Dave Ulrich

What do I want?

Story Highlights
  • Perhaps the most important question we ask ourselves personally and professionally is “What do I want?” This seemingly simple question becomes quite complex as answering it requires self-awareness, sensitivity to surrounding circumstances, and the ability to turn long-term aspirations into daily actions. This article offers five tips to answer this important question. Please let me know in the comments if one resonates with you, and I’d be so grateful if you would share this article with a friend or colleague who might need to read this.

By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization

Perhaps the most important question we ask ourselves personally and professionally is “What do I want?

This question helps define what success means, focus attention, and allow for more conscious choices to make progress. If we don’t answer this question, others are likely to answer it for us; often not to our ultimate benefit.

At a personal level, this question helps make informed choices about lifestyle, relationships, and living one’s values. It helps set expectations that shape attitude, behaviors, and—ultimately—happiness.

In professional settings, this question can be personally answered as a new employee deciding how to embark on a career journey, by mid-term employees seeking meaning from their work, and by maturing employees deciding to adapt their career path, remain in their company or retire.

Business and HR leaders can ask this question as part of a hiring process to ensure the right company match, during a career dialogue to help employees navigate their career journey, and in formal and informal performance conversations to help employees take responsibility for their actions.

This seemingly simple question becomes quite complex as answering it requires self-awareness, sensitivity to surrounding circumstances, and the ability to turn long-term aspirations into daily actions. The preeminent psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.” Or a kitchen magnet states, “Life’s greatest tragedies occur when we give up what want most for what we want now.”

Let me offer five tips to help answer this important question.

1.   Build on your values, passions, and strengths.

When I face choices (often between good options), I generally reflect on what matters most to me, which comes from my fundamental values, daily passions, and personal strengths.

Knowing what you want often starts by being clear about your values. These values represent relatively stable and fundamental beliefs and lead to evolving passions that you care about that then shape your strengths as you focus your energy. Values can be clarified by asking: “What does success look like for me?” “If I were guaranteed success, what would I do?” “What are the character traits that matter most to me?”

Passions indicate what brings pleasure, engagement, and, ultimately, meaning. Passions are often discovered by asking: “What type of work (or activity) most excites me?” “When I wake up looking forward to the day, what comes to mind first?

Strengths are those activities that come naturally. You can identify your strengths through helpful exercises or by reflecting on where you have succeeded and failed. What seems to come more naturally to you? What do you have a knack for doing?

By being aware of your values, passions, and strengths, you can frame what you want as your aspirations. 

2.   Get real.

I have often aspired to more than I can actually accomplish. I sometimes see what others have done and want to do similarly. Even if I put in the magical 10,000 hours of practice, I am not likely to be a talented musician, weigh 180 pounds, or be elected to a political office.

Your aspirations should exceed your resources but not by too much. You have to be realistic about what you can’t do as much as what you can. You may have aspirations to be a professional athlete, rock star, or tycoon, but as you mature, you may realize that your skills or circumstances may not enable you to fulfill these aspirations.

Realism does not deny opportunity, but being realistic about expectations informs your aspirations and helps you accomplish what is within your realm of possibilities.

3.   Make conscious choices.

As I organize my day, my routines should reflect what I want (e.g., time with family, meditation/prayer, exercise). I consciously choose daily actions that keep me on my aspiration journey.

Having realistic aspirations leads to more conscious and doable choices. Hypocrisy occurs when you want A, B, C, but your daily choices are X, Y, Z. A prominent leader declared, “I demand that you [leaders in the company] practice participative management.” But in failing to do this himself, his obvious hypocrisy led to cynicism. He needed to learn to model participation and lead by example not edict.

Likewise, when you look at your calendar, are your daily activities reflecting your values, passions, and strengths? Obviously, there will be times when you will have to do things that do not come naturally and may not be your true passions. But by translating aspirations to daily actions, what you want most should become what you do most often.

4.   Accept the trade-offs of choices.

I have turned down important speaking assignments because of prior family or other personal commitments. Rather than lamenting the loss of the assignment, I relished the opportunity to do things that mattered to me.

You will inevitably face difficult trade-offs to which no right or wrong answer exists. Work/life balance is a misnomer. There are times when work will dominate your time and energy; at other times, you can consciously choose to attend to your non-work passions. Likewise, your relationships have to navigate both good and bad times, ebbs and flows Your career journey often includes being professionally sidetracked and things not always working out.

By being clear about what you want in realistic and actionable ways, these inevitable trade-offs will not be distractions that derail you but opportunities that enrich you.

5.    Evolve your answer.

I realize my wants and choices have evolved. In my early career, I wanted “it all” (impact, status, recognition, healthy body, affirming relationships, connection to the divine, and so forth). As I age, I am becoming more comfortable accepting who I am as I am, both strengths and weaknesses. I hope I continue to inform my desires.

In defining what you want, learn how to learn. Leadership research finds that learning is one of the biggest predictors of long-term personal and leadership achievement. Sometimes, learning means moving on when you honestly recognize that your current dream may not be consistent with your current strengths. At other times, learning means applying real grit and sticking with something when you see that your strengths will help you realize your dream.

What you want now may not be what you want a few years from now. Fundamental values may not change, but circumstances and passions may change. A commitment to service may pivot from working exclusively in a career or business organization to serving in a family or not-for-profit setting.


If I were coaching you, I would likely start with the questions, “What do you want?” and “How can I help you get it?” Using the tips above will make your responses real. 

Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at The RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value.

Originally first published by Dave Ulrich in LinkedIn



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