4 Steps to Getting What You Want
Really? Just 4 steps? Well, yes, but each one is a doozy. To be more precise, it probably should be said that there are 4 “floors” to getting what we want, with many steps between each one, including steps for getting to the 1st floor. It is simpler, easier and I think more useful to get our heads around the idea of 4 steps. Who is going to want to read something about the 597 steps to getting what we want? Yeah, right. So, here they are, the 4 steps:
- Know what you want.
- Believe that it is possible.
- Do what is necessary to make it happen.
- Accept it when it comes.
Know what you want…
What do you want? This is one of the first and most important questions that I ask people as a psychotherapist in an initial meeting. First, what do they want to be different because of having come for therapy? Often people come to therapy because they are suffering in some way or other and they want that to end. They want bad things to go away. Well, of course they do. Bad stuff hurts. Some of the early steps towards knowing what we want is to realise that this is different to knowing what we don’t want. Over many years of practice, it has increasingly become apparent to me that those people who make real “progress” are those who figured out this difference and clarified what they truly wanted. In fact, I keep asking this question even when I have been working with someone for years. What do you want?
So, knowing what we want is not the same as knowing what we don’t want. It is also not the same as knowing what other people think we should want. We all have parents and maybe grandparents with opinions about this. Maybe the ideas about what we should want has been drummed into our heads since the earliest parts of our lives. Maybe we see what our friends are doing and think that’s what we should want. Knowing that you don’t want to be seen as weird is not the same as knowing what you do want. If we don’t just accept the opinions and expectations of our parents, extended family, friends and the culture at large, how then do we come to know what we, in our deepest solitary heart, really want? Anyone who has genuinely asked this question knows that it is not easy to answer through all of the noise.
As I try to answer it here, I think of what I wrote about “savouring the moment” (see that blog post). To know what we truly want we have to pay attention to our responses to whatever we encounter in our daily lives. Some things capture our interest and bring a sense of joy when we engage with them. We may forget ourselves, lose track of time and wish to linger. We have to notice what does this for us, what sparks our curiosity and brings us the feeling that there really is no other place we would rather be and nothing else we would rather be doing than the thing right here in front of us. It is sad to me whenever a person tells me that they can’t think of anything like that in their lives. How can this be? The world is a continuous display of miraculous events and it requires nothing more than noticing this. Nothing has to be cranked up or fabricated. Just pay attention and if you approach the world with open curiosity it WILL come to you and get you. Without this, I’m afraid there really is no hope for ever discovering what we truly want.
Believe that it is possible…
Let’s start this part by clearing something up. Not everything IS possible. Sorry to have to tell you this, but it’s true. Far more than we can imagine is, indeed, possible, but not everything. If we have gotten as far as knowing what we want, we may have to ask ourselves this question. Is it really possible? For instance, as a man over 60 years old, it would be unfortunate if I decided that what I really want is to be a quarterback in the NFL, or a brain surgeon, or a Nobel Prize winning physicist. Not going to happen. So, the first thing is to be realistic.
I can tell you that I rarely if ever encounter a client who wants something that simply can’t be. What is totally common are people who don’t believe what they want is possible, when it is. A story that I have told many times comes from one of my own creative heroes, Bob Dylan. Apparently somewhere in the 60’s, after his meteoric rise to fame, in an interview a journalist said this to him (paraphrased): “Bob, I bet you never imagined when you were just starting out that you would be performing to filled stadiums of 10,000 people.” (Imagine Dylan’s voice for this part.) “Well, in fact, I used to imagine it all the time.” So, there you go. Dylan had this part down solid. He believed that what he wanted was possible and apparently didn’t just believe it, he visualized it. That’s what this step is about. Once we have put an image of what we want in our imaginations, we can conjure it and let ourselves have the feeling of what it will be like when it actually manifests. Instead, too often we imagine all of the things that may or will go wrong and let ourselves have the feeling of failure. Once we have done this to ourselves and deflated any sense of motivation or inspiration, we find we procrastinate and then we tell ourselves that we are “lazy” or “not good enough” or some other awful flavour of self-loathing. We have to stop doing this and believe that what we want IS possible.
Do what is necessary to make it happen…
Okay, at this step there is another thing that I want to clear up. While not everything is possible, of the things that are possible, we can’t magic them into existence simply by believing in and visualizing them. I wouldn’t have to clear this up if there weren’t a fair number of people selling that idea to people who wish it was true. No. We’re going to have to do something. We’re going to have to exert ourselves and make an effort. We’re going to have to be disciplined.
Did you know that the Sanskrit word for discipline is Sila? From a Buddhist perspective there is something very interesting about how this word, which is best translated as discipline, is defined. Along with the obvious meaning of focusing our attention on some kind of work that needs to be done, it carries the connotation of “joy”. This is very different to the Western connotation of “punishment”. When we think of disciplining someone, we probably don’t imagine it will bring them any joy, unless they are masochistic. So how can this be?
I believe that if we are truly convinced about the value of what we are pursuing, if we really want it, then the work we put into bringing it about generates a kind of joy or pleasure. Even before we succeed in getting what we want, we can feel a deep satisfaction in the experience of working toward it. Yes, there will be setbacks and frustrations along the way, but the general path is one of joy. If this is absent from our experience of discipline, then maybe we need to go back and sort out why we’re pursuing something in the first place. Or, if we are beset by doubt and fear, each disciplined step we take can feel like a profound risk, as if we are tip-toeing through a mine field. Not much joy in that.
Depending on what we want, the kinds of things that will be required, the disciplines and practices, will vary. I won’t elaborate much on this here, but I will say that it will probably entail gaining knowledge and skills of some kind or another. It may involve navigating a landscape of social relations. We may need more formal or informal education and/or skills training. We will have to acquire all of this through diligent, perseverant, practice. Just figuring out what exactly we have to do is a challenge in itself even before we actually engage in the thing we need to do.
There is something else that I think is important to say and I haven’t been sure where to put it. Maybe right here will do, although it applies at all four steps. This blog is about getting what we want. Delving into this inevitably bumps into another question that we will need to ask ourselves and formulate an answer to. Who do I want to be? Indeed, who will I need to be to have what I want? This is where things can fall apart for a lot of people. Will we need to embody certain values and beliefs? Will we have to see and think about ourselves differently? Will we have to have a different set of beliefs about the world and how it works? Despite being clear about what we want and having a plan for making it happen, we can run into the obstacles created by a limited and habitual way of seeing ourselves. For instance: I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not disciplined enough, the world is against me, nothing ever works out for me, I don’t deserve things, something bad always happens to wreck my plans and so on. If we are not able to also become who we want and need to be, we make it very difficult to get what we want (the big things anyway).
Accept it when it comes…
It may seem to some that it is unnecessary to include this step. Well, of course, you may think, if I want something and I have worked hard to make it happen I bloody well will accept it when it comes. Experience and observation, however, tells me differently. As much as we may want whatever it is, there are some things that simultaneously terrify us. Why would that be so?
If you simply want a piano, it may be nothing but a joy when you finally get it. Maybe, but let’s use this as a metaphor. Say you spent a couple grand on a piano. Now what? You had better play the damn thing. That may involve hiring a teacher. More expense and someone who is now going to mind your business every week. You had better establish a routine practice. Half an hour a day minimum. Are you ready to do that? Every day? And once you get started you will discover something you might not have fully realized in your excitement to get a piano. It’s hard. It’s frustrating. Maybe you have a partner who was initially skeptical about such a big expense and now wants to hear you play. Are you ready for that? Can you/will you persevere and follow through on what it means and what it entails to “have a piano”?
Perhaps you can substitute any number of other things in place of a piano and imagine a similar set of challenges and questions that you would confront if you actually got what you wanted. Now, maybe it’s not so hard to understand why anyone would hesitate to accept the thing they’ve been working so hard to get. Depending on what it is, it could force you to change your life, to live differently, to be a new kind of person. It may raise the bar for all kinds of things and press you to strive for excellence where you had allowed yourself to simply be comfortable before. It might raise other people’s expectations. And once we get something, we stand the chance of losing it for failure to maintain it. For the big things we want in our lives, we have to embrace the burdens and risks that come along with them. Wanting a piano may be one thing. What about wanting a spouse? What about wanting to move our career in the direction of more pay and more responsibility? A piano is nothing compared to these things.
However, if we are willing to accept the thing that we know we truly want and have worked so hard to get, I believe we will be transformed. We won’t just be the static recipient of the thing, as if it were dropped into a bowl in our outstretched hands. It will be more like a catalyst that changes us, that stimulates more of our potential to emerge. This will be so much more satisfying than the comfort and security we could have by not knowing or pursuing our dreams.
There is plenty more that could be said about all of this, but I will let this be enough for now. May you discover what your truly want, may you have faith that it is possible, may you have the courage and discipline to bring it about and may you accept it when it comes.