Know what you want

Sometimes I’ll hear someone saying something like, “I feel like I want to be an entrepreneur but I don’t know where to start”. Or “I want to be a writer, but I just can’t write.” I used to try and say encouraging things, but lately I’ve gotten a little pessimistic. A part of me almost wants to outright discourage people. (It’s a lot more complex.)

The important thing is to be honest with yourself about something. Do you want to do X, or do you want to be a person who says they want to do X? Most people seem to turn out to be the latter.

If you’re a writer, you should know. You should have a history of having written things. In my case, I didn’t really know that I WANTED to be a writer until maybe 2012 – and that was when I had been answering lots of questions on Quora, and got quite a bit of validation for it. But the fact is that I was writing a ton of answers on Quora before anybody gave me that validation. I was already a writer, I just didn’t recognize it myself.

I don’t say that to boast about myself. Being a writer is not a status symbol. It sometimes gives you access to tremendous joy and pleasure, but you’re not entitled to it. It’s not a guarantee. Being a writer is a lot of slogging away, struggling to try and convey something meaningful – and failing. Failing over and over again.

Another thing that helps me know that I’m a writer – if I haven’t written in too long, I start to feel it. If I write everyday, I feel good. If I haven’t written in a week, I start to feel shitty. If I haven’t written in two or three weeks, it gets really bad. I find myself drawn to Facebook or Twitter or SOMETHING – reddit, whatever – just to get stuff out of my head onto paper (or pixel). Sometimes it’s infuriating because I feel like my mind is blank – but I’ve learned over time that a blank mind is really just a sort of ‘loading screen’ – there’s all sorts of interesting things going below the surface, behind the curtain. You just don’t know it yet.

Anyway. What I wanted to say was – be careful about what you think you want. Be very careful not to bullshit yourself. Ask yourself why you want to do it. If it’s because you think it’s cool, or because you think people will like you for it, or because you think it’ll make you rich, or famous, chances are you’re barking up the wrong tree. You have to want it because you want it.

I know this is tough advice to follow. When people say things like “follow your passion”, I think they’re typically full of shit. I think they’re often playing a status-signalling game, communicating to you that they had it All Figured Out, and you should too. Steve Jobs’ commencement speech did a fantastic job of this. But if you examine Steve Jobs’ life, it was a lot of experimentation and near-random tinkering. He was just doing a bunch of things, and some of them worked out.

You might think that Isaac Newton’s passion was physics. But he also spent like half his time trying to do alchemy, I believe. It seems weird on hindsight, but it makes perfect sense – at the time, it wasn’t clear what was going to yield the best fruit. He was just doing whatever he was curious about, really.

I do also believe that you probably already know what you want. By that I mean – the answer is already inside you, inside your brain, you just probably haven’t woken up to it. Steven Spielberg had a quote that went like…

The thing I really want to emphasize is, I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have a choice . . . the dream is something you never knew was going to come into your life. Dreams always come from behind you, not right between your eyes. It sneaks up on you. But when you have a dream, it doesn’t  often come at you screaming in your face, “This is who you are, this is what you must be for the rest of your life.” Sometimes a dream almost whispers. And I’ve always said to my kids, the hardest thing to listen to—your instincts, your human personal intuition—always whispers; it never shouts. Very hard to hear. So you have to every day of your lives be ready to hear what whispers in your ear; it very rarely shouts.  And if you can listen to the whisper, and if it tickles your heart, and it’s something you think you want to do for the rest of your life, then that is going to be what you do for the rest of your life, and we will benefit from everything you do.

Your instincts are drowned out by the insane noise of living in society, living in civilization, of being bombarded with advertising and with all sorts of expectations and notions of prestige and so on. You have to listen for the whisper.

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