Why You’re So Confused About What You Want
Photo courtesy of Vivian D. Nguyen.

Why You’re So Confused About What You Want

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Goals

Today’s post is inspired by a concern I hear commonly from multipotentialites:

There’s lots of advice out there on how to achieve your dreams. But I don’t know what my dream even is! How on earth do I figure out what I want?!

Of course, this is a problem for all humans, but multipods suffer an extra wrinkle; when you want “everything,” it kind of feels like you want nothing.

Being enticed by every option is almost as bad as having no attractive options whatsoever. (When it comes to making a choice, anyway. From a happiness perspective it’s definitely preferable to have multiple attractive possibilities.)

The Answer Lies Within

I sometimes feel like a broken record. It frustrates me that the answer to so many life questions seems to be: get better at self-knowledge.

It’s doubly annoying, because I used to hate being told to get to know myself better. It’s a fundamentally irritating thing to hear. And it’s worse still if you resist it for years, only for it to turn out to be correct, and then every time you repeat it, it feels like you’re betraying your past self (that’s probably not a problem that everyone has. But maybe I’m not entirely alone in it.)

When it comes to figuring out what we want, though, the answer obviously requires greater self-knowledge.

I think the problem with this question in particular is that we are surprised to learn that we don’t know our own desires. Surely our wants should just be obvious?

But because they’re often not obvious (for reasons we’ll explore in a moment), it’s tempting to pile additional frustration on top: why don’t I know myself, why don’t I know what I want, and what’s wrong with me?

Try not to be too hard on yourself. This is very normal. As you’ll see, there are a lot of reasons that we don’t have an inherent sense of what we want…

We Are Made of Layers — Sort Of

Why is it so difficult to tell what we want sometimes? I think a big part of it is that the story we tell ourselves is wrong. We’re not a single, coherent self with obvious and clear goals. We’re a mess of contradictory wants and desires.

For example, we want to spend time lazing around, but we also want to achieve great things with our time. We want to eat as much junk food as we can, but we want to live healthily too. And so on…

For most of what we want, there’s a part of us that wants to do the opposite. This doesn’t make us hypocrites or idiots. It just makes us human.

To clarify these confusions we need to put in some actual work to separate out these different layers, using a combination of gut feeling, intuition, and our rational minds.

Here are four layers that we can address to help us get greater clarity about our wants.

Layer One: Aspirational Wants

When I can’t figure out the answer to a personal question, a useful trick is to take the question one level higher. So “what do I want” becomes “what do I want to want?”

In other words, what would Imaginary Ideal Me want to do with his life?

Sometimes this helps to reveal values I didn’t realize I had. If my answer is “I wish I was the kind of person who wanted to climb mountains”… well, then I AM the kind of person who wants to climb mountains. I just hadn’t realized it.

Discovering our aspirational wants may help bring some clarity to the other layers.

Layer Two: Conflicting Timeframe Wants

Our wants exist on different timescales, and sometimes they conflict with one another.

Maybe there’s a confused contradiction because our medium-term goals conflict with our long-term goals. Perhaps we want to do well in our current job, but that job isn’t taking us closer to our eventual dream. These goals are in conflict.

It’s worth a little examination of how our various wants fit together on different timeframes. If goals conflict, do we want to prioritize short-term, medium-term or long-term gain?

Layer Three: Absorbed Wants

Sometimes we absorb wants from other people. Maybe our parents impressed on us their deep desire for us to become lawyers, and we’ve spent our whole lives being affected by that imprint, consciously or unconsciously.

This isn’t to blame anyone, of course. Parents are free to suggest or even push their kids towards certain careers, but adult children are just as free to examine those suggestions and accept or reject them.

It’s when we’re being unconsciously steered by wants we’ve absorbed from others – teachers, parents, society at large – that we can become confused.

Layer Four: Directly Competing Wants

Once we’ve eliminated some confusions, what we’re left with are the things we actually want to do.

Sadly, the question still isn’t answered, because the reality is that we can’t have everything we want, and we often have to choose between multiple good options.

Choice paralysis is definitely a thing. Multipotentialites sometimes resist choosing anything at all because we don’t want to limit our options later. But assuming we’ve worked through this and have accepted that choosing something is better than choosing nothing, we may still have desires that conflict.

I can’t study agriculture AND medicine AND astrophysics (at least, not at the same time!). So I have to choose between them. It’s not my place to tell you which of your wants is best for you. But luckily we’re quite good at choosing between options once we get them on the table.

Once we’ve examined what’s going on inside, we may have a better chance at handling this layer and choosing our favorite option (and don’t forget that we can choose another option later, and then another option after that).

Summing Up

These layers aren’t exhaustive, but once we understand that different factions may be fighting inside us, it makes much more sense that we’re confused about what we want.

Keep in mind that getting to know ourselves and creating coherent goals we care about is the work of a lifetime. You aren’t alone here; we’re all uncovering hidden parts of ourselves all the time.

Your Turn

How do you tease apart the different things you want? Do you have any tips for figuring out your desires?

neil_authorbioNeil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at www.walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.


  1. Andy Firth says:

    Great post Neil,

    It’s only been the last week since I realised there was a term for my behaviour and attitude towards business, life and goals. I’m a multipotentilite!

    My tips for figuring out your desires is to take massive action using only what is essential. I think once you realise you are a multipotentilite you procrastinate less over ideas or goals. My downfall until now has been trying to find my one thing! It feels great knowing that everything I do is normal and actually quite unique.

    The problem now is not to get caught up in working on the non essential stuff of goals and ideas. Time is our most valuable commodity so my aim now is to focus on what is essential in goals or new ideas, the core 20% to get 80% results.

    It’s only from taking action can we realise exactly what we want, learn by doing. I often find this the best part. By learning, taking action and succeeding we can find out exactly what our desires are, as long as we take the failures as a success as well. We can only succeed or learn, just make sure you take action.



  2. I just found out about this website, too, thanks to Cory Huff @ the Abundant Artist (thanks Cory!). I appreciate this article and the previous comment – what a relief that I don’t have to pick my One Thing! I have been struggling with that for a long while. Now the question is how to divvy up my time between my Many Pursuits!

    • Andy Firth says:

      “Now the question is how to divvy up my time between my Many Pursuits!”

      Now knowing that I am a multipotentialite, I’ve started to feel this rather than decide it. Just do what you feel like, however it pays to have a plan of action for each and that plan should contain the essential actions to get the best out of your pursuits.


  3. Ranya says:

    This is exactly what I needed to read right now, along with the article you liked to “Is this the Biggest Multipotentialite Fear?”! I just ended a temporary position and feel “decision paralysis” kicking in as I can’t decide what to do next. I feel like I need to have a career in mind and work towards that, but I can’t decide on one. I know logically that I just need to take action and that I don’t have to decide on something that will be forever, but its so hard to internalize this and actually make a decision. I guess it just takes a lot of intention and practice, like everything else in life. Thanks again for a great read!

    • Andy Firth says:

      I find the ‘action’ bit is the most essential step but its also the most difficult. You not only have to put ‘decision paralysis’ to the back of your head, you have to get up and take action. Both are extremely difficult, something I still struggle with today. As you say, you know logically what you have to do, but its still difficult to do!!

  4. Anna says:

    I have always dealt with choice paralysis by test driving ideas. I am a cautious potentialite. I try them out and if it seems that it will work for what I want it to, I phase in interest B and phase out interest A. I have done this multiple times career wise and am in the process of doing it again. The transitions, of course, keeps me busier sometimes than I want to be but I am working on that. However, phasing things in and out keep me from making rash decisions because I see a “shinier” subject waiting to be explored.

    • Andy Firth says:

      I love your method here Anna, “I have always dealt with choice paralysis by test driving ideas” and “I phase in interest B and phase out interest A.”

      I shall have to give this a try as I’ve often made rash decisions when I see a shinier subject! Thanks for this comment.

  5. I totally get where you’re coming from Neil. I’m constantly getting paralyzed in decision-making and it’s not because I want to do nothing, it’s because I want to do EVERYTHING.

    Sometimes I also feel like I’m betraying my past self. I think I’ve identified with the part of me that’s a musician, for example, maybe a little too much in the past, and I start to feel guilty whenever I start to explore something else. Definitely still trying to sort out what I REALLY want, I guess.

  6. Cas Yates says:

    Thanks Neil layer three i personally resonate to and it’s only in the last few years have I made choices that make me happy. Since discovering Emilie’s TED talk it’s opened me up to allowing and exploring a lot more of who I am. By defining or aligning myself I’ve been able to open more doors in a creative fulfilling way.

  7. Felicity says:

    I am a undergraduate now, my major is insurance but I have some other interests that can aslo be a living career, such as language and data analysis, but I can not sure which one I wanna it to my career in the rest of my life, so now I am justing trying to experence in different industry to figure out what I really want. I know maybe it’s a waste of time to try some totally different positions. But I just can not be settled until I get the answer eventually, I am so happy to find there are people have the same issue. Even the road will be difficult and uncertain, I would like to accept every undergo in my life and meet the one I most wanna to be.

  8. Sourav Saha says:

    Frankly speaking, it’s a great write up and great sort of thinking. Most of the words matches with my current situation. So, it’s definitely, be the post from which i can learn lot.

  9. Fariba says:

    Hi, I’m a 22-year-old girl and It’s been some months that I’ve figured out I’m a multipotentialite. But I haven’t done anything serious about it yet. I study English Translation at university, and I teach English to young learners and teenagers. It’s been a year and so, that I’ve been teaching. At first, I enjoyed my job, and I was one of the best teachers at the institute I teach. Therefore, I thought that ‘yes, finally, I found my feet, and I’m on the right track.” But little by little, this active, creative, busy teacher, turned into a very common one, exactly like any other teacher_ No creativity, no interest in being head and shoulders above the others.(It really bothers me.) And these days, I even think that teaching is not the right position for me. Well, sometimes I’d just like to lie down and start reading the books that are out of this world and also take me out of this world. Sometimes, I’d like to work in a café. Sometimes, I’d like to work in a flower shop. Sometimes, I’d like to be an artist and sometimes I’d like to be a calligrapher. Therefore, I rarely enjoy the position that I’m in at a time. So, what’s your suggestion for me to change this situation I’m in? Is there really any way?

    • Bish says:

      Hi Fariba, I remember how you feel (no longer 22, I’m afraid) and I still sort of feel like that to be honest. However, I firmly believe there is nothing wrong with that (as Emilie and Neil says). I think the fact that we dare to try different things is a courage worth having especially as we grow older, especially in a world running as fast as today’s. My father, 63, a banker and accountant all his life, asked me today to explain to him the Photoelectric Effect, you know the thing that gave Einstein his Nobel Prize. He is one of us too. There is more that can be done today so we evolve to do more. I have read ‘On Equillibrium’ (philosophy), ‘Automate the boring stuff with Python’ (programming), and ‘A Memory of Light’ (fantasy fiction) and written up an article on data analysis and two small applications for work in the same month. Just because I was interested in all of them at the same time. So go ahead, read that OOTW book, ask your local florist if you can help out on the weekends for a couple of hours, the café in the morning on a Sundays, try crafting that ambigram. If you don’t do some of them, then maybe you are not that interested in those compared to the ones you actually do. And when you do, observe everything so that your mind stays occupied with what you are doing. Doing a number of things is great but while you do one you need to focus on that. Don’t start by thinking it’s a career. One need not even have one single career. Just try thigns and connect the dots. I’m still figuring things out too. I learnt from Emilie@TED this morning that I am a multipotentialite. :)

      • Fariba says:

        I’m writing to tell you that your words really had great influence on me. As I was reading them, there was a smile on my face, thinking that there is someone here who has understood me and my thoughts. You know, I finished reading that OOTW book and I really enjoyed it. Actually, I was living in the world of the characters of the book for about a week. Also, I’ve decided to take my calligraphy course again in 2 months. And I’m thinking some ways out to experience working in a café and a flower shop. As you said, trying to do different things is a courage worth having, and being a multipotentialite is a fact worth spreading. :)

  10. Romy says:

    Your perspective is very useful. Currently I am totally lost and I don’t know what should I do. I’ve made a master list with only my main, true interests and passions… and the list has reached 32 items. I asked my husband and he told me he has 3: music, fishing and cars. :/
    I am going crazy!
    It was very useful to combine groups of compatible items and that has resulted on fresh, innovative ideas. But I am not confident enough to follow any of them because I am terrified of quitting again.
    I’ll definitely be reviewing my wants in layers as you suggested and hope that will give me more clarity.

  11. Bish says:

    Thanks for this post Neil. This helps, a lot. Drilling down (or coming up) a bit does help. Will try to think this way when I have to choose from many doors.

  12. Ally Msangi says:

    Thanks a lot Neil for this amaising post, truth be told it has opened my mind, as I always face a lot of difficulties in finding what i want. Now i have a starting point after reading this marvelous post.

  13. Sarah says:

    Thanks Emilie, Neil and all the contributors above. All resonates with me indeed! I’ve been trying to figure out what to do for several years now and know that it is a life-long learning… like Romy, my interests list runs well into the 30s, probably more like 50s! But procrastination, anxiety and eroded confidence play their part in hasty decisions that lead me into ‘custard traps’ (as Neil put it – great term!). I know that it is about ‘giving it a go’ and experimenting, and leaning into the discomfort and uncertainty of not knowing. And it’s all about trust, and trusting yourself. But it is challenging and difficult. So remember to congratulate yourself on trying things out and having the courage…

  14. Agathe says:

    Hi! I just discovered I was a multipotentialite! I am 22, I have a bachelor degree in biology and a bachelor degree in chemistry, and currently working towards a master’s degree in complex systems physics (which involves informatics), while learning german and feeling awfully guilty about having abandonned my passion for English literature, and starting a new passion for dance this year. This relieves me from feeling depressed about having no idea of what to do with my life, and being accused of being dispersed, while focusing on one subject in my studies gives me anxiety about leaving other subjects. I still have no idea of what I am going to do, but I am soooo happy to find out I’m not abnormal!!

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