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What Do You Want?

best life planning strategy Apr 15, 2024

It seems like a simple question, but I venture to guess that you’re fumbling around in your mind right now, trying to figure out the answer.

Knowing what you truly want is a crucial trait of successful hustlers. You can’t build something new or do something independently if you can’t identify what it is and take concrete steps toward achieving it.

You can’t get what you want if you don’t know what it is.

OG hustler Napoleon Hill calls this Your Definite Chief Aim which is one of the centerpieces of his philosophy around manifesting your desires.

“Wishing will not bring riches. But desiring riches with a state of mind that becomes an obsession, then planning definite ways and means to acquire riches, and backing those plans with persistence which does not recognize failure, will bring riches.”
- Napoleon Hill

While Your Definite Chief Aim does not have to be about riches in the literal sense, it does need to resonate in your core as something you cannot live without­—something you can’t not do.   

Most people do not have this kind of single-minded focus, this obsession. That’s not because people are inherently lazy or unmotivated; it’s because societal mindsets around desire condition us. 

Macro and Micro

A natural answer to what we want are macro desires— things like health, wealth, security, and happiness. These are all valid but too nebulous to inspire direct action. Macro wants can also feel outside of our control, leading to apathy and accepting things that we have the power to change. They are too big to have actionable steps.    

Micro desires are on the other end of the spectrum—things like pizza, a nap, and a new TV. These are also legitimate but fleeting; achieving one will make you feel good for an hour, week, or month, but you’ll soon be right back where you started—hungry, tired, and wanting the latest model. They are fleeting and don’t lead to lasting happiness.

You’re Told to What Want

We can also get caught up in what we’re told we want by everyone else. It is much easier for society, social media, your parents, or your boss to tell you what you want instead of recognizing and defining it for yourself. This dependence leads to many people doing things they think they want only to spend a year, decade, or lifetime doing something that doesn’t bring them joy and fulfillment.

The easiest way to spot this is to ask yourself “why” until you can’t anymore.  

If you want the corner office, the seven-figure salary, or the MD—ask yourself why. If the answer isn’t fundamentally core to your own happiness and doesn’t feel integral to who you are, you don’t really want it; someone else does.

You’re Told Not to Want

Many of us feel outright shame when we focus on our deepest desires because we’re conditioned to think that this is selfish and that good people don’t want for themselves. The truth is that you can’t be the best version of yourself or make your unique contribution to the world if you’re not focusing on what you truly want. When you sacrifice your desires for the supposed benefit of someone else, you’re minimizing your happiness, which minimizes your unique contribution to the world. 

Breaking free from these thought patterns is the first step to finding out what you want. This will not happen overnight; it takes dedicated effort to narrow in on what you want and relentlessly pursue it.

While "New Thought" leaders like Hill offer helpful advice for pursuing a singular focus, they don’t provide a process for figuring out what you really want—they tell you to figure it out and then move towards it.

That’s easier said than done.

Many thought leaders, past and present, seem to think that knowing what you want is easy; getting there is the hard part. While I totally agree that execution is also a skill many people don’t have, I think that more emphasis needs to be put on understanding what you want. If you’re pursuing what you really want, execution becomes a lot easier.

There is lots of advice out there telling you how to set goals; most of that advice skips the most important step: deciding the outcome based on who you are and what you want your life to look like.

Typical goal-setting strategies and even the advice given by people like Hill assume you know what you want and then tell you how to get there. This shortcoming, combined with the mindsets outlined above, creates two types of people:

  1. People who go through life accepting what they’re given, not asking questions, and not pushing for more.

  2. People who relentlessly pursue “goals” that aren’t really what they want.

When I started working on my Definite Chief Aim, I was caught up in all the mindsets outlined above. I struggled to define what I wanted in terms that felt authentic, all-encompassing, and concrete enough to pursue.

That struggle taught me a few things about figuring out what you want.

Identifying Desire is a Skillset (Most of Us Don’t Have It)

Understanding our underlying desires and motivations is a skill that most people don’t have because of the limiting mindsets outlined above. Especially in the U.S., we’re caught in a paradox with the fantasy of “achieving the American Dream” on the one hand and the reality of top-down control and unequal power/opportunity on the other hand. We’re taught to “dream big,” but deep down, many of us know that so many things limit us. This paradox is why being able to see past fear and struggle is an essential precursor to understanding what you want.

Along these lines, it is important to recognize that Hill and others in the new thought movement of the early 1900s were a product of their time and context (as we all are) and, therefore, have some outdated (and frankly offensive) ideas about women and people of color. While it is easy for a group of white dudes to believe in the power of positive thinking to overcome all obstacles, there are also key lessons about understanding how our thought patterns shape outcomes that are useful today and can be harnessed to bring about tangible progress.  We can reclaim and repurpose ideas from the past and, without excusing their shortcomings, use them to further our own aims.

Sometimes, You Don’t Know What You Want Until It Happens 

When I quit my job, I didn’t think I would start my own business; I just knew something needed to change. Contract work allowed me to begin controlling my time, work, and life—that control helped me clarify what I wanted. Once that happened, I took on a role as COO of a start-up, and I thought that would do it for me—I was doing work I liked with people I liked, I had flexibility, control, and a lot more money. It checked all of my boxes. It wasn’t until a partnership agreement broke down that I realized I couldn’t work for someone else; I needed to have my own thing.

This brings me to the next point…

You Have to Follow the Macro or Micro Desires to The Heart of Your Goals

While macro and micro desires aren’t the same as a Definite Chief Aim, sometimes they are the only thing you can articulate, and you need to follow them, like breadcrumbs, to the heart of your goals.

If you had asked me what I wanted when I quit my job, I would have said, “work less and make more.” I moved toward those desires, which took me on a journey that showed me exactly what I wanted. That process is still evolving. Today, I have a better idea of my Definite Chief Aim, but I also keep my eyes open for opportunities and ideas that continue to clarify the heart of my goals.

And that brings us to the Gordian Knot.

The Gordian Knot comes from a story about Alexander the Great. He untied a complicated knot by pulling out the lynchpin that held it together instead of trying to undo single threads. 

We all have many ideas about how to live our best life, and there is always a through-line if we can find it—the thing that holds it all together, that everything else is in service of. Find the heart of your goals, your Definite Chief Aim, and you can not only identify the possible critical paths to get there, but you’ll also have a litmus test to decide what you focus on along the way.

“The starting point of all achievement is desire.”
- Napoleon Hill


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