Those words make me want to light every self-help book on fire, crawl in a ball next to it, and roast marshmallows.
As if formulating a plan is so easy that you should have walked out of the womb with one. As if figuring out what you want is the most nonchalant thing you can be doing today.
“Hey there, just go craft a complete life vision for yourself and then follow my 7 steps to success!”
It just isn’t that easy people. I’m tellin’ ya.
I didn’t have a semblance of a clue of what I wanted from life for 25.5 years despite putting in every effort to figure it out.
And so I did what any rational, priveleged young person would do: I lied about wanting to be a lawyer for over a decade just to get advisors, professors, parents, and intrusive strangers off my back.
I set myself up, after refusing to take the LSAT and graduating, to be entirely lost. I changed jobs three times in three years. I even developed this sort of existential insomnia for a while. I listened to hours upon hours of podcasts and read hundreds of books in areas of philosophy, self-help, psychology, etc.
All the while asking rhetorically of the universe: “How the f**k am I supposed to know what I want?”
And so… you can imagine it was to my dismay when I realized that these words four words [Know. What. You. Want.] are categorically the best advice you can find anywhere — I guess that’s why they are everywhere.
Knowing what you want isn’t just about material wealth and lifestyle — it’s deeper than that. Our deepest desire is to realize what we were made for and live in alignment with it.
It’s what’s frequently called YOUR PURPOSE, but it comes with many names — your Calling, your Master Task, your Grand Strategy, or your Essential Intent. Whatever you choose to call it — let’s agree that it’s whatever you were made for.
My thesis is that there are two components to finding and living in your Purpose. In the remainder of this article, I refer to these two components as Prongs.
In traditional schooling, we focus predominantly on the Second Prong — emphasizing that the most important thing is choosing a career (or a vehicle) for creating and capturing value. The First Prong is usually overlooked on the account of being a more subtle force.
I believe we can only maintain longterm success and fulfillment when we identify, understand, and prioritize both.
Prong 1: The Unseen
The intangible gift that’s in you; the foundation; the invisible force that beckons you for more; the deeper level that can only be understood in silence.
A few years back, seeking advice about which opportunity to take, a mentor of mine said:
“The job is just the symptom.”
It took about a year for that to really sink in, for me to really understand what he meant. He was trying to get me centered on the fact that choosing what to do is far less important than why.
To see that there was a deeper disease, a root cause, or even a core set of beliefs and talents that could manifest in many ways. The many ways didn’t matter. They would never determine my worth, my identity, or who I was fundamentally; they would simply be opportunities to explore those things, to feed a sort of “grand strategy” of becoming who I was destined to be.
Prong 1 can be viewed as the sum total of what your life experience is revealing you were made for. It’s why your mom died or why you lost all that money. It’s what sticks out in success and in suffering. It’s why that person entered your life and why you stumbled upon that silent epiphany — to discover this deep “gift.” Yes — gift. Implying that it was something given to you, something you have received, something you must show gratitude for by exercising.
It’s ground zero. The place you come back to. Your filter for understanding. Meaning. Equilibrium. Home.
It’s what you notice when you breathe slowly, sit quietly, and think about life, void of ego. It’s a voice in your ear or a feeling in your gut telling you what to do and where to go. It’s what an “impartial spectator” would tell you to deploy on.
It’s the topline, objective vision of you. It’s something that can’t really be described or understood with words. It’s what you’re searching for that everyone else can already observe in you.
It doesn’t take obvious shape in the external world because it is driven by something deeper, something universal. But yet, if you pay attention, it’s the writing on the road signs.
Every piece of you, every piece of your experience, is designed so that you may know, discover, and cultivate this gift within yourself.
Prong 2: The Vehicle
The skills and knowledge you have acquired in the world; your seemingly arbitrary preferences; the relationships and abilities required for creating value for others; the vehicle you choose to serve with; a Trojan horse of sorts.
There are seemingly limitless options for what we can choose to do in this world. We can be politicians, engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs, stay-at-home parents, bloggers, philanthropists, or whatever else we can conceive.
But as Matthew Mcconaughy’s character, Rust Colhe, in True Detective says,
“Life is only barely long enough to get good at one thing. Be careful what you get good at.”
If this is true, which it likely is — you have to make a choice to go “all in” on one or a handful of things related things. This doesn’t mean you have to be so tunnel vision as to say, “I am only going to do X for the rest of my life,” but it does mean you have to eliminate all mutually exclusive options. You can’t go pro in five sports or be a renowned research psychologist and full time dog groomer. At some level, you have to choose and commit.
Prong 2 is where we spend much of our adult lives — identifying opportunities, developing strategies, and building mastery around our work and our passions.
From being a good parent to an innovative CEO, from writing hit singles to taking out the trash — cultivating this vehicle for realizing your purpose is about having a worldly desire and relentlessly mapping your actions against it. It’s a game piece and a tool in getting what we really desire.
It’s taking in what may seem like arbitrary preferences and transforming them into something. It’s picking up a guitar and strumming until your fingers bleed. It’s become addicted to building massive machines or designing companies. It’s using your natural inclination for mathematics to learn rocket science and get your ass on the moon.
It’s a choice. It’s work. It’s choosing to make something, to put something out there, to really commit to succeeding.
The Goal: Creating Synergy
When the two Prongs feed into each other, creating a sort of bidirectional feedback loop, we feel aligned, fulfilled, and driven in the pursuit of whatever we feel we were meant to be, do, and have. We aren’t distracted by what everyone else has or is doing. We know who we are.
This is what the Greeks called Euthymia, defined by Millennial philosopher Ryan Holiday as:
“The sense of our own path and how to stay on it without getting distracted by all the others that intersect it.”
When the two Prongs blend, you can hear almost an audible click from the universe — a wave of calm rushes over.
And that is the goal: total alignment between Prongs 1 and 2. That is to say, your craft or work helps cultivate the intangible gift inside of you, and vice versa.
What Synergy Looks Like:
- Total alignment between your thoughts and the world around you.
- An all-encompassing sense of belonging.
- Complete congruency between your words and actions.
- A deep acceptance for the way things are.
- Seemingly innate humility and a distinct desire to learn.
- Motivation without the existential stress.
- Contentment saying “no” to the wrong things.
- Personal growth and progress.
- A belief that all your needs have been met.
- The perfect combination of social impact and personal fulfillment.
People Who Have It:
Will Smith: Prong 1 the unique ability to make people laugh and feel inspired. Prong 2 is rapping, writing, and acting.
Mark Zuckerberg: Prong 1 is a unique vision to see gaps in the world and fill them. Prong 2 is innovating, managing teams, and building things at Facebook.
Cheryl Strayed: Prong 1 is a unique ability to make others feel accepted and understood. Prong 2 is writing and conversing. See Tiny Beautiful Things.
Tom Brady: Prong 1 is discipline and the pursuit of excellence. See Episode 2, Tom vs. Time. Prong 2 is football.
My Mom: Prong 1 was a unique ability to make others feel loved and heard. Prong 2 was doing acts of service, writing letters, and giving damn good hugs.
Where To Start
Here’s the news you knew was coming. There is no magic bullet. No order-a-cure. No two-day shipping on this sh*t.
How you get there — to realization of this true synergistic relationship between Prongs 1 & 2 — is a matter of the path you take. And there is no objectively right path. There’s just the one you choose.
Maybe the two Prongs will be discovered together. Maybe the first will come, then the second. Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky few who figures it out backwards.
At the very least, however, I believe you must AT LEAST do the following:
- Make a choice to see each experience as an opportunity to unlock some additional insight, to learn, and to grow and then go out and have experiences.
- Start seeking deeper answers. Read biographies and books like The Alchemist, Meditations, and The Defining Decade. Sit. Breathe. Meditate. Ask better questions of yourself. Ask for honest feedback on your strengths and weakness. Listen to your intuition.
- Craft an ability to pay attention to what makes you feel in “flow.”Notice moments of total alignment and the underlying cause/effect relationship. See if anyone can help you identify your blind spots.
- Start tackling your issues with ego in all its disguises — blind ambition, crippling shyness, “imposter syndrome,” and fear. You’ve got to get out of your damn head. Ego is what ultimately will block you from acquiring any real insight in regards to what your purpose in life is. And it’ll ultimately block you from building a vehicle that uses that purpose (when you discover it).
- Work. Not just in the traditional sense, but in every sense. Put in the hours, commit to something, and give it a go. Work will ultimately help you understand who you are and what you are capable of. You don’t want to be the professor in the ivory tower, preaching to his students to invest their money in stocks, leaving his all in a paper bag out of fear.
- Question your assumptions. Most of what you choose to do is likely a reflection of what you’ve been made to believe you should do — based on social influence. Don’t accept this on the surface. Really dive below to figure out who you are and why you were put on this planet independent of others’ opinions.
- Remember what you are here for. Prong 2 is a means to an end — not an end in itself. You must let go of strategies that aren’t working and iterate as necessary, all along staying grounded, and deeply committed to a vision of who you want to be and why.
I read hundreds of books — all with a similar message to what I’ve just summarized above. I was hyper-caffeinated, stressed, and overworked — waiting for a miracle. Most of this stuff went right over my head, or worse, I thought was total BS.
I doubled down on the wrong things — trying to replicate the paths of the people I admired, mirroring what they were doing, and sidelining any subtle intuition.
I shut down the little voice inside trying to tell me what my purpose in this world was.
Why I needed to read it hundreds of times before “getting it” or why I needed to wander down dead ends for 25.5 years, I’m not entirely sure.
But I do know this:
We can only be receptive to the lessons we are ready for.
Come back to this later if it hasn’t hit you today — I promise, you too, will eventually understand that the words Know. What. You. Want really are the only key to everything you’ve ever wanted.
The good news is: you already know.