There's a Better Question to Ask Yourself Than "What do I Really Want Out of Life?"

Pete Ross

Photo by kevin turcios on Unsplash

As something of a self-improvement junkie who has joined a couple of men’s groups over the last decade, I feel like I’ve heard all the advice to really find direction in your life:

  • Ask what you want out of life
  • Ask yourself, who do I want to be?
  • Develop a mission statement for your life
  • Create a “not to do” list
  • Work out what you stand for

It all sounds so good and decisive, doesn’t it? There’s just one problem: none of those even remotely resonated with me. None of them really gave me any extra direction, and in the case of the mission statement, just baffled me. I think corporate mission statements are generally a bunch of BS, so how could you possibly apply something like that to something as complex as a person?

So you can imagine my surprise after all these pieces of advice when I came across one that was so startling, that got to the core of everything so effectively, that it felt like I’d been slapped. That piece of advice, or question rather, came from Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. I’ve enjoyed a few of his things that I’ve read, but I never planned on buying the book. My wife did though, and a couple of weeks ago I opened it up to see what all the fuss was about. Then I saw the question:

What are you willing to suffer for?

This question puts everything in perspective, because instead of asking yourself vague questions, you’re now putting a condition on everything you think you want and asking yourself if you’re willing to meet that condition. That’s something that very few of us do. We all think we want to be rich, to be at the top of our field and have wild fantasies about achieving things that most won’t, but we never ask what we’re willing to suffer to make that happen.

What are you willing to suffer is such a great question because it can be applied to pretty much any major life decision:

  • You have a great new job opportunity, but you’ll have to travel for an extra 2 hours each day. You’ll have to be at the office every day because you can’t work from home. Moving up the hierarchy will be far more competitive than where you are now. The pay is incredible, but you expect you’ll be stressed. Are you willing to suffer all those conditions for the money?
  • You want autonomy and complete creative control of your work, so you decide you want to quit your job. Odds are you’ll be earning less and working more (so overall you’ll be earning much less), and having to take care of things you don’t want to (like tax, book keeping etc). You’ll have to cut back on your current lifestyle. Are you willing to suffer those things to have that autonomy you want?
  • You’ve written for a while on Medium and want to write full time. The reality is that you’ll have to cobble an income together from Medium, freelancing, publishing a book or five and other services. There will be a tonne of rejection. Your work situation will be insecure. Are you willing to suffer that to be a professional writer?

Those examples should bring the things you believe you want for your life into sharp focus. It’s easy to say “I want to be a professional writer.” When you find out what you have to suffer for that, you’re either going to say “yes, I want that” or “I’m happy to keep it as a hobby” in a heartbeat. There won’t be any ambiguity.

Check out the video series below. There’s no better example of “what am I willing to suffer?” than special forces selection, because the entire course is designed to make you suffer. You can only prepare for this so much, because the way they deprive you of sleep and food is on another level. These guys are mostly career infantry, yet some withdraw themselves quickly because they realise what they’re going to have to suffer and aren’t willing to do it.

You don’t see any regret there when it happens, more just a resigned shrug of the shoulders and a “I realised it just wasn’t for me.”

The guys that don’t remove themselves, who get removed by staff? They’re crushed. You can see their reactions. And yet, some of them will go back and try again. I know one guy who did and made it on his second attempt. To go through that kind of test not once, but twice, shows that they are willing to suffer anything to make it.

There’s a great quote from Michael Lewis when it comes to suffering, which was borne out of his baseball coach’s frustration with him because Lewis went on a family trip instead of staying to practice. His lack of practice showed at the next game. Lewis decided after that incident that he’d never miss practice again. When he told his parents that he wouldn’t be able to go on that next ski trip, his mother smiled and understood — baseball was that important to him he was willing to suffer not going on a family ski trip while in high school.

Privilege corrupts. You’re always doing what money can buy instead of what duty demands. You’re living your life as if nothing matters so much that you should suffer for it.

Remember: you’re always going to have to suffer something

This is the key. When we don’t choose what we’re going to suffer for, we instead suffer a whole bunch more in ways we don’t expect. By seeking comfort, we invite discomfort elsewhere. Choosing your suffering is always preferable to having it imposed on you, especially when it’s on the way to something you want.

So take some time and think about what you really want in different aspects of your life. Then, work out what you’re going to have to suffer to make them happen. You’ll know very quickly what you’re willing to suffer for, and what is really just a fantasy.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.


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