How To Figure Out What You Really Want

Note: The edited edition was published on Elite Daily. This is the full version:

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This one goes out to all my fellow over-analytical, indecisive, spontaneous, conflicted, content, restless, idealistic and inquisitive peers. This one’s for the ones who are making it, the ones who are broke and the ones that have a different idea of wealth entirely. This one’s for anyone who, at some point in their lives, has asked themselves the question “What do I really want?”

While there are some really good philosophical essays and horoscope apps that can help you answer this question, most of us eventually settle for the very reasonable conclusion that nobody can really ever figure out what they really want, but we do the best job we can and that’s what counts.

While you might agree with this sentiment or at least commend its sensibility, you might also feel slightly uneasy at how anemic this explanation is. This might be because:

A) You’re a pretty competent person that generally knows what you want and how to go about getting it. It’s actually pretty annoying when you can’t figure out what you want, and you believe you can do better.

B) You never really have anything figured out, and this disposition usually doubles as an explanation for why you also can never figure out what you want. Everything always turns out for the best, but you wonder if you really had to go through so many poor life choices and/or unfortunate events to get there.

C) You’re easily dissatisfied and blame your high expectations for why you can never figure out what you really want. You sincerely hope there is more to it than “do the best you can” because it sounds an awful lot like “you might be missing out on what you really want”, and your greatest fear is settling.

Whoever you are, you may be hoping there is another explanation to this age-old question; ideally one that affirms your secret belief that it’s all too possible for you to figure out exactly what you want and be truly happy.

Disclaimer: I make no guarantees that you will finish this article with any kind of renowned purpose or sudden clarity about what you are meant to do this life.

However, I can discredit one of the explanations you may be telling yourself: that you “want too much” , possess “poor judgment” or are simply “indecisive”. I can suggest another explanation: that we struggle with figuring out what we want because most of us are unfamiliar with how our bodies tell us what we want.

Here’s the thing: our bodies are actually pretty well-endowed with amazing equipment that can do more than we think. We just don’t take full advantage of it. For example, you can command yourself to stop coughing by raising your arms above your head. You can command your leg to stop falling asleep by rocking your head side to side. You can go through a book in minutes if you re-learn to read from top to bottom instead of left to right.

Point is, we’ve learned to do things not the optimal way, but in the way we’ve always done them.

We usually try to suppress our coughs by drinking water. We try to suffer through sleeping limbs by not telling our evil best friends and wiggling our toes. We try to understand textbooks by re-reading each line 10 times.

We usually try to figure out what we want by weighing the pros and cons. We try and make the best decision by consulting others. We visualize ourselves in Situation A compared to Situation B and go with what makes us feel better. We ask for a sign to drop down from the sky. We wake up in the middle of the night with an epiphany, only to look back and realize that we had fooled ourselves yet again.

When we realize our limitations exist not in our equipment, but in the way use our equipment, everything makes much more sense. It opens up possibilities we didn’t know were possible, because we realize that they are not just “possibilities”. They are viable options that you have been preparing for your whole life to take at this exact moment, whether you knew it or not. You learn to think twice before discrediting something as”wishful thinking”, because you learn that it is rooted in a biological design backed by data bigger than any government or collection of Linux servers.

Here are some basic steps you can take to start figuring out what you really want:

1) Understand why you have emotions

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This might be a silly question to ask, but do you know why you have emotions?

Besides making you more likable, did you know that emotions are actually an incredible design feature that allows you to hack your perfect memory? Believe it or not, you technically have perfect memory. You remember everything because information is one of three things your brain cannot ignore. It remembers everything about what you’re doing in any given moment and stores it away. Your brain is an incurable hoarder.

The downside is that your recall isn’t so hot. You forget something because there’s so much information locked inside your head, you don’t know where to look. Imagine you owned 365 keys and only one pair works for your car on any given day. It’s a serious pain in the ass to wake up every day, having to figure out not only which key you need, but also where you put it. Every time you “remember” something, this is what you put your brain through.

Enter your emotions. Emotions are amazing because they quickly condense all the information you’ve ever been exposed to into a feeling; a flash verdict on what you should do in the face of all the evidence you’ve gathered in your entire life.

How does this work? Imagine you’re the host of a singing competition. The contestant that receives the loudest round of applause at the end wins the grand prize of $1 million dollars. In this scenario, you are playing the role of your Emotions. The audience represents all the information you’ve accumulated regarding any of the “contestants”, or options, you’re considering. Members of the audience cheer for contestants based on the strength of his or connection with each one. The audience is honest. They cannot hide their love, hate, admiration, disgust, or indifference for each contestant. Sometimes the verdict is real close, but there is never a tie. You are Ryan Seacrest. You always know who the real crowd favorite is. There are no instant replays or deliberations with producers behind the scenes. This is American Idol Street Edition. The decision is made and a winner is chosen.

What does this mean? For starters, it suggests that Ryan Seacrest is much smarter than we think. He gets a bad rep and takes a lot of heat, but if it was anyone else, he or she might be swayed by their own personal biases. Not our Ryan Seacrest Emotions. Our Ryan Seacrest Emotions have been doing this for a long time, and they always go with the contestant with the loudest applause, down to its exact measurement on the Richter scale.

How are your Emotions so good at detecting what you really want? Because, by scientific standards, it is considered an expert at choosing what makes you the happiest. By scientific standards, it takes about 6,000 to 50,000 hours of practice to make someone an expert at something (6,000 to be an expert at knitting, 50,000 to be an expert at neurosurgery).

Since the day you were born, however, you have been trying to figure out what what makes you happy. Your mind and body have been scheming together since Day 0 to figure out what makes you tick, what makes you smile and what makes you drool. If you’re between the ages of 20 and 30, this means you have logged between 175,316 to 262,974 hours of practice in figuring out what makes you happy. Even experts make mistakes, so it’s not going to have a clean record. But it probably makes Six Sigma, easy.

What does this mean? Well, it means a lot of things and it can get pretty hypothetical. For starters, however, it suggests that a path towards optimal happiness does exist and that your mind and body knows about it. It suggests that there are close seconds and thirds that will also make you very happy, but there is always a clear winner. It suggests that our bodies are always pushing us to make decisions in line with our personal criteria for happiness.

It also suggests that this insight happens instantaneously and cannot be replicated at any other time. Giving the audience time to reflect on why they should cheer for someone or consult with others would dramatically alter the results. The response wouldn’t be authentic. It would misrepresent the raw data.

The takeaway? If you want to make the right decision in a subject you are an expert at, follow your gut instinct. Therefore, if you want to know what will make you the happiest, you should pay especially close to your first impressions. The tricky part, however, is reading your first impressions correctly. This leads us to Step 2.

Step 2. Figure out how your body experiences emotions

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This is another silly question, but do you know how your body experiences emotions? Yes, when you are angry, you feel angry. When you feel great, you are happy. But do you know the more subtle signals that distinguish your personal signs of frustration from impatience? Can you pinpoint the unique series of bodily reactions that take place when you get truly excited?  Can you tell how that’s different from what happens when you’re simply curious, amused or surprised?

I ask these things because all humans are susceptible to a common flaw: skipping observation and heading straight to explanation. Instead of reflecting on what’s taking place, we enjoy skipping straight to what this must mean. 

This is a problem when it comes to figuring out what we want because it tricks us into choosing the wrong contestant. It’s as if we have not yet trained ourselves to pick out the “Boos” from the “Bravos”. We are Ryan Seacrest’s hearing impaired twin. The result? We end up awarding the contestant that got the loudest reaction the cash prize, while the one with the loudest positive reaction goes home.

The takeaway? Practice getting to know yourself. Take note of the physical reactions that take place (upward gaze, elbow lean, sweaty hands, wider peripheral vision, tapping finger, twitchy eye, that feeling where the air in your diaphragm floats out of you) and reflect on what order it takes place.It’s like learning a new language, but you have a major advantage. You already speak it. You just need to learn how to read it.

Remember, it’s not how much knowledge you have that counts. It’s what you do with that knowledge that counts.

Step 3. Correct for error

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In real life, American Idol Street Edition does not exist. Contestants are dramatized and producers deliberate behind the scenes during commercial breaks.

Likewise, in real life, we have a rational side that complements our emotional side. Our rational side is calculating. It weighs the pros and cons. It cares about rankings and bigger budgets and getting renewed for a second season. It is the producer, and it doesn’t think you should just care about being happy. It also cares about you surviving, about you being realistic, about you being loved and about you fitting in.

Without the producer, the show would be a hot mess. You need the producer, but you also want to make sure the producer doesn’t change what makes the show so great: finding the contestant that makes you the happiest. You don’t want to wake up one day and look in the mirror, sadly realizing that you don’t even recognize this show called American Idol that they speak of. You don’t want to find yourself asking things like “What has happened to this show? How does it even exist without Simon?” or “As much as I love Jenny from the Block, what the hell is she doing here?” Worst of all, you don’t want to conclude, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Your happiness deserves a better fate.

Here’s the takeaway: Balancing authenticity with practicality is a delicate balancing act. However, you can achieve this by regularly practicing Step 2 and making sure your decisions are not contradicting that verdict by an increasing margin. Continue to do this, and it’ll become easier to distinguish between what you want, what you need, and what will meet both your needs and wants.

The Conclusion

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Figuring out what we really want is a science, but it’s also an art. It’s all too possible, but it’s not easy. It’s solvable, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Like everything else in this life, it takes practice to figure out what we want. However, the answers exist. We just have to go after them.

I leave you with this famously inspirational quote by an over-quoted man. When you read it this time, however, I hope it strikes you as less of a cliche and more of a fact. I hope it speaks to you personally. I hope you recognize that you already believed in this and you always have. Most of all, I hope you don’t forget it.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” – Steve Jobs

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