How To Figure Out What You Really Want



“Be careful what you wish for, you’ll probably get it.” – Proverb

What if you spend your years climbing the corporate ladder, only to find that your ladder was up against the wrong wall?

What if money can’t buy what you’re really looking for?

What if there’s a simpler or more effective way to get what you want?

In Work from the Inside Out: Seven Steps to Loving What You Do, Nancy O’Hara writes about an approach to help you figure out what you really want.

Work Goals, Thing Goals, Feeling Goals and Thinking Goals

How do you figure out what you really want?

What do you really want at work?

What tangible things do you want?

What relationships do you want?

What feelings do you want more of (or less of)? What states of mind (such as peace of mind) do you want more of?

Finding the Goal Behind the Goal

Identifying what you really want can be tricky. The pursuit of a tangible goal, such as a Ferrari, might be masking a feeling goal (more freedom, feeling of competence or feeling of success.)

Chasing that Ferrari might cause you a lot of stress in your life, when maybe all you needed to do was go fishing.

Maybe there’s another strategy to drive Ferraris (e.g. maybe a lot attendant at a rich club.)

9 Steps For Figuring Out What You Really Want

O’Hara writes the following steps:

  1. Write a random and comprehensive list of all the tangible things you would like to have that you don’t now have (in no particular order.)
  2. Now prioritize the list by placing numbers before each item, with the number 1 being assigned to the most desired thing.
  3. Then for the top ten items on the list assign a number from 1 to 5 that indicates the intensity of your desire, with 1 being low and 5 being high.
  4. For each of the ten items write a paragraph or two about how having them would change or not change your life and how not having them now affects your life.
  5. Repeat exercises 1 to 4 with a list of intangible things you would like to have in your life. (This could include relationships, feelings, states of mind.)
  6. Repeat exercises 1 to 4 with work-related desires (perhaps your ideal job, a new boss, a different schedule.)
  7. On a separate piece of paper write down the most-desired thing from each list and put it aside for the moment. Then collect all the pages you’ve written on to complete the exercise in this section and make a ritual of burning or otherwise destroying them. Choose a time when you can be alone. Read over (preferably out loud) what you’ve written and sit quietly, absorbing the extent of your own desires and the dissatisfaction they’ve created. Then shred the papers into tiny pieces and/or safely burn them. As you watch them disappear, imagine your desire for them also going up in smoke. Be willing — even just for the time it takes to do this exercise — to let them go.
  8. Afterward sit quietly again and absorb the impact of this ritual. Write about the feelings it evoked and what effect, if any, it had on your wish list.
  9. Now look at the three desires you wrote down and set aside. Is your level of desire for these things the same as it was when you first wrote about them? Concentrate on the work-related desire and write about what you could do to attain it. And if it still feels that your life will be more complete with it than without it, then make a plan that will move you toward getting it. And decide, since it is so important to have this thing, that everything along the way you must do to get it will be as important, as valued and as pleasing as the thing itself. Each act, each chore is a part of the thing itself because without them you cannot have it. If you see each of those things in this way, then you will see that in the doing of these things you already have them. Absorb yourself in these details, enjoy the process of getting to it, and maybe when you get there it will feel as though you’ve had it all along

Key Takeaways

I had several takeaways from this particular approach:

  • Frame out work goals, relationship goals, feeling goals, and thinking goals. I think a lot of goal setting exercises that people are taught tend to be pretty limited. I like the fact that O’Hara frames out the goals into meaningful buckets. I think this is the key to figuring out the real drivers behind some goals.
  • Unmasking your goals is a key step for clarity. The goal behind the goal is what’s important. I particularly like the unmasking process O’Hara lays out.
  • Make the process as meaningful as the outcome. The pursuit needs to be as meaningful as the accomplishment. My favorite line from her steps is “…And decide, since it is so important to have this thing, that everything along the way you must do to get it will be as important, as valued and as pleasing as the thing itself…”. For me, the most important message in this is that the process of achieving the goal is as important as the goal itself. It makes the day to day meaningful. If you know you’re moving towards what you want, which may require sacrifice, but you are aware of what you are trading, the path becomes more rewarding. See Process Over Product Orientation.
  • Results are instant. As soon as you know your are on your path, every step on your path is the right one. Martin Luther talked and walked his dream – his pursuit was as meaningful as his accomplishments. In one night, Ebenezer Scrooge got to see his past, present and future. He didn’t like his future. He started living the life he wanted to lead the next day.
  • Purpose and passion get you back up on your your horse. Life happens. We got knocked off our horses. The trick is getting back on. Having clarity in what you want and passion in what you do, helps you get back on your horse. If you’re not confident in your path, it’s easier to get knocked off your horse and even tougher to get back on.
  • Check that your ladder is up against the right wall. Having clarity on what you want, helps you choose more effective strategies. if you know what you really want, you can choose more effective strategies.
  • Mitigate the risks of having a life of regrets. Scrooge didn’t like his outcome. He immediately chose a more caring approach with the people in his life and changed his destiny.
  • Maybe you’ve had it all along. When I read this line “…Absorb yourself in these details, enjoy the process of getting to it, and maybe when you get there it will feel as though you’ve had it all along …” I can’t help but to think of Dorothy when she got back home, and realized there’s no place like home.

Additional Resources

How To Discover Your Life Purpose in About 20 Minutes (Steve Pavlina)

The Power of Clarity (Steve Pavlina)

Deciding What To Do With Your Life (Steve Pavlina)

You Might Also Like

Fear of Becoming Who You Truly Are

Process Orientation Over Product Orientation

How To Overcome Resistance

How To Paint a Future Picture


  1. Hi J.D.

    I like this post. It reminds me something I heard (don’t know where – maybe Oprah), but you should ask yourself what is it that you really, really, really want (three reallys).

    We do set goals, but like you pointed out, what is behind those goals? It’s not as it appears on the surface, is it? Asking yourself a few pertinent questions can get to the real issue pretty fast.

    It’s just like if someone says they want to lose 100 pounds. Asking why would result in answers that have nothing to do with the actual weight loss, but goes much deeper.

    Maybe kids have the right idea whey they keep asking “why?” Might we be able to learn more about ourselves is we didn’t stop with our first answer?

  2. Hey Barbara

    I like that. It reminds me of “ask why 3 times.” It’s easy to get so busy “doing,” that we forget what we set out to “accomplish.”

    I think kids tend to be better at following their passions … and a lot of the “whys” are simply, because it’s fun.

  3. Hi, I really enjoyed this article! Many talk about the importance of setting goals, but those that tried know that it is not as simple as it sounds. By setting incorrect goals we risk ending up in a wrong place with a big disappointment.

    Goals in life are like directions on a map. They guide us through the sea of life. Here’s by the way my humble contribution that I want to share with everyone. Best wishes!

  4. The steps for ” Figuring Out What You Really Want” is really very smart. When I imagine the steps I can feel the pain when ripping off the paper full of my wishes.
    I will take the whole process carefully in the weekend.

    Thanks, JD. You are one of my mentor. 😀

  5. Some hints very valuable [importance of road and destination] but I don’t like the idea of destroying all other goals except most desired.

    Best Wishes

  6. Marc, I think the point of tearing up the other goals is to force you to focus on, and re-evaluate, the primary three. You might list your primary life goal as ‘having a waterfront house’ — but you also have other life goals such as ‘get a new car’, ‘own a Brooks Brothers suit’ and ‘eat more lasagna’.

    When you identify the primary goal, then re-read the non-primary goals and then destroy them, the question is how do you feel when you go back to your primary goal? Are you as excited and as focused on ‘having a waterfront house’ as you were before? Maybe it turns out that that isn’t the biggest goal after all; maybe when you see just the one goal of ‘having a waterfront house’ staring you in the face, you think “Wait a sec – I can always rent a beach house, but I can never have enough lasagna!” — Ta Da, your priorities have been re-jiggered!

    Basically it’s like a distillation process, forcing you to identify what’s *really* the goal. We have so many things clamoring for our attention that we want (or think we want) many varied (and sometimes contradictory) things at any given moment. This process will force you to silence the distracting goals and to identify and focus on the one goal that’s truly most important.

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