LIfe as Art: What Do I Want?

I’ve coached many unfulfilled people over the years.

I always asked, “What do you want?”

They often responded, “I don’t know what I want.”

We then began a journey for them to discover what they wanted for their lives, to create a vision of their future, and to develop a plan to move from the life they had to the life they wanted.

I’m not surprised that people don’t know what they want in their lives. Asking ourselves what we want is a creative act. But we live in a reactive culture; we solve problems: we fix broken stuff, make things that hurt go away, and we want the remedy to be fast, cheap, and painless. We don’t create our lives from scratch; we try to fix the lives we often stumbled mindlessly into. We follow the paths of least resistance. But creating a life requires us to walk into resistance.  And when we do know what we want, we often give up our pursuit of it quickly because we feel stressed by the gap between the life we have and the life we want. Instead of learning to manage the tension we feel, we lower the vision–wrong thing to do. We should learn to deal with our inner tension and rarely, if ever, lower our goals.

I wanted to leave the corporate world at age 47 and go back to school and get a Ph.D. I was afraid to quit my job. I was good at the work, and I made a good living. But my spirit wanted something different and something more. I worked with two consultants and spent two years thinking about my purpose in life, my core values, and creating a vision for my life for the next few years. I set four goals: 1) Get a Ph.D., 2) Begin to write, 3) Try out consulting, and 4) go to Africa to photograph wildlife. I could not have imagined those goals six months earlier: we must go through the struggle of our own unique creative process.

I completed the Ph.D. 3 1/2 years later. I’ve been writing ever since. I made a living consulting for 13 years, and I went to Africa and took more than 4,000 wildlife photos. And along the way, unexpectedly, I got divorced, lived on the side of a mountain in Colorado for 14 months, moved to Fargo, North Dakota, and married Melanie. I lived in Moorhead, Minnesota for seven years and when a record flood of the Red River forced us from our home, we renewed our lives and ended up in Plymouth, Minnesota with a new job for Melanie and new adventures for me.

Sound easy?

Well, let me tell you: I was scared stiff more times than I can remember. I did battle with my internal resistance and the opposition of others. I suffered the anxiety of possibility along the way. I had little idea of what I was getting into or how hard it would be.  How could I have known? I had stepped into the unknown. I adapted as I went. I suffered the “humiliations of the novice” as I learned. Life was messy and inefficient. I never lowered my goals. I stayed true to the values and the purpose I had defined for myself. I battled the forces of conformity. I learned to manage the difficult growing pains. Only charlatans tell you that deep personal change is easy.  I’ve renewed my vision for my life many times since then, and I’ve learned how to manage feeling inadequate much of the time. I live by a simple model: plan what I can, take action, reflect on what happens, and adapt accordingly. I feel alive.

What do you want?

7 thoughts on “LIfe as Art: What Do I Want?

  1. Were the feelings of fear and anxiety you speak of before or after you ‘stepped into the unknown”?
    Staying in a situation that is no longer conducive to one’s well being -on all levels- is what brings feelings of fear, anxiety and helplessness, however upon making to decision to leave that situation and fly into the unknown and acting on it – with a plan or no plan – is exhilarating in itself and in my experience(s) no fear or anxiety felt, instead feelings of joy, of freedom (free from doom) and anticipation of the new, without knowing or having to know how that new would materialize, because staying in that dead zone was no longer an option. Isn’t it about embracing life and trusting it? Because if once the leap is made, and fear and anxiety remain then you are questioning if the decision to leave was the right one.
    Anyway that’s my take on it.


    • I find it easy to feel fear or anxiety before and after major, life-altering, and sometimes risky decisions and actions. The “anxiety of possibility” that I wrote is the anxiety, I believe, of personal responsibility. The greater the freedom, the more the choices, the deeper the personal responsibility for our choices. I often question, for a time, if a decision is the right one. I love to embrace life, but I fall a bit short on the trust part.


  2. For me, the work I did on my values, purpose, and vision was crucial. I dug deep into them and when done I was invested in them and they gave me courage. A support group of a few trusted people helped. I asked a psychologist friend how to deal with fear. “You go through it,” she replied.


  3. It was easy for me – do or die. Stay in a dead zone and become a zombie. That is not living. I found in the leap (exhilarating, anticipatory, joyous feelings of the unknown new I was going toward) was where I felt alive.


  4. My comments go in two directions:
    1. It may be necessary (it was for me) to step back (with the help of good friends) to realize it’s OK to “want”… and in my case to look at what had caused my block in that area of my life.
    2. Then, I say, “bravo” to you, Tom, in setting your goals so clearly. For myself, I needed to formulate my personal Values, Mission and Vision statements first. I’m 75 and reviewing and refining my goals continually!!
    (I wrote this before I read the comments above (!) and see that you credit a similar process, Tom! I think we’re on the same page…)


    • Eleanor: We are on the same page. I did the values and purpose work first (and much other thinking) and the vision (goals) came as a result of that. My view is that values and purpose remain constant and vision changes/evolves along the road of life. My goals change too as I renew aspects of my life.


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