You Can’t Know What You Want Until You Know You Don’t Know What You Want


I hope your biggest revelation this year is that you don’t really know what you want.

We grow up thinking we know what we want, but we’re wrong. We all start with the wrong idea about it. Your whole life, society has told you what you want. Others know what they want you to want. Your family, your religious institutions, your politicians and your retailers know exactly what they want you to want. You’ll get everyone’s idea but your own, but these foreign ideas will accumulate, and in the absence of your own they get you chasing things.

And you’re not born knowing what you want, either. People assume they ought to know automatically what they want, which tends to be whatever the convention it is in your culture. For some that means marrying off to “a good provider,” for others it means achieving a senior managment position, for others it means a Personal Relationship With Jesus.

Then we become adults and, if we’re lucky, slowly learn that nobody can teach you what you want. You stumble upon it. But only if you do a lot of stumbling. Your parents didn’t know what you want, they figured it’s the same as what they wanted. The only ideas they can give you of what you ought to want are the wants they can identify with. Advertisers don’t know what you want, they fish for it. The only idea they can give you is what they hope you want, which is to buy something from them.

Your own idea appears only when you have the actual experience of what you want. You can’t know until you taste it. We all start with a false idea of what we want in life, inherited from others during childhood, before we gain any perspective about life. The false idea has to be given up and the real desires have to be discovered. They may make others uncomfortable. They may make you uncomfortable at first, because you inherited your comfort zone from others.

You will either recognize this and overcome it, or you will always pursue what other people want you to want, convinced it’s what you want.

I am convinced that how happy a person becomes in life depends on how much time they spend learning what they want. Just to know what makes you glow inside is the work of a lifetime. Your real, heartfelt wants accumulate over the years, as you stumble into new experiences that electrify you.

How quickly that happens depends on how often you do what you’re not used to doing. That means travel hastens it, and habits stifle it. Doing scary and unfamiliar things hastens it, doing comfortable things stifles it. You can’t know what you want until you taste it. Do more tasting.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking what you want is just one thing. Each of our personalities is so intricate that we will resonate with thousands of categories of experiences, from the kind of clothes you feel best in, to the city you want to live in, to the person you want to grow old with, to the way you take your coffee. You may not know these preferences of yours yet, even if you assume you’ve known for thirty years. 

Your wants are always going to be more articulate than the ones you inherit from society. They are more specific. They make something tingle in your consciousness in a way that nobody else will understand. That’s why you can’t listen to anyone else when it comes to what you want in life.

I’m slowly learning what I want, and I only began to learn, really learn, once I discovered that I don’t already know what I want — that the things I’ve been chasing all this time have been other people’s wants.

A few things I know I want, even if nobody else wants me to want them:

I want more driving with the windows down and the radio off

I want fewer things from the dollar store in my house

I want more one-on-one coffees and lunches with friends

I want more walking

I want more savoring and less chugging

I want more metal possessions and fewer plastic ones

I want more plants

I want to wear clothes that make me want to stand up straighter

I want more time with a book in my hand and less time with a mouse in my hand

I want more talking and less thinking

I want less drink-nursing and more dancing

I want more greens and fewer starches

I want people to collect things I create

I want color co-ordination

I want things well-oiled and tuned up

I want baths with ambient music playing in the next room

I want to meet people with unconventional attitudes towards sex

I want to be a regular, with a usual, somewhere

I want to mingle with strangers, everywhere

I want to surprise people who know me

I want to change plans without fretting about it

I want to read one book at a time, instead of eight like I do now

I want to change the way you think about the important things

What do you want? Tell me, but don’t answer too quickly. 

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