questions on the loo, issue #5: “People who know what they want.”

You see that remark everywhere.  Anywhere from job listings to online personals, people are always seeking those who know what they want.  I never quite understood what this might mean.  How could anyone not know what they want?  I know what i want, and those around me know what they want (assuming they are being honest with me).  You might not know how to get what you want, but how could you not know what you want?  It baffles me, really, and the next time i see that phrase, i am going to email whoever wrote it and ask what they mean by it.  

This is something that has been bugging for quite some time now, but i was prompted to write a post about it because this exact issue came up in my Ethics lecture the other day.  My Ethics professor, my wonderfully brilliant Ethics professor, of all people, used that seemingly meaningless phrase, “some people don’t know what they want.”  In Book I Chapter VII of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the search for a self-sufficient good, a final end, the one thing we aim at.  His assumption is that you could be aiming at something, but not be sure what you’re aiming at.  My question is, if you don’t even see the target, how could you be aiming at it?  That would be like someone handing me a bow and arrow and telling me to shoot at the red circle when there isn’t one.  In any case, the question that naturally follows from Aristotle’s proposition that some people don’t know what they’re after is, how do you tell what you’re really after?  One way is to get it first and then figure out if that’s what you’d been wanting, he says.  The only way to know what you’re after is to blindly go after something, get it, and then see if you’re satisfied with it.  If you are, that’s what you had been wanting.  But if humanity really did function in this primitive trial and error method, we wouldn’t get so far now, would we?  

The only way i would be able to accept this proposition is if Aristotle were talking about children, but that does not seem to be the case.  In that chapter, he talks about flutists, sculptors, craftsmen in general; no mention of undeveloped minds.  But even in reference to children this proposition wouldn’t make sense, because undeveloped minds do know what they want.  Babies cry because they want milk.  They cry because they want sleep.  If they’re crying, it means they want something, and their crying alone proves that they are aware of this desire.  If they didn’t know what they want, there could be no outward expression of their desire. 

But all this aside, what does it mean to not know what you want?  Somebody please enlighten me.


Filed under culture, language, philosophy, questions on the loo

5 responses to “questions on the loo, issue #5: “People who know what they want.”

  1. I would consider myself in this category of people, but I’m not sure I can explain it to either of our satisfaction.

    I have a number of vague goals for the future but I’m not committed to pursuing any of them yet. I’m not even certain any of them are what I really want. The question comes to mind ‘how do you figure out what you want’ which doesn’t (in my mind) have an obvious answer. You just know? If I knew I’d go after it wouldn’t I? In this case its like looking at a boulder and just being awed into inaction about where to begin. I’m not sure how to begin going about finding an answer. Trail and Error is indeed one of the more common attempts as solving this. Others may take a more determined focus, choose a goal and not let go until they reach it.

    In theory I find the musician a little easier to explain, a person’s unique sound rather evolves as they play. Its constantly influenced by personal style and listening to others in the world; where they end up may be very different from where they thought they were aiming 10-20 years earlier.

  2. It would depend on your definition of “want.”
    Of course, everyone knows what he wants:
    “I’m hungry.” ==> “I want food.”
    “I’m thirsty.” ==> “I want something to drink.”
    “I’m bored.” ==> “I want something to do.”
    On the other hand, not everyone would know, let’s say, what he want to do with his life. That requires thinking about the future and planning ahead, and some people just don’t want to do it, you know.

  3. n

    I’d argue that everyone knows what they want to do with their lives. They either don’t know how to do it or want to admit it or have the courage to do it. Of course, i’m using the word “want” in its purest sense; the question, “What do you want to do with your life?” is so loaded and cultural that the “want” in it has so many connotations.

  4. keslin

    You only see what I had done or what i’m talking about; what i’m considering. Not what i trully want. You can’t see my thoughts and desires. It depends on me how you can see those things.
    I think that the main problem is courage. If i have courage to show what i want, you will see it.

    But those things are related only to some parts of time, not the whole life. The only thing which i want in my life is happiness. Every choice is combined with my worry of my happiness.

    You can’t see the happiness as you can see the red circle. I’m sure that you want happiness in your life. But you can’t see it. Of course, you can imagine situations, a happy family etc., and you can name it: “happiness”. But it’s not a happiness as a happiness. It’s a situation, not emotion. You can’t see your mind which is founded on your brain and is not the physical thing which you can see but you have feeling that you have mind.
    There’s some things in our universe, in our lives which we can’t see but we’re sure that they are true.

    I’m not sure if i correctly delivered my thoughts from my language to yours.

  5. n

    @keslin: All good arguments that i agree with (and by the way, your English is great; you and i both know that). Everyone wants happiness but not everyone knows that fact. But just to argue semantics, what you’re proposing is that some people don’t know “what it is they want”, not “what they want”. Even if you don’t know that what you ultimately want is happiness, you still know what you want when you’re buying that blue shirt. Maybe that subtle semantic difference does not exist or gets lost in Polish?

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