How I worked out what I wanted (once I’d stopped fretting about it)

Posted on 7 min read
The river in Strasbourg

Strasbourg, France, March 2018.
On this day I treated myself to croissants and crepes… It’s important to try the local cuisine, right?

My favourite type of restaurant to frequent in Spain belongs on the edge of a small town. Outside on the road, or in an unmarked parking lot sits a collection of cars with the appearance of being unwashed, although the land here is so dry and the air swirls with so much dust that they could have conceivably been washed that morning.

Every time I approach such a restaurant I feel a little afraid. You can’t see too well inside, maybe older men sit outside, smoking, suggesting an all boys club, but on entering you discover the place to be loud with voices high and low. You take a seat, anywhere you want, and you’re offered the menu of the day: a selection of courses that will be brought out, one after another to be shared between you and your companions, all for a fixed (and very reasonable) price.

This is my favourite type of restaurant because it forgoes all that pesky decision making that comes from having to choose what it is you want.

Here I can just eat.

Sometimes though, life ain’t quite so easy.

“So—do you know what you want?”

This is the question my mother emailed me with after reading my previous blog posts (lessons from the mother), and by the question, she didn’t mean just for dinner, she meant in life. I stared at her email for a moment, considered my lists, my plans and the feeling that floods my heart when I’m doing something that I consider to be important and then my fingertips hit the keys in determined strokes. I wrote back, “Yes, I think I do.”

I thought, for my mother, as well as any other reader, I’d elaborate. I’m going to briefly elude to three stages of how I got here.

This isn’t guide to how to work out what it is that you want, I wouldn’t want to suggest that such a process would be the same for you, this is just a story of how things were for me. But, what with you being human too, chances are you’re going to relate to some part of my journey.

The stages so far:

Stage 1: Recognising I didn’t have a clue
Stage 2: Accepting my long term goals were my long term goals
Stage 3: Writing down the next step

Stage 1: Recognising I didn’t have a clue

Towards the end of my degree I proactively made an appointment to see the career counsellor. I was a few months off finishing my degree and hadn’t worked out what I was going to do after graduation. I had, in one moment, contemplated teaching, but after volunteering in a primary school for a while I came to the solid conclusion that teaching would be a long slog of me against the system.

This chap who was supposed to advise me was probably a great source of information for physicists looking to move into a hedge fund or academic department, but he didn’t excel with hysterical me. It was hardly his fault.

Wisely, in hindsight, he suggested speaking to a medical professional

Although he didn’t express himself very well. Of course I did not feel that not knowing what job to apply for constituted a mental health problem. I figured it was a very common challenge facing many graduates and that it would, in time, resolve itself.

It didn’t.

In fact I didn’t understand that not knowing what I wanted was a real problem until a number of years later when my psychotherapist pointed it out to me. Graciously she guided me into the understanding that my incredible, analytical, rational brain (the one that was at home in the world of quantum mechanics) was a bully, and that my emotional needs were being squished, surfacing only in inelegant spurts of anti-social behaviour.

I needed these two parts of my brain to cooperate

The compromise however would have to be from the rational side of me. The side of me that understands my bank balance, writes my CV and earnt a degree. I really despised this idea, but eventually, after much fighting with myself, recognised that my emotions are impossible to reason with.

Now I had surrendered some of my stubbornness it was time to move onto the second stage.

Stage 2: Accepting my long term goals

It surprised me to discover that what I want is nothing new. The things that make me the happiest are pretty much the same things that made me the happiest when I was at school.

The desire for travelling has amplified rather, and become more nuanced. Painting and drawing have been pretty consistent activities throughout my life. And I whilst my standards have risen, my writing has been prolific since I was a teenager. I might have started my diaries when I was in my twenties, but the Christmas holidays of my sixteenth birthday I churned out 20,000 words. A year later I’d created most of a novel.

My problem however was that it all felt pretty much like playing

I’d written that novel after stopping studying English at school at the grand old age of sixteen, and although I did art at AS-level it became a horrific endurance battle as the department entered civil war.

So whilst other people around me studied to be artists or writers, I played at both and loved both hobbies equally. Meanwhile I was pretty obnoxiously certain that I was going to become successful, well-off and influential because of my incredible analytical mind.

Thankfully, after a few false starts, I ended up amongst the psychotherapists cushions. She helped me think through some very important questions. What will being well-off give you? Successful in whose eyes? Influencing people to what goal?

At which point it hit home

I want to be immersed in the things which require a soft ego, gentle humility and that are driven by listening to the world, not shouting at it. I want to paint, I want to write, and I want to learn by opening myself to all the incredible people around me.

Here steps in the Crabbe and Goyle of my brain

Crabbe says yes, but you are going to have to get a proper job one day, and Goyle says, but don’t you want to be successful like your house-buying, PhD winning, money making peers.

At first I fought them.

Then I realised that they, like most bullies out there, need a bit of compassion. I was rejecting them and therefore they were going through a bit of a rough patch. This time it was my emotions that needed to get to work. It was time to show some compassion, to myself.

I needed to commit myself to doing what I love.

Stage 3: Writing down the next step

So, these fluffy goals of creating art, writing something and seeing the world aren’t exactly your business SMART goals. And I’m sure intelligent goals are very useful for some people, but what I need is a direction. At this stage, it doesn’t bother me that I haven’t got a clue where I’ll be in five-years time. I don’t currently know which continent I’ll be living in six months from now. I’ve kind of made a nest of uncertainty, and whilst it’s not necessarily plastic wrapped perfect, it’s tactile and stable.

I know that in five-years time what I will be doing is creating art, writing stories and conversing with strangers. Therefore, all I’m focusing on right now is getting really good at those three things. I plan on spending the rest of my life continuing to get really good at these same three things.

So all I need to know today is what small step I’m making

Each week, or every couple of days I review my goals, write down the next small step I need to take, and then I focus on doing just that. It’s simple.

In the future I assume I will need to put more emphasis on being more financially stable but I’m practicing my humility. I’m not in the place to do that right now. I’m practicing my generosity, I believe I’ll get there eventually. I’m practicing my self-kindness, I’ve just picked myself up off the ground after a rather nasty fall.

I need to get a stable footing before I try to cartwheel

And so today I wrote this article, and I painted a picture of a photo I took a few weeks back whilst visiting Granada and I practiced my Spanish.

So, yes mother, I know my life goals. And I’m achieving them every single day.

In summary:

  • For me, it’s easy to be so analytical that I forget to follow my gut feeling.
  • My gut feeling, what I like and don’t like, is actually surprisingly consistent. Therefore I pay attention to this and set goals that reflect what I actually enjoy doing.
  • Getting the next step written down helps me keep my mind focused on today, whilst moving along the path of creativity I’ve actively chosen for myself.

It doesn’t mean I know what I want to eat when I’m presented with a menu

So if I’m feeling overwhelmed, I ask the waiting staff for a recommendation.

Spain is a wonderful place for trying new food. You can pick at the food, share it, swap it, taste only a tiny amount of it and this is all considered to be polite. It’s how you’re meant to eat.

Life ain’t so different.

Do you know what you want?

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