For all the various questions I get from readers of my blog, from “How do I land my dream job?” and “How can I network with confidence?” to “How do I nail all my job interviews?” and “I have no idea what to do next in my life, what do I do?”, there is really just one answer: You have to know what you want.
Have you ever gone shopping without a list? I do that sometimes (which is against my golden principles for money management) and I actually get dizzy, like so physically uncomfortable I have to call it a day and come back when I know what I need to buy.
Especially here in India where the bazaars of swirling colors and beggars and spices and silver literally leave me breathless if I don’t go in with tunnel vision.
I either spend hours and buy nothing or duck into a shop for a few minutes and come out running to the ATM. Mindless. Similarly, have you ever tried to book a flight when you were really flexible on the date or location? As a nomad, I do that frequently and it gives me nightmares about missing my flight or winding up in Tokyo instead of London.
Personally, I need decisiveness when it comes to these kind of practical matters, and I find it’s the same when it comes to life. Just like the markets in India, anything and everything is for sale, but you need to know what you’ve come to buy. You have to know what you want.
So how do you know what you want in a life that’s constantly assaulting you — through the media, education, friends, family, religion, government, literature, and every other expression of social attitudes that originate outside of you — with ideas of who you should be, what you should want, where you should live, what kind of lifestyle you should have, etc?
While that’s essentially the topic of my entire blog and I’ve written dozens of articles about it, lately I’ve been exploring one particular avenue to figuring out what you want and living the life you’ve always dreamed of: spontaneity.
Knowing yourself and knowing what you want from the winding bazaars of life comes down to having access to your authentic self, but how do you get there? How do you know what’s authentically you and what’s mere social programming? The answer again: spontaneity.
We’ve all been there, in those little moments of life where we stand on the razor’s edge of who we are and who we want to be: a presenter asks for questions but you don’t speak out, a stranger looks lost but you don’t help, the music starts but you don’t dance, a girl smiles at you but you don’t speak. And she walks out of your life and you don’t dance and you don’t help the stranger and you don’t satisfy your curiosity. And you don’t really live.
I’ve begun to combat those moments of hesitation by following what I call the three second rule. I know that if I don’t respond to my gut instincts within three seconds, my defensive ego will take over and the noise of my social conditioning will drown out the little voice that says “Go! Do it! Speak! Dance!”
Just this week I went to visit a tiny village in the foothills of the Himalayas and sat alone by a small river watching two local women chop firewood on the other side. I was lost in thought about who they are and what their lives might be like when I saw one of the women struggling to load the enormous pile of firewood onto her head. Her fragile neck wobbled and her knees shook and before I knew it, I had dropped everything and sprinted across the shallow river and stumbled awkwardly up onto the shore.
I grabbed the pile of wood, with its sweet smell wafting into my face, and lifted it onto a dark, silky head covered in delicate fabric. The women giggled uncontrollably in shock and delight and motioned for me to follow. Minutes later I was seated in a one-room house, their children’s bright faces smiling down on me, sipping warm chai, and seeing for myself who these women are and what their lives are like.
Spontaneity drove me into my real self, the self that instinctively wants to give, love, and understand. There were at least two possible realities in this circumstance: one where I watched alone, afraid to intrude, and one where I embraced humanity and let our very distinct life lines cross in an unlikely moment.
I followed the three second rule, and I understood right then and there that those little moments are the gateways to our true nature.
If you can begin to honor your little impulses in every day scenarios, you will begin to gain access to your innermost chamber of secrets, where the real you resides, with all your raw desires and motivations. Tap into that, and you can start to build a life of real meaning, in the big questions of career and purpose and love, and in the smaller questions of helping, expressing, and fully participating in this world.