Figuring out what you want in life is very hard. No one tells you exactly what you want. You have to figure it out on your own.

When you’re young, it doesn’t really matter what you want because your parents choose what you do. This is a good thing, otherwise kids would grow up uneducated and malnourished from ice cream breakfasts. But when you grow up, you get to call the shots.

You Need Data to Figure Out What You Want

The big problem with calling the shots is that what your conscious, narrative mind thinks you want and what your subconscious mind really wants often differ quite a lot. For instance, growing up I said I wanted to be in politics, but in reality I always found myself tinkering with computers. Eventually you have the “aha” moment, and drop things you thought you wanted and focus on the things that you really want, the things you keep coming back to.

If you pay attention to what you keep drifting back to, you’ll figure out what you want. You just have to pay attention.

Collect data on what makes you happy as you go. Run experiments with your life.

You don’t have to log what you do each day and run statistics on your life. But you do have to get out there and create the data. Try different things. Try different jobs, try different activities, try living in different places. Then you’ll have experiences–data–which you can use to figure out exactly what the hell it is you really want.

You Want More Than You Think

People like to simplify things as much as possible. It would be nice if you only wanted a few things, such as a good family, a good job, and food on the table. I think though that in reality we each want somewhere around 10 to 20 different things. On my list of things I want, I’ve got 15 or 16 different things. Family, money, and food are on there. But also some more specific things, like living in the San Francisco Bay area, and studying computer science and statistics.

Being Happy is About Balancing All of These Things

You don’t get unlimited hours in the day so you’ve got to budget your time amongst all of these things that you want. If I were to spend all of my time programming, I’d have no time for friends and family, which are two things really important to me. So I’ve got to split my energies between these things. You’ll always find yourself neglecting at least one area. Life is a juggling act. The important thing is to juggle with the right balls. It’s fine to drop a ball for a bit, just pick it back up and keep going.

Limit the Bad Stuff

As you grow up you’ll learn that there are things you want that aren’t so good for you. Don’t pretend you don’t want that, just try to minimize it. For instance, part of me wants to eat ice cream almost everyday. But part of me wants to have healthy teeth, and part of me wants to not be obese. You’ve got to strike a balance.

Your Wants Change

First, you’ve got to figure out all the different things you want. Then, you’ve got to juggle these things as best as possible. Finally, when you think you’ve got it figured out, you’ll realize that your wants have changed slightly. You might want one thing a bit less (say, partying), while wanting something else more (a career, a family, learning to sail, who knows). That’s totally normal. Just add or drop the new discovery to your list and keep going.

Make a Mindmap

Almost 2 years ago I made a dead simple mindmap of what I wanted. I think a mindmap is better than a list in this case because A) it looks cooler and B) there’s not really a particular ranking with what I want. My list has changed by just one or two things in 2 year’s time.

I like to be mysterious and have something to talk about at parties, so I’ve gone ahead and erased most of the items, but you can get the idea:

If you don’t know what it is you want, try making a mindmap.