I am always surprised by how hard it is for myself, and really for anyone, to answer what sounds like one of the simplest questions that we could be presented with: “What do you want?”
We go through life with desires, pursuing the things that will make us happy, wake us up in the morning, and fill our stomachs. But when we really think about what we want in life, it can be a real challenge to come up with an answer. In my own life this has been a paralyzing question and the careful interrogation of myself and my life desires can really make me shake and bring about anxiety. I’m guessing that many people feel the same way, so we don’t spend a lot of careful time thinking through what we want, and as a result we don’t actually know.
Sure we all know when we want coffee or a doughnut or when we want a new car to one-up the neighbors, but these are just auto-pilot desires that we don’t have to spend a lot of mental energy dealing with. If we did, we might find that we don’t really want all these things to begin with.
In coaching situations, Michael Bungay Stanier loves to use this question. In his book The Coaching Habit he calls this question the foundation question and describes it this way:
“‘What do you want?’ I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: slightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer.
We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question ‘But what do you really want?’ will typically stop people in their tracks”
At the beginning of the summer of 2018 I was struck by an idea from Robin Hanson, which he detailed in his book co-authored with Kevin Simler titled The Elephant in the Brain. Our conscious mind is something like a press secretary. It is handed a script to explain our actions in a way that looks good to the broader public and creates a virtuous narrative about why we do the things we do. I believe the reason we can’t answer the question about what we want is because it stumps our press secretary. What we really want is to be popular, do work that isn’t that hard but looks and sounds impressive, and we want to stand out to get positive social recognition which brings with it the possibility of dates, more money, and other perks. It is hard for our press secretary to spin that to come up with a virtuous reason for us to want these things.
If we spend more time thinking about what we really want and why, we can find reasonable goals and accept that part of why we want the things we want is because we are inherently self-interested. It is OK to desire the fanciest car on the block and it is OK to work hard for positive social recognition. What is not OK, however, is for our desire for these things to be hidden from ourselves and to push toward those things in a way that is ruinous for ourselves and others. By carefully interrogating our desires we can start to think about what we want and whether it is truly reasonable for us to desire these things. Rather than lying to ourselves and saying that we are really passionate about automobile performance, or that we really just like running and fitness, or that the extra space on the home addition is really just going to help our children, we should at least be honest with ourselves in why we want those things. Then, when we are asked the goldfish question, we can understand that we have some self-interests motivating our behavior, but we can also begin to select things that we want that won’t be self-defeating or leave us on a hedonistic treadmill. We can find desires that align with our values and find places where our desires are satisfying to who we want to be and align with well thought out values.