If you're lucky someone in your life has asked you, or instructed you, to imagine the life you want to be living in the future. It usually includes an arbitrary amount of years with descriptions of the people you are around, career, location, and other aspects of lifestyle.
Did you struggle with answering it? I did.
I have done a few of these writing exercises over the last 5-6 years. They have been really difficult to answer. Between the ages of 18-22 I mostly avoided the question. I couldn't think of what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be, or who I wanted to be around. I struggled with the question enough that I wrote a speech about it for the Toastmasters club that I was in. Even though it was just over two years ago, I still cringe at some of the things I said.
I'll pull out some of the notable quotes;
"[...] I'll be graduating in five weeks at the end of winter quarter [...] it also inspires people to ask the question then what? Which I like to call the impress me question [...}"
"These are the questions that don't really hit me the way they're supposed to, Are you going to start your career? [...] It's the title that they impose on you: being one thing. It's doesn't encompass what you really want to do. It doesn't go into the depth how you want to help people, how you really want to advance people around yourself. But when you ask the question who are you going to be, it changes your perspective."
After watching the speech a few years later I noticed that I was receiving the question, "What do you want to do?", incorrectly. I directed anger at the person—as well as the question—when really, the problem seemed to be my own inability to not answer it. I didn't have the ability to answer the question succinctly because I didn't have the appropriate perspective on my future.
I didn't go searching consciously, when I started reading more books on self-improvement, but I came across many important aspects of answering this question.
Before I get ahead of myself, let's make sure the question is understood and defined.
This isn't anything new. Youth not being able to figure out what they want to do for the rest of their life. The question what we want—the dilemma—doesn't let up. It's an existential question that everyone has to face, so discussing, writing books, and creating movies about the subject never fail to entice.
One of my favorite examples of this question is from the movie Good Will Hunting. Sean (Robin Williams), the psychologist, is trying to get Will (Matt Damon), miscreant genius, to go a little deeper with their conversation. Will shuts down and Sean asks him to leave before the time is up for the session, Will goes on a tirade trying to insult Sean. After the tirade, Sean asks;
Sean: "What do you want to do?"
*camera cuts to Will who is speechless*
"You and your bullshit. You have a bullshit answer for everybody, but I ask you a very simple question and you can't give me a straight answer because you don't know. See ya, Bo Pepe."
Finding what you want is synonymous with, what is your purpose going to be? I disagree with Sean, I don't think it's a simple answer, but I agree with him for asking it.
I think another example of this question being posed in a famous movie is appropriate.
In The Notebook, Noah (Ryan Gosling) is in a heated discussion with Allie (Rachel McAdams). Noah stops Allie from getting into the car and asks;
Noah: "What do you want? ... What do you want?"
Allie: *fighting back tears* "It's not that simple."
Noah: "WHAT... DO YOU WANT?"
Noah: *crossing his arms, asking with exasperation* "What do you want?"
Allie: "I have to go."
Beautiful! What ends up happening in both these stories *SPOILER ALERT* Will chooses to go cross country to pursue Skylar (his love interest) and Allie chooses Noah. What can we take away from this? Love and relationships can make a life worth living. It's what some people want.
What has stumped many people, especially in my generation, is the paradox of choice. Having too many options can cause hesitation and buyers' remorse. When you can do whatever you want, how do you decide? The characters in these motion pictures are stumped by the questions, like most would be, because there are a number of options.
I think the choice that is made in both popular movie examples is important, and can help explain the larger picture of deciding what we want. We all need a place to start. Many look at the environment around them, possibly to their parents, and check in on what other people are doing. However, let's start at a more basic level. More practically we can start with, what Tony Robbins calls, the six basic human needs.
What Do You NEED?
- Love & Connection
It would be interesting to speculate that many people are aware of these needs, but they haven't thought about them with intentionality. Take stock of your dissatisfactions. It can be easy to jump straight to need number six (Contribution) and think, I just need to help out more. That might be true, but it's a piece of the whole. There's a reason, at least I believe, for the ordering of the needs. Personally, major crossroads of my life are times to reflect and ask difficult questions. The first thing that someone should do, while looking for direction is to;
- Read the short article
- Watch the 20 minute TED Talk
- Write about how they are fulfilling these needs in your life
Don't get hung up on the writing part. Once you notice that there's not much to say, or the answer isn't what you want, move on. You're here to understand and change those aspects of your life, not lie about them.
Let's pause for a second, because if you're in your late teens and early twenties you have already tried to postpone your future. You have checked out after offering up the excuses of: "not having to worry about it yet": "I have time..": "I just want to have fun": or "I don't know what I want yet."
I know you're busy, and you don't have time, because I've been there, too. There are immediate things that need to get done now that are less emotionally strenuous than this deep work. Friends want to hang out, homework needs to get done, and laundry needs to be transferred over to the dryer. However, this is the important work, and it'll change your life. You can grab the shovel and continue to dig yourself a hole, or decide to do something more productive.
I was recently in the golf shop, eavesdropping on someone who was talking about their daughter, and how she still lives at home. The mother said, "Yeah she just doesn't know what she wants to do yet." Immediately an alarm went off in my head.
The notion exists that someone has to be extremely accurate when they're deciding what they want to pursue. There's real reasons for that. Time is the most important resource we have, money is another consideration, and there are countless other logistics. No one wants to waste any of those resources. However, I want to introduce an analogy.
Let's consider that the car is all loaded up for the trip. There are supplies in the car, and the destination is set. Your car runs on time (as a resource), not on gas. Taking mileage into consideration, you're pretty sure you will end up precisely where you want to get with enough supplies left over. There is less anxiety now because you have chosen a safe, and presumably manageable, route. Let's increase the stakes. There's no way that you will be able to return to where you started. That's a scary thought. Scary enough to make some people not leave. This is starting to sound like a analogy for life.
Regardless of the fears, you have decided to leave. On your way to the destination you have survived heavy rains, long nights of driving, and even a flat tire. On this trip there are a large amount of scenarios that can happen regarding the destination. There are only two that I want to talk about. The first, as you get closer to your destination, it becomes apparent the trip (and it's struggles) has fundamentally changed you. You're no longer the person that started the journey. With that in mind, this destination seems boring, plain, and undesirable. Adding to that, supplies are gone. What do you do? Well, what's the next destination? Jordan Peterson explains this concept by saying, “[...] you start by aiming at the star that you can see and not the dimmer one that you can't yet hardly perceive.” The next destination didn't exist when you first started the trip, and it was unconceivable to think that you would be dissatisfied with this destination. Now, you can see the next destination, but your supplies are gone and the car has broken down.
This is one of the interesting characteristics of life and time. Peterson would say next, as he does in his 2017 Maps of Meaning Lectures, "What’s so interesting is that you hit a state that is as close to paradisal as you’re going to hit right away because being engaged like that. It’s better to be engaged in the solution of a complex problem then not to have a problem at all." With no supplies and no transportation you are left with a problem. And let's be clear, this problem is better than no problem. It's the right type of problem. Looking at the trip so far, what has changed?
- You were wrong about where you wanted to end up.
- Now, you have no supplies, and less resources.
- You're stronger & smarter than the person that first left on the trip.
What does that mean? The supplies, time, and anxiety were well spent. You got somewhere else, and you're better for it. Unfortunately, with a broken down car, and no supplies, things aren't looking so good. What do you have? Gasoline. Time is gasoline. You can sell some of that gasoline, and maybe fix your car up, buy some more supplies and you'll be ready for your next destination. The process becomes a loop. Before you leave your current destination, you realize you have been here before. The car, supplies, and destination are familiar. If you could have known this from the start, you wouldn't have spent so much time stressing out over the destination, and realized what was really important: you have to leave.
Time is a limited resource, but there really is a lot of it. It's a plain analogy, but I hope it stresses the need for action.
What Do You WANT?
You have your six needs in mind, and have come to the conclusion that action is required. Despite the notion that action, and a destination is vital, the destination still needs consideration. Many individuals before you have fallen victim to the availability heuristic.
Our imagined future is heavily influenced by our current situation, or what is available. It's difficult to look at the future as being completely different.
When brainstorming a future, know that your future vision will be anchored to your present conditions. Strive for a vision that eliminates the constraints of the present situation. An example, is to assume that you will be living in the same city, making the same money, or spending the same amount of time at your job. What if you moved? Paid less in rent? Worked less? Spent more (or less) time at work? This is the truly exciting part of the finding out what you want, imagining that you can have it.
Here's a way to get started. Look at your life now, and write down ten things that are negative. The brain is really good at seeing what is wrong.
Now, go a step further and try what Tim Ferriss suggests: doing an 80/20 analysis. What are the 20% of activities in your life that are causing 80% of the negative emotional states? There is a list in front of you with ten negative things. Which two produce the most negative weight?
Next, let's flip it. What do you think the 20% of activities are that cause 80% of your positive emotional states. You will have to make a 'positives' list.
The positives list can be tricky. There are the positives that you have, and the positives that you want. It's only human to struggle with not being able to see the positives that you don't have yet. In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, he presents a study that was conducted to see if a participant could find a similarity between a given set of numbers. The participant was able to come up with many possible hypotheses for the numbers that were there, but they didn't hold up. The similarity was that a certain number was left out. The brain can struggle to see things that are missing, and instead uses the information that is has available. Kahneman describes this as WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is). You have probably already noticed that this concept is similar to the availability heuristic.
I hope that you have been able to create a list of positive and negative aspects, in regards to your current life, and that it's available in front of you. The next, and final, activity completes the trifecta.
What Do You NOT Want?
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson created the Future Authoring Program to help people get their lives together. He recorded a podcast on the Joe Rogan Experience where he discusses some of the exercises that are in the program. One really stands out;
"DEVELOP A DIFFERENT 3-5 YEAR VISION WHERE YOUR BAD HABITS, BITTERNESS, AND RESENTMENTS GET OUT OF HAND AND YOU'RE IN YOUR OWN VERSION OF HELL IN 3-5 YEARS."
Meditate on this because, as Peterson explains, this hell is very real. See if you can create a stream of consciousness, predicting all the things that would be your demise. Clean it up, and read it over. Peterson has suggested that, in some circumstances, it's more inspiring to be running away (and take note) of that hell.
The only thing left at this point is to start brainstorming and writing. What if someone thinks there vision is too short-term, or not enough? The catch is, that by simply just trying to answer the question, or in searching for the answer, someone can positively change there life or get closer to creating the life that they may have wanted;
“You can have the problem and be so engaged in solving the problem that maybe that justifies having the problem exist."
Jordan Peterson, 2017 Maps of Meaning Lectures (YouTube)
People have to decide everyday if they're going to improve their life, or let it slip away. To be perfectly honest, the idea of 'improvement' can mean any numbers of different activities (or lack of activities). Keep your eyes open, and see if you can't find new perspectives.
Thanks reading if you made it this far! If you liked it, please share. If you didn't like it, please share and let me know what wasn't so great.