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Getting what you want

American author, lawyer and much else besides Ben Stein said "The human spirit needs to accomplish, to achieve, to triumph to be happy". That sounds like an injunction to stay in the rat race, to compete, to climb whichever corporate or artistic ladder you happen to be on…accomplish, achieve, triumph! Do what it takes! Keep at it! On, and on, onwards and upwards, more and more.

Except he also said: The first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: Decide what you want."

If what you want is to get to the top of the ladder (and maybe over the wall and conquer whatever it is you find on the other side) all power to your elbow, provided you're being completely ethical in your endeavours…but the 'what you want' part of the equation is the critical bit. Is it your ladder? Is it, to paraphrase Steven Covey, against the right wall?

Many people are "driven" from a very young age: they are very certain of the future they want and do whatever it takes to get there. Some of them are even supremely happy when they do.

Many others are "driven" in a very different sense from an equally young age, pushed on by people who want what's best for them, who don't want them to waste their talent, or maybe trust to a talent they don't actually possess, or who want their children to fulfil the dreams they squandered.

Most of us aren't driven at all, in any sense of the word, we drift into work environments, sectors, jobs, keep doing what needs to be done and suddenly we find we've got a career. Not one we planned or wanted, but equally, possibly, one that serves us well in recognition, reward, challenge and achievement.

Few of us stop and think – is this what I wanted? – is this still what I want?

Even if we chose our career path, perhaps especially if we chose it, it can be difficult to stop and have that conversation. If, after years of dedicating your life to a cause, or to an organisation, or to a profession or a career, you suddenly (or probably not quite so suddenly) feel that, you know what? this isn't me anymore…that is going to feel a failure. It is going to feel like you've wasted the best years of your life doing something meaningless.

That way of thinking is probably the one mistake that keeps more people plodding paths they've grown to loathe than any other. I've put so much effort into this, I can't quit now. Twaddle. Of course you can.

And if the reason you want to quit is because there is something you would much rather be doing, then not only can you, but you really should.

For one thing – you haven't wasted anything. You've spent your time doing what felt like the right thing to be doing at the time, and if you have spent literally 'years' doing it, then you will have had some kind of payback: making someone happy, contributing to society, earning a decent salary, hopefully all three. The time might have been better spent if you'd had the 'what do I want' conversation earlier – but then again it might not. Feeling that "this isn't you anymore" doesn't mean that it never was. It just means that now you want something different.

Muhammad Ali was of the opinion that "A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life" switch those numbers and ages around any which way you want, but the point remains true. If you've spent your time growing and learning and experiencing the world, then logically, you will have changed. Maybe subtly, maybe fundamentally. What you want will also have changed as a result.

So feel free to slide back down that ladder, hoick it over to a different wall, or lay it flat across a chasm, and head off on a brand new journey.

Or not.

Just because the day job isn't what you want, doesn't mean you have to throw it away right now. Maybe you don't yet know what it is you want, you just know it's not "this". That would not be a good reason to walk away from whatever "this" is. Deciding what you want is not necessarily as easy as the Stein sound-bite suggests (and I don't know its full context – note to self: go read it!). Often it's not about deciding, but discovering.

We need to play around with options, try things on for size, do 'taster' courses, make an attempt, fail a few times, make a fool of ourselves, scare ourselves, only then will we know what it is we want. We want that thing that involved us making a fool of ourselves, being scared, failing, but still coming back for more, trying again.

And sometimes, we are surprised by what we find.

We may find that we're good at and enjoy things that we'd always said were 'not me'.

We may find that there are opportunities to create what we want within, or at least around, our day jobs – no mad upheaval necessary.

We might even find that what we want is exactly what we already have.

Or, indeed, we might need to quit the job, leave the family, sell the house and move to the middle of nowhere – or the centre of somewhere else.

Whatever it is, it isn't a split-second decision. It takes thought, trial, error and then, ultimately, trust – trust that this also will not be a waste of time. Even if it doesn't work out the way you planned.

Back at Stein's theory that we need to accomplish and achieve to be happy – he's right at the very basic level, but the hidden point is that the "what" we need to accomplish or achieve is as open a list as you choose to make it. And that list can change over time, it can be different on different days, and it doesn't have to be competitive at all.

For me, for today, it turned out to be a nine mile walk on my favourite city fringe route, which is more than a little overgrown this year…and yes, it did make me very happy. On another day it might be passing an exam, or cutting a hedge, or making a "super scrummy" dinner (the highest accolade in our house) out of scraps. It might be running a training course – one of the surprises on my voyage of discovery – or helping a student on the other side of the world. Or writing an essay, or even reading to the end of a book that turned out not to be grand.

There's a similar litany of things that it won't be. Things which others might tell me are good things, but which don't feel like 'achievement' to me. Finding out what you want is sometimes a process of elimination – if you don't know what you do want, working out what you don't is no bad place to start.

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