rather than a single answer — will give you a better insight into your desires.
After filling a notebook, I went back through and highlighted every sentence that started with “I want…” and typed them up. Now I have a document I can always quickly refer to whenever I want a reminder of where my heart is at.
4. Write your hall pass
A key part of knowing what you want is knowing what you don’t want. This exercise comes from the great Elizabeth Gilbert. Take an hour by yourself with a pen and paper and write a letter from the principal of you. The letter should begin “To whom it may concern, I hereby give [your name] permission to be exempt from the following activities.” Now list everything, big or small, that you will no longer do. It could include things like “I will no longer send Christmas cards” or “I will not respond to WhatsApp messages immediately” Or “I will no longer take on clients just for the money”. Sign it “The Principle.” This healthy boundary setting reinforces your own human sanctity while removing a whole bunch of annoying tasks from your to do list!
“Time management isn’t about trying to get everything done. It’s about deciding what things not to do and to be at peace with those decisions.”
5. Do the Buffet Triage
In his book Four Thousand Weeks Oliver Burkeman tells a story of a pilot asking the investor Warren Buffet how he gets so much done. Buffet’s advice is some tough love: make a list of 25 things you want to do with your finite life and rank them from most-important to least. Then take the bottom 20 things and eliminate them. They are the most dangerous wants, said Buffet: not important enough to be in your top five, but seductive enough to distract you from what is.
6. Write your future Wikipedia page
Everyone has a different way of visualising success. Athletes imagine they are on the podium at the Olympic Games; actors rehearse accepting their Oscar. Others might fantasise about being interviewed at Davos. For some reason or another, I’ve always felt that success is being notable enough to have my own page on Wikipedia (that I didn’t write myself!) One day, perhaps. Recently, I spent an evening imagining what that page would say. It proved particularly useful: a Wikipedia biography has landmarks, like “career” and “notable works” which you can hang your fantasies on. It hopefully goes without saying — don’t actually publish this page on Wikipedia!
When I saw what I had written, I liked it: it excited me! It had another encouraging benefit too — some of the achievements on there have already happened. 😊
Until another Sunday soon,