More on the Goldfish Question

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.

Asking Others What They Really Want

The Coaching Habit is Michael Bungay Stanier’s book about how to become a more effective coach and help the people you work with, manage, or coach to become the best version of themselves possible. His book is full of both theory and practical applications, looking at psychology and building on his own coaching experiences and experiments. One of the suggestions that Bungay Stanier includes in his book is to ask people what they really want and help them build an understanding of what is at the core of their motivations and desires.

 

Bungay Stanier presents what he calls “The Foundation Question” as a tool to help build the ground to understand the direction that people want to go and start a conversation about why people are focused in a specific direction. Getting to the heart of someone’s desires will reveal a lot and will help prepare a road map toward the goals that go along with those desires. In the book, he writes,

 

“What do you want? I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: sightly 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.”

 

It is hard for us to be self-aware and reflective enough to really know what we want, but it is even harder for us to be able to then take our desires and package them in a way that we can explain to other people. Beginning a process of thinking about what we really want and what drives us will shed light on how frequently we are motivated by selfish interests and meaningless definitions of success. Often our motivations are driven by someone else, outside ourselves, that we want to impress or whose standards we feel we need to live up to. Working through these complex emotions and desires with another person can be a way to help them get on a more stable and productive path. Bungay Stanier’s question can reveal a lot of fear and a lot of goals that sound great but have self-defeating motivations. The Foundation Question helps determine the starting point from which we can build better goals and align work and habits to achieve those goals.

The Expectations of Others

In his book Considerations Colin Wright addresses a topic that was very important for me to work through as I got through college. About halfway through my college career I began to really examine what I wanted to achieve from college and what I expected my life to be like. I faced quite a bit of anxiety and fear related to the questions of what I would achieve and what I needed to obtain in my life for me to consider myself successful.  Eventually I developed enough self-awareness to reflect on the things I assumed I would always have in my life and the things that I thought defined success. Through self-awareness  was able to recognize that many of the expectations I had for my life came from other people, particularly my parents, uncles, and shows like Top Gear. I knew that I had to live my life by moving toward things that I actually desired and considered successful, even if I felt as though it would not live up to the standards I had set in my head without consideration.  What I learned on my own is beautifully summed up by Colin Wright in just a sentence, “It’s not your responsibility to want the life that others want for you, and it’s not your responsibility to take on the responsibilities that don’t sync with how you want to live.”

 

What I eventually learned was that I could not let the expectations for my life that others had for me dictate how I lived. I would never be happy if I tried to always live my life in a way that was impressive to others. I would always be competing against my peers, family members, and society if  was trying to please someone else and live a life that they determined to be successful.  By deciding that I would not be tethered to their expectations, I no longer felt a responsibility to obtain a certain level of wealth or drive certain vehicles which would display that level of wealth and success wherever I went.

 

It is a difficult process to begin to understand that it is not our responsibility to live our lives in a way that makes others happy with us, or to achieve a certain expected level of success. It is our responsibility to focus on growth and being the best version of ourselves possible, as long as that version of ourselves truly aligns with our inner self. We must develop a sense of self awareness to understand what is and what is not in alignment with who we are at our core, so that we can live a life that is responsible to ourselves and not others.

Simplicity

In his letter to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Scott Russell Sanders comments on the things we desire. Sanders writes, “Love simply. By that I mean, think about what you actually need for a good life, not what friends or ads have taught you to want.” This is a very meaningful quote to me because it speaks of the importance of self awareness, and of getting away from the pressures to buy and have things.

 

As a recent college graduate I love reading quotes like this one or hearing people talk about the importance of realizing what goals and desires you actually have.  Television shows portray a certain lifestyle, and advertisements fill your mind with ideas of how you should live and what things you should buy to be happy.  If one can spend time to understand that having lots of things will not translate to happiness, then they can begin to live more free.  I am not suggesting that anyone should abandon all desires for material items, but rather that having a BMW does not need to be ones goal or benchmark for success (especially at a young age out of college).  As I read back through this post, I am currently reading a book called Insight Out by Tina Seelig. In her book Seelig talks about entrepreneurs and motivation.  In a similar sense to what was discussed by Sanders, Seelig encourages asking yourself and anyone who wants to create something, “What motivates you?” and “Who are you?”  These two questions force someone to understand what forces driving them, and what they expect and need for happiness.

 

What Sanders quote also hints at is our competition with and comparisons against our friends, co-workers, and those we went to school with.  Striving for a lofty job title, a big house, and fancy cars just to be able to impress other people is damaging to yourself, your relationships, and ultimately your future.  I think Seelig would agree with my interpretation of Sanders’ writing, and could reach the same conclusion.  Having motivations that are external and based on rewards and social praise will drive you towards goals that don’t align with what you actual desire or what will really make you happy.

 

The drive to achieve greatness should not be based on what you want your external projection to be.  Learning to step away from television to avoid projections of what success and happiness look like will allow a person to be more flexible in their decision making and to become more happy with the lifestyle they already live. In addition, Sanders would agree, learning to be confident in the person you are and letting go of comparisons against the people around you will help you develop real relationships with them rather than having a relationship based on impressing someone with material wealth.

The Life We Want

During her 50 state road trip, Vesterfelt reflected on the life she was living before the 6 month voyage, the life she had to give up, and the life she hoped for following the trip. As she continued along and had time to think about who she was becoming, and what she wanted from her life, she wrote, “what I really wanted all along, which was to live a life that meant something and lasted longer than me.” In this quote I think that Vesterfelt sums up a fear that I have dealt with since my first day of college.  I have never wanted to have a job where I felt stuck or as if my only contributions went towards making the company and myself more money.
I am not sure how to take Vesterfelt’s quote and actualize it into a majestic journey or new opportunities that will open the doors for me to also find a life that is rich in meaning and will make an impact that goes beyond the years that I have on this planet.  Vesterfelt overcame these troubles by giving herself permission to be the person she wanted to be, and to tell people who she was (even though in her mind she was not yet the person she wanted to be).  This parallel’s the advice in the last episode of the Mindful Creator podcast that I listened to. In episode 6 Brett Henley and his guest talked about allowing yourself to be the person you want to be without waiting for others to give you permission to be that thing.  I think that is a great first step to finding meaning in your life, but it needs more direction. The podcast continued to say that once you have given yourself permission to be who you want, you have to show up. To them showing up is the part where you put in the effort, and practice your craft to develop the skills you need to be the person who lives a life of meaning.
I find all of these ideas very inspirational, but the ideas alone do not help overcome the fear of acting or putting in hard work for something that may not provide the rewards you are searching for. I think that with this fear, one must buy in completely to the idea of practice and showing up, but only if one can be honest with themselves and recognize what they truly desire, and the reason/motivation behind their goals and desires.