Last Monday I did an experiment after getting back from vacation. I wanted to see if I could maintain the level of relaxation I’d established the previous two weeks while traveling when I returned to work and my more stressful To Dos.
I decided not to do anything unless I wanted to. I was going to let what I wanted to do, not what I thought I should do, organize my day.
The conversation in my head started off something like this:
“So, what do I want to do now?”
“Are you crazy? You need to answer emails, make your group coaching plans, catch up on bills, and call the dentist, the doctor, and your insurance provider just to start. You don’t have time to ask that question, let alone listen to the answer.”
“No, I know, it’s a lot, but this worked when I did it before. Let’s try it and see what happens. What sounds good to me to do now?”
“What you need to do is work. You won’t want to do any of it, but it’s important. We’re talking about your livelihood, your health and well-being, not to mention the well-being of your clients…should I go on?”
“Yes, I know. That’s all really important. I don’t think I’ll actually want to endanger any of that. It can’t hurt to ask, can it? I promise I’ll take care of what I need to. Can I please go on?”
[Internal groan and rolling of the eyes] “Okay, fine.”
So I asked again. And this time, with my Inner Critic willing to stay quiet for the moment, I heard an answer. I wanted to create plans for group coaching. It felt important, meaningful, and even enjoyable.
I focused on the task with freedom and ease. I also didn’t feel rushed; I was curious to see what I would get done rather than engaging in my usual habit of going over and over the list of tasks I expected myself to complete before the end of the day.
I thought it would probably take most of the day and part of the next to complete the plans. Instead, it took two hours. When I finished, I asked myself again what I wanted to do. This time my Inner Critic was quieter, having seen what happened the first time.
I heard that I wanted to go on a walk outside, so I did. Then I heard “return phone calls”. Then “catch up on emails”. Then I wanted to take a nap. I made my way through the day in this way and ended up getting everything done on my To Do list. I hadn’t thought that was likely when I started, or even really possible.
The best part, though, was that at the end of the day I still felt relaxed and energized, and that night I slept great.
I say all this because paying attention to what we want is incredibly powerful, but it’s also surprisingly rare. I think most of us have forgotten how to listen to our deepest desires, though we often don’t realize it. The result is that we lack a sense of joy, meaning, and satisfaction in our lives, and it becomes almost impossible to find our calling.
Craving ≠ Calling
I realize that it’s strange to say that we’ve lost touch with our desires in a culture that’s set up to create and then cater to an ever-increasing number of appetites. We all have a list of things, services, or experiences that we want: a new car, the latest iPhone, a thinner body, someone to clean our house, a meal at a hot new restaurant, etc. These are cravings, and they’re not the type of wanting I’m talking about.
Cravings, as I define them, are all about quick fixes. We may want deep nourishment and satisfaction, but we crave fat and sugar. Cravings are about what’s immediately available to us, what’s marketed to us, or what we see those around us do. They promise to satisfy us and make all our problems go away in one fell swoop, but the truth is, they rarely do. Cravings are more often a distortion of what we really want.
In my experience, our true desires are much bigger than what we crave. Often we aren’t even consciously aware of them.
I worked with a woman, for example, who wanted to make a career change but swore she had no idea what she wanted to do next. Then, after several months of talking about her passions, she casually mentioned to me, “Oh, didn’t I tell you? Yeah, for a long time I dreamt of being a photographer.” It’s like she herself had forgotten about this longing until that very moment.
I think maybe we dwell on all of our cravings and small aspirations in order to avoid the really big ones. We’re afraid of what we’d find if we let ourselves focus on what we really want. We might find that we want to do work that matters, seek out flexibility and autonomy, quit a job, start a business, write a novel, be a professional artist, get married, have kids, or do something else that’s equally terrifying.
What We Can Learn From the Cool Kids
I believe that letting ourselves want something is one of the scariest things we can do. – Meredith Walters (Click to Tweet!)
It makes us vulnerable. There’s a reason that the cool kids act like they don’t care about anything—they’ve already learned that longing, desiring, and hoping open you up to all kinds of potential danger.
There’s something raw, personal, and uncontrollable about desire. It reveals something important about who you are and what matters to you. For some of us, that alone is scary enough to keep our desires safely locked in a deep, dark place.
What’s more, when you want something, you might be disappointed. You might fail to find it, or worse, (the thinking goes) discover that you’re not worthy of it. These prospects can feel so painful that it can seem better to never desire anything at all.
Beyond taking risks, longing also asks you to be uncomfortable. The most important things we want are usually not immediately clear to us. We have to be uncertain and potentially confused for a long period of time before we know what we truly want or where to find it. We have to ask, keep asking, and try and often fail before it becomes clear.
It’s no wonder we avoid our deepest desires like a used handkerchief.
There’s a great cost to doing so, however. What makes our longings so hard to embrace is also what makes them so valuable. Our deepest desires are an integral part of who we are; they bring us home to our essential self, beyond our fears, our ego, or the person that we think we are or that others want us to be. Longings are stronger than steel, out of our control, and bigger than our tiny, willful plans. They force us to share our gifts with the world in ways we might be too terrified to try were the desire not so strong. Finally, wanting things inevitably leads to obstacles, disappointments, and failures that help us grow and learn the things that we’re here to learn.
It turns out that the cool kids aren’t usually the happy kids, at least until they learn how to embrace who they are and what they want.
Learning to Want Again
My own history with desire involves a lot of delayed reactions.
For example, I’ve always wanted to write. But after receiving negative feedback when I shared my first novel with the world at age twelve, I abandoned that desire for years. I decided that I didn’t want to write professionally because it would be too much pressure, and I convinced myself that writing wasn’t really as important to me as I’d thought it was.
None of this was true. After a spiritual, mental, and emotional breakdown in my mid-20s, I began to learn how to decipher what I truly wanted, and little by little, those desires pointed back to writing. It took more than twenty years for me to circle back around, but eventually, I found great joy as I started a blog, wrote some short stories, and eventually had the idea for another novel.
Now I’m waking up to new desires. Running my own coaching business takes up the vast majority of my time and, more importantly, my energy. I love it, but I’m also starting to recognize a desire to have more time for creative projects, and to explore possibilities for growing my family. These desires feel scary to me; they require me to make significant changes in how I work, and I’m still not sure what those will look like or how they’ll turn out. I’m afraid that I’ll fail, realize I’m not as capable as I thought, or regret any changes I make.
But I also know that being afraid or uncertain isn’t a good reason to stop listening to what I want. I have enough experience with fear to know that what I truly want often lies on the other side of it, so that fear, like desire, can become a kind of guiding light.
I don’t know what will happen, but I do know that if I want to find the big answers, I’ve got to listen to the little ones I already have. That means committing to doing what I want more, whether it’s to write a novel or take a nap, regardless of the fear that that brings up.
An Exercise to Reconnect with Your Deepest Desires
Following is an exercise that can help you remember what it is you truly want. It can also help you reconnect with more joy, energy, and satisfaction when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, exhausted, overwhelmed, or burnt out.
Start by setting aside a block of time to do only what you want, sometime between one hour and a full day. When the time comes, ask yourself:
What do I want to do right now? What sounds good to me?
Your mind will probably come up with all types of things that you should do. Let it know you’re doing an experiment and promise not to let it mess up your life too profoundly. Then ask again.
Pay attention to how you feel, emotionally and in your body, as different ideas arise. Which ideas bring up a sense of excitement, energy, or lightness within you?
When you land on an answer that feels good to you, do it, regardless of how silly, crazy, or unproductive it sounds. If it’s something you can’t do right now, make a concrete plan to do it later and ask for what else you want to do right now.
Most of us worry that if we only do what we want, we’ll become lazy couch potatoes, selfish brats, or mean bastards. In my experience, nobody truly wants to be any of those things. Those are the types of things that tend to happen when we listen to our cravings rather than our true desires. If you get an idea and you’re not sure if it’s a craving or a true desire, try it out and see how you feel. You’ll be able to tell the difference by how satisfying (or icky) it feels.
Once you finish an activity or no longer want to do it, ask what you want to do again. Do this as many times as necessary.
When the time period is over, take a moment to check in with how you feel, both emotionally and in your body. Is this better or worse than usual? Also take note of the things you wanted to do. Did any surprise you? Finally, check in on the results of your actions. Did things fall apart? Is there evidence that you harmed anybody else? Did anything good result? These are the outcomes of your experiment, and it can be helpful to write them down.
I recommend doing this exercise/experiment regularly, at least weekly to start. My current intention is to do it all day every day, though I’m not nearly there yet. It can be surprisingly hard to do, but like any skill or habit, it gets easier with practice. And as you uncover your little desires, the bigger ones are revealed.
It seems like such a small thing, to risk wanting what you want. But it isn’t. It has the power to transform you, your life, and your ability to contribute, not to mention the world.
So I’m curious: What do you want that’s scary to admit?
Please let me know in the comments below.
Meredith Walters is a recovering writer, facilitator, and career coach who wants to take naps more often than she’d like to admit. She loves to help people who aren’t sure what they’re meant to do in the world find their calling, forge their own path, and discover the hero within. Click here to get a free guide with 50 practical ideas, resources, and exercises to help you find your calling without losing your mind (or your shirt).
Image courtesy of lleana Skakun.