There’s lots of advice out there on how to achieve your dreams.
But what if I don’t know what my dream even is?! How on earth do I move on when I have difficulty realising what I even want?
Being enticed by every option is almost as bad as having no attractive options whatsoever.
(When it comes to making a choice, anyway. From a happiness perspective it’s definitely preferable to have multiple attractive possibilities.)
The Answer Lies Within
I sometimes feel like a broken record. It frustrates me that the answer to so many life questions seems to be “get better at self-knowledge”.
It’s doubly annoying, because I hate being told to get to know myself better! It’s fundamentally irritating advice to receive.
But when it comes to figuring out what we want, of course the answer is lies in greater self-knowledge.
Then again, it is surprising to learn that we don’t know our own desires. Surely our wants should just be obvious?
Because of this, it’s tempting to pile additional frustration on top of the confusion.
Inner critic: Why don’t you know yourself?! Why don’t you know what you want? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?!
It’s important not to be too hard on ourselves. Being confused about our desires is very normal. There are many reasons why we might not automatically know what we want…
We Are Made of Layers
A big part of our confusion is that the story we tell ourselves is wrong. We’re not a single, coherent self with obvious and clear goals. We’re a mess of contradictory wants and desires.
For example, we want to spend time lazing around, but we also want to achieve great things with our time. We want to eat as much junk food as we can, but we want to live healthily too. And so on…
For most of our desires, there exists a part of us that wants to do the opposite. This doesn’t make us hypocrites or idiots. It just makes us human.
To clarify these confusions we need to put in some actual work to separate out these different layers, using a combination of gut feeling, intuition, and our rational minds.
Let’s look at what some of these layers might be.
Layer One: Aspirational Wants
When I can’t figure out the answer to a personal question, a useful trick is to take the question one level higher. So “what do I want” becomes “what do I want to want?”
In other words, what would Imaginary Ideal Me want to do with his life?
Sometimes this helps to reveal values I didn’t realize I had. If my answer is “I wish I was the kind of person who wanted to climb mountains”… well, then I AM the kind of person who wants to climb mountains. I just hadn’t realized it.
Discovering our aspirational wants may help bring some clarity to the other layers.
Layer Two: Conflicting Timeframe Wants
Our wants exist on different timescales, and sometimes they conflict with one another.
Maybe there’s a confused contradiction because our medium-term goals conflict with our long-term goals. Perhaps we want to do well in our current job, but that job isn’t taking us closer to our eventual dream. These goals are in conflict.
It’s worth a little examination of how our various wants fit together on different timeframes. If goals conflict, do we want to prioritize short-term, medium-term or long-term gain?
Layer Three: Absorbed Wants
Sometimes we absorb wants from other people. Maybe our parents impressed on us their deep desire for us to become lawyers, and we’ve spent our whole lives being affected by that imprint, consciously or unconsciously.
This isn’t to blame anyone, of course. Parents are free to suggest or even push their kids towards certain careers, but adult children are just as free to examine those suggestions and accept or reject them.
It’s when we’re being unconsciously steered by wants we’ve absorbed from others – teachers, parents, society at large – that we can become confused.
Layer Four: Directly Competing Wants
Once we’ve eliminated some of the above layers, what we’re left with are the things we actually want to do… right?
Sadly, the question still isn’t answered, because the reality is that we can’t have everything we want, and we often have to choose between multiple good options.
Choice paralysis is definitely a thing. Sometimes we resist choosing anything at all because we don’t want to limit our options later. But assuming we’ve worked through this and have accepted that choosing something is better than choosing nothing, we may still have desires that conflict.
I can’t study agriculture AND medicine AND astrophysics (at least, not at the same time!). So I have to choose between them. It’s not my place to tell you which of your wants is best for you. But luckily we’re quite good at choosing between options once we get them on the table.
Once we’ve examined what’s going on inside, we may have a better chance at handling this layer and choosing our favorite option (and don’t forget that we can choose another option later, and then another option after that).
These layers aren’t exhaustive, but once we understand that different factions may be fighting inside us, it makes much more sense that we’re confused about what we want.
Keep in mind that getting to know ourselves and creating coherent goals we care about is the work of a lifetime. You aren’t alone here; we’re all uncovering hidden parts of ourselves all the time.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.