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You can’t really know what you want until you know you don’t know what you want

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I hope your biggest revelation this year is that you don’t really know what you want.

We grow up thinking we know what we want, but we’re wrong. We all start with the wrong idea about it. Your whole life, society has told you what you want. Others know what they want you to want. Your family, your religious institutions, your politicians and your retailers know exactly what they want you to want. You’ll get everyone’s idea but your own, but these foreign ideas will accumulate, and in the absence of your own they get you chasing things.

And you’re not born knowing what you want, either. People assume they ought to know automatically what they want, which tends to be whatever the convention it is in your culture. For some that means marrying off to “a good provider”, for others it means achieving a senior managment position, for others it means a Personal Relationship With Jesus.

Then we become adults and, if we’re lucky, slowly learn that nobody can teach you what you want. You stumble upon it. But only if you do a lot of stumbling. Your parents didn’t know what you want, they figured it’s the same as what they wanted. The only ideas they can give you of what you ought to want are the wants they can identify with. Advertisers don’t know what you want, they fish for it. The only idea they can give you is what they hope you want, which is to buy something from them.

Your own idea appears only when you have the actual experience of what you want. You can’t know until you taste it. We all start with a false idea of what we want in life, inherited from others during childhood, before we gain any perspective about life. The false idea has to be given up and the real desires have to be discovered. They may make others uncomfortable. They may make you uncomfortable at first, because in inherited your comfort zone from others.

You will either recognize this and overcome it, or you will always pursue what other people want you to want, convinced it’s what you want. 

I am convinced that how happy a person becomes in life depends on how much time they spend learning what they want. Just to know what makes you glow inside is the work of a lifetime. Your real, heartfelt wants accumulate over the years, as you stumble into new experiences that electrify you.

How quickly that happens depends on how often you do what you’re not used to doing. That means travel hastens it, and habits stifle it. Doing scary and unfamiliar things hastens it, doing comfortable things stifles it. You can’t know what you want until you taste it. Do more tasting.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking what you want is just one thing. Each of our personalities is so intricate that we will resonate with thousands of categories of experiences, from the kind of clothes you feel best in, to the city you want to live in, to the person you want to grow old with, to the way you take your coffee. You may not know these preferences of yours yet, even if you assume you’ve known for thirty years. 

Your wants are always going to be more articulate than the ones you inherit from society. They are more specific. They make something tingle in your consciousness in a way that nobody else will understand. That’s why you can’t listen to anyone else when it comes to what you want in life.

I’m slowly learning what I want, and I only began to learn, really learn, once I discovered that I don’t already know what I want — that the things I’ve been chasing all this time have been other people’s wants.

A few things I know I want, even if nobody else wants me to want them:

I want more driving with the windows down and the radio off

I want fewer things from the dollar store in my house

I want more one-on-one coffees and lunches with friends

I want more walking

I want more savoring and less chugging

I want more metal possessions and fewer plastic ones

I want more plants

I want to wear clothes that make me want to stand up straighter

I want more time with a book in my hand and less time with a mouse in my hand

I want more talking and less thinking

I want less drink-nursing and more dancing

I want more greens and fewer starches

I want people to collect things I create

I want color co-ordination

I want things well-oiled and tuned up

I want baths with ambient music playing in the next room

I want to meet people with unconventional attitudes towards sex

I want to be a regular, with a usual, somewhere

I want to mingle with strangers, everywhere

I want to surprise people who know me

I want to change plans without fretting about it

I want to read one book at a time, instead of eight like I do now

I want to change the way you think about the important things


What do you want? Tell me, but don’t answer too quickly.


 Photo by onesevenone

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Roberta Romero April 30, 2012 at 1:48 am

I want to develop loving-kindess in my daily life

EcoCatLady April 30, 2012 at 1:51 am

You know, I think we tend to do a lot of “picture painting” when it comes to this sort of thing. But liking the picture of something, and liking the thing itself are two very different things. Took me a long time to learn that one.

Alex April 30, 2012 at 10:09 am

That’s so true! I used to think I wanted to be great at cooking, but I eventually realized I only liked the image of people thinking I was a great cook, I didn’t really like the process of cooking any more than that of cleaning the bathroom. I think often we like the idea of doing something, but if we really sit down and examine how we feel about it, we don’t actually like the thing itself. I love learning languages, but much to my surprise, I found I hate translating things (I much prefer just reading in the original language)

Karen Murphy April 30, 2012 at 3:13 am

This brings to mind the quote from Joseph Campbell “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us”.
I want to be more spontaneous.

David April 30, 2012 at 6:57 am

Every time I say something Joseph Campbell has beat me to it

Trish Scott April 30, 2012 at 11:09 am

I find that in the end we all end up saying the same thing.

Mike March 30, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Now THAT makes me smile.

Crys April 30, 2012 at 8:17 am

ah yes, a favorite quote. One I have recently embraced.
I’m walking it out now and at times it can be challenging.
When I return to something I’ve walked away from, it’s like wandering off into the woods at night, being lured in by my old friends the goblins and goons. I linger and then realize this is not what I want and I make my way out into the light again.
Great post as always David. You are becoming quotable yourself. I may collect David Cain quotes, hhmmm

Alex April 30, 2012 at 10:11 am

Haha, true! He’s certainly succeeded at “chang[ing] the way [we] think about the important things.” :)

Ido April 30, 2012 at 3:15 am

I LOVED this post! I’m 23 now. During my high school years, I was fascinated with history and wanted to be either an archaeologist or a paleontologist. But my parents and family stifled my dreams and convinced me that I would not be able to have a comfortable life if I pursued those dreams and instead, convinced me to study Journalism and Mass Communication in college. After graduating from there, I tried different jobs, working as a journalist and then in an advertising agency. But nothing made me happy, none of it made me feel like I was being myself. I felt lost and depressed almost always. Over the past two years, when my spiritual growth has been the fastest, I started realizing how what I was chasing, trying to be a part of the corporate world, were NOT the things I ever wanted. I did a lot of soul searching and today, I gradually trying new things at a daily basis. I got out of my comfort zone doing things I would normally never do. For example, I deleted all the music from my iPod that used to make me feel comfortable and replaced it with new music, techno and trance and house and dubstep, and by God I loved it! I quit my job and now I’m working on my REAL dreams, regardless of my parents’ opinions about it. Eventually I know they’d be happy for me, even if they think I’m destroying my life right now, I can almost smell their worry for me lol. I have never been happier! :D

David April 30, 2012 at 7:06 am

That’s awesome. Until 3 months ago, I had no idea I liked dubstep either! I had a pretty definite idea that I didn’t like it.

Ido May 14, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Haha! I was the same way. :)

Derza Fanistori April 30, 2012 at 3:28 am

I want to keep faith that my plans will work a bit longer.

Bruno Gonçalo April 30, 2012 at 4:51 am


That realization sent me directly to an existential crisis. I figured the whole world was just an amalgamation of souls imprisoned in flesh vehicles, following a mind program that blinds them from who they really are, kind of like the movie matrix.

But I guess it doesn’t have to be like that. I know I didn’t ask to be born and so on, but I’m here and by accepting and embracing the human experience I can begin to act instead of react. Creation and self-expression instead of submission and repression. And the more people figure this out the better this world would be.

I realized that I enjoy talking and writing about this. But still it is not really acting and it surely won’t bring me food to the table. So I’m still wrestling about how can I reconcile this with survival.

David April 30, 2012 at 7:18 am

There is a great speech about this here:


It starts at 35:20

Wally May 11, 2013 at 12:14 am

Hi, David!
Everytime I try to open this link the website redirects me to its homepage. Could you write the title and/or the date of edition in which I can find this speech you are talking about?

Gab April 30, 2012 at 5:03 am

First… I want to be able to put my inner world in writing as good as you do ;)
I want get paid for talking to strangers
I want to get pregnant and have a nude photo shooting
I want to make my own perfume
I want to go on a trip with my friends to an exotic place
I want to feel the wind on my face on top of a racing motorcycle
I want to be amazed sexually
I want to learn survival in the woods
I want to grow and drink my own wine
I want to stroke my cat while watching a film
I want to record a song on a studio
I want to make a constrictive difference in people’s life
I want a well
I want your autograph on a postcard

“Dream Dare Manifest” that is what I want in life, and hopefully on a regular basis :)

David April 30, 2012 at 7:17 am

I may be able to help you with that last one. Email me

frank May 2, 2012 at 11:08 pm

I can help you with the second one. haha. I like that one though, that would be interesting for sure.

Nick December 20, 2013 at 7:36 am

Ever thought about becoming a therapist? That job pays you to talk to strangers. Or become a salesperson if you’re more evil.

janice April 30, 2012 at 5:15 am

Yeah stop nursing those drinks and get dancing…its the sexiest, funnest thing ever!!! I have got to the point I know what I want and i do it – it’s taken me over 50 years. Just danced for 3 hours – two classes, couple good red wines and alot of happy men..and me!!!

David May 1, 2012 at 6:02 am

It seems like nobody can dance and be unhappy at the same time

Roxane April 30, 2012 at 6:21 am

Wow. What a coincidence to be reading this, this morning. I have not slept since midnight, waking up to the stark realization that I do not want what I have, and not knowing what it is I do want. Everything has turned on its head, old ideas and beliefs tossed out with yesterdays garbage. Where to go from here? Perhaps making a list like your’s is a good place to start. (Better than heading out for coffee at three AM!)

David May 1, 2012 at 6:04 am

First day of the rest of your life, maybe?

Roxane May 4, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Yep. It was.

SusieR April 30, 2012 at 7:41 am

I want to give away most of my things, always travel via carry-on, never again walk into a Dry Cleaners, and only buy items that serve multiple purposes.

Adelina April 30, 2012 at 8:32 am

things tend to happen more when one concentrates on what one wants than on what one does not want. ( ; now I want YOUR eloquence ;). What resists, persists. It worked for me at least.
I want to {eventually} not want anything. I met quite a few folks like that, happy as free birds. Not alluding to nihilism, just a detachment from desire.

Crys April 30, 2012 at 9:07 am

Sometimes you have to let things dangle and swing. Embrace that feeling of groundlessness. Don’t make up your mind too soon. Bring your awareness into this very moment and resist the urge to grasp onto any one of the many narratives running through your head. Let them float on by. Let things unfold and be amazed everyday. The universe (insert God of your own understanding here) has your back and hey, shit happens, don’t take it personally.

Vonnie April 30, 2012 at 9:21 am

Because my parents, teachers, church leaders, career’s officers, and the movies, told me so:
I thought I wanted :
– to be the best in my profession
– to be a wife
– to be a mother
– to have a nice house
– to create a pretty, neat, manicured garden like those seen on visits to National Trust properties
– to cook like a Michelin star chef and throw lavish dinner parties that people talked about for months (even years) to come.
I did, and you know what, turns out I didn’t want that at all…..you are so very right.

J.J. Sylvia IV April 30, 2012 at 9:44 am

I feel like part of the problem is the emphasis on going to college and choosing a major. There’s such an implicit emphasis that you should be able to figure out exactly what it is you want to do with the rest of your life, and that’s such a tough thing for anyone at that age when your options are so wide open. In a way, we look at it from the wrong end. How can we know big-picture what we want from life if we don’t know the small details first? That’s what I like about this post – it’s a good starting place!

Avi April 30, 2012 at 9:56 am

I want to make myself laugh, and hopefully make others laugh as well.

Terri Lynn April 30, 2012 at 10:25 am

I am grateful for the reminder that everything that I have and do are things that I want. But I was still trying to justify my choices, because they are not in alignment with status quo. I would also sometimes wonder if the grass was greener over there. It really is true, its greener where you water it. thanks David.

Collin April 30, 2012 at 10:27 am

I want to see the stars every night.

Vonnie May 1, 2012 at 9:48 am

You should come and live in the islands.
minimum light pollution (many of my neighbours don’t have electricity) = incredible star gazing : )

Brenda A. April 30, 2012 at 11:21 am

Right now what I most want….is to share this post with the world. :)

Mark April 30, 2012 at 11:26 am

I tried putting down a few ‘I wants’ but they seemed to be coming from a different point of view than yours. I did notice the comments referring to wants as desires idea (that’s how I got it anyway), and what I notice is your wants are not the typical outcome based wants, I mean they are… and they aren’t. It’s good though, I just wanted to point out how they are wants but the possession type of wants.

Trish Scott April 30, 2012 at 11:35 am

It may be that we don’t know what we want because the things that give the most life satisfaction are too simple, too quiet to notice. It’s not until we have gone through all the “I want’s” that we even notice the quiet joy that was always humming along beneath the surface.

Nicole April 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm

I’m am struggling with precisely this at the moment. I have come to the realisation that *what* I do is not nearly as important as *who* I do it with, making it quite hard to choose a direction at uni. Moreover, this indecisiveness has spread to my hobbies and interests and I can’t help but keep on asking myself why I keep on doing them or what it is that I really find interesting with things. What do I really want to be doing? I don’t know.
I’m working on finding an answer to all my questions, but it is indeed no easy task. Need to get out in the world more, I guess.

Ian April 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm

I want to perpetually learn more about everything.

I want to become fluent in more languages.

I want to understand other peoples’ ways of looking at things.

I want to financially support those who create awesome things.

I want to experience other peoples’ imaginations.

I want to share my thoughts and ideas with others.

I want to break stereotypes and preconceptions by example.

I want to do things differently and have them work out.

I want to enjoy the simple experiences of everyday life.

I want to have a tidy, organized, uncluttered apartment.

I want to excel at everything I do of my own intrinsic motivation.

I want to someday be able to make a comfortable living doing something that I enjoy.

Maia April 30, 2012 at 1:27 pm

I want – so many things
I want to be a published novelist
I want to have a job I love (not sure what that is yet)
I want to do travel the world
I want to have more time with my friends
I want a house and enough money to do what I want
I want to always be healthy
But most of all I want to always be content, whether or not I achieve what I want.

Michael Alexis April 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Hi Maia,

Derek Sivers did this Mixergy interview awhile back:


In it he talks about taking a longer view of life. One where you you block off a period of time for achieving one “want”, while recognizing that you’ll be able to pursue another one later.

Thought that might be useful for you, re: publishing + dream job, traveling + home ownership, aren’t necessarily easy to accomplish together :- )


Karen April 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm

I wanted to be an archaeologist, but I became a doctor, because someone suggested I should at school, and now I’m blazing a trail back to the things I’m really interested in. but I think thats a good thing. Because I’m interested in Indigenous Health and Healing, and modern medicine needs a bit of that. I used to always take the path of most resistance in order to learn, I feel like it was a good tactic now, much slower but going off your ideal path is also valuable. All those mistakes make sense one day.

Rubi April 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm

I’ll take time before responding to that

Dylan April 30, 2012 at 4:12 pm

You so often get words to those half-formed thoughts in my head. Thank you.

Dusty Helgason April 30, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Yep you said it all to right…
I think everyone has always told me to get married have kids a big house. I’m at that point in my life though Dave that I’ve figured out what I really want. And it took a year of being away from my real friends that money wasn’t what I want. It’s nice but being up north I see as a wasted year of good times that could have been. No regrets just lost thoughts. I don’t know what I really want quite yet but I think I light be slowly achieving it.
I want a girl that isn’t a wanna be actress or model some one that likes art and music and isn’t scared of dogs or bugs.
I wanna job that isn’t filled with political BS.
I want to be myself every where I go, smiling laughing making jokes and listening to music all the time!!!

David April 30, 2012 at 6:02 pm

The Manitoba dream! I don’t want it either. At least you know that your year wasn’t wasted, because you learned what’s more important to you.

When you announced you were moving up north I remember thinking that was exactly what I didn’t want for myself. I had just discovered that I want more action, more people, more city. So glad you’re back Dust!

Benedict April 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm

wow, David, this is an incredibly timely post, particularly the part mentioning parents wanting you to do something they can identify with, not what you really want. I’ve wanted to go to Australia for a couple of years now (I’m 19 and living with my mum and stepdad in Britain) but I haven’t been able to save up the money to go yet… recently my godfather offered to lend me the money so I could go earlier and enjoy my time in Oz while working off the debt over there. Tonight I told my mother what I was planning, and she did not like it one bit. She doesn’t understand in any way, but why shouldn’t I take this opportunity?

Nevill May 6, 2012 at 10:53 pm

Go. Just go. The hardest part of any international travel is prepping and decide you’re just going to go. Once the decision is made nothing can stop you and everything changes. what matters tends to come into focus, the trivial disappears and you begin to gain an understanding of yourself and the world you would never see otherwise. Your mom is worried because you’re her kid that is completely normal. But she will be even more proud of you when you come back and you’ll understand why.

nrhatch April 30, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Wonderful realization, David. One to which I awoke at age 37, right before I STOPPED practicing law (against the advice of . . . everyone).

Now, years later, there has not been a SINGLE DAY when I wished I was back in court trying a case or taking a deposition or answering interrogatories.

Look deep . . . the answers lie within. :D

KD November 13, 2012 at 9:33 am

What do you do now?

The Fuddler April 30, 2012 at 10:53 pm

I want people to collect things I create

Done! I religiously save every new column of yours and share it.

I want to meet people with unconventional attitudes towards sex

You too, huh? :)

Every time I say something Joseph Campbell has beat me to it

There are worse people to have a lot in common with!

Back to the original subject:

I want to have an active social life with amazing people.

I want to have an active sexual life with amazing people.

I want to live in a town that makes me want to leave the house.

I want to own a car but not need it just to get around.

I want to own only things that I know I can use and/or love by this time next year.

Details at 10!

Angie Dixon April 30, 2012 at 11:18 pm

I want to have the confidence in myself that others have.
I want to be a wonderful mother to my amazing daughter, and I am :-)
I want my fiance to be the happiest he’s ever been.
I want to continue losing weight until my collar bones look like salt cellars and my hips are pointy instead of rounded
I want to indulge in nature at every opportunity.
I want to not want, but simply to enjoy being.

Emily May 1, 2012 at 5:44 am

I want to stop thinking so much about “I”, and focus more on being part of a collective whole.

Mel May 1, 2012 at 6:57 am

I want to be the best me that I can be. I want to help people see that they are best and happiest when they just enjoy being who they are, testing the boundaries, exploring earth, seeking their own truth. Then maybe we’ll all live with freedom and love. Maybe that’s saying I want world peace. But maybe such a thing is possible, one person at a time.

Yankee Doodle May 1, 2012 at 10:00 am

I want to not allow the reptilian part of my brain to hold me back from pursuing what I want to pursue.

Tiva Joy May 1, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Okay, I have thought about this a lot, and was careful about the things I have chosen to want from life and from people…

*I want to attend more concerts and music venues of ALL kinds, because there is just something about live music that I love.
*I want to do more traveling, and eventually travel the world someday. To experience a piece of someone else’s world seems very exciting to me.
*I want to find my life-mate/best friend, whether we get married or not has never seemed that important to me, but to have the same man in my life seems very beneficial in many ways.
*I want to always keep trying new foods.
*I want to continue writing in my journal, my blog, my dream journal. I feel it will be beneficial for someone after I am gone.
*I want to paint and draw more.
*I want to always be treating others as I would want to be treated.
*I want to keep my mind alert and/or awake by continually learning new things.
*I want to not always fall “in love” with every man who pays me a bit of attention.
*I want to continue to attract wonderful, interesting and all around good people in my life.
*I eventually want to move some place where it gets cold in wintertime.
*I want to have more incredible sex with one single partner.
*I want to fulfill my fantasy of having sex while listening to Led Zeppelin… seems so hot to me.
*I want to kiss more/longer and hold hand often, and show all types of love and affection.
*If I could choose to… I want to die saving someone’s life who will create a positive change in the world.

I think your blog is incredible, David… but you hear it so often, I hope it’s not creating a callous. There were so many wants on here from your other readers, that I feel like I want those too, but these are my important ones I think I want… but also having complete understanding that things change and sometimes we don’t always get exactly what we want, but everything that we need.
Thanks again, David. :)

Dhyann May 1, 2012 at 8:20 pm

I am sure a lot of people needs this for their own sake.. Anyway, thanks for the help here..

BeeeBeee May 2, 2012 at 8:53 am

I think most of your observations are right on. The few aspects in which I differ is based on my own experience. I have found that the older one gets (I’m in my mid-40’s), the clearer the picture of what I want has become. It takes time to examine the expectations that your family, your church, your friends, and society have of you. And in the search for self, one can be surprised. I know I was. Accepting the differences between who you really are and who you (and others!) thought you were can be surprisingly hard. Being different is difficult (and lonely sometimes), but knowing who you are can be so freeing once you have embraced it!

But understanding what you don’t want is just as important and often surprising.

I love your list of the things you want more of in life, very similar to mine! Brings to mind some of your other posts that I’ve enjoyed so very much.

Keep up the great work!


Chris May 2, 2012 at 12:35 pm

I want to be able to see the world from everyone else’s point of view, so that I can understand them, myself and how I relate to others, more completely.

I love reading your posts, David. Keep them coming!

frank May 2, 2012 at 11:06 pm

I want more acceptance of my good doings, less modesty. appreciation, more impulsive action less worry.

madeleine February 18, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Absolutely. I couldn’t have said it better. I am constantly worring and suppressing or allowing myself to feel pride of happiness if it comes from a compliment of achievement. I put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve and when i get it I dont allow myself to enjoy it – I think English culture makes many people like this because it you are proud of what u achieve and talk about it, most people see you as somone who just boasts all the time and will be disliked.

I feel (not that I have any experience of it directly) that Americans are not like this .

Donnie Todd May 2, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Another great one. Still enjoying the work.

Jonathan May 3, 2012 at 12:15 am

I want to be free from wants.

Gisselle May 3, 2012 at 8:03 am

We can’t wait for the next post you will have shared us here.. I think we already miss you.. Thanks for this one anyway..

GoodGravyBoat May 3, 2012 at 8:17 am

Great post…

I want to reach the creative place inside of me that is free from being “good enough” and is simply an expression of my thoughts, feelings and ideas.

I want to stop being so aware of the minutes, hours and days.

I want to own less stuff.

I want more map dotd on the “where I have traveled” map.

I want to meet more people who care less about “suppose to” and care more about being authentic.

Joclyn May 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm

We want what we do not have, regardless of y we dont have it, whether we have had it before or not, whether we truly want it or society has conditioned us to want it, or whether its rational or not. It is the human condition to want what we do not have. The word want inherently implies the absence of the wanted thing. We all know all the things we want, it is the reasons y we want them that should be examined (bc my mom said so vs. it makes me truly happy etc.) so that we can prioritize the wants correctly and make self- aware, informed decisions on which ones are worth our time and mental effort. Then, live life learning how to get those things. From a movie i saw recently:
Lisa: So I was just wondering if there was one general thing that you’ve found over the years to be generally true in a general way that would help anyone in any situation?
Psychiatrist: That’s a great question, yes, I would say figure out what you want and learn how to ask for it.
Lisa: OK. Those are both really hard.

Jennifer Alvasin May 4, 2012 at 6:28 am

i always wanted to be a doctor but my graduation result was not good enough for any medical college ….but now i am a teacher and now as i think , i never really wanted to be a doctor just had the liking of being it …..

Thanks for sharing this thoughtful blog …

Lee Ann May 4, 2012 at 1:36 pm

I want to be more immersed in living my life than surfing the internet in a cubicle.

Alan Lamb May 6, 2012 at 10:55 am

This is a great post. I somehow found it to be very inspiring.
I want to set up my own business and really flourish in life (within my 24th birthday).


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