by Willem de Kooning

I used to joke that I got too much of what I wanted and not enough of what I needed. Looking back, I was really trying to say that I didn’t understand what my needs were. Of course I had some vague sense of them—like everyone else, I require some combination of community, a healthy relationship, and meaningful work—but because I couldn’t articulate my needs with any specificity, I couldn’t make the correct decisions about what would satisfy me and what wouldn’t.

For some people, the problem is that they don’t have enough optionality. For many of my friends, the problem is that they have too much—there are many directions open to them, and they’re not sure where to focus their time and attention. Do I date X or Y? Do I join this company or that one, do I work on my own thing, do I move to Colorado and open a restaurant? The risk when you don’t understand your needs is that you choose something that seems exciting, but quickly realize the reality is pretty disappointing. Then you choose something else, and you’re also like eh, I don’t know. And then you’re like, maybe the problem is not with the thing, it’s with me, and I should just stick it out instead of choosing incorrectly again and again. Which is kind of a scary place to be. In my opinion, the problem is very rarely that you’re actually never satisfied, but usually that you don’t understand what makes you feel good, and instead consistently choose the wrong genre of thing.

For example, let’s say you value prestige, and optimize for that in every decision. So, I don’t know, you attend an excellent college and get great grades and then get the job everyone wants in a high-growth field and then you’re like, weird, I’m sort of miserable. And then you’re like, wait, what I really should do is become a florist and live the simple life and surround myself with sprigs of baby’s breath and fresh violets. And you believe this because being a florist seems like the antithesis of the things in your life you hate right now, the pressure and the prestige-whoring and the godawful hours and the lack of a sense of meaning. But then maybe you do quit your job to become a florist and you’re like, fuck, the margins in this business are really bad and I have no financial security and actually I don’t like flowers as much as I thought I did. The problem here is not that either of these jobs is so bad, but rather that you don’t really understand what you need—you’re kind of just flailing around throwing your dart in different directions, hoping you’ll strike something good.

So how should we go about identifying our needs? For me, I think the first step is to identify the things in your life that have really felt satisfying. For instance, when I was 17 I was in a really great relationship for one and a half years. It didn’t work out because I was 17, but it was really important because it helped me understand what the bar was for a good partner, and roughly what a healthy relationship should feel like. So when I was dating other people, and I was like, Is this good? Is this person right for me? I could think back to that relationship, and identify the qualities that were missing or present. The things that made that relationship satisfying were more less what I need in a partner. Similarly, reading and writing have always been activities that completely absorbed me. Most of the other work I’ve tried seemed intellectually interesting and potentially fulfilling, but moment to moment I was never obsessed with it. I wasn’t happy sitting there for hours regardless of the outcome. Now I understand that in order to find work truly satisfying, it needs be something I’m engaged with and excited by even on a bad day. If I ever stop writing and dedicate myself to a different line of work, I’ll understand the difference between something that’s hypothetically interesting and something that I actually like.

Understanding your needs tells you what’s essential and what’s extraneous. It simplifies your life—instead of trying to do 20 different things simultaneously, you can focus on protecting the core components of your life. It sounds banal, but it’s quite difficult—most smart people I know haven’t identified their needs yet, and feel lost and adrift because of it. It takes careful experimentation and a deep knowledge of who you are to pick out the one or two right things in an infinite lineup. But nothing matters more—it’s the difference between feeling empty despite having “everything” and feeling full despite having very little.