I Thought I Knew What I Wanted. I Was Wrong. This Is What I Learned

Fuck.

Waking up, I was happy and found myself eagerly thinking about the super interesting amazing blog that I would write later today.

I got out of bed and walked to the kitchen.

While making my morning coffee, I realized something.

I couldn’t spend any time on writing cool stuff today because I had a deadline for the PhD coming up that still required work.

Fuck.

As the grim reality kicked in, Mr. Happy rapidly exited my body to make space for enervating frustration.

As the days went by, the feeling worsened and getting out of bed became a strenuous undertaking.

‘Yippee, another day of scrutinizing tedious papers and producing inconsequential words ahead of me.’

Thinking about my PhD-research made me feel bored and I realized the topic didn’t interest me as much as I thought it did.

Clearly, something is wrong and I need to make some important changes.

But first, I must understand why I made this mistake and signed up to research something I don’t really care about in the first place.

Confusing what I should do with want I want to do

How could this happen to me?

Part of the explanation is that, having what psychologists call a high ‘need for cognition’, I sometimes struggle with distinguishing enthusiasm caused by pure intellectual curiosity from enthusiasm caused by a more substantial concern for a topic.

But the real reason goes a lot deeper than this.

Bear with me, it was not a lot of fun to write this.

Here it goes.

Before I got into a PhD-program, I thought all PhD-candidates were gods. When you want to reach something, you look up to those who have already accomplished it.

And we all want to be liked, especially by those we admire.

Some, like, maybe, me, more than others.

This desire is hardwired into us. Studies show that experiencing social rejection lights up the same areas in your brain as when you experience physical pain.

Rejection literally hurts.

There is probably an evolutionary explanation for why this is so: for a long time, humans lived in ways that meant that exclusion from your tribe equaled a death sentence. Those who went out of their way to avoid being disliked were, on average, more likely to survive.

Hence the pain: a strong motivator to avoid rejection.

We have highly sensitive antennas for receiving signals about what our fellow human beings think of us. At the same time, people are extremely skilled at letting others now, making them feel, what they approve and disapprove of.

To deal with this, we internalize the expectations of others to the point that it becomes very hard to distinguish the voices in our head that spring from fear of rejection from the voices in our head that are an expression of our more authentic self.

It’s hard to know what you really want when you cannot distinguish external reasons (such as complying with the expectations of others) for pursuing a goal from caring about something because you are internally motivated by it.

As a result, we often confuse the two.

I know I did.

Why did I want to do this super complex, abstract research? Because I wanted to or because I thought others expected me to?

I think I have my answer.

How to avoid this mistake

If you’re like me, you find it very important to do what you want, and at the same time find it hard to recognize internally caused motivation from externally caused motivation.

It was painful to realize that I am not (yet) as autonomous as I thought I was.

All this invites the question: how can I avoid such mistakes in the future?

There are two lessons here.

Lesson one: it’s important to be aware of what you catch yourself thinking about during these innocent moments — preparing coffee, under the shower or semi-hangover on a carefree Sunday. What you find yourself occupied with spontaneously might tell you a lot about who you truly are and about how you should play your game of life.

As writer David O. McKay proclaimed:

“I will know what you are if you tell me what you think about when you don’t have to think.”

Lesson two: while many people seem to think that these ‘deeper’ issues will turn out fine as life unfolds, they really don’t. This is a lie people tell themselves to avoid having to struggle with hard questions. It’s a defense mechanism — it’s sweeping your heart under the rug.

By contrast, life does not automatically align with your true desires. The opposite is true: if you don’t actively intervene and take control of the course of your ship, you’ll go where the wind takes you. Usually that means that you end up doing what others expect you to do. It’s not a coincidence that the number one regret of the dying is “not having the courage to live a life true to myself, [instead of] the life others expected of me”.

To avoid this mistake, it’s paramount that you literally reserve time in your schedule to think about why you are spending your live the way you are, because even if something is a high priority for you, if it isn’t scheduled on your calendar, it often doesn’t happen.

Ricardo Semler, for example, regularly plans terminal days:

“On Mondays and Thursdays, I only do what I would do if I had just learned that I have a terminal disease. This forces you to answer for yourself what you really want to do and what really moves you. I find that I’m not left with goals (something measurable to achieve), but with processes that I love and want to do again and again.”

If you would not spend some of your ‘terminal hours’ on something related to your everyday vocation, chances are you are committed to it for the wrong reasons.

Another thing you could do is take a walk every Sunday afternoon to think about why you are living like you do, as long as you force yourself to face the difficult stuff and take action as required.

You must be open to the possibility that you might not be living by your personal values; you must be open to the possibility that you must change direction.

It’s hard, but it sure beats dying knowing that you’ve lived your life on other people’s terms.