A while ago, I finally discovered how to know what you want.
Spoiler alert: it has to do with using the power of desire. As Napoleon Hill so powerfully described:
“Desire is the starting point of all achievement, not a hope, not a wish, but a keen pulsating desire which transcends everything.”
Now, for most of my life, I shied away from thinking about desire.
While I thought about what I really wanted from life (for instance, living my passion and purpose), I used rather sanitized and, let’s face it, boring words for it, such as “goals.”
I could make up a lot of reasons why the word “desire” never really resonated with me until recently:
- I’m German,
- I’m rather cerebral,
- I have a law background, etc.
Of course, upon closer inspection, none of these reasons are very convincing.
Case in point: in his work “Faust” — which is often considered to be the greatest play in German literature — Johannes Wolfgang Goethe expressed the following:
“from desire I rush to satisfaction; from satisfaction I leap to desire.”
Yep, those words were penned by Goethe — a German with a law background who could be rather cerebral.
So, let’s face it, I’ve run out of excuses to not to think about desire. And when I began to deeply consider desire, it opened up a whole different level of aliveness and joy to me.
What your desire is and how it can help you know what you want
Once I started thinking more about desire and how it can help you know what you want, I realized that it’s easy to misunderstand or misrepresent it.
Desire is often seen as sinful. As something to be avoided. Something seedy and dingy. (In fact, that association might be why so many people ask themselves what they want... instead of wondering what they desire.)
Even though desire is entirely different from lust. Lust is what makes porn a billion-dollar industry.
Desire is what took humans to the stars.
Astronauts walked on the moon because humanity had a collective dream, a want, a desire, to do so.
Sure, we could chalk it all down to Cold War achievement arms race between the United States and the U.S.S.R. — but at the heart of that was still the desire to win. To be first. To conquer the next frontier.
The achievement arms race helped NASA throw itself headfirst into the realization of that desire… and when they succeeded, the world watched with bated breath.
In the meantime, their colleagues from the Soviet space program reached other impressive milestones, such as sending the first man and the first woman into space.
Not only did desire take a few humans to the moon and into space, but it also brought a lot of us to life on earth.
After all, many of us are here because of the mutual desire of our parents. That’s how powerful a force it is.
At the same time, children who didn’t feel like their parents desired to have them often have a really hard time dealing with that. That’s how much we want to be desired and how heart-breaking it is when that desire is missing.
How to interpret the word “desire”
When I investigated further, I found out that the word desire apparently comes from "de sidere" ("from the stars").
Originally related to astrology, how you interpret this word nowadays may depend on your spiritual beliefs or non-beliefs.
Here’s how I would define desire:
Desire is the mysterious force that allows humans to create magnificent art, powerful space vessels, baby humans…or everything else under the sun.
In other words, your desire points you towards what you really want.
Lust creates porn.
Desire creates this:
Desire is the future beckoning us forward — individually as well as collectively.
Desire is what bridges the gap between where we are and where we want to be.
Desire is the fuel needed to get to where we want to get.
Or, as Rumi put it:
“What you seek is seeking you.”
With that being said, in the next section we’ll explore what is seeking expression through you.
How to finally know what you want by jumpstarting your desire in 5 not-so-simple steps
Because our desire-muscle has atrophied so much due to lack of use, we’ll have to jumpstart the whole thing (mixing metaphors here but you hopefully get what I mean by that).
Here are five not-so-simple steps to get started:
1. Stop downplaying desire
“Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.” ―William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
You, me, all of us can benefit from no longer downplaying our desires. Like domesticated animals, we’ve been trained to hide our real nature, the desires nearest and dearest to our heart, instead opting for a comfortable existence.
It’s why people who, deep down, want to live an artist’s life settle for a house with a white picket fence instead. (Not that there’s anything wrong with a white picket fence… I actually would love to have one!)
Is the death of dreams really surprising in a culture that often looks more favorably upon greed or gluttony (or really any of the cardinal sins) than upon desire?
We’re taught to maximize profit or our material possessions (no matter the costs), but we’re dissuaded from — metaphorically or sometimes literally — reaching for the stars.
In this value system, it’s perfectly okay to use marketing to sell people stuff they don’t need and that’s probably harmful to them (such as fast food) — but an artist who has the audacity to want to make a good living while beautifying the world is met with ridicule and scorn.
That’s how completely messed up things are.
But here’s the thing: truth is a powerful tool. And when it comes to jumpstarting our desire, we first need to be honest with ourselves and actually acknowledge it.
To stop telling ourselves we don’t desire what we desire. That honesty is how you get clear on what you really want.
To begin this process, sit with this question: “Where am I hiding my desires, even from myself?”
If it’s a true desire, the answer might hurt. But that’s entirely okay. You’re stronger than this pain. Your desire is stronger than this pain. And, the only way out is through.
I know how scary it can feel to acknowledge something that’s so important to you. With the things we most desire, there’s often an equally strong fear that we won’t be able to get it.
In that situation, it can seem easier to just pretend we don’t care that much.
But the heart wants what it wants… and a fight with our heart is one we can’t win, even if it might take us until our deathbed to realize that.
(But, hey, let’s not wait until then, alright? Let’s instead move on to the next step.)
2. Realize that you have the right to desire what you desire
One thing that often holds people back from acknowledging their desires is that it can feel so selfish to do that.
But here’s the bottom line: you, me, everyone, we have a right to desire what we desire.
How could it be selfish to simply acknowledge what is in your heart?
Saying that we have a right to desire what we desire is not the same as saying that we have a right to our desire.
Some desires are entirely impractical, completely unrealistic, or shouldn’t be pursued for other reasons, for instance, because they would cause serious harm to others.
But if that’s the case for your desire, don’t you think you deserve to at least acknowledge that desire to yourself… and then grieve that it won’t come to fruition?
Surely that would be a healthier approach than just pretending it never existed in the first place.
Have I convinced you that it’s okay to desire what you desire?
If so, begin by sitting with this question: “Where am I not allowing myself to acknowledge what I truly desire?”
3. Reflect on how desire has propelled you forward in life
Chances are that desire has played a bigger role in your life than you have acknowledged.
For instance, when I reflected on the impact it has had on my life, I noticed all these small inklings of things I deeply wanted and didn’t yet have.
One example of this is when I was a legal trainee and really desired a different type of cultural experience. I wasn’t clear on what that was and so I started looking.
This desire and my subsequent search led me to spend time working in a country that I had never been interested in before — Vietnam.
And I loved it! Even though I had never considered traveling to Vietnam before, it was exactly the right place for me to be at that point in my life. It gave me the cultural experience I had been looking for and turned into such a powerful time for me.
When I think back to it, my heart leaps.
That’s the power of desire — even desire for something that we can’t yet put into words.
To apply this in your own life, sit with the question:
“How has desire shaped my life and influenced my decisions? How has it propelled me forward?”
4. Claim your desire(s): how to know what you want by changing the question
Now that you’ve begun the complicated journey of no longer downplaying your desires, it’s time to claim what you really want right now.
To do that, allow yourself to really sit with the question:
This is not about merely wanting something. Want and desire are not the same thing.
In fact, they’re not even in the same ballpark.
Right now, I might want a tea. But what I desire is to live life to the fullest.
How about you? Forget figuring out what you what, what do you really, deeply desire?
If you desire to earn a livelihood from your art (even though you see no way of doing that and have you seen the state of the economy?!?), acknowledge that.
If you desire to quit your soul-sucking job and move to Panama (even though you have to pay your mortgage and well, it’s 2020 so none of us are going anywhere), acknowledge that.
If you desire to leave your spouse (even though you’ve been together for three decades) or find love (even though everyone tells you it’s too late), acknowledge that.
Congratulations, you’ve just claimed your desire! This brings us to the next and final step:
5. Embrace the uncertainty of your desire
As I mentioned before, there’s no guarantee that we’ll actually get what we desire.
And, while that can feel incredibly fragile and scary, if we take a step back, it’s also what makes desire so beautiful and powerful.
I thought British writer Mike Carey made an interesting point about the (apparent or real) unattainability of desire in this exchange:
“Yahweh: You’ve been unhappy because you’ve desired things that cannot be.
Lucifer: That’s what desire IS. The need for what we can’t have. The need for what’s readily available is called greed.”
Now, I would partially disagree with Lucifer in this exchange here: desire isn’t necessarily the need for what we can’t obtain. Depending on circumstances, it’s entirely possible that we will be able to have it.
However, what we desire is often not readily available to us and so we might have to undertake a herculean effort to get it.
That has certainly been the case for me when it comes to living my passion; it has taken me a lot longer than I thought to get to a place where I feel I have actualized my desire.
In a way, that sucked.
In another way, not having my desire readily available to me was wonderful because it forced me to grow so much.
Following our heart’s desire leads us on an epic quest and gets us started on our hero’s journey… regardless of whether we ever find the Holy Grail we’re looking for.
After all, as the legendary science fiction writer Ursula LeGuin put it:
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
How knowing what you want (and, more importantly, what you desire) will improve your life
By applying these steps and jumpstarting your desire, you increase your chances of living your best possible life.
Doing this might seem scary and daunting… and that’s because it is scary and daunting!
But it is also infinitely worth it.
In my own life, following my heart’s desire has radically changed pretty much everything — and made me much happier in the process.
If a cerebral, German lawyer (talking about myself here, not Goethe) can jumpstart her desire, so can you.
And I’m utterly excited to see where it will take you.
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