Sunday, June 20, 2010

Deconstructing the Onion

What Do You Want? Seems a simple enough question. And yet, for many of us, it's a question that's difficult to answer. When we do answer, it often feels as though we've missed something or that our answers are a bit off the mark.

The other day, I was talking with a friend who had been frustrated in his attempts to work through challenges with a former employer. He'd left his job on good terms and his boss had agreed to be a great reference for him as he brought on new clients. However, he'd recently found that his boss had seen the people he'd sent for reference as potential clients for his former company and had essentially been damning him with faint praise. He was pissed.

So, he'd written a scathing letter to his former boss, accusing him of atrocities, calling him a liar, demanding that he live up to what he promised, etc., etc, etc. Before sending it, he'd asked me to take a look at it.

I read through his note and then asked him, "What do you want?"
"What do you mean, what do I want?"

"I mean, what do you hope to accomplish by sending this letter?"

"Well, ummm, I want my boss to do what he said he was going to do and to recommend me to people I send to him as a reference."
I glanced back at the letter feeling the eyes of my friend staring through me as I considered his words. Finally, I said, "Do you think that your letter is going to get your boss to do that?"
"Well, uh, yeah. I mean... What do you mean?"

"If you received a letter like this, would you be predisposed to comply with it?"

"Sure, I would want to do the right thing."

"I know you would want to do the right thing. Would getting a letter like this open your mind to seeing what the right thing was?"

"Well, umm... Look, I just want him to know what an asshole he's been."

"OK, nothing wrong with wanting that. However, wanting that may get in the way of what you said you wanted before. Remember? You want him to provide great references."
We sat silently as he considered this apparent conflict in his wants.

Constructing the Onion
So often, we lose touch with what it was we wanted in the first place. You start out with: spending my time doing something that I love to do.

You recognize that it's also nice to eat and have a place to sleep, so you modify your want to: getting a job where I can spend my time doing what I love to do.

You find that getting a job where you really get to what you want to do ain't all that easy, so you modify your want to: getting a job where I can spend SOME of my time doing what I love to do.

You get the job and realize that in order to really do what you want to do, you must first get promoted. So, you modify your want again to: getting a promotion so that I can spend more time in my job doing what I love to do.

You realize that getting a promotion requires you to work more hours and to dress better; you change your want again to: getting a new suit and overtime hours so I can get that promotion (that will allow me to spend more time in my job doing what I love to do.)

The overtime hours start providing you more cash and you start thinking to yourself, "Wow, maybe I could afford a car? Having a car would be really nice."

Before you know it, you're still working towards that promotion, but you've completely lost sight of why you wanted that promotion in the first place.

Why Do You Want That?
Of course, for many of us, "Why do you want that?" often feels like an indictment or a demand for justification. We get defensive. We do anything but explore the question. We don't simply ask ourselves, "Hmmm... why do I want that?"

The problem is that it's only through answering "why?" questions that we peel back layers of the onions we've constructed. Our defensive postures serve only to fortify the existing layers or create additional layers.

When we start honestly and openly answering "why?" questions, the layers start to peel away revealing answers we've long forgotten and providing opportunities for additional questions.

It's amazing what you can find when you stopping defending the outer layer of your want onion and begin peeling; there are often many more layers than you would expect.

By the time most of us have finished school, we've added so many layers to our onions that we have no clue as to what lies beneath. We do, but we dare not look.

Wanting to play the piano becomes wanting lessons becomes wanting to play really well becomes wanting a better instrument becomes wanting a place for that instrument becomes wanting more money to afford that place...

Wanting a place that is warm and comfortable becomes wanting my own place becomes wanting a house becomes wanting to own a house becomes wanting a bigger house becomes wanting a bigger house with better furniture...

The pathologies vary, but the core dysfunction is always the same.

Deconstructing Your Onion
Sundays can be a great time to spend peeling want onions. Brew a pot of coffee or pour some tea, take the hand of someone you care about and drag them over to the couch, and spend a few minutes of tearless onion peeling. What do you want? Why do want that? Do you think that what you're doing will get you that?

Happy Peeling,

1 comment:

  1. Thx, Mark.
    This morning I was realising that wanting to be happy lead me to chose happiness IN THE PRESENT MOMENT - which has been fine, but ...(but often undermines what you just said) .... uptil now it didn't push me to get over my fear for the furture. And my fear for the furture kept me for making plans and setting up visions for the furture. - so in the present I was happy - and I stayed happy as long as I did not look to far into the future...

    By the way - I loved your question to your friend, being cought up in getting things right have often held me from getting other things I wanted, why do we find it so important that other people "should behave properly"?


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