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How Do I Know What I Want?

Dave Ulrich /

What do you want?

This question is one of my favorite coaching questions for students selecting a major and making a career choice, for new employees trying to figure out how to wend their way through their organization, and for senior executives shaping organization direction. 

Knowing what we want defines our personal mission, values, and identity, which in turn determine our daily behaviors. Knowing what we want gives us a clear definition of success and an ability to be resilient in pursuit of that expectation. Without knowing what we want, others may define our wants and make decisions for us, often not in our personal best interest or in harmony with our values.

Knowing for sure what we want can be difficult because our options may be limited by our experience, our desires change over time, or we may aspire beyond our abilities. Renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.” 

How do we come to know what we want?

  1. Know ourselves. What we want comes from our interests, passions, and strengths. This self-awareness comes from asking ourselves questions like: What problems do I like to solve? What would I do if I were guaranteed to succeed? What excites and energizes me for the day? What am I good at doing? By knowing ourselves, we create a personal identity: one that we are known for by others, that signals how we interact with them, and that shapes our actions . We also need to recognize our limitations through an honest self-assessment so that our aspirations are within reach. I was mentoring a young man who shared that his aspiration was to be as rich as Bill Gates and to date Christina Aguilera. He was momentarily disenchanted by my candor that these hopes might be (more than a bit) beyond his reach. He needed to educate his desires. Personal awareness allows us to make realistic choices about what we want, leading to potential fulfillment instead of almost certain disappointment. 
  2. Observe others. We often learn what we want by observing others. Sometimes we admire people and we aspire to become more like them. At other times, we see dysfunctional behaviors and hope to avoid them. Our personal wants are often more evident as we compare, contrast, and learn from others. When an executive was struggling to get along with her new boss, I asked her which peers got along better with the boss and what they did to build this more congenial relationship. By observing others, she learned more what she should want and do relative to improving her relationship with her boss. Observing, learning, and adapting helps us clarify our personal wants. In my early career, I wanted to become a qualified executive teacher/facilitator. I had the rare privilege of observing and noting the teaching styles of incredible faculty colleagues at the University of Michigan who were ranked number one in executive programs (C. K. Prahalad, Tom Kinnear, Ray Reilly, and Dennis Severance). I clarified and informed my wants by observing and learning from them.
  3. Experiment and test small. Sometimes we learn what we want by experimenting with new behaviors. When we move outside our comfort zone, we sometimes better define our true interests. An executive wondered if he wanted to make a career change from HR to marketing. He learned more about this want by joining a marketing project team to discover if this work engaged him. Leaders experiment by taking classes, shadowing others, joining task forces, representing the company in public forums, attending conferences in adjacent expertise areas, and mentoring others. Experiments clarify meaning by finding out what works and what does not work, what engages and what does not. For students exploring a career, I encourage them to take courses from exceptional professors to find out if the material is of interest. For senior executives, I encourage them to explore future industry and business options to create personal agility. These experiments clarify and sometimes expand wants, leading us to know ourselves better as well. 
  4. Define personal success. Defining success clarifies what is wanted and what is wanted defines success. Success is an inherently personal preference that varies by person and over time. In defining success by knowing what we want, we recognize the many dimensions of success. Those dimensions include professional accomplishments but also being close and available to family and taking care of oneself. Sometimes a clearly measurable scorecard is seductive and easy (e.g., net worth as a criterion of success). But more useful is to have a perceived value scorecard that is built around relationships. A thoughtful executive was made partner at a prestigious consulting firm and resigned a week later, surprising his colleagues. A few years later, he shared that he decided that success for him was not just position, title, and compensation; but rather, it was maintaining relationships with his family, which the partner position jeopardized. As he recounted this story, he felt continual peace about his choices because he acted in harmony with what he wanted and he defined success in his way. Success and wants help inform the other: so defining them together will help us determine our true wants.
  5. Pay the price. Once we know what we want, we can then focus attention (time, energy, money) to accomplish those wants. If a student wants to do graduate work, she or he must pay the price of earning good grades to be admitted to the school of choice. If a new employee wants the autonomy of pursing individual projects, he or she has to earn that right and trust to do so by delivering high-quality outputs. If an executive wants to create industry leadership, he or she must learn to anticipate market opportunities. If we are not willing to invest in our wants, they are probably not really wants. When we’re willing to pay the price, we also are more humble and willing to learn from and overcome our mistakes in the pursuit of our wants. In teaching, I have experimented with class flow, key topics, cases, discussion questions, facilitation process, pacing, and jokes. I have often made mistakes (bad jokes), but because I want to be a better teacher, I learn from these false steps. We pay the price for things that matter most to us. If we are unwilling to pay the price, then we may need to reevaluate our wants.

What we want varies by context (setting, lifestage, relationship), but knowing what we want gives us an identity, a focus, an ability to continue to fulfill our potential, and a meaning and purpose along the path to that end. Discovering what we want is an ongoing process of self-awareness, observation of others, experimentation, defining success, and paying a price. 

So how do you discover what you want?

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My colleagues and I at The RBL Group help leaders bring out the best in themselves and their people in order to create a high performing culture. To learn about our Leadership & Talent Development programs and events worldwide, click here.