Note – December 2008: I have written a completely new post on this topic with these same ideas expanded further. The new post is called “The Joy of Desire.”
We all want a lot of things in life. But wanting an ice cream cone is different than wanting to be, have or do something in life. When you ask what you want from life, you are asking what you want to do or create. And, it’s made up of two questions: What do I desire the most from life? and What do I most want to give to humanity? It involves both self-interest and the interest of your fellow humans. The reason this question is so difficult to answer is because it requires knowledge about yourself that most people haven’t begun to acquire. However, not being able to answer this question means that you may find yourself in a lot of situations that you do not want to be in. Knowing what you want to be, have and do is the first and most essential step to creating your internal vision of life in your external world. You need to be able to follow your own blueprint.
Listen to your Emotions
Most likely, the reason you are asking this question to begin with is because you have found yourself in situations that you don’t want to be in. You feel pain that you can’t find the things you are looking for, and then you realize that you don’t even know what they are. So, the first step is to listen to what your pain tells you. First, ask yourself what you feel. It’s funny that our emotions can be so overwhelming that we can’t even identify what they are unless we really think about it. Next, ask yourself why you feel the way you do. Connect your emotion(s) with particular events, situations, or personal qualities. For instance, when I first really asked myself this question about three years ago, one of the overwhelming emotions that I felt was sadness. I was sad because it occurred to me that when I had made decisions in the past I based all of my decisions on other people. I had never really acted from my own sense of self. Lastly, actually take some time to feel your emotions in your head as well as your body. You could reflect on the event/situation/quality that gave rise to the emotion and you can pay particular attention to the way you feel the emotion in your body. The important thing here is to reflect and feel your emotion and learn from it, not indulge or dwell on it. Remember, your emotions are a part of you, not all of you. Once you hear their message they will leave you alone.
Analyze the Past
Now that you’ve taken some time with your emotions, you can start to focus on what you want and how to find it. First, I’d start with the past. Think of some times where 1) you were enjoying yourself, but more specifically, where you felt alive, full, and joyful – you’re looking for a powerful feeling, 2) you were good at what you were doing, and you felt you had the potential to excel at it, and 3) time passed but you had no sensation of it like you normally do (this is an aspect of Flow, a concept proposed by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). Gather these specific examples and ask yourself, what qualities do those situations possess and what do they have in common? The examples you come up with may seem very different at first, but if you look hard enough you will find the patterns among them. Also, think about what kind of environments you like, and pay attention to aspects of your personality. All information about yourself is useful, no matter how small. You’re not going to have yourself figured out in a day, but you can continue to build on the information you have.
Pay Attention to the Present
After you have spent some time thinking about the past, make sure you are also paying attention to the present. Again, ask yourself the same questions you asked before. You want to pick up all the little things about yourself that you notice, what motivates you, what are you afraid of, how do you interact with people, when you are the most energetic, etc. Every little detail that you can learn about yourself is helpful. Nothing is too small. This is like receiving all the puzzle pieces one at a time before you’ve looked at the image on the puzzle box. Every piece is a clue and you are trying to piece them together to create one whole image. It might be helpful to write these down or record them in some other way. Also, don’t ever stop doing this. You always want to be paying attention to yourself and how you interact with the world.
Examine Your Self
You’ve turned your attention inwards, now it’s helpful to turn it outwards and see what is reflected back to you about yourself. Take personality tests, ask other people how they see you, do some exercises in a psychology/personal development book. The important thing here is not to accept all this information you are receiving about yourself as the Truth, but to examine it to see if you think it fits you. A personality test may spark an idea about who you are that you can use, but it’s not going to tell you who you are. This is a give and take between your internal world and the external world. You receive information about you and then filter it through your own lens.
Seek What You Want
The whole reason that you are collecting this knowledge about yourself is so you can act on it. Now that you’ve been collecting puzzle pieces for a while, hopefully the image on the box has become clearer. And, you now know at least some things that you want. Go and find them. You’re not going to find the whole package just yet; you’re going to have to start seeking before you have the whole picture. No matter how small, going after something that you actually want will feel good. As you practice seeking what you really want, you’ll find that what you have more closely resembles the picture on the box. But, get started! Don’t wait for total self knowledge before acting. You’ll be waiting a long time.
“If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” – Katherine Hepburn