the question you need to ask yourself




When you make the conscious decision to be the predominant creative force in your own life – the teller of your tale – you have to get really good at asking yourself this:

What do I want?

It’s not just about the big things. Creating a life is also about the small things, the day-to-day things, how they knit themselves into the ultimate story of you.

I was in my car about to make a dash to Starbucks for a coffee and possibly a cakepop, as I am wont to do, when I suddenly thought to ask myself

What do I actually want?

I looked out the windshield into middle space and tuned into my body, finally paying attention to my emerging flu symptoms. What I wanted, I realized, was to feel cared for and nourished, and there was nobody around who could do that for me except myself.

Radical self-care, and all that.

So for the price of a grande latte and birthday cakepop, I went to Whole Foods and got soup. And I thought about how compelling, how automatic, the pull of habit and routine, so that it overrides what you actually want and need; how easy to get swept up in the mindless chatter unless you literally step back and ask yourself

What do I want?

And that was just over soup.


Knowing what you want, let alone stating what you want, is a skill. In his blog and book FIRST KNOW WHAT YOU WANT, Andrew Halfacre says you can improve at this the same way you improve at anything: through practice. He advises you to:

“Play with starting small – make it a daily habit to have an outcome for all the small things in your life.”

(soup, anyone?)

And adds

“Watch with amusement as your moods go by and practice asking ‘what do I want?’ instead of ‘how do I feel?’.”

For so many of us it feels like a dangerous question. A selfish question. We might wonder if we even have the right to ask it.

We try, instead, to be all things to all people. To be nurturing in our relationships. To compete and win at work. To be pretty, hot and thin. And to make it all seem effortless.

If we can’t do it perfectly, then we shouldn’t do it at all, so we try to be perfect at everything.

This is insane.


“A funny thing happens the minute you begin to [compare yourself with others]”

Writes Youngme Moon in her book DIFFERENT: Escaping the Competitive Herd:

…”There is a natural inclination for folks…to focus on eliminating [their] differences, rather than accentuating them.”

In other words, if you’re faster than me but I’m stronger than you, chances are I will work at improving my speed and you will work at improving your strength until we pretty much resemble each other.

But what would happen, instead, if we just doubled down on what we were already good at?

I become amazingly strong and you become amazingly fast.

Excellence in one thing almost always involves sacrifice, a willingness to be good enough or mediocre at other things.

And negative trade-offs can not only signal excellence — they can create a sense of identity and difference. They can set you apart from the herd. They can put you in a category of your own.

Instead of this quest to be all things to all people – which so often results in stress, burnout, and ultimately being nothing to no one – what if we learned to say, What do I want?

What if we learned to use that question like a machete to carve away the stuff we have little interest in and are not that good at anyway?

We could create some time and space and freedom to double down on our true interests and abilities.

Instead of pleasing others, we could focus instead on finding our true path and creating a unique identity. We could become excellent in a way that differentiates us from everybody else — and shows us who we are and can be.

Jan 29, 2013

10 comments · Add Yours

I also like to ask, What is the core need behind what I want? Is this want a good way to address this need? Sometimes I find that this helps me decide how to prioritize my many and sometimes conflicting wants and decide which ones I might choose to let go or prioritize more highly.


Succinct and forceful! Thanks for this eloquent reminder!


Dear Justine
This piece speaks to me directly in seems. So thoughtful, mindful and deftly stated
For a while I tried to write stories that were not my stories to tell
Being who I am, a Chinese writer with an ancient literary tradition
Behind me, I tried to forsake what’s my strength
Then I caught on, realizing being Chinese and telling Chinese-theme
Is my ultimate strength, and I should double down on that
Making it my machete… To carve a path through the jungle of creativity.
That’s where I should always be. Thank you for your powerful essay
Reminding me so!


Excellent post. Thanks!


This is a lovely way to think about mindfulness, sitting with that question. I know I need practice in it, and probably most of us do: not just in creative practice, but also as an exercise in agency & ownership of energy, I guess. Thanks!


“But what would happen, instead, if we just doubled down on what we were already good at?”

Yes. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking.


“What if we learned to use that question like a machete to carve away the stuff we have little interest in and are not that good at anyway?”

Wow, SO critical! I love this post for carving away the “shoulds” of this kind of dilemma. It captures the whole cataclysmic process I went through in December when I re-addressed my career with the question, what do I WANT? And came up with a very “dangerous” answer. Thanks for writing this and reminding me to ask that question every day!


This seems like a great way to make good decisions on the fly – something I’ve struggled with when unexpected events crop up. Thanks, Justine!


Hey Justine – thanks for the mention. Choosing between following either mood or desire is my favourite of the 12 ways to know what you want.

All the best



i love your blog, your fearless voice!


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