I Want


Reading maketh a full man;

conference a ready man;

and writing an exact man.

- Francis Bacon

And wanting, a human.

anting is the tent pole that supports all mental health. When we can successfully want what we were designed to want, all aspects of our lives will be sheltered by a sturdy existential canopy that shields us as we work to fully implement a life worth living. When our wanting skills have been shorn off near the ground, however, we will likely suffocate under the fabric of a life defined by ongoing confusion and unnecessary limits. What shears the ability to want is, of course, shame. The overarching purpose of self-construct is to eliminate every last bit of shame that you have been subjected to and to restore your ability to robustly want – a birthright of every blessed human baby born.

Let me say all that again. I have come to believe over the decades of research, scholarship and clinical practice that we are only as mentally healthy as our comfort with wanting allows. Wanting tells you you’re alive. Probably scared, but definitely alive. I have also come to realize that this most sacred of human skills doesn’t survive most childhoods intact. You and I must remedy this awful situation.

Scattered throughout this entire website are bits and pieces of the self-construct concept of wanting. I thought it might be helpful to put them together in a manner that will allow you to wrap yourself more securely in this elegant cloak of ultimate humanity, for wanting is the quintessential human characteristic and it is the only route to uniqueing.

Let me clarify here that I’m not talking about the mammal version of wanting – what could be called hunger. When we want food, shelter or sex – the bottom two rungs of Maslow’s motivational ladder – we are responding to the world as our animal friends do. The wanting I’m referring to here is human wanting – seeking admission to the will-to-power corridor.

A human want represents an internal, intentional cerebral force that pushes out from the core of our being in an attempt to expand our personal universe to fit our needs. In other words, when we want something, we need to stretch our personal domain out far enough to incorporate it. As a simple example, if we want to be a tap dancer, our untrained talent pushes us to seek the requisite supplies. We want the shoes, the lessons, the stage, the music, the choreography and the fellow dancers. We also have to demand of ourselves the discipline and courage to seek mastery in all its existential complexity. If we want to start a business, we will seek and participate in the training that will allow us to step into the world of commerce where we will be taken seriously and paid money for our services.

When done successfully, all our wantings added together will create the irregular, textured and idiosyncratic shape of our “self” as we seek to embody it. Wouldn’t it be cool if our wanting shape could actually be seen emanating out from our bodies in an aura with the form and size that truly represents us? And maybe in different colors depending on how far along toward mastery we were in a particular wanting area?

But back to reality, wanting can be seen as our sacred, existential navigational apparatus that takes us toward the life dimensions we were uniquely designed to fill. When we are unable to utilize that guidance system, we will be buffeted about by life. These winds of Fate may land us somewhere very much to our liking, but more likely we will become trapped in a quagmire of primitive, dead-end wants. Analogous to the tendency to gorge on junk food in the absence of healthy food, these dead-end wants get consumed by a mind desperate to want but blocked from the process of free wanting. Free wanting happens when we take the time and do the research needed to identify what we genuinely want to try next in our life. Free wanting answers the question: What would I attempt to do next if I knew I could not fail?

I don’t want you stuck in a quagmire. I want you to be able to want well and to have ready access to free wanting. I hope this article helps you learn how to do that – to take up all the time and space you need to be fully, contentedly, somewhat anxiously you.

The steps we need to take to enact our most coherent self mimic the Francis Bacon quote above. We need to read our world to discover the possibilities. We will then benefit from having many conversations with others about the act of wanting, how they found what they wanted and about what we specifically seek. And then existence demands that we write down our choices on the application forms of life so that we can start to be who we are meant to be. When we can do all that we are in the will-to-power corridor where we can be most fully human.

Article overview

As I never tire of saying, the most robust understanding of mental health is created when existential, feminist and psychological scholars integrate their thinking into what it means to triumph in the art of being alive. This belief is extra true for the concept of human wanting.

Therefore, I’m going to divide this article into three aspects of the human condition and look at how each affects our inherent navigational system using my preferred lens of existential, feminist and psychological scholarship. The three aspects are: anatomical, developmental and philosophical.

• The anatomical facet of wanting involves the way that the physical structure of the human brain affects our skill with wanting.

• The developmental facet reflects the maturational stages humans need to effectively traverse as they seek to master this important skill of wanting well.

• And the philosophical facet is concerned with that most wonderful of concepts, the will-to-power corridor.

Put together, these three aspects suggest that we are supposed to be gradually trained over the course of our long childhoods in authentic and brave wanting by brave and authentic adults who know how to want well, and this training allows us to groove our brains intentionally, minimizing the generic brainwashing of dominant, patriarchal cultures. I know that the last sentence was a doozy, but wanting is a doozy of a human endeavor. So let’s start our journey toward deepening our understanding of this most glorious and most misunderstood human characteristic. We don’t want to ignore this precious gift any longer.

Our three brains

The first leg of our journey explores the anatomical reality of the human brain. As I’ve described elsewhere, when we are working at cross-purposes with our cerebral hardware, things don’t go terribly smoothly.

The triune model of the human brain has been discredited neurologically speaking, but as a metaphor, it works very well to help us understand the physics of wanting in terms of the mind's neurological speed and power. Let’s pretend that Mother Nature built the human brain atop the mammal brain which sits atop the reptilian brain. Again, purely for ease of understanding, let’s say the reptilian brain is tasked with lightening quick responses to very elemental stimuli. It’s job, in other words, is to react and only react. Something coming at you? Duck! The mammal brain is in charge of all our appetites. It wants to drive us toward fattening food, sheltered caves and sex. Its job is to make us feel as comfortable and safe as possible while we reproduce ourselves.

The human brain is laid out over these two older brains and it is designed like a CPU. It makes use of the other parts of the brain like a puppet master, integrating and orchestrating the brain to move the mammal body toward behaving in ways that serve our human desires. It is the smallest part of the brain, but with a tremendous surface area. I like to think of the neocortex structurally as a large sheet of aluminum foil, corrugated and pressed over the top of the mammal brain. Tiny dendrites connect each of the neurons of the neocortex to the entire brain in a complex web of associations. Using those connections, the CPU gathers all the data from the rest of the brain and uses it to make life-affecting decisions. For example, my human brain decided to sit me down at my desk to work on this article by harvesting the data from my reptilian brain (no danger in the environment – brain owner free to seek higher level behaviors) and from my mammalian brain (we are all well-fed and rested here.) My human brain piped up with a motivational speech (remember the good feelings you get when you do your work and the crummy feelings you get when you don’t.) The CPU crunched all the data and plunked me down in my chair.


The Art of Mending

- Elizabeth Berg

Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

- Lisa Feldman Barrett


Now, what’s important anatomically with respect to wanting is how fast and powerful each of these brain subdivisions are relative to the other two.

When you think of brain speed, you need to think in terms of location. The closer the neuron is to the brain stem, the faster the message gets distributed throughout the worker-bee network (our bodies.) So, reptilian brain fastest, next mammal and last human. The race is over in the tiniest fraction of a second, but that’s enough to determine a winner and, so very often in human events, winner takes all. For example, the part of your brain (reptilian) that says, “Hot!” is faster than the part of your brain (human) that says, “This was your grandmother’s pie plate. You love it. Don’t drop it!”

When you think of brain power, you need to think in terms of size. Again, the human brain is small. Humans are not designed to think as much as they are designed to stay alive and warm and dry. Because the human brain co-opts other parts of the brain for all its purposes (including thinking), it gets its strength from the networks it has built. In other words, a well-designed human brain builds strong signals that can override the needs of the mammal and reptilian brains as necessary.

So, compared to the rest of the brain, the human brain is tiny, fragmented and slow. It can become larger, more integrated and quicker with practice. If we want our human brain to hold its own against the other two, we need to groove each pathway that connects all three brains until it is both lightening fast and robust. This process involves data compression and it is what makes the human brain capable of the coherent thinking that creates meaning.

What is the neurological process that leads us toward coherence? Simply put, the way to get very, very good at wanting is to practice data compression for those aspects of your life that are the most meaningful. Existentialists believe we need to rehearse intentional behaving (existential mindfulness) which will inform our thinking; feminists believe we need to practice cleaning up unhelpful thinking patterns that have been trained into us by the dominant culture (the personal is political); and psychologists believe we need to practice observing our thoughts in order to avoid tangled thinking (cognitive therapy).

Existential practice: If we want to exercise – and thereby strengthen – the human brain, it makes a ton of sense to pay attention to what being human means. The shape of being human, as it were. Therefore, our metaphysical chores here relative to wanting well concern the totality of the givens of the human experience – namely, we are unique, meaning-seeking creatures responsible for making life decisions in a non-existent present about how to attach to consequential people, places and things in the face of Fate’s indifferent and random interference. If that sentence seems a bit scary, that’s because it is. Being human is terribly scary. The good news is, however, not only are we designed to address the givens of existence, but there are clear pathways with respect to facing these givens that we can use to advance ourselves toward improving our ability to want.

Unique – if we can review our genuine past efforts with curiosity rather than shame, we can come to know ourself and thus what we want, much, much better. In terms of our tent pole, a shame-free curiosity is what allows us to determine the height of our pole and therefore the dimensions of our seeking.

Responsible – if we watch how earnestly we try to choose our minute-by-minute life, we can come to trust ourself and thus the integrity of our wants, much, much more. When we can rely on our personal accountability, we can also rely on the strength of our tent pole.

Meaning – if we can know ourselves and trust ourselves enough to yearn for more, we can come to like ourself and thus our dreamy, wanting self, much more clearly. So cool. This delightful state allows us to explore every corner of our ever-growing tent.

Fate – if we know ourselves, trust ourselves and like ourselves, we can come to believe that we are resilient enough to dream big dreams. Like a tree in an ice storm, we must be flexible if we are to rebound from some of the calamities life has in store for us. And, like a tree, we need to reach our greatest shape and size. And, because we are human, we need to move toward our dreams with some dispatch because, unlike a tree, we are aware that death can take us anytime, anywhere.

Attachment – if all the above are true for us, we will be able to take the risk of connecting ourselves to the people, places and things that matter to us, creating more and more energy to fuel our lives. In addition to energy, attachments provide us with the anchors we need to stabilize our lives. Have you ever seen the stakes they use to anchor a circus tent pole? They’re impressive to say the least. It’s worth a Google.

Our existential tutors demand that we actually, intentionally attend to these issues, not just give them a nod when a pithy aphorism crosses the street in front of us. You can tell from the number of links in the bulleted section (indeed in this entire article) that there are many tutorials on this website about how to deepen your existential relationship with yourself in order to create within you a fast, coherent human brain.

Feminist practice: The tasks that our feminist grandmothers assign us are to assess and personalize the influence from the society within which we are embedded. Again, they mean for us to take this homework assignment seriously. These matriarchs are experienced enough to understand that the very physical shape of our brains has been affected by the brainwashing of these myriad sources of influence which have been dominated by the male bias. We need to take control of the dynamics within our mind so that it is not vulnerable to any kill switch planted in the more primitive parts of our brain. Due to the domineering and barely-even-half-right oppression of the patriarchy, there are already grooved pathways that our brains have developed over the decades. While originally designed to protect us by forcing us to fit in, these limited gender roles can all too often trap us instead in an alligator-arms habit of not reaching out far enough to grab an armful of the stuff of life. Our job is to recognize this danger and rewire our brains as necessary. This task is crucial for all humans, not just the female humans.

Further, these wise women are hoping we will develop the skills necessary to be constantly on guard for ongoing and misfitting patriarchal influence coming at us from family, friends, work, literature, movies, pundits, music and so on. Examples might be: exploring where the idea came from that successful people are good people, that soul mates are there for the finding or that mistakes are made by stupid people. The skills we need include a vigorous skepticism toward all sources of influence. When someone tells you "No! You can't do that!" you need to respond with "Why not?"

Psychological practice: The field of psychology, IMHO, should be in charge of the entire curriculum for seventh grade. During that year, every kid should be taught how to monitor their thoughts and feelings, trace them back to their source, uncover the process that created their thinking and feeling at that source and work to change them as needed. This is, of course, what cognitive therapy is all about. So the psychological practice with respect to the brain’s anatomy is to work to become that hovering third eye of a therapeutic watchdog in order to oversee our day-to-day thinking and feeling habits. Because so much of our training in how to think and feel is tacit, preverbal and just plain wrong, this task can be huge. There are many resources available online outlining self-directed cognitive-behavioral therapy.

But now I have to interject a not-so-humble opinion. While learning how to clean up your skills relative to feeling and thinking clearly is a necessary first step, it is not sufficient. If we want to want well, we have to move way beyond simple cognitive restructuring and into the vast domain of what it means to be a human being. This is, of course, what existential, feminist therapy is all about.

And now we’ve entered self-construct territory. In order to be coherent in wanting, we need to be existentially coherent in thinking. In order to be coherent in thinking we need just about all the skills described on this website. In other words, we cannot rely on one or two or three skills laid out for us in best-selling self-help books. We need to understand how our past brainwashed us, misled us and left us unprepared in many ways (Section I). We must review our skills relative to being a potent choosing individual in the here and now (Section II). Then our focus shifts to the future as we review our understanding of how to design a meaningful next experiment for ourselves (Section III). The articles in Section IV will support you as you learn how to navigate through a world where Fate lurks ready to derail you with its random acts of influence and unkindness. And, finally, Section V is where we learn how to maintain sufficient energy to fuel our day-to-day endeavors. All the information in the 55+ articles seems overwhelming, I know. What you achieve by that course of study, however, is an incredibly tidy mind that knows what it wants and why it wants what it wants. And wisdom results when you want to want what you want.

So what do I do?: I would suggest taking yourself for a walk and spend the time thinking about how you think. Do you encourage yourself to think big thoughts? Are you vigilant in avoiding conformity when self-determination is better for you? Can you sidestep a natural tendency to engage in magical thinking to escape the rigors of daily life? You don’t have to instantly up your thinking game to Olympic proportions. But it would be good for you to get in the habit of thinking about thinking frequently enough that the answers to those three questions start to inch toward “Yes” as your brain restructures itself in response to your gentle nudging. Remember, how you think during the day trains the brain how to think at night as it is trying to make sense of this life you are living.

Decade by decade

This next section of our wanting article is going to explore the idea that humans need to see their lives in terms of life span development when it comes to wanting well. In other words, not only do we need to get good at wanting if we are hoping to become most fully ourselves, we need to also get good at watching how our wants morph over time.

An elegant way for kids to learn both how to want well and how to be flexible within themselves as their wants change is to seat the teaching within the five dimensions of time. The process of creating well-formulated wants is covered in detail here, but let me touch on it briefly now.

Because wants are created by feelings that stabilize within us, the first step in learning to want is learning the basics about feelings. The job of the parents is to teach kids how to curate feelings. This needs to include identifying what they are feeling as well as how to locate their feelings within the five dimensions of time. It would start with assisting them in placing their feelings in the present – “You seem to be feeling grumpy today.” Then adding the future – “You are too excited to sleep because tomorrow is your birthday.” And the past – “Of course you feel impatient waiting for your birthday because you remember how much fun it was last year.” When appropriate, you add death – “I understand that you’re scared of the dark. I was too when I was your age.” And energy – “You’re mad at your friend because he teased you. Friendships can be a lot of work, but they’re worth it.”

Then parents need to do the same things with wants. Past – What do you know about yourself that can help you figure out what you want? What wants have stuck around? What happens when you don’t follow a want? When you do? Present – How tuned in to your wanting navigational system are you right now? In other words, are you paying attention to all the wants that are fighting within you for attention? Future – Are you dreaming big dreams? Are you ready to try something new? Death – I know it’s hard to not get what you want. You have to learn to tolerate when things don’t go your way. Energy – What do you want your relationship world to look like? This can and should be uniquely designed not socially proscribed.

Most of us get rather spotty training during our upbringing around the art of wanting – especially as it changes over time. We need to review the developmental steps of this human system if we are to make the necessary corrections to our original training.

Existential practice: Unfortunately the existential philosophers were silent on lifespan development as none of them were in a position to notice psychological life stages. Few were in relationships, even fewer were in long-term relationships and none were interested in children. Albert Camus, the only mainstream existentialist writer who was married with children, died at age 46, long before life-span wisdom could possibly emerge. (Not to mention the fact that he lived an extremely selfish life relationally speaking which would clearly limit his maturation process.)

We can, however, make good use of the existential concept of uniqueness to deepen our study of wanting because, certainly, what we sincerely want can only be determined by us for us.

Uniqueness represents an extremely subtle challenge with respect to wanting. We have to put in place for ourselves both the generic ingredients for satisfaction (those pesky house-hold-running types of wants) and the spicy, unique ingredients that make our life zing. While completely ours to design, finding the balance between the two kinds of wants is a life-long struggle.

Plus, let’s be honest, the idea that we are each unique is both heady and terrifying. We have to and we get to take ourselves out into the world on a journey to who-knows-where to do who-knows-what with who-knows-who. What if we get it wrong? If we miss the boat are we doomed to a failed life? Well, as existential thinkers remind us, we can’t miss the boat because there isn’t a boat to miss, there are an infinite number of boats. But if we don’t get one that we deeply desire when we want it, we can’t let that derail our pursuit of our unique future. It makes sense that a history of openness to experience is the resiliency characteristic that underlies a coherent relationship with our uniqueness.

Basically, metaphysically brave individuals look at their life through this lens: our individual conception was the result of two lives, each hundreds of years in the making both genetically and experientially speaking, coming together to create a one-of-a-kind person who is now set to exist in this sui generis zeitgeist. The time, place and people who surround this specific individual all contribute to the unrepeatableness of him or her. The take-away here for each of us is to adopt a state of extreme curiosity when it comes to our uniqueness. If we habitually assume that there is more to us than meets the eye – even to, or especially to, ourselves – then we can stay open to observing how who we are can change. Rather than try to create a fixed sense of self, it might make more sense to expect the unexpected when it comes to our unfolding uniqueness.

Feminist practice: Feminists believe that personal growth occurs in connection with others. Since our roles and responsibilities toward others change drastically over the course of our lives, it would make sense that healthy connections throughout that change process will continually contribute to our psychological development. To just sketch it out very briefly:

• Infancy – children experience the world (starting prenatally) in some pretty basic ways and they come into existence perfectly designed to attach. If their needs are most often met and their environment is fairly benign, they develop naturally through this preverbal stage into a hedonistic little thing that basically trusts the world to be there for them.

• Early childhood – the attachments that form during this stage both broaden and deepen. Toddlers come to understand who they can trust with a deeper attachment as they observe who stays reliably in their corner as they make age-appropriate mistake after mistake. Pipsqueaks broaden their attachment circle as they venture out into the world to meet new adults and peers.

• Middle childhood – basically this stage is an extension of early childhood except the mistakes are more consequential. If the people the child has attached to do their jobs right, kids navigate through this stage toward a version of themselves that’s all about the task of being their unique selves. These little dudes will come to relish the idea of creating experiments based on what feels exciting to them.

• Late childhood – early adolescence is when attachments start to get more complicated. This is the age when youngsters are supposed to start self-determining, which can easily alienate the adults to whom they are attached. If these folks maintain their clear bond with the teen, he or she will continue to trust the direction he or she is currently taking in life.

• Young adulthood – this is the time youngsters begin to sort through their own criteria for attachment. With good enough parental support, these lucky kids will start to prefer attachments with peers and adults who both support and challenge them rather than those who don’t.

• Full adulthood – attachments at this stage get much more difficult. The easy camaraderie created by school day juxtaposition disappears, and satisfying friendships become a little harder to find. On the other hand, if the adult becomes a parent, they fall into a profoundly deep type of attachment.

• Late adulthood – this stage is rarely addressed but is often filled with much existential angst. Between the ages of 55-70, many people find that some of their earlier choices have created problematic patterns. As a result, many folks feel trapped and are thus susceptible to giving up. And because there are no social images describing a good version of this time of life, many folks wander aimlessly through this stage without mentors, goals or verve. What should be happening here, certainly, is either the solidifying of deep wanting through conversations among close friends or the exquisitely terrifying late-life change of trajectory.

• Old age – the attachments later in life expand to include new generations even as they contract with the loss of older friends and family. And, in a life well lived, a lovely and thrilling new attachment occurs – with oneself. We have spent many, many years getting to know just who we are, and now we can spend a little time being pleased with what we have become. And we are often free to take that new version of ourselves on the road for some new ventures.

Taken all together, each stage of life provides the human brain both the stimulus of change and the stability of attachment. What I mean is that a growing brain (which is any brain that is alive) naturally responds to the cocoon of safety provided by closeness with others by actively exploring what wants are waiting in the wings of our life at this point in time. When we are little our need for close attachments are great as we set about conquering a world that is all new to us. As we age, our social support networks allow us to try out wants that put our accumulated lives at risk. As wanting beings, in other words, we are continually people who need people.

Psychological practice: There exist back in the library stacks many dusty books written by psychologists about life span development. Psychologists believe that every seven to ten years, humans experience a shift in their priorities based on their evolving personal power, scope of practice, interpersonal realities and individual hungers. This is, obviously, at odds with the sense that many folks have that once you reach adulthood what you want out of life is pretty stable.

Let’s look at those life stages again in terms of developmental tasks rather than attachment.

• Infancy – patient repetition is the hallmark of this first human stage of development. Over and over and over the little one tries to master the simplest of tasks. If they are fully-abled tykes, they learn to control their bodies. When their world meets them with equal patience, they learn to trust that efforts tend to payoff. In other words, they can often get what they want.

• Early childhood – this difficult stage is where we all learn how to handle feedback from our world. As we come to understand language, we come to understand that our adults (and siblings and friends) will start to have opinions about how well we are progressing in our quest for autonomy. If shame is a part of this feedback, we come to doubt our most basic abilities. Worse, we fear we may never get what we want because we don’t deserve it.

• Middle childhood – this is the time kids want to start designing their own lives but become aware that when they initiate behavior, others might be affected. With gentle guidance, healthy narcissism and skillful empathy develop in equal measures, each keeping the other in a healthy balance. Kids learn they can often get what they want without hurting others.

• Late childhood – this is a terribly crucial stage because psychological development now relies on our inner motivational system, also known as our wanting system. This is the stage of life when we learn how hard we will work to acquire or accomplish what we dream about. Good adult supervision at this point in a child’s life creates within that kid a sense that industry in the service of a desire, while never a guarantee of success, is most often a sound investment.

• Young adulthood – psychologically complex, this stage starts the process of knowing who we are by knowing what we want and why we want it. If we have been allowed – for the most part – to want what we want, we will develop a solid identity. If we have been trained to want what others want for us, a sense of confusion about who we actually are will take root. Healthy young adults will also start to affiliate more and more with those who accept what they want for themselves.

• Full adulthood – this stage teaches us what the dominant culture thinks of what we want for ourselves and how effortfully we are pursuing it. If we are wise, we understand that cultural feedback is very often a matter of luck. We also understand that we must move ever more surely toward work and life environments that support our truest wants even in the absence of cultural support. When we are in this stage of life, our physical energy is generally at high levels as is our experience. When we combine those two, we can generate some superb career options for ourselves.

• Late adulthood – again, this is an habitually ignored time of life in terms of psychological theory. Oddly, despite significant life experience, as we push past 55, we tend to revisit cultural feedback in terms of the seven deadly sins and the complete list of awful. The resulting regressed state can precipitate a backlash of self-doubt right when we need our self-confidence the most. We are about to face the travails of aging and the greater reality of death. Not a time to distrust what we want to want and why.

• Old age – while acknowledging that what folks in this stage want is often good health and freedom from pain, it can be a time of great coherence for humans. A rock solid integrity can support a person as she launches herself into new and challenging ways of being – knowing what she knows now.

No matter where you are on the developmental journey through your one-and-only life, you can always review the prior stages and seek corrective experiences and insights. The plasticity of the human brain is such a gift – especially when we need to do repair work on damage done during our upbringing.

So what do I do? There are two things you can do here to improve your ability to want. First, run through the developmental steps you have taken to date with an eye toward assessing your attachment history. If there were stages of your life when the attachments were too lean or too unkind to depend on, you may need to consider reaching out for help. Close friends, siblings, ministers, therapists and so on can all help you experience healing connections. Second, do the same review in terms of psychological development. Again, if you sustained psychological damage during certain periods of your life, the linked article in each stage can help you start the healing process. And please remember that when we enter each stage of development, we enter a period of appropriate solipsism that serves us well as we explore ourselves anew. So, if you tend to be a mite self-centered in your thinking for a while, try to normalize this for yourself (and others as needed) and avoid shaming yourself.

Seventh inning stretch

You’ve made it through the first two main sections of this article. Not an easy task. If you don’t have time to stop and take a walk, at least you might want to stand up and stretch!

I realize that reading this article is tough going. It might help you to remember as you read how much knowledge has been compressed into this essay. I have gathered together information from hundreds of textbooks, thousands of hours of lectures, tens of thousands of hours of clinical work and uncounted hours of writing out the theory of self-construction to create this complicated compendium. It is very dense material and I often get lost myself when reading through it.

But to want well is to master the queen move in the business of creating an essence. Please believe me that it’s worth it.

The final section of this article is by far the most difficult to follow. It has pushed my writing ability to the limit and will probably do the same for your reading comprehension. All I can say is, it’s easier to read than anything written by Nietzsche!

To summarize to this point, we have the best shot at being our best selves when we have learned to want well. To wit: we will have shaped our human brain to maximize its strength and speed relative to the mammal and reptilian brains; and we have navigated through our developmental steps either by luck (having helpful and non-shaming adults) or by intention (revisiting these crucial steps therapeutically in order to complete them.) With the anatomical and developmental concepts behind us, we can now explore the most amazing and terrifying philosophical aspect of being a human – our will to power.

Will to power

Because this is the pinnacle of human wanting, it is critical that I address the concept of will to power here. Therefore, I’m going to summarize the articles on willpower, will and will to power in order to do that. I would strongly suggest, however, you read those two articles if you want to deepen your understanding of wanting.

Willpower: Contrary to what you have been taught, having willpower is not a matter of having a strong character. It does not involve clenching your fists and making yourself do something. That is piety – a human characteristic that, while useful, must be used very, very carefully lest it corral your life into an extremely tidy and safe set of routines. Willpower is the act of choosing to choose – to make the choice to make a choice. But what does that mean? When we enact willpower we are paying attention to our life at that moment. Our minds are not split among several things, nor floating above the surface of life really paying attention to nothing. We are aware that there is a notable aspect of our life unfolding right at this moment. And that is, of course, the first choice – making the decision to attend to the possibilities in front of us. But in order to not get dropped off at that point, when we willingly stand in the decision to pay attention, we then need to know to what we are being asked to attend. That’s the second choice – and that’s a humdinger.

Many an intention is lost in this purgatory-like land between choice one and choice two. There are two reasons for this limbo – cultural misdirection and the fact that it’s just plain hard to choose to choose.

The cultural misdirection is created by a one-two punch. First, the too-often simplistic world of self-help material leads us into the following trap: Clichéd versions of “mindfulness” and “live in the now” might be seen as the end-all, be-all when they urge us to pay attention to whether or not we are paying attention to what we are doing. There is no doubt that the “hurry sickness” that afflicts all of us can make watchful or observant practices difficult to remember to do. But, if someone doesn’t know what to do with that attentiveness, it will just fade back into mindlessness – and this time, unfortunately, probably attended by a sense of shame.

Then comes the second hit. Most people believe that they are supposed to know what to do when faced with making a choice. When their untrained human brains balk at the challenge, these poor folks decide that they are weak, procrastinating failures. An absolutely miserable place to stand. You can see why they start to shy away from getting themselves at that second-choice point in the first place and instead will willingly set their minds adrift. Then the mindfulness police herd them back to the here and now, and the shame cycle starts again. As a result, many of us spend a great deal of time being choice adjacent and feeling rotten about ourselves.

If you will forgive me for belaboring, I want to state again: it is not our fault that no one was able to teach us what we needed to know to fully engage our willpower. We are not unwilling to choose to choose. We are untrained.

So, let’s look at what trips us up at the crux move of willpower – the second choice. Why do most of us find ourselves wishing to choose rather than choosing to choose?

If you wish to choose, you are standing in the position to make the second choice but are lost in a fog of wishful thinking. This tends to be a wistful, fanciful place where we play mind games with ourselves. We might pretend that simply wishing to choose counts for something. We often tell ourselves that we are earnestly considering all of our options. We may believe that our near future selves will feel – miraculously – empowered to choose, so we can wisely put off choosing for another day. Or we ignore the fact that we are waiting for Fate to come along to give us an assist with a forced choice or deadline. Finally, we may commit to busying ourselves so that we won’t have to acknowledge that we face too many or too few choices for comfort. Whatever the cause, being frozen in purgatory is no Disney movie.

If you choose to choose, on the other hand, you are accepting the truth of what is involved in making a choice. A true existential choice is actually a gigantic foreclosure. As I’ve explained elsewhere, when we say “yes” to something, we are saying “no” to everything else. We tend to think that the “yes” is what’s hanging us up with choice two of willpower, but it’s surprisingly all those “no’s.” Which brings us back to the topic of this article – wanting. When we are poorly taught in the art of wanting, we will be nearly phobic about giving up something we want or may want at some point in the future. This purgatory can be conceived of, then, as existential hoarding. We are unable to say “yes" because we are too afraid to let any want go.

Further, a clear perspective on the second choice scares us with the truth that there aren’t just multiple "right" answers, there are infinite "right" answers. (And it’s important to acknowledge that there are also, most unfortunately, infinite “wrong” answers.) Selecting only one item from all the things we might do with this next unit of time is, to all intents and purposes, giving up an infinite number of wants.

And here’s the kicker – when we make a choice we are gambling. We are choosing what we believe is the best next thing to do, but a belief is a bet on the future turning out as we predict. Many folks are wisely uncomfortable with the act of gambling. But of course that’s the only move open to us. We cannot live out an infinite number of our lives and then pick the one that turned out best. We have to commit – either to choosing to choose or choosing to not choose. We have to move from naïve and wistful hoping to resolute and realistic anticipation.

Being able to choose to choose, then, means developing a bit of a callous on the tender skin of wanting, enough so that you can imagine releasing all those other wants – at least for the time being. What builds a callous is, needless to say, practice. Like toughening your fingertips against the strings of a guitar, deliberate practice with willpower will case-harden your ability to make tough decisions – to foreclose on the multitude of wants you are not choosing to choose.

Engaging in the practice of willpower will also, happily, build a stronger future memory concerning the positive side of choosing to choose. Let me explain. Since the goal of willpower is to get you moving, the more you practice it the more you understand that movement is most often preferable to stasis. You will start to remember that not choosing to choose is worse than facing the losses of making a choice – because if you don’t choose something you get nothing. Plus, sadly, part of you knows that you have failed to choose to choose. If you do choose, you may give up a lot, but you get one “yes” that will take you somewhere new. A manifest future memory with respect to the act of willpower, you can see, will give you an assist in making the second choice by pulling you gently onward with positive anticipation.

Now, in order to practice willpower, you need to understand the process. Effective willpower involves three steps.

The first step we must take is to stop the flow of our day sufficiently enough to allow us to take the time we need to do the next two steps. As described in the article on willpower, we do this when we have been existentially mindful enough to realize that we need to take a moment to think. Because, however, it is never now and it is always now, we have to borrow a little of our future by stepping off the flow of our life and sitting with our thoughts in order to create a faux now. If that last sentence is unfathomable, I urge you to read the willpower article.

The second step is to check in with ourselves to see what our objective is with respect to the next hour, day, week or month (or lifetime) we have facing us. Our intentions are, of course, meta-wants. They are what we want to accomplish with our wants. Another way to put this is: our intentions are what we want to want most. This double want truth is unassailable. Not wishing that we could want, but actually desiring the act of wanting as a vital way to be. These interim goals are the nascent form of will. I know this is getting complicated, but please stick with me.

If we want this second step to be a valuable and genuine precursor to the final willpower step, we must engage in an uncomfortable thinking process. Here is what the second step needs to sound like inside your head: Am I in the position right now to free want? If not, can I fix that? If so, can I tolerate letting all my current wants surface? Eek. There are so many! Or, perhaps worse, eek – I have no current wants. Can I sit here in this thinking spot long enough to generate a basket full of sexy wants?

Most of the time, the second step will generate more than one goal, so we have to move on to the third step – choosing to choose. As I described above, a choice is the most expensive act a human can make because it costs you everything except the one thing to which you have said “yes.” No wonder making a true choice creates a serious level of ontological anxiety! Therefore, to choose well is to link your willpower choice to criteria that are driven by your will.

If willpower is the mental agency to move your life onto a path, will is the awareness of which path is most desirable to take at this point in time.

Again, there is no magic trick that makes this third step easy. The only route to doing choice well is to practice. You need to practice making authentic choices at as many little crossroads as possible until you can start to think of yourself as an effective closer. In addition to the need for callouses and a strong future memory as mentioned above, a closer will have some level of skill relative to containing both procrastination and petulance. Lots to practice relative to choosing to choose.

Those are the three steps to enacting willpower – stop time, think, then choose. Because they are challenging and complex neurological steps, all three are draining activities for the human brain. What that means is that, when the chemicals required to enact our willpower run out, we are done. And when we are done, we must remember to be kind to ourselves and give our brains a break. Willpower management skills are covered in the articles in Section II.

If we think about willpower from a philosophical standpoint, we can deepen our respect for this most human of activities. We can handle the truth that whatever we choose to do excludes all other alternatives; that every choice absolutely reflects our interpretation of how the world works; and that we must take the facts of the world as we see them in order to move toward a transcendent future of our own design. And, to repeat a crucial element of willpower, we acknowledge that the entire process is gambling – betting that what we are saying “yes” to will be a great choice. When seen through that lens, we can see clearly that there can be no willpower without practice.

Will: The construct of willpower describes a skill that allows us to react well when we have to choose the first step of a project that we have decided has value for us. The construct of will, on the other hand, reflects a state of mind whereby we want to choose to start a project. Philosopher Hannah Arendt believed that, by virtue of being born, all humans were capable of acts of will. She saw will as striving for novelty – a hunger initiated with our birth to enact ourselves upon our world.

It is, therefore, a mindset that privileges our uniqueness in bold and brave ways. And because it is created by our uniqueness and our uniqueness is fed by our wanting, here, again, we need to provide ourselves with skill around wanting if we want to will well.

To will is to want to do you. Don’t let those simple, teeny five words fool you – an act of will is a human behavior of gargantuan consequence. If we again sidestep the platitudinous mindfulness culture and spend a few minutes actually looking at our next unit of time, we might catch a glimpse of just the edge of the near-infinite possibilities that are actually in front of us. If that doesn’t scare us to a standstill, we’re probably not really paying attention.

Like so many existential concepts, we are very much better off if we look closely at the concept of will rather than trying to ignore it or, perhaps worse, trying to bluff our way through it without truly understanding what we are dealing with. To deepen our understanding of the act of will, we need to deconstruct that ever-returning existential question: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

The question starts with you – what would you, and no one else, choose to do. This is a question that is answered inside your head where you reign supreme. To rule our inner world well, we need to deeply, madly, profoundly appreciate our particularity, our uniqueness. This can only happen in the absence of shame and in the presence of self-esteem – so there may be some remedying psychological work that needs to happen for you.

The next component is the phrase “attempt to do.” This is a gesture toward the truth that every act of will is an endeavor on our part to animate our dreams out into the concrete world, an action we know may not end well.

But the final bit – “if you knew you could not fail” – releases us from the terror of face planting just long enough to imagine guaranteed success, a strategy designed to help us bypass the kill switch of fear of failure.

Reassembled, the whole question becomes the training-wheels version of will – if you didn’t have to fear Fate, what would you want to do right now? As such, it can help us learn to keep our balance as we imagine zooming forward in our life.

But, at some point, we have to take off the training wheels. And this brings us to the final piece we need to put in place philosophically if we want to will well – we need to trust our ability to handle not getting what we so dearly want. We perceive the risks involved and can imagine the pain that may await us. How do we get better at handling the truth of this? We explore the existential concept of amor fati. A favored point of view of both Nietzsche and Camus, this Latin phrase reflects the existential advice to love your Fate. As Camus put it, amor fati is: "a will to live without rejecting anything of life, which is the virtue I honor most in this world." This orientation toward Fate calls us to see every contingency in our lives weaving together to create an admirable and profound whole.

You can actually practice this most existential of skills. If you agree with Nietzsche that great pain is what makes us profound (and most of us love our ability to think profoundly) then you should be able to review your painful past experiences through the lens of appreciation for the resulting gravitas.

What’s missing from this stoic orientation toward our existence, however, is a tenderhearted acknowledgment of the cost of pain. Women, with their deep and courageous attachments, understand that Fate can wreak havoc on the heart, leaving a life unbearably wounded. To ask someone to love that is beyond unkind.

If we want to reconcile these two conflicting facts – that we are better off if we love the route that has made us uniquely what we are today and we don’t have to love all the pain life can throw at us – we have to remember to balance the dread of facing Fate with the cocooning warmth of attachment. In other words, harkening back to the existential stance, if we can practice standing alertly in the present with a deep respect for our past and a thrumming curiosity about our future, we can simultaneously acknowledge the unavoidable and often painful role of Fate knowing that our heartfelt energy is sustained by our attachments to everything that matters to us.

Put more baldly, I think we can love our uniqueness, which is in part created by losses in our past, by focusing not the unkindness of Fate, but on the kindness of those who have supported us through our pain. In preparation to enact our will moving forward, we buffer our hearts against the threat of loss with a thoughtful attempt to crowd-source the pain of loss.

With an emotional basecamp fully staffed, we can proceed ever-so-bravely forward to tilt with Fate.

Which brings us to our wanting denouement, our will to power.

Will to power: The whole point of having a human wanting system is to create within us will to power – the ability to choose to choose what we most want to be able to do next. In order to move toward our dreams, we must take the next step. In order to take the next step, we must be able to will one thing. Sounds pretty straightforward, no?

It actually is.

We engage in this most glorious of human characteristics when we can, more often than not, engage in the two mind skills that support it – willpower and will. To reuse the metaphor from earlier articles, when our little starter motor of willpower turns over the huge engine of our will, we are ready to go somewhere. We are the drivers and our will to power is how we decide where to go next. As you can see, because we cannot go several places at the same time, will to power is that mindset that determines where we go next.

We can do that when we know how to stand in the will-to-power corridor. What is this?

At the very heart of the theory of self-construction is the belief that, if we want to be successful in creating our essence, we must habituate to standing in all five dimensions of time simultaneously. This is the will-to-power corridor. We take this existential stance when we demonstrate the willingness to stand existentially mindful in the present while simultaneously being alert to our particular past, our hoped-for future, our current level of psychological and physical energy, and our limited time left on earth.

This next little bit will get gnarly. I know existential theory isn't for everyone, but if you at least read through to the end of the article, you will have a deeper understanding of your human skill of wanting.

What makes the will-to-power corridor so very, very Herculean (in both senses of that word) is that it positions you most fully in your human nature, and human natures are scary to wield but extremely powerful when we do so. The incredible power comes from integrating the five dimensions of time with the five ultimate givens of human existence, and using that linked understanding to drive the most potent human behaviors. In sum:

• When we are alert to our particular past, we can routinely instantiate our uniqueness because we recognize that we have achieved our customized historical footprint by taking our lives seriously.

• When we stand existentially mindful in the present, we can trigger a high level of self-discipline because we know that we are capable of holding ourselves responsible.

• When we can visualize a hoped-for future with both clarity and detail, we embody our hope with a belief that our dreams for ourselves are delightful.

• When we acknowledge that we don’t know when death will come for us or what Fate has in store for our tomorrow, we encourage ourselves to act with dispatch to bravely work to fulfill our deepest desires.

• When we assess our current level of energy, we renew our efforts to maintain our verve through our ongoing efforts to foster important attachments to the people, places and things that matter to us.

Each underlined concept in that bulleted section represents an existential, feminist life skill which, taken all together, draw the boundaries around the self-construct theory. When you can understand these 15 basic elements of being an authentic human, you will be able to set yourself fully into the will-to-power corridor.

If will to power means to want to want what we actually want most right now, we arrive there when we are passionately attached to our self-designed, customized future memories. You can see how wanting to want represents a highly conscious affective state that can then determine our derived feelings. It is a foundational double feeling, an activating force that takes us to the limits of ourselves and teaches us how to handle the consequences of enacting our best hopes. When we are in the will-to-power corridor, a sense of danger and a sense of excitement should co-exist in balance.

To sum up will to power, here’s a psychological tongue twister: When you wisely want to want what – in your truest sense of self – you are designed to want, you will be able to access an agency that can transform your awareness of a want into an action. The question “What do I want?” will pull for a wise answer – because wanting to want when you know what to want is the route to wisdom.

All together now

Not to overstate things here, but my goal in writing this article is to help you harness the horsepower of your human giftedness to your soul.

Your goal is to learn to be able to do. “To be able to do” is the correct definition of power. The power in the will-to-power corridor is reinforced by:

• Our ability to use curiosity and not shame to digest our past, which teaches us about our uniqueness with a positive and motivating tone;

• Increasing how trustworthy we are when it comes to facing our accountability in the present;

• Being daring in terms of dreaming big dreams that can entice us into a delightful future;

• Acknowledging how surefooted we are when it comes to navigating around the potholes Fate creates in our lives;

• Remembering to reliably populate our lives with folks who energize us with their attention and affection.

When we can consistently do these things, we heighten our drive to want more life allowing us to move ever so surely toward what brings us into flow. We achieve this by continual, steady progress toward a bolder implementation of our talents, experiences and values. We relish the idea that at the edge of will to power is always a new lesson in how to handle consequences because at the edge of will to power are always two things: contingency and Fate. You are confident. You are excited. You are willing to bet on yourself!

Now, oddly, we have to want to want will to power. Life without forward-looking projects is existentially disengaged, the very definition of depression from an ontological perspective. We simply have to be captivated by something out in front of us if we want to fill our lungs with the breath of life. If there is nothing calling us toward a future that is better than the present, there is little to incentivize us to move resolutely toward it. Therefore, if you find yourself answering “No.” to the question “Do I even want to want?” you would be well advised to seek professional support.

Will to power repair

Each of the linked articles in this piece addresses one of the numerous ways we experience will system damage caused by an upbringing that is – from an existential, feminist, psychological perspective – fragmented, incomplete, inaccurate, stingy, dishonest and mean. The necessary repair from a therapeutic standpoint requires defragging our upbringing to both identify the gaps and flaws in our childhood existential curriculum and also to eliminate shame, which tries to convince us to take responsibility for the limitations of that upbringing. Thus, once again we are faced with the daunting truth that we all have some serious psychological work to do in order to have a more complete skill set that can allow us to enact our unique selves upon our world. Once we have a cleaner relationship within ourselves in terms of that defragging process, we will be able to strengthen our ability to deliberately enact our will.

So, if you were not afforded a childhood rich in opportunities for you to practice your will to power under safe circumstances in low-risk endeavors, the task before you now is to set out some training exercises that will allow you to take your place in the driver’s seat. In case you need further encouragement, please remember this: when we travel in a vehicle designed for us by our families or our culture, we are in the backseat looking out the window as we pass life by. It might be a nice trip, but it won’t be our trip.

In order to prevent this already long article from reaching book length, I’m going to point you toward a few articles that cover the steps necessary to design some of the training exercises you might need.

• A good way to practice small instances of will to power is to get in the habit of making an intentional to-do list. This skill will also help you avoid filling your day with things you don’t want but feel you have to want.

• To learn to trust your ability to philosophize about your own life review the article on the existential roots of career choice.

• To better understand how to support yourself in wanting to want what you want, read two articles on how to be a good parent to yourself here and here.

• To explore how life is best lived when it is a series of experiments designed by you for you, read this.

• To figure out how to set the rules of the game of life for yourself, read this.

• How to ask for what you want, here is an article on assertiveness.

• Too often we punish ourselves for wanting. Can you imagine anything more existentially counterproductive or ill advised? If your inner conversations are less than supportive, please reread this article on eliminating shame.

• Because self-esteem is the nonnegotiable psychological foundation for all of us, for a thorough tune up you might want to read about self-esteem, about how important symptoms are to understand, and about the role of stipulation in mental health.

• Finally, if you are extremely bookish and want to understand the theories underlying the concept of will to power, read these articles on existentialism and feminism.

Hopefully all of these articles will help you strengthen your ability to want to choose what YOU want to do next. If so, you will expand, become more than you are right now and in the shape and size you are designed to take.

In conclusion

All neuroses are caused by disordered wanting, meaning that neurotic people (basically all of us to some extent) are less able to access their will to power – the endpoint of our entire wanting system. That means they cannot fully like their life because they cannot fully implement their unique route to flow. A life without the flow of mastery is a life extremely vulnerable to the indictments in the complete list of awful. In other words, when we are not able to be fully ourselves, we can buy into the following descriptors: stupid, childish, boring, cowardly, unlovable and lazy. If we start to think any of those things about ourselves, our interpersonal relationships will be limp because self-loathing creates a moat that keeps folks blocked out and us trapped in. With little to no social energy coming into our wanting system, it can be very hard to prime the pump of will to power with the necessary small choices of forward movement.

On the other hand, every moment we practice standing in the will-to-power corridor strengthens our wanting system and moves us further along on the road toward self-realization.

Now, if we take our thinking up a notch, we can see how our journey of self-discovery becomes self-generating. We resolutely clear and thus transcend the detritus of our less-than-perfect upbringing. We crave the synergy between vitality and courage that manifests as we explore our essential nature. We refuse to allow Fate to hold our hope hostage. We start to realize that will to power reflects our individual relationship with the universe. And, at the very peak we find this truth: We can face the chaos and indifference of the cosmos and force an act of meaning upon it.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.