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A Complete Guide to Getting What You Want

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Note to reader: This is a long post – 2200 words – so bookmark it if you need to, but I think you’ll find it a worthwhile read if you apply this strategy even a single time.

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It’s not always polite to say it so plainly, but we all want things.

The objects of our desires differ, but we all spend much of our lives preoccupied with obtaining, having, achieving, and enjoying things, of both the material and abstract sort.

Our species wouldn’t have survived if we didn’t have powerful wants, but we’re still often embarrassed by them. Everybody wants more money, but we’re not supposed to say that. We want recognition from others. We want to work less and relax more.

We want dessert. We want sex. We want ease, freedom from obligation, and advantages that might seem unfair if someone else had them. We want to be hot.

Desires are taboo in human cultures, and not without reason. Because desires are what motivate human behavior, we know they can motivate violence, depravity, addiction, and hatred. Every religion seems to devote a lot of its scripture to desire-management strategies, urging restraint and renunciation, and punishing covetousness, or at least warning us of its consequences.

However, no matter what taboos we live under, we all have desires, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed about that basic fact. It’s okay to want things.

It can even be okay—depending on how we go about it—to try to get those things. 

We don’t only want terrible things, after all. Along with my desires for cookies and afternoons off, I do experience desires to clean behind the stove, eat leafy greens, and be a good neighbor.

It doesn’t necessarily make us into monsters to try to get something we want, even if we don’t have any reasons other than that we want it. In fact, it’s hard to say what else we human beings are doing with our lives. Every human act is a function of desire, from turning on a light switch to writing a play.

With few exceptions, we all want a home, some physical and financial security, some pleasurable experiences, some good relationships, and a sense of achievement and self-worth.

Beyond these basics, our desires can vary a lot. Some people want to climb horrible, frozen mountains for some reason. Others want to photograph all fifty-four remaining covered bridges in New Hampshire. You may want an immaculate lawn, or visibly distinct abdominal muscles, or an encyclopedic knowledge of chess openings. I want to paint my living room bright green.

The older I become, and the more objects of desire I either get or fail to get, the simpler the whole game of getting what I want seems. It turns out there’s a basic strategy that seems to apply in the pursuit of most desires, from hosting your first dinner party to starting a shoe store.

A few caveats before we get to that:

Firstly, there are things we want that are not possible to get, or, more often, not worthwhile. Practicing renunciation makes sense in this case. Completing a 600-mile series of desert ultramarathons might be a glorious achievement to reminisce about, but not glorious enough to justify the training time, cost, and horror of the actual experience.

Yet the desire can still be there, and renouncing it might make you happier than pursuing it (or even achieving it). Same for becoming a rock star, marrying a famous footballer, or driving across town to pick up a tub of Ben & Jerry’s at 9:25pm.

There can also be things you think you want (a law degree; a Walden-like shack in the woods) that you mistake for what you really want (your father’s approval; a less obnoxious boss), which may be vastly easier, or vastly more difficult, to acquire.

And a final caveat, which is quite important: getting what we want doesn’t actually satisfy us permanently. Everything you’ve ever wanted and then obtained, except maybe for the very latest thing, is probably not providing any great satisfaction at this moment. Both evolutionary psychology and Eastern philosophy testify directly to this point—we’ve evolved to persistently overestimate how happy getting what we want will make us, and how lasting that happiness will be.

But that’s not to say it never makes sense to pursue a desire. We just have to be discerning, and aware that there’s no dessert, sum of money, or seat upgrade out there that will cure us of our desirous nature.

How to Get What You Want

Even with those caveats in mind, that still leaves a lot desires and aspirations that:

  • are achievable
  • are worth achieving
  • can be pursued without becoming a bad person

Even some of the more taboo wants—more money, more influence, more sex, more time to do nothing, might be perfectly reasonable, achievable, and worthwhile.

So when it comes to pursuing the desires that pass the sensibility test, it seems to me that the same five steps work for pretty much anything:

1. Identify something you want

Not everything, just something. There’s no way to get everything you want. But in order to get something you want, you need to identify it first.

We often never quite get to that point. We just know we want something else. It’s like when you ask your partner what they want to get for dinner, and they say, “Uhhh… not Chinese”—it’s an understandable sentiment, but it’s not enough information to act on.

Many of our desires are born of some kind of dissatisfaction, and so they often stall at this “I don’t know what I want, but not this” stage. Get concrete. Do you want to be self-employed? Or do you just need some time off from your normally-tolerable day job? Do you truly want washboard abs, or just to see an energetic, healthy person in the mirror for once?

Just a little discernment here—a little bit of “what if” visualization—goes a long way. I won’t go into a “SMART goals” sermon, but some specificity is necessary if you want to actually want to go after something.

It is entirely possible that you don’t. But don’t forget to ask yourself.

2. Identify conflicting wants and sort them out

I want to be fit. I also want to never exercise.

I want to earn more money. I also want to stick to things I’m already good at.

Quite often a reasonable, achievable, and worthwhile desire goes unpursued because we have a simultaneous desire to not pursue it. When we say something is “impossible” or “too hard” or “not in the cards,” that’s a clue.

Which is actually better, do you think? Being fit or being sedentary, with all the costs of each accounted for? You’ve probably tried at least the second one—how many stars would you give it if you were reviewing it on Yelp?

Remember that coasting along with the status quo is a behavior that’s also born of desire, so count it as just another aspiration—the one you have been pursuing so far.

Here’s a shortcut: the conflicting want is usually a desire to avoid discomfort, which is always a risk with new things. So check for that. I’m convinced that nothing buys us more in life than the willingness to explore discomfort.

Quite often, looking back after making a change, I’ve found that there was far more discomfort in what I was already doing than in the new, “daunting” thing, which explains where the desire came from in the first place.

3. Learn how other people have already gotten the thing you want

It’s unlikely that you want something that has never been attained by anyone else, even if your goal is to run a marathon backwards or write a novel without the letter E in it.

It has never been easier to find out exactly how to achieve bizarre and difficult feats. It’s absurdly easy, in fact, and our pre-internet forefathers would be shocked at how flippantly we ignore this spectacular advantage. Just Google it—“How to afford a trip to Japan”; “How to start an online business”; “How to build a tree house like in Swiss Family Robinson.” Answers abound.

If you have to, get in contact with someone who has actually done the thing in question, even if it’s jut by email. This is also easier than ever.

4. Do what they did, if it seems sensible to you

Given what you learn from your research, make a plan.

Start with the most direct, straightforward method. Make that your starting point. Before you start getting antsy about the hard parts, imagine how you’d go about your task if you had no fears and unlimited tolerance for discomfort. [Here’s a great Steve Pavlina article on doing exactly that.]

Then notice how the escape-artist part of the mind jumps in, trying to modify this sensible, proven plan to make it somehow easy or painless. This is the conflicting desire to avoid discomfort and uncertainty.

If you catch yourself trying to plan your achievement in a way that completely avoids discomfort, then your real aspiration has won out, and you need to ask yourself whether you’re serious about your Himalayan trek or seven-figure business. The farther your plan deviates from established “best practices” (i.e. how the people who actually achieve your goal tend to do it), the more likely it is that you don’t actually intend to do it.

It’s possible (but unlikely) that the most straightforward plan isn’t appropriate for your particular situation, and needs modification. But be honest with yourself about whether that’s true, and expect to your mind to try to find a “free lunch” approach at least once during the planning process.

5. Adjust course as needed (but only as needed)

So you’ve got a plan, and you’re actually moving through the steps. Your covered bridges scrapbook or ancient-Greece-themed dinner party is actually coming together.

If you’re progressing at a decent trajectory, no problem.

If not, ask these questions, in this order:

  • Am I following the plan?  — If not, follow the plan. (This is most likely the problem.)
  • Is there some small part of the plan I need to do differently? — If so, do that.
  • Do I honestly need a different plan than this, knowing what I know now? — If so, find a plan that makes sense from where you are, and follow it.
  • Do I believe my goal is impossible, or not worthwhile? — Then quit and do something else.

Unsurprisingly, almost all snags and troubles have been experienced, and addressed, by others before you. Google them!

Your desires are important only to you

Surely there are people in your life who want you to be happy. At least I hope there are. But that doesn’t mean they want you to pursue happiness in the way you intend to.

Your parents might want nothing more than for you to be happy. But that’s technically their goal, and you can bet they have a different vision of how it’s best achieved. They may not see, for example, how backpacking in Asia for six months is a better life strategy for you than finding a stable job and getting married.

And maybe they’re right. But the point is that quite often, even the people who love you don’t want you to get what you want, because it conflicts with what they want.

(And don’t forget that it works the other way too.)

The Real Barrier to Getting What You Want

Everything is easier said than done of course, but that doesn’t mean getting what you want entails anything more complex than continually moving towards the wanted thing, the best you currently know how, adjusting course as needed.

Social and emotional factors it make it seem more complicated than that. Taboos about greed and self-indulgence makes us ambivalent, and worried about tall-poppy syndrome. Then there’s the problem of the people around us wanting different things for us.

But it’s our conflicting desire for predictability and comfort that is the real invisible fence. Here’s the big secret of getting what you want, as it seems to me:

All of us can do incredible things, but the more incredible the thing in question, the more we will simultaneously want to not do it, out of a craving for comfort and certainty.

We’re fearful creatures after all, with an evolutionary impulse to cling to virtually any tolerable status quo, no matter how dull or crappy it is.

But once we take that reality on board—that fear and uncertainty always come along for the ride in any worthwhile endeavor—it becomes simple. Not easy, but simple. You decide what you want and just do the next thing. And if you don’t know what the next thing is, the next thing is to figure out the next thing.

***

Photos by generous photographers on Unsplash
Accidental FIRE June 27, 2018 at 5:43 pm

Some people want to climb horrible, frozen mountains for some reason.

That would be me, and I take exception to you referring to frozen mountains as “horrible”. I prefer to think of them as “complex” :)

Great stuff here. It really boils down to being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Which is a circular loop because if you get comfortable with being uncomfortable, that means you’re comfortable again and you have to increase the level of uncomfortableness. And around and around.

I’m a better climber than I was 10 years ago because I continue to get VERY uncomfortable on those complex mountains and challenge myself.

David Cain June 27, 2018 at 5:58 pm

Hehe… I do understand the appeal on a basic level, I just get most of my mountaineering knowledge from books and documentaries where everything goes wrong.

One thing that’s great about exploring discomfort is that the comfort zone expands pretty much permanently. Like you say, yon find comfort (or at least non-discomfort) in places you couldn’t before, and then you have a new place to push further from.

Yanna June 28, 2018 at 1:42 am

Thank you for your comment because I also love mountains and know the sheer terror and beauty in climbing them. Equally, I used to love running and when I friend couldn’t understand why I’d bother it used to really annoy me. We all have different desires/goals demanding varying degrees of discomfort. I have been exploring this with my regular yoga practice which has opened up great levels of awareness which precisely help me shape my life the way I best possibly can. So your message David is very poignant and as always beautifully told. Thank you.

David Cain June 28, 2018 at 11:09 am

Yes, that was really my point with the “horrible mountains” dig … our desires vary wildly. I’m sure plenty of people have no idea why I want to spend hours and days sitting on a cushion, and I don’t know why people want to run ultramarathons, but it’s beautiful how strongly we’re drawn to such starkly different experiences.

Tracey June 27, 2018 at 10:08 pm

Bang on…as you often are. Brought two things to mind for me personally, the first is a quote I had inscribed in a painting 20 years ago and the other which has been my life mantra (subconsciously for the first 20 years and consciously to the present, “Sometimes risk is the price you pay to get to a place that can blast your spirit clean” and
“The search for Reality is the most dangerous of all undertakings, for it destroys the world in which you live.” now that can be uncomfortable ;)
~ Nisargadatta Maharaj

David Cain June 28, 2018 at 10:56 am

The odd thing about risk is that we think it’s avoidable if we just stay with the familiar and comfortable. Opportunity costs aside, we’re still experiencing all sorts of unseen risks anyway. But we’re deeply conditioned to hesitate before the unknown.

Abhijeet Kumar June 27, 2018 at 10:30 pm

Discernment is a huge thing with wants. As a real life experiment, I have found myself feeling angst oscillating between two sides — renunciation and indulgence (very subjective, as it applies to me). Usually this is for a good reason. It is as if universe wants to create a flow or a music through me. The oscillations become more flat with experience, so much that it feels less and less like renunciation and indulgence, and boundaries blur.

David Cain June 28, 2018 at 10:57 am

That’s the essence of buddhism right there — the middle way between all-out renunciation and all-out indulgence. That discernment takes awareness, because often we don’t even recognize the presence of wanting.

Alex June 28, 2018 at 2:58 am

I’m glad I get to comment relatively early, maybe you’ll notice this. You’ve been a huge part of my life getting much, much better ever since a couple of years ago when I started reading, and the combination of experimentation and “field philosophy” is something that makes me wonder how I even lived before.

However, I have one big, glaring weakness still, evident mostly in my education. When I find myself doing something for little to no reward, or “for” someone antipathetic, I crumble.

I can churn out quality like a madman if I love what I do. Plans, projects, workshops, whatever.

If I hate what I do or who I do it for, I crumble into a mushy pile at even the slightest bit of effort required. Even if it’s for the “almighty diploma at the end”, how little sense most of this makes gets me into fits of anger and hatred that cripple me from working. I do “want” what’s at the end, but I’m too messed up by it. I’ve traced it to my need for independence and fairness, my defiance, but what good is that when it cripples me?

How can I deal with this and how can I accept that I’m way less efficient than people I don’t respect the attitudes of, namely submissive, “head-down and just do the job” types?

Thank you, David :)

David Cain June 28, 2018 at 11:01 am

I know what you mean, and I have always had a similar problem. I highly recommend the book “Mindset” by Carol Dweck — she outlines the exact mechanism behind that particular mindset towards effort and reward, and gives you an alternative, wherein you recognize the reward (of personal growth) in the effort itself, regardless of extrinsic rewards or other people involved. I have found it really helpful.

Ameen June 28, 2018 at 4:14 am

The last paragraph you wrote describes how I have started to approach doing things in my life which is just doing the next task and just going from there. People get stuck because they try to figure out and plan everything they need to do before they feel like they can start the process of pursuing something. There is this widespread idea that you must set goals and take “massive action” if you want to achieve what you want in life which paralyses most people into not wanting to do anything at all.

The only thing that people need to ask themselves is what’s the one thing I should do next whether it’s making a call to inquire about something, signing up for a seminar, purchasing a tool or software, etc. Once they do that, they move on to the next thing they should do and so on. People would be surprised on much much momentum they gain and how far they can reach by just identifying what to do next and just doing that thing without thinking about the rest.

David Cain June 28, 2018 at 11:03 am

Historically I have suffered a lot from that impulse, to try to see all the steps the whole way. I still do, even though part of me knows that kind of foresight just isn’t possible. You only have to have a general plan and engage with the next step. I think part of it is trusting that your own intelligence and resourcefulness will be there when you need it. It is amazing how this need to foresee the whole process dissolves once you start taking real steps.

Vilx- June 28, 2018 at 6:30 am

Fair enough article. Good job. :)

Here’s one more question though – how do you decide just WHAT you want? If there are multiple candidates, and you realize that you cannot pursue them all, how to decide which ONE to put all your efforts into? Or maybe TWO? How do you know, that of ALL the things that you COULD be doing, THIS PARTICULAR ONE is the most worthwhile?

David Cain June 28, 2018 at 11:06 am

It’s a good question, and as far as I can tell, you never know. You never know for sure what’s the best thing to pursue, and even once you choose a particular path, you never know which was the best one. So we’re always in the dark in that sense. But a little thinking can rule out some obviously bad choices, and reveal a “likely” good choice. We can also be reasonably sure that avoiding hard choices and new experiences is probably going to create some of the worse outcomes.

Vilx- June 28, 2018 at 3:00 pm

“We can also be reasonably sure that avoiding hard choices and new experiences is probably going to create some of the worse outcomes.”

Hmm… Why?

Trisha Scott June 28, 2018 at 4:58 pm

It’s true that we never can tell, even in retrospect, which choices are or would have been, best to pursue. I tend to just dump into my current passion/obsession and pursue it 100% until I’m just done with that phase. There have been infinite paths that I could have taken but I took the ones I took and there is no going back. When I think of all the roads not taken I like to believe that somewhere in the multiverse there are multiple “me’s” that took the other paths, all of them, multiple “me’s” filling out all the experiences I missed by taking the particular paths I have taken. It makes me feel better :).

David July 16, 2018 at 2:12 pm

There is book I am reading now by Barbara Sher (Refuse to Choose!: Use All of Your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams) that perhaps addresses what you are concerned about. Based on that book you are perhaps a “Scanner” and there are some decent strategies, mindsets and tools that may help you. Best of luck!

Maureen June 28, 2018 at 11:29 am

Excellent. I’m
Currently reading the book, “Unf*ck Yourself” by Gary John Bishop – and did I hear about that from you? Anyway one of his main points is not avoiding doing what’s in front of you right now. I don’t recall him referring to it as trying to avoid discomfort, but it is he same thing. You blog is my fav. Thanks!

David Cain June 28, 2018 at 5:09 pm

Thanks Maureen. I have not heard of the book but will put it on my list. I would say that whenever we’re avoiding something it’s out of a sense of aversion or discomfort. In any case it does come down to a moment in which the sensible thing is in front of us, and there’s a choice to be made

John Khalil June 28, 2018 at 1:39 pm

You’ll get what you want and it won’t be enough.

David Cain June 28, 2018 at 5:07 pm

I agree, that was one of the caveats

Winsome Brown June 30, 2018 at 12:45 am

Hi David
I’m going to go back and re-read this great post but just want to say this in the meantime (having been sidetracked by the renunciation link):

I’m about to go to a 21st.
There will be chips.
I am not going to eat any!

I love your wisdom-filled writing ~ thank you

David Cain July 2, 2018 at 8:59 am

How did it go?

Winsome Brown July 2, 2018 at 5:36 pm

Success :)

avinash patil July 8, 2018 at 9:44 am

Hi David

Thanks for such a wonderful post. As you rightly said
“All of us can do incredible things, but the more incredible the thing in question, the more we will simultaneously want to not do it, out of a craving for comfort and certainty.”

For me , comfort and laziness are my biggest obstacle to do incredible things.
Any suggestion ?

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