So, I'm usually not a big fan of dichotomies.
When it comes to black & white, I'm all sorts of shades of grey—maybe with a splash of red—and I'm happy with that. It's flexible. It allows me to grow. It allows me the benefit of perspective. It allows me the freedom to be me without having to box myself into arbitrary categories.
I'm not a definitive anything, but rather, a broad everything, and the wide different types of friends I have reflect that. This is also an advantage when it comes to dating–sarcastic guys, soulful guys, athletic guys, artistic guys . . . a prime example of why it's not good to pigeon-hole oneself.
That said, let me go right ahead and contradict everything I just said. In life, there is one distinct dichotomy that plainly exists:
STUFF YOU WANT TO DO
STUFF YOU DON'T WANT TO DO
When it comes to this, the only grey area that exists is in the form of doubts. Uncertainties. Insecurities. The cursed what-ifs. Yet beyond those anxieties, it's actually entirely possible to determine what it is you want, versus what you don't. Let's be real for a second—if you're honest enough with yourself, identifying what you want isn't that difficult of a task. That's not the real issue. What is difficult, however, comes not in determining what you want, but rather, in determining what you want most, when one thing you desire conflicts with another thing you desire. It's a simple matter of logistics.
This is when priorities come into play. I'm not going to drone on about priorities and planning and values and all that happy horseshit, but I am going to outline how I prioritize my wants—particularly when it comes to big, life-changing decisions. Maybe this will be useful to you, too.
So, let's say you've got a laundry list of stuff that you want to do, which is where we're going to focus our attention. Forget about stuff you don't want to do—if you don't want to do it, I don't think you should, and it's as simple as that.
I tend to take a strong stance on that, which can prompt debate among those that are staunchly adamant about honoring obligations and things of that sort, but to me, most obligations are nothing more than a form of manipulative guilt and, man can that get messy. I prefer to act based on what type of impact my action will have, rather than merely acting because some unspoken rule dictates that I'm “suppose to.”
So, your laundry list of stuff that you want to do. Have you got it in mind? Is it to start living more unconventionally? Is it to make a million bucks? To travel the world? To learn a new language? To climb Mount Everest? To finally bake something without burning it? To wear a pink tie without feeling like a girl? To lose 20 pounds? To save enough money to buy a new car? To retire early? To become a doctor? To have a family? To become an international makeout bandit? (Gee, I can't think of anyone off the top of my head with that goal. Wink.)
Whatever your wants may be, take each one and try to put it one of the following categories:
Stuff you want to do because you genuinely want to do it. (e.g. You'd do it for no other reason than to derive pleasure out of it)
Stuff you want to do because it'll yield a favorable reward/outcome/financial gain. (e.g. You do it for the money, baby)
Stuff you want to do in order to avoid an internal conflict/consequence. (e.g. You do it so you don't feel guilty later.)
Stuff you want to do in order to avoid an external conflict/consequence. (e.g. You do it so you don't have an argument with significant other/parents)
Got your wants filed appropriately? Good. Now, for the big, giant, top-secret formula for prioritizing. This is some really complicated math, so look out. Ready?
Scrape everything except for the first category, and make those your damn priorities. That's an order. This is one life you get—there's no redos—so you better be enjoying it. If you're not, what's the point?
If, however, you're looking for a more scientific reason on why you should be paying the most attention to the first category, it's because it's the only type of want that's based on intrinsic motivation–the rest are all extrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivation comes from rewards that are inherent to the activity. Extrinsic motivation comes from rewards from outside sources. It might be tempting to consider the third category–stuff you want to do to avoid internal conflict–as an intrinsic motivator, but essentially since most feelings like guilt are based on social constructs (society defines for you what you should feel guilty about, and you internalize it and then feel those feelings when it's been dictated that you should), then that's actually an extrinsic factor.
So what's the big deal about intrinsic versus extrinsic? Well, research shows that over time, extrinsic motivators undermine intrinsic ones. Therefore, the more you rely on extrinsic factors for motivation, the less and less you value doing something purely for the inherent pleasure involved. And the less you value doing something purely for the inherent pleasure involved, the less you're likely to do it. And the less you likely to do it, the less pleasure you'll have. And the less pleasure you have? Well, do I really need to keep spelling this out?
You don't want life to become based on a series of meaningless, arbitrarily defined benchmarks, and nothing that truly inspires you or makes you get all giddy inside. Point blank. So while it's easy enough to say, “Go do what it is that you want in life,” the caveat is that it's crucial to evaluate the purposes behind your choices in order to best determine what YOU ACTUALLY WANT, versus what you're obligating yourself to want. Indeed, there is a difference and, indeed, it's an important one.