Why some people get what they want, and others don’t

This article is going to make some people very angry. Consider yourself warned.

Why do some people get what they want, while others not so much?

There are a few reasons:

Problems of goal setting:

  • Lack of realistic information about the world, leading either to “wanting” things that are not possible, or failing to want things that are.
  • Lack of self-reflection, leading to “wanting” things that are a bad fit for who you are as a person.
  • Internalization of somebody else’s (typically parents’ or other authority figures’) goals and preferences and mistaking them for your own.

Problems of implementation:

  • Lack of the necessary skills to effectively pursue goals.
  • “Software bugs” – psychological hangups, unconscious baggage, self-sabotaging beliefs.
  • Overestimation of risks and dangers.
  • What this article is mostly about, “wanting” things in the wrong way. At the heart of the matter is something incredibly common – a confusion of language. In this case, a homonymy.

The word “want” means at least two completely different things.

Consider these two statements:

  • “I want to marry this person”
  • “I want the pepperoni pizza.”

See the difference?

If not, think of your secretmost romantic crush, the love of your life – maybe the one you’re currently with, or the Big One in your past that got away, or the one you’ve got in your sights right now and would crawl through a mile of nettles and go to a Justin Bieber concert to be with.

Now think of choosing a pair of shoes in the morning.

Do you feel the difference?

It is the root of much misunderstanding and frustration that people use the same word for both a burning desire at the heart of their beings, and a passing, ephemeral, vague preference, for which they’re not willing to sacrifice the tiniest bit of comfort or time.

Consider the following examples:

  • People are not saving as much as they “want”. Actually, they’re not saving as much as they would prefer if it didn’t cost anything, which is a contradiction. They’re in fact saving exactly as much as they want. The visceral desire for consumption is simply stronger than the preference for having a nest egg.
  • People “want” to lose weight. Unless there’s a health condition or a private set of physical laws, the only explanation for failing to lose weight is that they like the idea of being lighter, but like eating and not running more.
  • People “want” better jobs. But they want a sense of stability, however crappy the situation, or they want free time more than they want to learn new skills in order to get a better job.
  • People “want” to be rich and successful and yet curiously spend their days watching Netflix in their underwear.
  • People “want” to get into and graduate from prestigious universities, and then they play Xbox instead of studying.
  • People “want” to be with a specific romantic partner, and then they don’t make the slightest bit of effort to be the kind of person that other person is likely to like.

It’s not that they wouldn’t like it, it’s that they aren’t willing to go outside their comfort zone to get it, which means they don’t really want it, they would merely prefer it. They think it would be kind of nice, but really want something else more – like peace and quiet.

Fair enough, but be honest. Things like the above are hard to admit, but at least be brave enough to admit them to yourself. It’s the first step to change.

In our sheltered existence where survival and relative comfort are practically guaranteed unless you consistently do monumentally stupid things, hardly anyone wants anything in the proper sense anymore. There’s no hard, monkey-brain level reason to. There’s a flaccidity of desire.

When people say they want something, they typically mean that they would prefer a world where A is true to one where it isn’t, but at every moment, they really want something else – comfort, fun, ease – more. This is colloquially known as laziness, and is a matter of faulty prioritization. One of the (very few) disadvantages of civilized life is that everything is now in the “Nice to have unless it costs any time or effort, in which case screw it, because life will be acceptable anyway ” category.

What looks like a failure of the will is in fact our brains being shortcircuited by a world with much lower stakes than what humanity lived in for 99.99% of our history as a species. If nothing seems to matter anymore, that’s a tell that your basic needs are met but you haven’t identified your real desires higher up the pyramid of needs yet, that your stated goals are out of touch with your core identity – which changes in time, so it can also be a case of having picked your goals ten years ago when you were somebody else, and forgetting to adjust course and make changes as you grow as a person.

And the more safety there is in society, the more inconsequential most stuff is to people’s wellbeing, and the more serious and prevalent the risk of indifference and willlessness (first use of the word in this century).

By the way this is one more reason why discipline completely dominates motivation – in our present situation, few things can legitimately “motivate” us anymore, because the primary evolutionary function of feeling motivated was to secure survival and satisfy basic physiological needs. Our software is lagging behind our material and social circumstances by thousands of years, and better discipline is the update.

It helps to look at things from a level above and put them in broader context. For example, I viscerally want to make good decisions and be in control or at least conscious of my irrational impulses, and I want this more than I want instant gratification that leads to remorse. This is discipline. It’s air cover for the soul. Fuck chicken soup.

Interestingly, stakes have gone down, as has our motivation, but fear levels haven’t. As a consequence, people react to minor setbacks and negligible risks with an emotional intensity once reserved for being chased around by sabretooth tigers.

Therefore, we’re fucked by a double whammy where the “motivation” part of not knowing whether you will survive the winter is gone, but our fear levels are still stuck in 50 000 BC, and we react to parking tickets and performance reviews as if they were “not going to survive the winter”. As a result, we 1) Don’t care and do nearly enough about opportunities 2) overestimate risks and dangers.

This is a brutal combination. It makes people irrationally afraid to do things that are obviously in their best interest (which we see in others much more easily than in ourselves). The only cure to the latter is readjustment of fear levels through exposure (“Just jump”), which is directly at odds with our current cultural attitudes of making everything ultra-safe (thereby ironically making people ultra-afraid of things that are not dangerous, resulting in a sort of allergy-analog tendency to self-destructively overreact to harmless things). The cure to the former is a completely honest deconstruction of your goals, goal-setting method and underlying values, and readjustment to stuff you really, properly, deeply care about. And then pursuing those things with discipline.

Literally the worst thing short of death and disease (which are mostly random and no point worrying too much about) that can happen to most people in the developed world is having to sleep at their parents’ house for a couple of weeks until they find a new job. Boo hoo.
What are you afraid of?

Almost all interesting things happen on the other side of (irrational) fear. Sex comes to mind. Good careers, too. New friendships. Amazing experiences. Popular blogs. Children.

Look for instances when you could realistically have done what it took to achieve something, and didn’t. An unwillingness do to what it takes equals not really wanting it. if you say you want something, and then all your actions go in a completely different direction, then you don’t really want it.

Either that, or you’re not in control and in touch with what’s going on in your “BIOS” (which, appropriately, means “life”).

This is not a complete answer for all circumstances.

This is about the first-or-second-world citizen sitting in an office in California/Brazil/Romania/Singapore/Sweden/Chile thinking “well fuck, this isn’t exactly the life I would choose”. Wouldn’t choose it, yet chose all the things that led to it.

Getting from that to “my life is awesome” is the entire point of a whole series of articles here. Because we are all in this situation, to various degrees.

Obviously, the reasons why an orphan in Darfur doesn’t have a Playstation (or even enough food) are entirely different from the reasons why people in the rich world don’t always have the cars, jobs, homes, bodies or lives they want. But it is a typical scenario case for most of the disconnect between the stated preferences and actual outcomes of rich world citizens, whose hindrance by circumstances is mostly illusory.

The American president’s grandfather herded goats in Africa, for fuck’s sake.

Our civilization is not perfect, but this is a marked improvement over all other places, all other times.

And here’s a terrible secret – deep down, most people actually want to fail – deniably, with it being somebody else’s, or the circumstances’, but certainly not their own fault. It’s easier, they get to go home and take a nap.

Succeeding is a constant, effortful thing, and most people are lazy.

Remember what it is like when you really, really want something. That’s how you need to want the stuff you want to want.

In summary, the word “want” means two things:

1. Stuff you’re actually planning to follow through on, and pursue with the last drop of your blood.

2. A general preference that you have no intention of doing anything for if it means the slightest bit of inconvenience.

(It also means a third thing: “Things you’ve been told to want by authority figures”, “Other people’s preferences you have internalized” and “Social expectations”, in which case it becomes “I guess I want a law degree”, which nobody in the history of the universe actually wanted. Nobody’s inner child is a lawyer.)

TLDR, here’s the general method:

  1. Introspection. Write down and examine your current goals, sift the “wants” from the “prefers”, take the “wants” and play the “why” game with yourself until you get to a few fundamental beliefs about life, the world and yourself. Then examine these and check whether they’re really yours, whether they stand up to rational scrutiny and empirical evidence, and whether they’re serving you well. You will probably end up reevaluating at least a part of them. This may feel scary, but it is a good result.
  2. By setting new goals that are more in line with your core identity, you will automatically find it easier to work towards them.
  3. Apply discipline for optimal results.
  4. Thank me later.

Note: the original scope of this article, the difference between the two meanings of the word “want”, was expanded by the goal-setting context inspired by Tim Urban’s recent super-long post about Elon Musk’s method, which pretty much consists in what I have just described.