How to Figure Out What You Want: An Actually Helpful Guide

How do you figure out what you want out of life?

Your parents wanted you to become a lawyer, a doctor, or a physical therapist… something practical.

You wanted to be an astronaut, a fireman, or a superhero… something fulfilling.

That was a long time ago.

Now, you’re stuck somewhere in between what you wanted and what your parents wanted — you’re making just enough money to eke out a living, you’re “sort of” trying to pursue things that interest you, and you’re mostly waiting for Saturday and Sunday each week.

Or maybe you make great money at a job you hate — you wouldn’t be the first.

Either way, you’re lost, you’re confused, and you can’t shake the nagging feeling that you should be doing something more important with your life.

In this guide, I’m going to show you why pain and suffering are the best indicators of what you want, and then I’m going to walk you through making a decision and test-running your choice for 3-6 months.

But first, pain.

Life Hurts, No Matter What

The path hurts.

And I’m not talking about the path to greatness, I’m not even talking about the path to success — I’m talking about the path; life, time, movement, change, existence, being.

It hurts.

If I stay in bed all day, determined not to go outside and experience discomfort, then after some time my back will hurt, I’ll feel lonely, I’ll become depressed, and if things get bad enough, I’ll have to move in with my parents.

If I decide to do what others expect of me — get a college degree, a 9-5 job, and rack up lots of debt — I will grow bitter about putting others’ desires before my own. I will also come to resent the life I’m living… because it’s not the life I wanted to live.

What if I follow my dreams?

There will still be pain. I will suffer when progress comes more slowly than I’d like, when I fail at things that should have been easy, when I wonder if I’m good enough or if I’ll ever accomplish what I set out to accomplish.

Not to mention the uncontrollable pain that we’re all destined to experience, regardless of which path we choose — death, illness, heartbreak, the loss of a friendship…

So it hurts. It’s going to hurt. And you can’t do anything about it…

Well, except for choosing what kind of pain you’re going to experience.

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Pick Your Poison

There’s a difference between wanting and “wanting.”

You “want” a million dollars. You “want” to be rich and famous. You “want” a nice car, a bigger TV, a six-pack, and a fluffy king-sized bed.

Of course, you do! We all do.

But let’s remember that all paths include suffering. Good paths. Bad paths. Boring paths. They are all going to hurt sometimes. Each will just hurt in a different way and at different times.

All Paths Include Suffering | Get Your Gusto Back

A far better question to ask yourself, then, isn’t “What do I want?” but “What am I willing to suffer for?” and “What kind of suffering am I willing to endure?” and “What is something that’s worth suffering for?”

To understand this, consider two of the most revered heroes in literature, Sam and Frodo from Lord of the Rings. On their way to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, they go hungry, they are physically injured, they fight giant spiders, and they watch close friends die.

Still, in the end, they count their suffering as being worth it.

After Frodo attacks Sam (his best friend) under the influence of the ring and then realizes what he’s done, sitting down in his doubt, he says, “What are we holding onto, Sam?”

To which Sam responds, “That there’s some good in this world, Mr Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

Here’s the full clip (DEFINITELY worth watching).


When you weigh the suffering of a certain path up against all the good stuff that path will bring with it and find that, to you, the good outweighs the bad, you’ve found something worth pursuing, something that will keep you going for years to come (even when the going gets hard).

Mark Manson, the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, encourages his readers to ask themselves a silly question when trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives…

“What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich and does it come with an olive?”

He explains…

“Everything involves sacrifice. Everything includes some sort of cost. Nothing is pleasurable or uplifting all of the time. So, the question becomes: what struggle or sacrifice are you willing to tolerate? Ultimately, what determines our ability to stick with something we care about is our ability to handle the rough patches and ride out the inevitable rotten days…

What shit sandwich do you want to eat? Because we all get served one eventually… And you might as well pick one with an olive.”

In other words, don’t ask yourself “What do I want?”

Ask yourself “What am I willing to suffer for?” or “What is important enough to me that I’m willing to suffer for it?”

Because when you’re in the gutter, when things aren’t going how you planned, when the path you chose is throwing shit at you… you’re going to ask yourself “Why? Why am I doing this?”

And like Michael Aliotti, you better have a damn good answer, or else you’re going to quit…

What Drove Michael Aliotti to Do 7,295 Burpees in 12 Hours? Why Did Michael Aliotti Do 7,000+ Burpees? | Get Your Gusto Back

I can do this, Michael told himself. I can do this.

In the middle of September 2016, Michael is working to get in the zone. In a moment, he’s going to try and break the world record for most burpees done in 12 hours.

As part of his training regimen, he’s already completed a few 10-hour sessions worth of burpees — this would just be two hours more. Down, out, in, up… he thinks of the burpee as those four basic movements, a sort of testament to the life-long courage of people who fall but always get back up.

The buzzer goes off and he drops to the floor. He gets back up. He drops again. He gets back up again.

Michael Aliotti Burpees Event | Get Your Gusto Back

For the first six hours, everything goes as planned. 150 burpees, then rest. 150, then rest. He’s holding a steady 600 reps per hour… down, out, in, up. Down, out, in, up.

Then, near the end of the sixth hour, Michael feels a twinge in his quads — something he’d felt before in training, but never so soon. With only 150 reps to finish out the hour, he gets back to work, but the twinge increases to a full-blown cramp. He pushes through the final set of reps, stands up, and can barely walk from the pain. He decides to lower to sets of 50. This helps, but then his abdomen seizes and protrudes like a watermelon — white-hot pain. He collapses and the medical team rushes over and, for the next 30 minutes, they massage his muscles.

Finally, the cramping seems under control and Michael is ready to keep going.

He starts by doing sets of 10 every 60 seconds. This works for a few sets, but just as he feels like he’s settling back into a flow, he gets more abdominal cramps.

The pain freezes Michael like a statue. Within moments, he’s back to a chair where medical personnel can massage out the cramps. They spray magnesium on his muscles and they even apply some lidocaine to numb the pain.

People around him are gasping and friends and family are whispering to themselves. He realizes in that moment that he could give up and no one would blame him for it. Later, they would say “There’s nothing you could have done,” “You did the best you could,” “You made it for 6 hours! That’s better than most people!”

But Michael knew better.

“I knew there was more in me. I knew that if I quit at 6 hours and went home, I wouldn’t be satisfied. And this was about more than beating some silly world-record, it was about my father-in-law’s fight with cancer.”

If he can battle that, can’t I battle this?

You see, Michael had worked hard to gather charity pledges for cancer research. And it was all coming down to this single set of 12 hours.

Remembering the why behind his efforts, Michael decides to keep going. He does 10 burpees, collapses, and the medical team rushes over. A few minutes later, he does 10 more burpees… and collapses again. The final 4 hours drag on like that. Michael knows he won’t beat the world record, but every time he feels weak or discouraged, he thinks of his father-in-law and all the millions of people who are battling cancer.

This is for them. This is not about me, it’s about them.

Down, out, in, up. Down, out, in, up, collapse.

It was September of 2016. By the end of the 12 hours, Michael had raised about $17,000 for cancer research (their goal was $12,000). He did not beat the world record but went home feeling satisfied because he knew he had given everything he’d had — “It wasn’t my best outcome. But it was my best effort.”

After recounting the story, he told me, “I don’t think I would have given everything I had  — I think I would have given up — if I hadn’t had a really good reason to keep going.”

This is just one example of how knowing why you’re doing something makes all the difference. And whatever it is you dedicate the next chunk of your life to, you’d better have a really good reason for doing so.

6 Steps to Choosing, Creating, and Test-Running the Life You Want to Live

Now it’s time for action.

Grab a piece of paper and a pen. I’m going to walk you through six steps to figuring out what you want to do with your life. These are the steps I went through a few years ago and since then, I’ve been spending more time on the things that matter most to me: my family, this site, and traveling the world.

Ultimately, these steps helped me to become the man I wanted to become and to identify what really matters to me.

They can do the same for you.

Step #1: Write Down Everything That You Think You Might Enjoy

At the core of living your dream life is being able to do things that you love doing, every day. Figuring out what you want to do with your life doesn’t mean avoiding hard work or pain; it means doing something that you love enough to make the hard work and pain worth it.

To start, make a list of everything that you think you might enjoy doing.

Try not to write down things that are result-oriented (“Make a lot of money” or “Be happy”). Instead, get practical; write down things you think you would enjoy dedicating the next chunk of your life to (“Become a well-paid author” or “Open a bookstore” or “Become a successful actor”).

There are no limits here — if you think you might enjoy doing it (even if you’ve never done it before), then write it down…

Write Down Your Options | Get Your Gusto Back

Step #2: Ask “Why?” & Cross Off Bad Answers

Tony Robbins once said, “People are not lazy, they simply have impotent goals — that is, goals that do not inspire them.”

What he meant is, in order to do the hard work necessary to achieve what you want to achieve, what you’ve chosen to do must be exciting and inspiring.

So go through your list and ask yourself “Why? Why do I want to do this?” for each item.

There’s no one watching, so be honest with yourself. Maybe you wrote down “become an actor” just because you want to be famous (not a good reason), or maybe you wrote it down because you think you’d genuinely enjoy that creative process (a good reason).

If you ask yourself “Why?” and have a shallow or unsatisfying answer, cross it off.

The easiest way to tell if you have a bad reason for wanting to do something is to ask yourself, “Is this something that I’m willing to suffer for?”

If it’s not, then cross it off.

Cross Off Bad Answers | Get Your Gusto Back

Step #3: Only Choose One Thing

It’s tempting to try and commit to multiple things at once…

Don’t.

You have a finite amount of time and energy. That time and energy is better spent trying to progress in one direction than in multiple directions.

Creative Energy Graphic | Get Your Gusto Back

I’m not saying you’re going to commit to this decision, leave your family, live in the woods alone, and only do your one thing. I’m saying that this ONE THING is going to be the only extra thing in your life that you’re committed to.

You still have to go to work, pay the bills, spend time with your family, etc… but rather than splitting any extra time you have between multiple ambitions and making little progress in every direction, you’ll choose just ONE THING.

That doesn’t mean you can’t spend time on other hobbies that interest you (video games, television, and reading, for instance), but it does mean that for your ONE THING, you’re committed to doing the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is the ONE THING that you’re willing to suffer to create.

Be relentless and only choose one thing. That way, you’ll make real progress toward accomplishing what you want to accomplish.

You see, we all — human beings in general — have a fundamental desire to build something with our own two hands, to contribute, to make a difference in the world.

And after you’ve written down some different things that interest you, you’re probably going to find that… well, you’d be totally fine with pursuing any of them!

So here are a few questions to ask yourself if you’re still having trouble making a choice…

  • What about this is appealing to me?
  • Am I willing to do what it takes to make this happen?
  • Is the suffering worth the reward to me?
  • When I think of doing this, do I get excited?

Choose ONE THING | Get Your Gusto Back

Remember — you can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything. So long as your ONE THING allows you to contribute consistently and express your unique creativity, then it’s probably a great choice.

Step #4: Create an Easy-To-Follow Action Plan & Write Down Your WHY

Now that you’ve committed to just one thing, what are you actually going to do about it?

That’s where your action plan comes in.

First, write down the WHY behind your decision and post it somewhere that you can see it everyday. Remember Michael and his burpees? If you’re going to stick with it when it gets tough (and it’s going to get tough), then you need to know why you’re doing it.

I’m going to become a well-paid author so that I can make a living doing something I love, so that I can tell compelling stories, and so I can make an indirect but tangible impact on the people who read what I write.

Next, grab another sheet of paper and write down all of the big, high-level steps you’ll need to take in order to accomplish what you want to accomplish. For example…

High-Level To-Dos | Get Your Gusto Back

Then break each of those big steps into little bite-sized steps. If you want to learn about the publishing process, then maybe you should start by reading a book that teaches you how to create a book proposal. And if you want to open a business, then maybe you should start by doing market research. Write down all of the little, actionable steps you can think of.

Granular To-Dos | Get Your Gusto Back

Now, look at your list, and ask yourself what you’re most willing to commit to doing every week. Some of the to-dos on your list will be more appealing than others — start with those. Write down exactly how much of those activities you’re going to do every week, and try to make your commitment sustainable for well into the future (don’t get too ambitious).

Specific To-Dos | Get Your Gusto Back

And voila! You have a plan of action! Put those to-dos somewhere that you can look at them every single day and, ideally, check them off once they’re finished. You can use a tool like Trello to track your progress.

But before we move onto Step #5, a quick cautionary note…

CAUTIONARY NOTE: A common mistake that people make when planning the to-dos for their dream life is they over-commit. And by over-committing, they quickly get burnt-out, quit, and end up right back where they started.

So be realistic with how much time you have and how many to-dos you can commit to. It’s far better to build your dream-life slow and steady than it is to make lots of progress in the beginning but quit after just a few months because you’re exhausted.

Leave time for the things you enjoy like reading and playing video games or watching TV and spending time with family, and treat your ONE THING as a side-hustle. You need to dedicate time to it every week because it fills you up and helps you work toward your long-term goals, but you don’t need to dedicate all your time to it. Balance is key.

Step #5: Test-Run Your Action Plan for 6 Months (Adapt Your To-Dos As Needed)

Don’t overthink it.

It’s possible that the ONE THING you’ve chosen isn’t something you’re going to be interested in once you actually… well, try it. You might find that you don’t enjoy the process and that you’d much rather pursue something else.

That’s totally fine.

But you’ve got to give it at least 6 months (if you’re super antsy, you can do 3 months) of following your action plan to determine whether you enjoy the process enough to keep going and to experience at least some small amount of progress. Then, after 6 months, you can decide whether you want to quit or keep going.

Also, during that 6 month commitment, you’re probably going to find that some things on your to-do list are working well, some are burning you out, and some are ineffective, so adapt your action plan as needed. Opt for strategies that make real progress and avoid spending time on tasks that burn you out — remember, the only way to build your dream life is by doing what is sustainable FOR YOU.

Version 2 Of To-Do List | Get Your Gusto Back

Step #6: Check Your Results, Reassess, Keep Going

So you’ve reached the end of your 6-month (or 3-month) commitment and you’ve either (A) found that you enjoy your ONE THING enough to keep at it for another 6 months or (B) you’ve found that it’s terrible and you don’t want to keep doing it.

Or maybe (C), it’s been okay, but you’re discouraged because you feel like you’re making very little progress.

Here’s what to do in each of those situations…

A. If you’re making progress and you enjoy what you’re doing, keep doing it. There’s no reason to question your decision when things are going as well as this.

B. Even though it feels terrible right now, ask yourself why it feels terrible? Do you outright not enjoy it and need to move onto something else? If that’s the case, then go back through these steps and choose something else to pursue for the next 6 months. But just make sure that you’re not going through a short blip of discouragement when you make the decision to quit — never make a major decision in a valley.

C. In this case, you probably haven’t found a rhythm for making real progress toward your goals. But so long as you’re still excited about your ONE THING, this is probably just a matter of seeking out coaching from someone who’s done what you’re trying to do so you can start building momentum and getting results.

So, What Do You Want to Do With Your Life?

To quote Gandalf, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

What are you going to do with the time that’s been given to you?

Are you going to pursue your childhood dream? Are you going to try and build a business? Are you going to try and become one of the most creative people of the 21st century? Or are you finally going to take back control of your health?

Whatever it is, create your to-do list and get started right away. You’ll be shocked at how great it feels to be building something that you want to build — hard work and all.

Because as human beings, we’re meant to create, to build, to manifest, and to live the life we want to live.

The above 6 steps will help you do just that.

P.S. For those of you wondering, Michael did go on to beat the world record in September of 2018 for most burpees done in 12 hours (he did 7,295). You can learn more about him over here.

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Mike Blankenship

Mike is a writer for SUCCESS, AdWeek, and Addicted2Success. He’s been quoted on Forbes and Entrepreneur for his expertise in marketing and personal development. He’s also the owner of Get Your Gusto Back where he helps people reignite their inner fire.

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