What You Really Want to Do

What do you want? It seems like a simple question, but it can be deceptively difficult to answer. Even when you do have an answer, “wanting” something doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that it’s possible, or if it is, that you’ll actually do it. How can you reconcile the things you want to do, and the things you are capable of doing, with the things that actually get done? There is no easy answer, but it can help to think of your wants as distinct from your wishes–and to realize that you can wish for making better choices, not just for having better choices available.

We’ve all been there: you’re sitting on the couch watching TV, it’s late, and you think to yourself “Boy, I’d really like to go to bed so I won’t be tired in the morning.” Then another hour goes by and you find yourself still on the couch, still watching. Frustrating, right? Why didn’t you go to bed like you wanted?

Or how about the opposite, when you’re feeling tired at work, and you think to yourself, “Boy, I really want to go home and collapse on the couch, but I should finish up this problem instead.” An hour later you’re still at work, finishing up, instead of having gone home like you wanted. Impressive self-control, right? Then you look at your coworker, Casey, and wonder how they manage to get up at five every morning and go running, organize the company potluck, raise two kids, and put in more hours at the office than you do. It must be exhausting, constantly putting off what they want to do things they don’t. Where do they get all that willpower?

Actually, these two scenarios–the couch and the workdesk–aren’t opposites. Though it’s true it takes more willpower for delayed gratification than immediate gratification, it’s misleading to think of them as fundamentally different kinds of desire. When you stay up late on the couch, and when you stay late at work, and when Casey gets up at five to go running, you are both using the same internal decision-making mechanism each time. This mechanism works under a number of complicating factors–for instance, your ability to make decisions can be depleted with overuse or strengthened with practice, like a muscle, and it becomes impaired if you are tired or focused on something else–but it is fundamentally the same mechanism each time. When you decide to sit on the couch for another hour, and when you decide to stay at work for another hour, you are pulling the same lever on the same internal machinery. The fact that one decision is made consciously and the other unconsciously doesn’t make any difference to the machinery behind the lever: you are pulling the same lever either way.

What lies beneath that lever is your entire system of values: the conscious and the (much, much more plentiful) unconscious desires, aspirations, beliefs, and wants that define your personality. An economist or utilitarian might call it your utility function, a separate term for each of your thousand thousand values. There’s a term in there for your love of chocolate, and another term for how much you love your mother, and another for your favorite song. And there’s a term for your favorite television show, and a term for the raise you want at work. All these different desires are tangled-up with each other and with your mental state in unimaginably complex ways, but when the lever in front of them is pulled, the output is very simple: an action. No matter what your state, no matter what your myriad conflicting desires, conscious and unconscious, fleeting and planned, the output is always the same: a decision, leading to your body doing something (or nothing), eventually leading to another decision–an altered mental state and another pull of the lever.

What you want to do, then, turns out to have a simple answer after all: it’s only and exactly whatever you actually do. If you sit on the couch for another hour, then what you wanted to do most was sit on the couch for another hour. If you stay at work for another hour, then what you wanted to do most was stay at work for another hour. The downside of thinking about your desires as one big intertwined mess is that it’s not predictive: you might not be able to tell that you really want to sit on the couch for another hour instead of going to bed, until the hour has passed and you’re still sitting there. But the major advantage of this perspective is that it eliminates the illusory distinction between short-term and long-term gratification. When you stay at work for an hour instead of going home, the dominating term in your utility function may be a conscious value, rather than the unconscious one at work when you sit on the couch watching TV. But the utility function itself doesn’t change much, if at all–it’s the same lever getting pulled both times, and the output is never more or less than what you most want to do at that moment.

Of course, it doesn’t always feel like what you most want to be doing. At any given moment, you can probably imagine a million different alternatives that would be much more appealing–lying on a beach in Tahiti, making love, winning a million dollars, levitating yourself with your mind, etc. This is where you have to distinguish what you want from what you wish. Earlier, I said that what you choose to do is no more or less than what you most want to do at any given moment. This is almost true, but needs a qualification to be strictly true: what you choose to do is no more or less than what you most want to do, from among all options known to you. You might prefer lying on a beach in Tahiti to staying in the office for another hour, but you know that’s not really possible–it’s not an option that’s available to you. Similarly, you might not know about better options you could have taken, or you might think a given option is better than it turns out to be. So you don’t always know that what you wish is really impossible, and you don’t always know that what you want is really what’s best (where “best” is defined by your vast, largely unconscious utility function)–but it’s a matter of fact that if you think you see a better option, and you don’t take it, it’s because on some level you either didn’t really believe it was better, or you didn’t really believe it was possible.

There’s one more complication, though: a specific class of wishes that we humans are uniquely capable of granting to ourselves. When you look at Casey’s many accomplishments with envy, what are you doing? You are wishing you could be a better person–make the kinds of decisions that you would prefer to make, rather than the ones which you actually do. You are wishing for different wants–expressing a desire, unfulfilled because believed impossible, to make decisions differently, to change the terms of your utility function. But this wish is not impossible! The understanding that this kind of wish can be granted is exactly what separates the people who say “I’d like to, but…” from the people who say “I’d like to, so I will!” Remember, successful people like Casey don’t have any different machinery beneath their decision-making lever. At best, they may have more practice exercising their willpower, so it takes them less effort to make conscious (as opposed to unconscious) decisions. But the bigger difference is that successful people understand how to grant their own wishes–they strive not merely to do what they should, but to be the kind of person who wants to do what they should. On some level, they understand that it won’t get done any other way.

From moment to moment, your utility function–that vast, tangled web of values and desires which produces your actions–doesn’t change much. But it can be changed, consciously as well as unconsciously, and it is this ability to deliberately modify our own minds that makes humans so unique. We tell stories and dream daydreams of wish-granting genies, but the most important kinds of wishes are the ones we already have the power to grant. This power is not easy to master, but it is possible–revel in it!

When you stay at work another hour to finish a difficult problem, you do yourself a disservice to say it wasn’t really what you “wanted” to do. Your actions, remember, are no more or less than the expression of your desires–if you stayed and worked, that really was what you wanted to do! But by the same token, do not excuse your actions when you sit on the couch another hour by saying you didn’t really “want” to do it, but it sort of happened anyway…do not confuse what you want with what you wish to want. Just remember that, with effort and practice, it is possible to guide what we want towards what we wish to want–to become our own personal wish-granting genies, capable of turning our wishes for the impossible into manifestations of reality. It may not be as flashy or easy as it is in storybooks, but it’s a very real superpower: capable of leveling hills, erasing poverty, lifting people to the surface of the moon, or simply getting up at five every morning to go for a run. The choice is yours–what wish will you grant?

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