You don't know what you want | Just Reflections - Issue #17
Today I'm here to tell you that you don't know what you want.
When we're kids, we are asked what we want to be when we grow up. We always linked our answers to some kind of job role. I want to be a firefighter; I want to be a doctor; I want to be a bus driver, etc. These were usually linked to a recent experience we had. Maybe there was a specific doctor in our lives we particularly admired and we thought being like them one day would be cool. Or we had recently watched a movie in which firefighters were heroic and we thought it would be really awesome to be as fearless and caring as the firefighters we saw. Or the driver of our school bus was a terrible driver, and we wanted to be a bus driver so that we can do a better job. Either way, who we wanted to be as children was closely related to our experiences. You couldn't have wished to be something you didn't know existed or was even possible. That basic principle is still true, even as adults.
Our decision about what we want for ourselves in life is limited by our exposure. You likely have a list of things that you want today. If I had come to you 5 years ago, that list was likely different from what it is today. The big difference between then and now is that you've experienced more in life and you know better about some things, so you're able to choose better. This says two things to me. One, what I want for my life today could be completely different some time from now. Two, if experiences improve my vantage about what I want, then I should probably optimize for more or better experiences.
For us to have better confidence that what we've decided we want in life is really what we would want if we knew better, we need to continuously extend our experiences. The more we experience, the more we know. The more we know, the more we understand about whether our feelings about the things we like and dislike are accurate or justified. Let's unpack this a little more.
Be okay with doing many things
Still on the subject of what we wanted to be when we grow up. One of my favourite Ted Talks is one by Emily Wapnick titled "Why some of us don't have one true calling". On it, she talks about how the question of what she wanted to be has always been a difficult one for her because she's never wanted to be one thing. Throughout her life she's struggled to answer the question, "what do you want to be when you grow up? ", not because she didn't have any interests, but because she had too many. She wanted to be many things, and she's been many things and likely will be many more things in the future and that's fine. Her conclusion is that some of us don't have one true calling. Some of us are what she calls, 'Multipotentialites'.
I remember vividly when I first watched that talk and how empowering it was for me. The following is the part that most resonated with me because I found it so relatable:
... at a certain point, I began to notice this pattern in myself where I would become interested in an area and I would dive in, become all-consumed, and I'd get to be pretty good at whatever it was, and then I would hit this point where I'd start to get bored. And usually I would try and persist anyway, because I had already devoted so much time and energy and sometimes money into this field. But eventually this sense of boredom, this feeling of, like, yeah, I got this, this isn't challenging anymore -- it would get to be too much. And I would have to let it go. But then I would become interested in something else, something totally unrelated, and I would dive into that, and become all-consumed, and I'd be like, "Yes! I found my thing," and then I would hit this point again where I'd start to get bored. And eventually, I would let it go. But then I would discover something new and totally different, and I would dive into that. — Emily Wapnick, TEDxBend.
This felt like a perfect description of me. I have many interests and I have done a lot of things. I especially needed to hear it then because I needed to know that I don't lack commitment, which is something I was thinking. I needed to understand that there's nothing wrong with getting into these interest cycles and moving on to something else when I feel I've learnt enough. It empowered me with the fact that being like this wasn't a fault, but a superpower. A way for me to distinguish myself.
It's easy to see your multipotentiality as a limitation or an affliction that you need to overcome. But what I've learned ... is that there are some tremendous strengths to being this way. Here are three multipotentialite super powers. One: idea synthesis. That is, combining two or more fields and creating something new at the intersection. ... The second multipotentialite superpower is rapid learning. When multipotentialites become interested in something, we go hard. We observe everything we can get our hands on. We're also used to being beginners, because we've been beginners so many times in the past, and this means that we're less afraid of trying new things and stepping out of our comfort zones. What's more, many skills are transferable across disciplines, and we bring everything we've learned to every new area we pursue, so we're rarely starting from scratch. ... The third multipotentialite superpower is adaptability; that is, the ability to morph into whatever you need to be in a given situation. — Emily Wapnick, TEDxBend
I love this talk so much because it helped me define an important part of who I am. It helped me put words to something I knew for a long but couldn't communicate. As I was deciding to switch from civil engineering to computer engineering (with no formal computer science qualification) I valued professional capabilities differently. You want a civil engineer, sure I'm a civil engineer. But I'm also a programmer, I'm also an artist, I'm also a public speaker, and many other things. All those seemingly disparate things that I've learnt along the way come together to make me quite a different civil engineer than you're used to. But more importantly, they allowed me to craft a non-standard career path.
I knew that it's possible that I may not have made the correct decision, but that was fine. If I discover this down the line I can change again and do something else. As Emily puts it:
It is rarely a waste of time to pursue something you're drawn to, even if you end up quitting. You might apply that knowledge in a different field entirely, in a way that you couldn't have anticipated. — Emily Wapnick, TEDxBend
The point I'm making here is that as far as you can, pursue the things that interest you. You may not understand today how they will be helpful for you in the future, but you don't know at all what you will need in the future, so might as well fill up your toolkit. Don't worry about the specific job or a specific company. What makes work satisfying are the traits and qualities of the work itself, not the title you have or who you're doing it for. This is how Steve Jobs put it:
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. — Steve Jobs.
How to know what to do with your life
Many of us think we know the things we want. We don't. There are so many unique experiences and people in the world that we can't possibly know well enough. We might have a good estimate of what we want in particular areas but for the bulk of the things, we probably don't. We would do ourselves a favour by following the path of our curiosity and discovering as much as we can about the world. Here are some tips for doing just that.
Pursue your current interests and work hard at doing that. None of us can say with certainty what our purpose is. None of us can say with certainty that what they are enjoying now will be their passion for the rest of their lives. Until we get experience in many things, we won't know what things resonate best with us, so we must go out and get as much experience as possible.
Be observant. Don't do things passively. Be present in every moment of every experience. Think about what you're doing and what parts of it you relate best with. Start journaling and write about the elements of what you do that you think are useful beyond what you're doing right now. Observe people, take an interest in them and what drives them. We can learn a lot about ourselves by learning about other people.
Focus on values. Widening your experience might not make it easier to know what you want. However, while it's difficult to figure out what you want, it's less difficult to figure out what you value. So as you try our new experiences and meet new people, spend more time thinking about and defining your values. As you continue your exploration, being clear about your values will help you narrow down the things that deserve more of your focus. I know I've said be less discriminate of what you try out because things are not always as they seem from afar. While this is true, you don't have enough time to try everything, so having clearly defined values can help you aim at what has a higher likelihood to give you fulfilment.
There's a concept in psychology and behavioural economics called present bias. This is our tendency to prioritize the short term ahead of the long term. We care much more about what is happening to me right here, right now than what will happen in the future. This is part of the reason why we procrastinate in many things; watch Netflix or study, scroll through Twitter or go for a jog. It's easy to de-prioritize things if their reward is in the future for things that reward us right now. Another way to put this is that it's easy to put greater importance on the things that reward us now than those that reward us in the future.
Sometimes when we think we know what we want, we've just assigned a lot of importance to things that have rewards in the present. Yet if we were to think about it, the things that would be truly meaningful to us are those far in the future, the things that would be truly meaningful to us are those far in the future. But because they're so far, we don't have a clear view of them and can't put them into perspective. Our present bias fools us into thinking the things immediately in front of us are what is important to us.
I recently saw a review of Logan Ury's book How To Not Die Alone: The Surprising Science That Will Help You Find Love. It's a book about finding a life partner, but I saw an idea that fits in well with today's topic. She says many people struggle to find love because they're looking for a prom date instead of a life partner. What she means is that it's easy for us to focus on easy to see superficial things when looking for a life partner. Things like someone who looks great on pictures, makes us laugh all the time, someone who's good looking that we can show off to our friends and provides us fun right now. However, these superficial things, while they have their place, are not what it takes to build a long-lasting healthy relationship.
This applies even beyond relationships. Sometimes when we choose a life path, we're looking for one that looks good right now without consideration of our long-term fulfilment.
Lower the bar
When we think of the list of things that we want, we tend to lean on the things that are easy to measure. The problem with this is that the things that really matter are generally difficult to measure. One way to avoid this trap is to have a lower bar for the things you try out in life. You would have never in a million years pictured yourself running a marathon? Try it. Never thought you'd ever record a YouTube video or a TikTok, give it a shot. Don't block yourself from new experiences because you think you already know what you want. You probably don't know it as well as you think.
You're only going to know how you feel about an experience when you try it. You're only going to know how you feel about a person when you spend time with them.
A popular piece of advice is that when you find the right career/person/path, you'll just know. You'll feel a spark. I disagree with this idea of a spark. There's a big probability that you won't feel a spark when you do new things, even when they genuinely are things you'll fall in love with down the line. There's a good chance that you won't get to a place and it just feels right. You won't meet a person and you just know. All those are nice in stories but don't work out the same way in real life. The more likely thing is that you'll need to work on it, exercise some patience and perseverance and grow into it. I absolutely love reading right now, but if I had expected a spark, the first time I picked up a book, I would have never grown the habit. I had to work on it.
Always go on a second date
There's another idea in psychology and behavioural economics called Negativity Bias. This is our tendency to overly think about the things that went badly and view them as much bigger than they actually were. Forgetting all the good parts, even if most of the things that happened were positive.
A closely related idea is the Fundamental attribution error. This is the tendency to attribute causes of other people's behaviour to their character rather than situational factors. We tend to take circumstances into account when judging ourselves, but don't do so when judging other people's behaviour. For example, when someone is late, then we conclude that they are the kind of person who has no respect for people's time and that is why they were late. In reality, there are many other probable reasons for why they were late, and it is unlikely that it is because they are the kind of person who enjoys being late.
Bearing these two ideas in mind, if after an unfamiliar experience you feel overly negative about it, there's a good chance that you're exaggerating how bad it was. If you met a new person and you just can't stand the type of person they are. You're likely making an error in attribution because one meetup is not enough to know 'the kind of person they are'. Give it another shot, go on a second date, try the experience again. This will allow you to re-evaluate it from a more sober perspective and hopefully be more objective in your evaluation. You might just change your mind.
Not knowing what we want is part of what makes life so interesting. It leaves lots of room for curiosity and exploration and discovery. As we discover things about the world around us, we discover things about ourselves and find out even more things that we need to learn, and the cycle starts again. So embrace the fact that you don't know what you want. Let it be the inspiration you need to read, to travel, to try a new sport or creative pursuit, to talk to people and to try out new experiences.
That’s all I have for you this week. If you like the newsletter, consider sharing it with others on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook. Hit the thumbs up or thumbs down below to let me know what you think about the issue.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.