This is one of my favorite questions. I ask it all the time. Ask it before you write an email, before you go to lunch, before you start your day. Ask it of yourself, ask it of your friends, ask it at meetings.

What do you want?

You may want a new computer, a pay raise, someone to understand your idea, a connection in a critical area of expertise, or someone to respond positively to your requests. Maybe you just want lunch. Yet often we don’t ask ourselves this simple question, so we stumble around the world, perhaps hungry and grumpy, without thinking about where we’re trying to go. Without some clarity, our actions fail to take this into consideration.

At lunch the other day with a friend, I asked this question a few times. I wasn’t trying to be mean, or pushy – just achieve some clarity. Each time, he stumbled a bit, offering vague responses to my question and steering the conversation in a different direction.  After a few minutes, I asked again. We finally whittled down the conversation to realize that for the next steps in his business, he really needed two things: outreach and support. Support, specifically defined as investors; and outreach, specifically defined as PR and Marketing.  My next question was simple.

How can I help?

It’s easier to know how to behave when we know what people want.  It’s easier to decide what to do when we ourselves know what we want. In the morning, before I open my laptop, I breathe and I ask, “what do I want to do?” Often, before searching aimlessly on the internet or media sites, playing a reacting-game to information that launches itself at me, I make a list.  I usually write the three most important things down on my pad, and a list of people I’m inspired to write to, before beginning anything on the computer. It helps when I know the things that I want. Sometimes it’s simple: I want to make progress on this essay and have a solid draft prepared for the team before I leave today.  Knowing this, writing it down on a post-it, keeping it in my mind – this helps me make decisions throughout the day.

Also, on the flip side.

What do they want?

I started asking myself this question as a parallel to “What do I want?”  When I send an email, I try to understand what the person on the opposite end wants.

If you’re a wedding photographer, your clients are busy, frazzled, stressed-out brides. They want simplicity. Clarity. Someone who understands them. In all likelihood, they don’t want to make too many more decisions – they want you to help make it easy for them.  When you do send communications, your brand and market should be confident, easy, reassuring. This is probably what they want. And, of course, it gets back to you want: to take their pictures (and, of course, stay in business by making a sale).

If you’re a business owner, raising capital, trying to sell your idea to investors, what do you want? What is your desired outcome? You don’t want to pitch your idea to investors. You don’t just want to have your idea be heard. You want – your objective – is to have at least one investor buy in with a certain amount of funding. You know how much money you need. You know when you need it. Do you know what it looks like to get what you want?

Sometimes we get stuck in our own way, worrying too much about the details and particulars of every step, forgetting to think about the bigger picture. What we want. What they want. How to get there, and get there quickly.

So, try it out. Before you do something today, ask: what do you want?

And think about your peers, colleagues, and clients, too: What do they want? How can you help them achieve their goals?

And – as an added bonus: if you don’t know what they want, you can always ask the question: “What do you want?” (or, “How can I help?”).

Life gets a little easier when you ask yourself both of these questions.

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