We Can’t Do a Don’t

During the course of our lives, there will be times, perhaps lasting decades, when many of us find ourselves in stress and conflict much more consistently than living in joy. At those times, life can seem a constant stream of challenges – work is annoying, relationships are dull or unsatisfying, money is a worry no matter how much we have, and the future is scary. Daily living becomes a maze of obligations, have-to’s, and reactions to an environment outside of our control. The key to a way out, is uncovering what we really want for ourselves.

Most of us focus on what we don’t want out of life rather than what we do want. With this perception of the world, we keep finding what’s wrong in others, in our environment and in ourselves. This is one major reason for stress and conflict. On the other hand, “What do I really want?” is a tough question; the answer is frequently nuanced and many-layered. In my conversations with family, friends, clients, or even myself, I find that people tend to phrase their wants and whys in a negative way.

  • Why do I want to make a lot of money now? So I can stop working.
  • Why is it important for the kids to get good grades in school? So I don’t need to worry about them supporting themselves after they grow up.
  • Why do I work so hard? So I don’t become homeless and live under a bridge.
  • Why must I control the family business? So others don’t ruin it and destroy what I’ve worked so hard to create.

This makes a lot of sense. Evolutionarily, we are predisposed to look for what we don’t want. For early human beings living in the wild, the ability to notice what’s wrong is often the difference between life and death. Today, even though many people in the world no longer need to fear for survival on a daily basis, this fear is always present.

This negative bias is common even for people who are successful when viewed via the traditional standards of wealth, fame, and power. For example, I have worked with a number of clients who have achieved great wealth through successful IPOs or acquisitions. Even though they now have more than enough money to cover their necessities for the rest of their lives, they are still stressed about money. Some stressors include fear of losing that money, worry that money will corrupt their values, guilt or shame with having more than others in their lives, or concerns about raising entitled children.

The trouble is, avoiding what we don’t want doesn’t necessarily get us what we do want. This can be illustrated by a simple game of “You can’t do a don’t”. Come up with a position that you want someone to pose. Then, get that person to pose that position by telling them what NOT to do. Every instruction you give results in a position but it’s unlikely the resulting position is the one that you want.

Similarly, we’re always taking action, even if that “action” is just sitting around. What we are doing now is already taking us on a trip toward a destination. Without our conscious intention to find what we need so that we can feel joy and fulfillment, we let our environment and reactivity choose the course for us.

When we don’t know the direction we are heading, we end up in a constant state of reacting to whatever is triggering us at the moment, like a rudderless ship at sea.

So how do we figure out what we want? When I ask myself what I really want, my mind goes blank. What if I don’t know what I want and there’s nothing that I feel strongly passionate about? If I need to guess at what I want, what if I get it wrong? What if I change my mind? The desire to find the “one thing” and “get it right” frequently keeps people from experimenting and trying things out.

One way to start uncovering our wants is to start with our values. Look at what we are already doing and discern the positive things we receive from those actions. Maybe we like the feelings from having made a contribution, maybe it’s a sense of security, maybe it’s connecting with the people we love. Then, we take a step back and ask ourselves, what needs to happen for me to feel like I’ve made a contribution, like I have security, or like I’m loved. This can inform us of the actions we might take.

Another way is to expose ourselves to something different and notice what it is that we like or don’t like about this new thing. The key is to think about how to get more of what I want, in addition to how to get less of what I don’t want.

Even if we are not sure, by randomly picking a few positive values to live by for now, we are building something beautiful in our lives. Then, if we find that some other value brings us more joy, we can always reassess and refine.

Life is what we experience during our journeys and not just at the destinations. By living life through an intention of joy and a bias toward what we want, we design a life of beauty and fulfillment for ourselves.


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