What you should want in life

We live in a culture that cultivates excessive focus on the self. My day is filled with thoughts that cycle between what I want, what I don’t want, what I want but don’t have, and what I have but don’t want.

Yesterday, as in most days, I was thinking about the type of career I wanted (academia seems appealing at the moment), and why I didn’t have it, and what I can do to get it.

I also think about money, and my desire to have more of it (despite knowing excessive focus on wealth will lead to unhappiness). I think about new places I want to travel to, or new cities I’d like to live in.

Our culture encourages this kind of thinking. There are thousands of self-help books that tell you to start with an exercise to figure out what exactly it is you want. Suddenly, your thoughts are filled with information about specific nutrition and the dianabol cycle. Then they prescribe a way for you to achieve that goal.

Frankly, it’s exhausting.

Consider these questions for reflection that are found in Tim Ferriss’ book, The Four Hour Work Week:


  1. How has being “realistic” or “responsible” kept you from the life you want?
  1. How has doing what you “should” resulted in subpar experiences or regret for not having done something else?
  1. Look at what you’re currently doing and ask yourself, “What would happen if I did the opposite of the people around me? What will I sacrifice if I continue on this track for 5, 10, or 20 years?”

I don’t have a problem with these questions per se. In fact, the religions I have studied so far all have reflection exercises designed to force you to examine the current state of your life and why it is so unsatisfactory.

However, let’s move on to Tim’s next step: the “Dreamlining” process.

Create two timelines—6 months and 12 months—and list up to five things you dream of having (including, but not limited to, material wants: house, car, clothing, etc.), being (be a great cook, be fluent in Chinese, etc.), and doing (visiting Thailand, tracing your roots overseas, racing ostriches, etc.) in that order.

Using the 6-month timeline, star or otherwise highlight the four most exciting and/or important dreams from all columns. Repeat the process with the 12-month timeline if desired.

Determine the cost of these dreams and calculate your Target Monthly Income (TMI) for both timelines. If financeable, what is the cost per month for each of the four dreams (rent, mortgage, payment plan installments, etc.)? Start thinking of income and expense in terms of monthly cash flow—dollars in and dollars out—instead of grand totals. Things often cost much, much less than expected. For example, a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder, fresh off the showroom floor at $260,000, can be had for $2,897.80 per month.

Tim first gets you to think about what you want and then creates a plan for you to get it, for yourself. He is agnostic towards your individual goals. Living in Thailand for a year is just as legitimate as paying nearly $3k per month to own a Lamborghini.

What I like about religion is that that they tell you, on a high level, what you should strive for and what you should want. They provide clarity to what you should desire, and it is never (as far as I know) something materialistic like a Lamborghini.

The Vow of the Bodhisattva

The Bodhisattva vow is a commitment made by Mahayana Buddhists to attain enlightenment for the sake of others.

Here is a version the Dalai Lama routinely evokes:

With a wish to free all beings
I shall always go for refuge
to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
until I reach full enlightenment.

Enthused by wisdom and compassion,
today in the Buddha’s presence
I generate the Mind for Full Awakening
for the benefit of all sentient beings.

As long as space endures,
as long as sentient being remain,
until then, may I too remain
and dispel the miseries of the world.

To live for others is a powerful and counter-cultural way of proceeding through the world. It is a simple concept but difficult to put into practice, like many worthwhile endeavors.

This vow saves you the pain of constantly focusing on what you want but don’t have. It directs your energy and focus to the suffering of others, which may also be painful for you to acknowledge, but it’s a pain of a different sort. It’s one that comes from a place of altruism and goodness. Instead of feeling sorrow because you haven’t achieved $3k/month in passive income, which means you can’t drive a Lamborghini, you might feel helpless because you can’t help everyone.

You trade a superficial sorrow for a much deeper one, which I admit, doesn’t sound appealing. After all, living in despair because you can’t end world suffering is not sustainable.

However, with enough practice, you’ll develop a clear perception of the way things are, and act accordingly.

“But genuine compassion is actually accompanies by a clear perception of the way things are. The truth is, millions of people are suffering, and you can only do so much about it. From these clear perceptions and the compassionate feelings arise the strength and skill to do whatever you can to alleviate suffering, along with the accepting that you can only do so much.” – Jonathan Landaw

I found this to be true during my Catholic month, when I felt guilt because I blew off a homeless guy. I decided to do what I can by carrying dollar bills with me at all times to give to the homeless, and I started volunteering at a soup kitchen once per month.

These small acts, which I admit have fairly minimal impact on the world, have made me happier.

It has made me much happier than my attempts to follow the dreamlining process and build a passive-income business.


I would be skeptical of any self-help book that tries to teach you to achieve any desire you may have. Not all desires are created equal.

Religion can help you sort out which desires are appropriate and fulfilling to pursue, and which desires will lead to unhappiness.

Now excuse me while I calculate my Target Monthly Income for living like a Buddhist.

  • John

    Well, I wrote something very long earlier, but it appears to have disappeared into Disqus during the sign up process. I do not comment on things often…
    I will try again, because:

    “Academia sounds nice” is a very dangerous mindset. If you really want it, that is not enough. You must also want to do some research. You must also not expect that research to be a huge contribution. You must want it badly enough to fill your life with it, because that is what your competition is doing, and what everyone around you will be doing. The work itself must be enough reward, because the odds of going to grad school and ending up with a position in academia after 15 years are slim. If you go in expecting a job, expecting that your degree will be respected outside even, you will be disappointed. If you can support that decision ONLY on the desire to do research, then you might be okay. Going in with any other aim is likely to end in a unique form of burn out, depression, and anger felt only by other grad students, post docs, and assistant/adjunct professors.

    Background – I am a physics grad student who plans to escape academia as soon as I can graduate. I’ve seen this too many times, when other students have burnt out or become horribly depressed, etc. I’ve heard people say that they want to be a professor so many times, with absolutely no understanding of what that entails day-to-day. If I am wrong, and you understand something of this, I apologize. Just please do not go to academia on such a simple thought. Go in if you are filled with burning curiosity, and desire to participate in research. Go in if NOTHING ELSE will satisfy that curiosity. You will learn an enormous amount (about both yourself and a very particular field), and you will work like a dog. Academia is a wonderful and terrible world, but it is really a completely different world. Please, please, do not approach it lightly. It can very easily destroy the people who do so.

    Anyway, I quite enjoy your work. Stoicism has always been one of my favorite things, and have been trying to meditate for the last couple of weeks. Just sitting is amazingly difficult! I read “Mindfulness in plain English”, and was hooked on the idea of meditation as an experimental method to interact with oneself.


    • HI John,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ve done more research into academia than just simply “imagining” what it would be like. However, you bring up great points. Sounds like academia is a great environment to practice detachment 😉

      In the context of this post, going into academia for selfish reasons (as in, thinking solely of the self) is not the way to go. It would be better to pursue a path for the sake of others. If you’re a fan of the show Friday Night Lights, “clear eyes, full hearts” is a good way to describe it.

      Thanks for reading!


      • John

        Hi Dale,

        That’s an excellent attitude to have. Detachment in this environment would be quite an asset, especially when defending your work! I haven’t watched Friday Night Lights, but I really like that description.
        I tend to get fired up about people getting in to academia with unrealistic expectations (I was absolutely part of that group in the beginning, partly from relying on the advice of people who got started decades ago…). I also think academia would be a better place if more people came in after having more experience in the ‘real’ world – NOT coming in straight form undergrad. I think that is a powerful thing working in your favor if you decide to go for it.

        Best of luck to you! I will definitely keep reading.


  • Jennifer Harris

    I love your closing line!

  • Andrew Edstrom

    Beautiful post. I love reading your blog because you address many of the problems and thoughts I’ve had from religiously reading self-help books for years.

    As a well-off American, my life is relatively free of suffering. For those of us who are so fortunate, maybe helping ourselves is not the most noble goal.

    • Thank you Andrew. It’s a radical change to switch from thinking “how can i help myself?” to “how can I be a good and loving presence for others?”