Maybe You Don’t Want What You Think You Want

My friend Maggie has always talked about becoming an author of fantasy novels. It’s been her dream since she was a child, reading Tolkien under the covers with a flashlight. But as people tend to do, she got distracted and then frustrated with her circumstances. Out of high school, she joined the Army and then moved into the private defense sector. Back then, when we would talk, the conversation would inevitably lead to her complaining that she wasn’t writing enough and how hard it was.

Later in life, Maggie got married and raised a few kids. She was happy with her life, but still lamented she wasn’t a published author yet. When I would ask how her novel was going, she would say, “There’s too much going on. It’s too hard to find the time.”

After her kids were grown, Maggie decided to go back to school and earn a graduate degree in biology. But, she still dreamed of being a fantasy author. So, after she returned from a writer’s conference, I asked if she felt inspired to write that novel of hers finally. She said getting an agent, a publisher, and drafting 20 iterations of a story was all just “too hard.”

“You know, maybe you don’t really want to be a novelist,” I said off handedly. Maggie was, of course, shocked, and understandably irritated with me. She protested that of course she wanted to be an author, and again proceeded to tell me how hard it all was.

As we talked, it became clear what Maggie said she wanted wasn’t actually what she wanted. Sure, perhaps she wished for — or even craved — the experience of having published a successful fantasy novel, whatever she imagined that experience to be. But being an author is not really about the having; it’s about the doing.

If Maggie really wanted to write novels, she would be putting words to the page and building a fantasy world for readers to get lost in. It’s not like writing was really any harder than her other accomplishments. She survived boot camp and became a high ranking leader in the Army. She bore children and managed all the trials that come with four little rascals, then returned to school for an advanced degree. Maggie’s actions (or in this case inactions) were telegraphing what she actually wanted, and it wasn’t to be a novelist.

Another friend, Derek, has acknowledged a similar relationship to music: “I don’t want to learn how to play guitar,” he says, “I want to have learned how to play guitar.” And the ways he chooses to spend his free time — reading, riding his bike, or going for drinks with friends instead of picking up an instrument — reflect this truth.

Unfortunately, this state of being is prevalent. Some of us say we want to be happy, but don’t do what it takes to remove those things in our lives that make us miserable. We say we want a fulfilling career, but spend all day avoiding job applications and networking. We say we want a loving, lasting relationship but choose to stay home instead of meeting new people or cut people who love us out of our lives rather than work to repair the damage done. We want the finished product, but we don’t want to live the life that generates that product.

Gaining clarity on what your wants exactly are (regardless of how “good” or “bad” we might deem them) starts with taking a hard look at where you put your actions. If you say one thing, but actually do another, it reveals the truth that your actual goals and desires might not be what you think they are.

Maybe instead of wanting happiness, you actually want the attention you get from complaining about how miserable you are. Perhaps struggling financially and playing video games all-day is acceptable to you. Maybe you actually like being alone, and that’s why you’re not actively dating. Regardless, if a want is sincere, there’s nothing wrong with that. You owe it to yourself, to be honest with yourself.

This level of honesty pulls back the curtain to reveal the actual source of the barriers to your goals – you. Even if you think the obstacle is an outside force at the end of the day, there’s always something you can do to take accountability and therefore control of your fate.

Acknowledging the present state of your commitment to what you say you want is the first step towards changing the trajectory of your life. You can’t shift something if you are not willing to look at it. Regardless of what you think is standing in your way, the only way you can make change is to own up to how your actions reflect your commitment (or lack of commitment) toward achieving your goals.

When I suggested this to Maggie, she was angry with me. But she also recognized that her choices showed that there was truth to my words. It was not that she ever stopped wanting to write, it was that there always had been other things she had wanted more — things in her life that she had let take priority over her dream of being a published author. While she had no regrets about choices like pursuing an education and raising a family, she also felt like some part of her had been asleep at the wheel, allowing life to carry her along a path of least resistance.

It was in this moment that I asked Maggie what three things she could do to take action and move forward. She said she could take up a 100-day writing challenge, she could block out and defend time in her calendar for writing, and she could sincerely tackle the problems in her fantasy story that were holding her up. Above all this, Maggie agreed to allow myself and some other friends to track her progress on a public spreadsheet so we could keep tabs on her progress.

Maggie accepted this challenge and put herself into action. A little over three months later, she emailed me her manuscript. It still needed work, but it was further along than it had ever been before, and she thought it was ready to submit to agents and editors. All it took was a little, committed action.

Just like Maggie, you are the architect of your own life. You are in control. If there is something not happening in your world that you desperately want, you and no one else holds power to change it.

Being honest with yourself about what you want out of life — and what actions you are genuinely willing to take — not only gives you clarity on what those sincere desires are, it creates the possibility of allowing yourself to have and enjoy what you want. This opens you up to living a life that’s more authentic. When you do this, taking action towards your desires becomes as easy as just being yourself.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” – Carl Rogers, American psychologist and a founder of the humanistic approach to psychology, (1902-1987).

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