What do you want?

Should I choose this suitor over that one? Should I take this job offer in a new city or stay put? Should I invest in this risky new business venture or hold my cards?

For most big choices, there is no objective right answer, a single definition of success. To move forward in business and life, you must know what you want.

Having a vision

In business, knowing what you want is usually called “having a vision.”

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last describe in detail how some successful global companies in the 20th century used vision to create long-term advantage. It’s an excellent starting point for thinking about vision. That said, it’s hard to apply the Built to Last formula in every circumstance—e.g., in the social or public sectors, in a startup environment, or in 21st century organizations that don’t resemble traditional institutions.

If you’re a smaller company or startup, or simply need more practical advice about how to set vision and use it to drive decision-making, David Binetti, CEO of Votizen, is your guy. I’ve shared his talk from the Startup Lessons Learned conference with many of my clients. (Binetti digs into vision at the 10:30 mark, but the whole talk is worth watching.) For more advice in this vein, I also recommend Alan Weiss’s recent piece “When You Can’t Win Enough.”

IDKWIW

Outside of work, we don’t tend to ask people about their vision; we simply say: what do you want?

But asking someone what they want can often seem impolite, even aggressive. There are also many situations where people rightly assess that it’s neither safe nor wise to reveal their agenda. Yet even when we’re in a trusted relationship, or alone, we often still don’t want to admit what we want, to examine our own thinking. When this happens, we miss out on life.

The last step before a big leap is often “I don’t know what I want.”

For example, in dating and romantic relationships, IDKWIWs are frequent, and in a sense, they’re truthful and considerate. But with a bit of exploration, they evolve:

  • “I don’t know what I want… so I’d like to play the field for a bit and not make any long-term commitments until I have a better sense of what I like and don’t like.”
  • “I don’t know what I want… but I know I enjoy romantic relationships and would like very much to be in one, so my m.o. will be to throw myself passionately into each new person who sparks my interest to see if that makes me happy.”
  • “I want to be in a relationship, but my current partner has habits that make me uncomfortable. So I’m biding my time hoping that they change. I don’t want to bring up these issues directly and risk losing the relationship I do have. Instead I’ll withdraw a bit and claim that I’m no longer sure what I want—hopefully they’ll take the hint.”

Notice that each of these people knows exactly what he or she wants.

Admitting what you want takes some courage and vulnerability. You might identify humbling errors in your thinking. You might face rejection. But when you can get to a place where you can tell people succinctly what it is you truly want, you’ll be much more able to enroll others in helping you get there. Savvy daters share what they want and screen for compatibility. Savvy networkers are clear in their positioning so people know which referrals to send their way.

And of course, it’s okay to change what you want. Life is dynamic, and we learn by doing. Corporate visions are meant to be achieved and then re-set. Serendipity can be a great teacher. And most of us need a hobby, a practice we engage in for its own sake. This might be salsa dancing or kite surfing, or it could be a separate business… many successful entrepreneurs have one. (Think Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his spaceship project.) When an an entrepreneur creates a second business, they’re usually following their intuition, creating a place where they can learn things they don’t already know.

Still, it’s a kind of not-knowing that has clarity to it: “I want to follow my intuition here. I want to explore this further and see what there is to learn.”