by Keith Ellis
When people don’t get what they want from life, usually it’s because they don’t know what they want. They grind through one work week after another, daydreaming about the good life, but they rarely muster a clear idea of what that “good life” should be. As competent and hardworking as they are, they lack purpose. They’ve been taught how to shoot, but they’ve never been taught how to aim.
Perhaps the most startling truth about human nature is that anyone can do something remarkable if he has something remarkable to do. Once you decide what you really want, the rest falls into place. You awaken each morning with a reason to get out of bed. Your days are filled with meaning because you fill them with meaningful work. You are able to take advantage of your talents, your time, and your opportunities because you have a purpose. Without this purpose the astonishing power you have to make your dreams come true sits idle, double-parked, the motor running with no one behind the wheel. But with this purpose, you shift smoothly through the gears, traveling at speeds beyond your comprehension.
Go ahead, slip into the driver’s seat. Figure out what you really want. Not what you’re supposed to want, not what someone else wants for you, but what you in your heart of hearts want for yourself.
The easiest way to find out what you really want is to ask yourself. Specifically, ask your subconscious mind–the powerhouse of your intellect. The quality of the answers you receive will depend on how you ask your questions, so I suggest you use a tool that is designed specifically to help you tap the power of your subconscious mind. This tool is called brainstorming. I’ve outlined its five simple steps below.
Step 1: Write the topic you want to brainstorm, in the form of a question, at the top of a clean sheet of paper.
The human mind is the most powerful computer on earth, but you don’t have to learn a programming language to use it; all you have to do is to ask it a question.
Step 2: Write whatever pops into your head.
Ask yourself the question you’ve written at the top of your page, then listen to your answers–all your answers. The best way to listen is to write your answers down. Write every thought that floats into your mind when you ask your question, even the silly thoughts, and the painful ones, and the ones that embarrass you, even the ones that seem to make no sense. Write them all, whether they seem useful or not, whether you approve of them or not. The first rule of brainstorming is to listen to yourself. If you don’t, who will?
Step 3: Accept with gratitude whatever pops into your head.
No matter how silly your thoughts may seem, no matter how impossible, or preposterous, or embarrassing, remind yourself how fortunate you are to have so many interesting ideas. Think of each idea as a gift. We might not like every gift we receive, but we accept each one, we open each one, and we thank the giver. It’s the thought that counts. If you accept all your thoughts gratefully, your subconscious–like any other giver of gifts–will be that much more willing to keep them coming.
Step 4: Keep your pen moving.
Tell yourself you’re going to write for a fixed amount of time–a minute, two minutes, five minutes–and then keep your pen moving until the time is up. Keep writing even if what you write seems like nonsense. Keep writing even if you have to write the same thing over and over. Keep writing, and sooner or later you will discover you have something to say.
Step 5: Save your criticism for later.
Write, don’t judge. You can judge later. Brainstorming is a tool to generate ideas, not to evaluate them.
Have you ever offered a suggestion in a meeting, only to have someone point out how stupid it was? After that, you probably learned to keep your thoughts to yourself. Your subconscious is just as sensitive. If you reject its suggestions, it stops making them. It’s like a faucet–either it’s turned on or it’s turned off. The purpose in brainstorming is to turn the faucet on full blast and keep it on. Generate as many ideas as you can. Let your writer flow, and let your editor go. You can sort it all out later.
There is no time like the present to begin your first official brainstorming session. So take out a blank sheet of paper and write this question at the top:
“What would I really want from life if I were absolutely, positively certain I would get it?”
Now write your answers. Don’t worry about how you’re going to accomplish the things on your list; you can cross that bridge when you come to it. For now, focus on what you want, not on how you’ll get it.
Write whatever pops into your mind. Keep your pen moving for at least two minutes. You might find it helpful to think about specific areas of your life. For example, what do you want from your work? From your home life? From your relationships? What kind of body do you want? What kind of health? What do you want from your hobbies? From your community activities? From your love life? What kind of impact would you like to have on the world? With whom would you like to associate? How would you like to be remembered?
If you run out of steam, write the same answers over and over, each time with a slightly different twist. Change a word, change a color or a size, change an adjective. Whatever you do, keep writing for at least two minutes–longer if the ideas keep flowing. Go ahead, write.
When you’re done, take a break. Stand and stretch; go to the bathroom; take a walk; at the very least, draw a few deep breaths. When you come back, you’re going to switch gears, and you’ll need to feel fresh enough to take on a new challenge.
Once you have a list of things you want from life, you have to decide which one to work on first. At some point, you may want to work on several items at once, but for now, focus on one thing at a time. Put all the wood behind a single arrowhead. Which one thing will it be?
Look at the first two items on your list. Which is more important to you? In your mind, label that item your Current Choice. Then move to the next item on your list–the third item–and compare it with your Current Choice. Which of them is more important to you? The one you prefer becomes your Current Choice. Now move to the next item on your list–the fourth one–and compare that with your Current Choice. Which of them is more important to you? The one you prefer becomes your Current Choice. Repeat this process for each item on your list, comparing each one with whatever your Current Choice happens to be at that moment. Whenever you prefer a new item over your Current Choice, then that new item becomes your Current Choice. Continue until you’ve gone through your entire list.
When you come to the end of your list, the Current Choice that remains is the single most important item on your list. It’s become your First Choice. You have compared it directly or indirectly with every other item and preferred it every time. Now write a “1” beside it. It’s the first item on your list that you’re going to make happen.
This method for setting priorities is called a bubble sort, because it allows the most important item to rise to the top of your list, the way bubbles rise to the top of a glass of champagne. I love it, because it allows you to reduce even the most complicated decisions to a series of simple “A or B” choices. You’ll find it a handy tool whenever you have a choice to make, so you might want to practice it some more before you move on.
Go ahead and rank the second most important item on your list. Ignore your First Choice because you’ve already ranked it. Instead, consider the remaining items, comparing only two at a time, the same way you worked through the list the first time. When you’re done with the second pass, you will have selected your Second Choice– the second most important item on your list. Put a “2” beside it. Repeat the process to discover your Third Choice, your Fourth Choice, and so on until you’ve ranked the top ten items on your list.
What happens when you can’t make up your mind between A or B? Assume for the moment that you can’t have both; either it’s one or none. Ask yourself, what would it feel like living without A? Listen to your answer. Then ask yourself, what it would feel like living without B? If a little voice inside you says it would be easier to live without one than to live without the other, take the hint. You’ve made your decision.
When you absolutely, positively can’t decide between two alternatives, flip a coin. I’m serious. If you really can’t choose between them, then it doesn’t matter which one you choose, does it? They must be pretty close to equal, so why not make it easy on yourself? If you do make a decision by flipping a coin, don’t be surprised if you hear a little voice inside that says you made the wrong choice. Perhaps your options weren’t as equal as you thought. That’s OK, you can always change your mind. At least the coin-flip got you off the fence.
Remember, at this point all you’re doing is establishing priorities. You aren’t discarding any options. You’re just deciding which item on your list to work on first, then second, then third. Once you’ve made that decision, you can concentrate on making all the items on your list happen, one by one, in the order of their importance to you.
Keith Ellis, a nationally known motivational speaker and writer, is the author of a popular new book called THE MAGIC LAMP, How To Make Certain Your Wishes Come True—the first goal setting guide for people who hate setting goals.