You Don’t Know What You Want: Strategies for Uncovering Desire Hidden in Plain Sight

When I met Madeline she was already incredibly successful. She made more money than most of her friends, had a position with a decent amount of power, and had left a busy life in Paris to live in her dream city by the coast. But she was unsettled.

We were talking because she wanted to become a coach. Or at least that’s what she thought. As we spoke I learned a lot about her. Failed relationships. Boredom with her career. A pent up desire for adventure.

No matter what she tried, something was missing. She had just had her heartbroken by a gorgeous man and it left her questioning everything.

Again and again, we returned to a singular question. A question she struggled to answer.

What do you want?

In a world where our desires seem rampant, many of us still don’t know what we want. We look through pictures on social media and develop an anxiety that we’re missing out on life, but we forget to ask ourselves if what we think we’re missing out on is what we actually want.

Working full time as a coach over the last five years I’ve met all kinds of people. I’ve worked with a CFO from Nokia, the founder of a Marketing Agency in Peru, and a single mother in the UK.

Despite their diverse backgrounds, educations, and experiences they all had the same problem: none of them knew what they wanted. They had goals, ideas, and dreams. But as soon as I pushed them, as soon as I asked, what do you want?, I was met with a familiar look that conveyed a hidden confusion and doubt.

We’re out of touch with our desires.

Maybe it’s the endless opportunities we have. Maybe it’s the constant competition for attention. Most of us are out of touch with what we desire.

For a while, from secondary school to a few years after college graduation some of us are lucky enough to live out a parental script that offers a level of certainty. Get this degree. Apply for that job. Marry this person.

Before long though each of us wakes up wondering if it’s really what we’ve been working towards.

And the pandemic and economic crisis have only sped up this process. Over the past two years a lot of us have been questioning the point of our lives as we watch Netflix in our parent’s basement or zoom into another pointless meeting. And outside of work many of us are wondering why we pay high rent in a shut down city or why we’ve chosen friends who we struggle to connect with when we can’t go out for drinks like we usually do.

But even before the pandemic, this was an issue.

Chasing our desires is born of privilege

Desire chasing is almost entirely a first-world problem. Your perceived options in life are often dictated by your class, race, gender, and education. But the problem of limitation exists for all of us. We all limit what we want to what we think we can have. So much so that many of us never really ask unbounded questions about desire. And when we do, the answers scare us.

You can begin to find out what you want.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. It takes courage. It takes patience. It takes humility. But you can begin to discover your true desires by asking yourself, What do I want? If I could have anything, what would that be?

And while you may have to ask a few times before you get down to what you really want, here are some things you can pay attention to as you begin to explore. ​

1) Ignore the status and wish lists

Often when I ask my client what they want, I get a Christmas list of desires.

A partner with six-pack abs, a seven-figure job, a penthouse overlooking central park, a Ferrari. There’s nothing wrong with these desires. Having them as goals can be motivating. But I’ve coached people who have some of these things. Most of them aren’t happier than you already are.

We think things, status, money, and power will make us happy. And up to a point, they can increase our satisfaction in life. It’s harder to enjoy life with few resources and options, but they rarely lead to the deep satisfaction you’re looking for. ​

2) Focus on the experience

What is the experience of life you want to be having? If you desire wealth is it because it gives you a sense of security? Freedom? An ability to say no? Or maybe the ability to explore the world?

Hidden behind most of our desires is an experience we’re craving. All the ‘stuff’ we focus on is really just a strategy for having that experience.

Sometimes this strategy works, but often it doesn’t. If you can get down to the experience you’re craving, usually, you can think of a variety of ways to create it, which gives you a lot more options as you move forward.

3) Let go of old scripts

We’re taught to listen to what other people want first and then decide what we want.

That’s basically what school is. Choose from these five books. Take one of these two classes. Most of our lives we’re told to achieve based on the standards of others. But those standards often leave us extrinsically motivated and unsatisfied with life.

This is why I often help clients look at and examine what things they were told to desire growing up. These stories of scripts of success can give us clues to how we originally formed our ideas of happiness and satisfaction.

Sometimes these scripts are helpful in guiding us towards better choices, but just as often they trap us in a set of standards and ideas of success that don’t really resonate.

By looking at these scripts closely you can decide which ones to honor and which ones to sidestep so you can focus on what’s truly satisfying.

For our grandparents finding steady work and a reliable paycheck may have brought safety and satisfaction, but that may not be true for you today.

For our parents finding a partner and settling down to have kids may have given them a sense of purpose and home, but that may not be what gives us that same sense.

The purpose in examining these scripts isn’t to discard them, it’s to better understand the ideas and beliefs that informed our earliest life choices so we can either choose back into them consciously or discard them altogether.

4) Accept some level of complexity and suffering

On a fundamental level, we all want to avoid suffering. This is a truth so old the Buddha and many other sages called it out millennia ago.

The thing we seek to be free from suffering varies for each person and even for different phases in life. When you’re young you might be certain that getting into your first choice college will guarantee your happiness. As you get older it may be finding the right partner. If you run a business it could be finding product/market fit, or even hiring the right team.

But it seems no matter what you do and regardless of what you get or don’t get things don’t ever seem quite right.

That’s because life is complicated. Things are always changing and even getting what you want may not bring you the deep satisfaction you’re craving.

This is why even as you seek to create what you want, it’s important to remember that your desires and your receiving are incredibly complex.

Honor the complexity of you and your life and learn to appreciate that while understanding what you want can help you feel a sense of deep satisfaction and fulfillment, it’s not a panacea. It’s simply a guide post for living a life full of purpose and joy.


I’m Being Breadcrumbed by God

Last year I got a clear message from God, or the universe, or whatever you want to call it, that I needed to do a 9-month dating diet. And so that’s what I did.

For 9 months I didn’t engage with women romantically. Not only that, I even paused some friendships where the energy was flirty. I set aside time for spiritual practice, meditation, journaling, and spending time in nature.

I began to write daily letters to the sacred feminine all while grieving the breakdown of my last relationship.

Slowly, as the grief faded and COVID got worse, something strange started happening to me.
The ambition I used to rely on was nowhere to be found. My long term visions seemed almost meaningless. The more I let go of the future, the more I relaxed.

I still had moments of clarity from time to time. The clouds would part and I would see where I needed to go or do next.

Sometimes these bursts of insight would be clear and full, like knowing I needed to have a certain conversation with my father or that I needed to reach out to an old teacher to clean up a relationship. But sometimes I’d just get a direction, a word, or even just an energy I needed to explore.

I felt it each time I chose a new city to travel to and each time I looked for a new potential client to connect with. But even though these nudges felt magical, I often found myself frustrated. For years I’d been the guy with the five-year plan, the quarterly business focus, and the big hairy audacious goals.
Now I felt like I was drifting from one insight to the next. Except each insight felt different. Because they each invited me into a deeper faith and trust in life, god, and the universe.

It took me a while to realize it, but I was learning to feel, choose, and see from another part of myself. I was being asked to trust this connection to the divine, to the mystical nature of reality, and to my own intuition.

In the past, my life was mostly run by my ego - my desire to prove something to the world - and slowly I was letting that go. I was learning to follow the divine even though the divine had been breadcrumbing me all year.

What they never tell you about faith and a life of deep spiritual practice is just how little you’ll know as you step deeper into the fire of it. They never tell you that as the path unfolds, it becomes less and less about knowing where you’ll be in five years and more about your faith that there is a path, that you are being guided, and that there is art for you to express.

So for now I’ll just keep looking for the next breadcrumb and when I find it, I’ll just take it as it comes.


The 5 Simple Steps to Facing Fear

Litany against fear- From DUNE a book by Frank Herbert
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye and see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.“
Whenever we try to change our lives fear arises. Sometimes it arises because we stumble on the path: “I gained a pound back. What if this is where it all falls apart?” Sometimes it arises because the future is unknown: “If I transform into someone new, who will I be?”  Starting a new exercise practice, changing the way we eat, taking a new fitness class can all be a catalyst for fear, but it doesn’t have to derail us. There are ways to practice with fear and use them to connect with our hearts desire.
Everyone and I mean everyone gets afraid from time to time. Some people are better at hiding it, denying it, or compartmentalizing it, but everyone experiences fear. Resistance to fear is the first barrier to facing our fear.
We want to deny that we are afraid. Most of us are afraid that we will fail, fall flat on our faces, be embarrassed, gain all the weight back, lose the girl/boy, become a source of shame for our family/friends, get terminally ill and die alone and unloved. We try not to think about it because if we do it will come true, or perhaps we’re afraid that we will see it is already true.
Just say to yourself. I’m afraid.
Where do you feel fear? Is it a tight feeling in your chest? Is it butterflies in your stomach? Are you clenching your jaw? Squeezing your fists?
No matter where you feel it, try to go into the sensation. What is the texture of it? What color is it? Is it related to any other part of your body?
Take a piece of paper and describe it in as much detail as possible. If you notice yourself thinking of the content of fear, stop, and go back into your body.
Don’t stay in that fear response forever. It can be very tiring. Instead do something grounding.
  • Things that people find grounding
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise
  •   Taking a walk outside
  •  Eating a piece of fruit
  • Focusing on the bottoms of your feet
Most fear arises from wholesome desires. Our strategies for dealing with fear or the desires that cause fear can be unwholesome, but the fundamental need underneath is usually wholesome and universal.
We want to be loved, appreciated, accepted, and acknowledged. We want to be free, autonomous, joyous, playful, and independent. We want to contribute, nurture, and be part of a community. We want beauty, peace, ease, clarity, order, and predictability.
We might not need all of these at the same time. We might have different ideas about what these would look like, but everything on that list could be needed by anyone.
Try to see what that wholesome desire is for you. Your fear often arises from not having these universal needs addressed.
Often we reject and criticize the part of us that gets afraid.
Imagine if you were a child who was afraid.  Now imagine a parent or teacher criticized your fear, mocked it, and rejected you because of it. Would you feel safer?
Forgive yourself for being afraid. Forgive the part of yourself that is afraid. Visualize yourself as a child. Or if that’s too hard, visualize the part of yourself that is afraid as a child.
Then comfort them. Tell them what you would tell a child that is afraid.  Imagine holding them in your arms patting them on the back. Try putting your arms around yourself and rubbing your own shoulder. Say “it’s ok to be afraid.”
We all experience fear. Fear can be a door into our own hearts and the hearts of others if we are willing to stay with it and walk through it.