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Recently, a talented woman shared with me that she keeps asking herself “what do I want to do?” as she faces a career transition. She can’t find a clear answer, she explained. She was feeling frustrated and stuck.

As I listened to her, I thought about how that question, “What do I want to do?” can become so stressful for so many of us. We feel like we are supposed to know the answer, but often we just don’t. We keep asking, thinking we are going to figure it out in our heads, but in my experience, that rarely happens.

So I suggested to her, what if you delete the last two words from the question?

Don’t ask “what do I want to do?”

Ask “what do I want?” instead.

Answering “what do I want to do?” requires us to know a whole lot about the world, the job market, all the options out there. That’s daunting, if not impossible, to get a handle on.

The question “what do I want?” is different. It points back to our inner worlds, our hearts. That, we can get a sense of.

I think about the kinds of things that I’ve heard readily flow forth from people when I’ve asked them lovingly, “What do you want?” (The lovingly part is important when we ask ourselves this question, too.)

I want flexibility in my work schedule. 

I want to be able to go for a run mid-morning on a weekday, or work in my pj’s some days. 

I want to be solving tough problems.

I want to know I’m making a positive difference. 

Sometimes the answers are very specific:

I want a short commute that gets me home by my kids’ dinner time. 

I want to be making music.

I want a manager who loves to work collaboratively. 

I want to help struggling teens. 

What do I want? It is a large question, a generative one. It’s one that can feel scary sometimes to ask – especially if we haven’t in a while. It’s a question that emotionally stirs us.

Now, a caveat. “What do I want to do?” is not always a bad question. There are times in our lives when we do get a clear answer to that question. If you’ve got one that feels thrilling, go for it. But if “what do I want to do?” causes confusion and makes your heart race with stress, try “what do I want?” instead.

Here’s how. Write down the list – the list of qualities you desire in your work. Then write down all the other things you know about what you want in your work life.

If you think of something you don’t want (and that will probably happen in this process), write it down in the form of what it shows you about what you do want.

In other words, “I don’t want to sit at a desk all day” might become “I’m out in the community, meeting with people for my work every day.” Having this framed in the positive gives you more valuable information to work with, and it’s more inspiring to live with.

When you articulate what you want in this way, you have given yourself a lens for evaluating the opportunities that show up as you move through the world: “Does this align with what I want?”

And, you’ve told yourself, and the intelligence of life, what you are looking for. That clarity will affect what you seek out, what you notice, and what comes your way.

In some deep sense, clarifying what we want seems to be our human business, our inner work. Finding what we can *do* in the world that aligns with what we want is a collaborative process, where the intelligence and serendipity of life play a major, if not starring, role.

So, if “what do I want to do?” isn’t working for you, shift to “what do I want?” instead.



P.S.  If part of your “what’s next” is playing bigger in your life or work, my Playing Big online course could be a great fit for you. You can sign up here to get all the details, as well as access to our early bird discount.




















photo by Nathan Dumlao

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