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How to Know What You Truly Want

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Why do we seem to struggle so often to get what we think we want, only to be disappointed once it shows up? My experience suggests that most of us don't have a clear picture of what we truly want and what it will do for us if we get it.

I have asked literally thousands of people the "what do you want" question. For the most part, people can list all kinds of things they want. Cars, houses, money, and toys of all sorts frequently come up. Relationships, kids, travel, adventure, and good health also make the most frequently cited list.

Consider completing the left hand column of the table which follows. I have labeled the left hand column "symbols" to represent the things people often focus on in their life pursuits. "If only I had (a certain amount of) money." Or the right house, new car, better job, etc. The point here is to delineate as truthfully as you can, that which you find yourself focusing on in life, those things you want or want more of. These things go in the left hand column.


From here, spend a little time in reflection on the question, "Why do I want those things?" "What do I hope will be true if I have the (job, money, house, etc)?" A slightly more refined question would be, "what experience am I looking for"- if I only had the right car, house, money, etc, what would I then be experiencing?"

Take the money question for a moment. Most people I have worked with say they want more money. When I ask them why, or what more money would do for them, I usually hear what they could do with more money. Buy the house, car, etc frequently come out. However, I then ask them to think a bit more deeply on the question of experience. "What positive experience or experiences would you associate with having more money?"

From here, the answers become more interesting. "If I had more money, then I would experience . . ." Greater Freedom. Security. Peace of mind. Sense of power or accomplishment. Success.

If you were to answer the question yourself, what answers would you find? If you think about it and then place those experiences that you are seeking in the right hand column, it might look something like this:


In the example here, money is one answer to the question "What do you want?" If we ask what positive experience is associated with having enough money, we may find that the person wants greater freedom, security and peace of mind. We can then ask: "Do you know anyone with a lot of money who doesn't have much freedom, security or peace of mind?" Howard Hughes would be a classic example of someone who had loads of cash and not much freedom, security or peace of mind.

Of course, you can always ask the question the other way around. "Do you know anyone who does not have much money and yet experiences freedom, security and peace of mind?" Mother Theresa would have been an example on this side of the coin.

And, just to keep it real, there are people with lots of money who are free, secure and at peace and those without money who aren't free, secure and at peace. So the question becomes one of how do I produce that which I really want? which I want?

Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher is often quoted as having said: "You can never get enough of what you don't need to make you happy. Sometimes, he is quoted as saying, "You can never get enough of what you don't really need."

If I am after the experience of being secure, free and at peace, is there any amount of money (or house, or car, or perfect relationship) that will produce the experiences I seek?

The obvious implication here is "NO!"

So, what do I truly want and how do I produce it? Is it the symbols of life that I truly want or is it more likely to be the experiences found in the right hand column?

If you are like me, the answer is "BOTH!"

So, play with this a little. If what you want is freedom, peace of mind, security, a sense of fullness or completion, and you have freedom, peace of mind, security, and a sense of fullness or completion in your life, would it matter how much money you have?

Wait a minute. Is this a trick question?

Well, yes and no. What I have found is that the more I focus on the positive experiences I want out of life, not only do I tend to produce those more frequently, but also the easier it is to produce the "things" found on the left hand side of the equation. Strangely, focusing on money hasn't made me any more secure or free, yet focusing on producing freedom and security has made it easier to create material success to go along with those inner qualities of success.

Again, have you ever really, really wanted something, worked hard on getting it, got it and then found you weren't any happier? If so, my suggestion would be to spend more time focusing on creating what you really want--those items in the right hand column. After all, can you ever get enough of what you don't really want?

In subsequent articles, we will explore how to produce more of what you truly want out of life.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my new book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)