How Do You Know What You Want In Life?

How Do You Know What You Want In Life?

One of the most frequently-asked questions that I received from readers of the blog in writing is “How do I know what I want? How do I know who I need to become?” One of the letters I lately received was of a confused gentleman in his mid-twenties, telling me that he’s lost.

I dedicate this piece to those who feels like they haven’t quite figured out what they want.

Ironically, I don’t feel more qualified than anyone writing this. I am not qualified telling you how to know what you want because I’m also in the process of finding out mine. However, the below are some thoughts of mine surrounding this topic. I’m fully aware you may disagree – but controversy/argument is more interesting and constructive, isn’t it? I’d love to learn. 

  1. Reality matters: Your background, your strengths and your limited resources

I wish I could tell you: you can be anyone you want. I wish I could tell you: you can be whoever you dream of. However, the cold hard truth your mom never tells you is that those dreams had better be realistic. Would a mom tell her child that he would never be able to become an astronaut because he’s short sighted? In order to become an astronaut for NASA, your near and far vision must be correctable to 20/20 in each eye. Of course she won’t tell the kid such truth, and he grows up believing he can be the greatest astronaut. Many of us are like such mom, living in denial and telling ourselves we can be whoever we dream of.

Of course - you can be anyone or achieve anything you dream of with a considerable amount of time and considerable amount of resources. For example, the kid with short sightedness can get the expensive LASIK operation to recover his eyesight to 20/20. If I myself, with no talent whatsoever, want to be a rock star and make it to Hollywood, I’d better be willing to put in years of practice to change my voice, learning electric guitar and also have the financial capability to relocate. Another cold hard truth is, most of us don’t have that level of patience that is prone to time nor the amount of financial/ non-material resources spent on the dream pursuit.

So the reality matters: Your background, your strengths and your limited resources should all act as the leverage for your dream. Most people focus on thinking of their dream as what they want to do. I think it should be a balance of what you want and need to do. Along the line of pursuing your dream, any dream, you will encounter things that you hate to do. For example, if you dream to be a millionaire by starting your own business, you might have to live without any income for years, or sleep on friends’ houses’ floor for some time. If you dream to be the best financier on the street, you almost inevitably start out doing the most boring, clerical tasks. For those who spend their entire life believe that dream pursuit should be about what they want to do, they will start wondering what on earth they are doing when encountering the tasks they hate. However, dream pursuit is not all about what you want to do; it’s also about what you need to do to get there. Many will give up at this stage. If you build your dream around your background, and your strengths, this will act as the engine to help you carry on and overcome the tasks that are not so fancy.

By building a feasible dream (incorporating your background, your strengths and your limited resources), you have the best chance of achieving what you want within a timeframe that is meaningful to your life. 

  1. Your biggest enemy: Time, and yourself

The greatest obstacles to figure out what you want are time and what you tell yourself. You have limited time to try out things, make mistakes, be broke, race against the evolution of technology, fall in love, and learn new skills. (Trust me, big responsibilities like marriage and taking care of your parents’ retirement will kick in at some point) In addition, you tell yourself you can’t do it. You tell yourself someone else is better. You tell yourself it’s not the right time. You tell yourself you don’t want to fail. You tell yourself you will do it tomorrow. And countless other things you tell yourself that make you live your life based on your fear and comfort but not actually what you are capable of achieving.

Learn to be in control of your own time and yourself. Know what drives you and what not. Ignore the voices in your head and move forward. Don’t follow your heart - follow what needs to be done.   

  1. Release the inner child: Experiment and, know what you don’t want to do instead

What works well for me, is instead of trying to figure out what I want to do, I aim to figure out what I don’t want to do. Only by experiencing it, you’d be qualified to have the opinion whether you like it. Without testing the theory out by going on a particular path or actually do it, you won’t know if that’s for you. And if you try and absolutely hate it, brilliant! It may mean you like the opposite.

Shifting from looking for that exact path to success to employing elimination approach (try out many paths to eliminate what you don’t like) is a more practical approach. You no longer have the pressure of “finding your passion” or the fear of failure, because you expect failures at some stage.

Expecting ourselves to know what exactly we want, or passionate about, is unrealistic. Because we, like many other people in our life, change every day. Remember what you were so into 3 years ago? I bet such passion of yours has cooled down since, or change into some other forms. We wake up every day as different people compared to who we were yesterday – how can we expect our desires, wants to remain the same? Therefore, don’t focus on ‘finding your passion”. It will surely disappoint. Passion is to be made. Life is more like an experiment than a scout.   

Just do something. Just like Facebook’s motto “Doing is better than perfect”. Test out your theories of different paths you may embark on. Life happens when you are outside of your comfort zone.   

Illustration: John William Godward (English, 1861 - 1922), The Signal, English, 1899.
Copyrights: Open Content License from J. Paul Getty Museum 
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