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.