Why “Wanting” Isn’t Enough

When you “want” something, you are looking for a specific outcome that is somehow different than what you have today. That may seem simple, but it is hard to do well. If you look at New Year’s resolutions, people often want to be “rich”, “happy”, “famous”, or something similar, only to end up in the same place a year later.

So why do so many people fail to achieve their outcomes and how can you do it differently? At its heart, there are 3 questions to consider:

1. How clear is your outcome?

Unclear outcomes are inherently unhelpful. Let’s take Joe, who wants to be “healthier” this year. After 6 months, Joe can run a mile (up from no running at all), but has gained 10 pounds  after eating too much junk food. Is Joe “healthier”? Well, that depends on what Joe meant by “healthier”, which he never defined. After 6 months, Joe doesn’t know if he’s achieved his desired outcome!

You can avoid Joe’s fate if you set it up properly, which requires just 2 key ingredients: 1) be as specific as possible and 2) have a way to measure progress and achievement. In this case, if Joe had set a goal “to run a mile in under 8 minutes by the end of the year while maintaining his weight within 5 pounds”, he could easily determine whether he achieved it.

2. How hard is it to achieve?

The sweet spot for an outcome is “moderately challenging”. If it’s too easy, it won’t motivate you. If it’s impossible, you will stop. Try to make it just beyond what you think you can comfortably do.

The objective is to make it “winnable” while also achieving something meaningful. If you do the same with the next outcome, and the next, and so on, you will create a “winning” streak that will help you drive through the inevitable rough patches that will come up along the way.

3. How much do you want it?

There is a fable of a young man who asks Socrates how he could get wisdom, Socrates replied, “Come with me” and walked along the path to the river. They waded in until he and the man were waist deep. Without saying anything, Socrates grabbed the back of the man’s head and pushed him under water. At first, thinking it was a joke, the man waited patiently to be let up. After a while he became concerned as his air supply dwindled. He started struggling to get up. Socrates continued to hold his head under water. When his struggles became frantic and he thought he would black out, Socrates finally let him up. When the man regained his composure Socrates asked him “what did you desire most when you were under water?” The man said simply, “air”. Socrates told the man, “When you want wisdom as much as you wanted air, you will receive it.”

“Wanting” something is an important first step, but you need to know how much you want it. To get a better idea of how much you want it, rate your “wanting it” from 1 to 10, with 1 you have almost no motivation (ie. “If it shows up for free on my doorstep, I’ll take it”); 5 you want it enough to do something (but not too much), and 10 you are willing to do anything (like wanting “air” in the story above).

Want to be successful? Make sure the most impactful activities rate a 9 or 10 on the “want it” scale.

If your goals are currently on the low side, the good news is that you can “program” yourself (to use a coding analogy) to want it more. You can try to entice yourself  (ie. “the carrot” –  visualize the great party you are going to throw when you achieve your outcome) or force yourself (ie. “the stick” – commit out loud to all of your family and friends so you’ll do it just to avoid the embarassment). Each enforcing thought, assuming it’s strong enough, can raise your score. Keep adding stronger and more compelling reasons to do it, and eventually you will get there.

And if you want it enough, you will find a way to get it. If, however, you find you don’t want it enough, then that’s great too! You just learned something about yourself and you have one less thing on your to do list. Now go back and think of something else you want more!

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