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How To Know What You Really Want In Life

 Photo credit: Matthew Henry

Photo credit: Matthew Henry

Your greatest source of self-motivation comes from realizing that true, lasting satisfaction is actually impossible. Here’s why

I’m an independent writer, entrepreneur, and consultant. My wife is a nurse. Together, we are 28-years-old and financially free — debt-free and blessed enough to have good savings.

My wife works three days a week at the hospital. She works 12-hour shifts from 7:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

I work at home while she works. So three times a week after I drop her off (we have one vehicle), I return home and find myself sitting in a chair with 12.5 hours of unconstrained, open free time ahead of me.

 Photo Credit: Jonathan Percy

Photo Credit: Jonathan Percy

I have no boss. No commute. No teammates. And no long meetings. Pants are optional.

It’s 100 percent free time. 

The problem is I have a lot of alone time with my thoughts.

When you have a lot of alone time with your thoughts, you start to question things.

The questions start small. For example, today I started with: “How much water should I pour into the coffee maker?” I eyeball it.

But then the questions begin to grow into bigger ones, such as, “What shall I work on today?” or “How can I make today count?” Over 12 hours is a solid chunk of time. I should be responsible with it.

Soon, the questions descend into the mud of existential angst. Who am I, what is my purpose, God, are you listening, etc. — these types of questions, you know, the ones all the books and movies are about. They really matter. They’re tough to answer.

At the bowels of this ponderance, usually around the time when the second cup of coffee kicks in, a mental U-turn begins to emerge. 

Like a bucket of cold water, the impractical nature of these existential questions hits me in the face. 

Smack. 

I can choose to continue with these questions and pitter-patter around like an infirm person, or I can move on to something more productive.

At this point, I’ve paid my daily dues to Curmudgeon the Philosopher in me, so I power through the U-turn with greater confidence—no, I don’t know the answers to these questions, they’ve baffled many people much smart than I for centuries. Most days, I convince myself these answers don’t even exist. This leads me to a moment of ironic liberation — hoorah, it’s all meaningless! It doesn’t make a difference. Nothing matters. Cheers!

When the board is clear of what should be done, when the day is fully yours — when you are financially and emotionally free from the demands of others and the deep questions are abandoned and unanswered — you are then left with the final question.

What do you really want?

No, seriously.

Not what do you want today, not what do you want to eat for lunch, not what you think you should do with your life.

What do you — in the deepest core of who you are — really want?

Answering this question is for spoiled, privileged, self-aware people who have the luxury of selecting their future. Not everyone can do that.

But, eventually, you hit a wall with this question, too.

It’s not an easy question to answer. 

What you think you want, once you have it, you will probably want something else. 

You know this.

A million dollars. A relationship. A new house. A sculpted look. A blue checkmark next to your Twitter handle. Name your thing. Once you have it, you enjoy it, and then move on to wanting something else. It seems that what we want often changes. Either the thing changes, you change, or people change. 

So asking, “What you do you really want?” is a short-sighted question. Even if you can think of something, it’s an exercise in futility, because it always changes.

Hold on. Time out.


Let’s review.

We’ve talked about having complete freedom.

We’ve talked about having the ability to select your future.

We’ve benched Curmudgeon the Philosopher and his answerless existential questions.

We’ve asked the simpler question: What do you really want in life?”

We’ve decided this question is too hard to answer because nothing can fully satisfy us forever. 

Where do we go from here?

Let’s keep going.

NOTE: This next half of the article is going to be different. Pretend you are reading a novel. View it as fiction, but take it as an allegory.


A conversation between Curmudgeon the Philosopher, Stubborn the Theologian, and Practical the Professional

At this point in the morning, just when I think I’m about to do something practical and helpful, and when I have managed to silence Curmudgeon the Philosopher, Stubborn the Theologian plops down next to me.

“This world does not satisfy,” he says.

“I’m beginning to see that,” I say.

“Everything you see will never satisfy you,” he says.

“I haven’t tasted the emptiness of many of these things, such as wealth and fame,” I say. “But I hear about successful people being disappointed with these things all the time, so I’ll take your word for it.”

“You’re right to think so,” he says, “Do you remember this — ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a fount of water springing up to eternal life.’ — You remember that, right?”

“Yes,” I say. “Jesus Christ said that.”

“That’s right.”

“Then why am I thirsty right now? I’m a believer. I’m a Christian. Why am I still thirsty?”

“What are you thirsting for?”

I sit back in my chair and think. I don’t know what I really want. It’s like there’s a black hole inside me. It goes away with worship, exercise, sleep, parties, sex, smoking, drinking — but it always comes back the next day. What am I thirsting for?

“I know it’s a tough question,” says Stubborn the Theologian. “You’ll sit there all day trying to answer it.”

“Is that what I’m supposed to do?” I ask. “Just sit around trying to figure out what satisfies me?”

“No,” he responds. “Have you heard of grace?”

“Grace?” 

“Yes,” he says. “Grace gives you freedom.”

“I already have too much freedom,” I say.

“Not that kind of freedom,” he says. “The freedom you have is temporal. I’m talking about existential freedom.”

“Okay,” I say, my thoughts spinning. “What’s existential freedom?”

“It’s the awareness that nothing can ever satisfy you — that true, lasting satisfaction does not exist. You are free from everything, because everything doesn’t matter.”

My eyes roll. 

“First of all, that makes no sense. Second, why would I even want that?”

“Because it’s the ultimate source of self-motivation.”

I stare blankly at him. That didn’t make any sense, either.

“Explain,” I demand.

Stubborn the Theologian nods and inhales through his nose.

Suddenly, Curmudgeon the Philosopher leaps into the seat across from Stubborn the Theologian, cutting him off. Now the three of us are sitting around the table.

“See, I told you so,” sneers Curmudgeon the Philosopher pointing a finger in Stubborn the Theologian’s face. “He doesn’t help either.”

“He was just about to explain it,” I say.

“Oh, so you’re going to listen to him and not to me?”

“I’ve tried listening to you but you just dance around in circles and get nowhere.”

“And he’s different?” Curmudgeon jams another finger in Stubborn’s face.

“Sounds like you need a third-party,” a deep, clear voice speaks.

Practical the Professional straightens his tie, clears his throat, and takes a seat.

“Had enough talk?” He asks but it sounds more like a statement. “Ready to get to work?”

“One minute,” I say.

“They’ll be back tomorrow, don’t worry,” he says motioning to the other two. “For now, all there is to do is work.”

“Hold on,” I say. “I want to hear what Stubborn the Theologian has to say. He’s claiming to know where self-motivation comes from, while also claiming that it’s futile to know what you really want in life.”

“He’s just going to preach at you,” says Curmudgeon. 

Practical the Professional looks at his watch. The four of us are sitting at the table.

“You have three minutes,” he says. “Make it quick.”

“I’ll do it in two,” Stubborn says.

“Hopefully one,” says Curmudgeon.

“Go,” I say.

He begins.

“I’m going to prove to you that your greatest source of self-motivation comes from the fact that nothing in the world can provide true, lasting satisfaction.”

“If nothing in the world can provide true, lasting satisfaction, then we must look outside the natural world. Outside this world that we see with our eyes, you can find faith.”

He grins.

“This is why they call me the Theologian.”

He continues.

“Faith opens the door to things that we really want, things that provide true, lasting satisfaction — things like purpose, meaning, true love, perfect justice, objective truth, origin, objective morality, and eternity.”

“You have two minutes,” says Practical the Professional.

“Okay, so if you have faith and recognize what it provides, then you can also see the emptiness of this life. It’s futile to find out what you really want in this temporal life, because there is nothing that can truly satisfy.” 

“So if you’re saying that true, lasting satisfaction is unattainable,” I ask, “then what are we supposed to do?”

Practical the Professional looks up from his watch. Curmudgeon breathes through his mouth.

Stubborn turns to me.

“That’s the problem you mentioned before, right? You said you still thirst even though you have faith. You said you still don’t know what you really want, even though you technically have the answer which is faith.”

“Right,” I say.

“I mentioned this concept of grace before, remember?”

“Yes.”

“The grace made possible through Jesus the Christ eliminates the nag of the black hole inside you. Grace covers it up. Grace makes it non-urgent, it’s no longer a problem that needs to be solved. Grace makes it okay to not need to fill it. Without grace, you will endlessly seek to fill it and you will endlessly be disappointed. People with faith and people without faith can both be aware of this unquenchable thirst. The only difference is that people with faith can rest in spite of the thirst.”

“One minute remaining,” says Practical the Professional.

“When you say rest,” I ask, “Do you mean laying around on the couch and sleeping and stuff?”

“Not at all,” Stubborn the Theologian says, “I haven’t gotten to how this is the greatest source of self-motivation yet. So here it is.”

“If the bottomless pit, the black hole, the unquenchable thirst — whatever you want to call the thing we really want but can’t figure out — is nullified through grace and solved through faith and made possible through Jesus the Christ and we are able to live resting amid thirsting, then we are free to be wild.”

At this word, his eyes light up.

“Yes, wild,” he continues. “Wild to pursue any goal; the world is our oyster, the sky’s the limit, and nothing is impossible. You are free to do anything beneficial and go after it with the utmost vigor, discipline, and passion.”

“Here’s why: If we are free to be wild, then we don’t have to be afraid. When we are afraid, we are not motivated. We don’t take action when we are afraid because fear cripples self-motivation. We’re simply too afraid to act.”

“But,” he says, “if faith provides grace, and grace sets us free from our thirst, yielding to rest, this existential freedom disarms our most paralyzing fears, and our fearlessness combined with our persistent thirst is our greatest source of self-motivation because nothing can stop a person with this level of confidence.”

Time,” says Practical.

Stubborn the Theologian relaxes his face. “How was that?”

“Confusing,” I say.

“Child’s play,” smirks Curmudgeon the Philosopher.

“Useless,” says Practical the Professional.

“I just have one question,” I say. “So what do I really want?”

Stubborn the Theologian bursts out laughing. “Sounds like we didn’t make much progress.”

I look at the clock. It’s 8:30 a.m.

“Well, I have the rest of the day ahead of me and I’m wondering what I should then do. If what you just said is true, what am I supposed to do? You just said nothing really matters, everything is meaningless, and true, lasting satisfaction is impossible. So I’m supposed to be motivated by that? How so?”

Without missing a beat, Stubborn the Theologian asks me one last question.

“What are you afraid of?”

He catches me off guard. As I try to think of a parry, he asks again, “What are you afraid of?”

“Quit your preaching,” scoffs Curmudgeon the Philosopher. “See,” he says as he turns to me, “I told you he was going to preach.” 

“Hey, I didn’t preach,” says Stubborn the Theologian. He smiles. “I didn’t even quote the Bible.”

Practical the Professional pipes up.

“So you’re saying he’s free to do anything — does that mean he can still be ambitious and strive for things like wealth and fame and status?”

“You bet.” 

“But those things aren’t very religious.”

“I know,” he says. “Look, today you have three paths forward. One: you can pursue greatness and try to find meaning from it and ignore your faith, but it will probably disappoint you in the end; two, you can choose to not pursue anything and sit around with your faith knowing that at least you won’t be disappointed in the end — but that’s not very exciting; or three, you can pursue greatness fully aware of its meaninglessness and derive your meaningfulness from your faith alone while still living an exciting life.”

“And you think I’m the complicated one?” says Curmudgeon.

“That third option seems like a difficult balance to keep,” I say. “You’d have to always be aware of not falling onto one side or the other.”

“That’s why they call me Stubborn,” he says. “It takes effort to stay centered. You have to work to maintain a healthy balance. Nobody gets it perfectly right. But that’s why it’s called grace.”


It’s 8:40 a.m. 

This is what happens every day after I drop my wife off at work. 

Yes, you may be sitting at an office desk with your boss around the corner, but at least you don’t have to talk with Curmudgeon the Philosopher or Stubborn the Theologian. 

It’s impossible to get anything done. Well, that is, not until Practical the Professional steps in and kicks the other two out.

Like I said, I have way too much alone time with my thoughts…

Thanks for reading.

I genuinely hope this helped.

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