Getting What You Want vs. Getting What You Need

If that headline make you want a video of The Rolling Stones performing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” then you can get what you want here. I’d like to propose that what you need is a blog post tying this philosophical principle to the creative process.

Imagine your goal is to write a novel that sweeps the reader along. You decide what you want is tight prose devoid of detail. You find yourself recalling that high school English class in which you were forced to read Faulkner, and suffered as he took three hundred words to describe a sunset. So you say you’ll emulate Hemingway, by stripping down your prose to pages of dialogue, losing any descriptive language.

What you likely will lose is your reader. Hemingway’s prose was tight. He pruned his prose insistently, once confessing to F. Scott Fitzgerald that he produced 91 pages of excrement for every one page of gold, and did his best to discard the waste material. But Papa’s labor filled his prose with detail. Here’s the opening to A Farewell to Arms:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in the village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.

My hope is that when Picasso created his untitled sculpture for Chicago’s Daley Plaza, he was open to the possibility of it inspiring other artistic masterpieces. It did, becoming a featured element in the sublime motion picture “The Blues Brothers.”

In three sentences, Hemingway has placed me squarely in a scene thick with tension, one in which idyllic beauty is upturned by potentially hostile intent. Had I assumed the only lesson I could learn from Hemingway was how to write pages of dialogue without the use of “he said” and “she said,” I would have failed to get my readers what they needed.

It is natural for us to fixate on a perceived solution to our problem, such that we close our mind to possibility. There may be other, better means to our true objective.

Father’s Day is again upon us. My wife and kids asked me what I wanted to do that day. I didn’t really know. What do I like? I asked myself. I like Tex-Mex food, I replied. Recently I heard of a Tex-Mex restaurant not too far away that is supposed to be pretty good, so I considered telling my family that I wanted us to go there. I was pretty sure that I would have a good time (I can’t speak for the three of them). But what if I just said, “You know, I like Tex-Mex food,” and left it at that. Perhaps instead they would create a fiesta on our deck, my son grilling steak and shrimp, my daughter making fresh guacamole, my wife serving me a margarita made with my favorite añejo tequila. That would be pretty nice as well. But that scenario couldn’t happen if I closed off the possibility with an insistence on a particular restaurant.

I received a call recently at my day job from a gentleman with a very specific–and impossible–want. Before immediately saying no, I asked what his goal was for this request. When he told me, I was pleased, because there were many things I could do for him that would, in my opinion, do even more to meet his needs. He declined my many offers. Well, he never formally declined any of them, because he didn’t actually listen to any of them. Every time I proposed a solution to his problem, he interrupted me, repeating his original want. Each repetition increased both in volume and belligerence. The conversation, thus, was fated to end with him disappointed in not getting what he wanted, and me disappointed he didn’t permit me to give him what he needed.

Mick Jagger is still seeking what he wants, and presumably getting what he needs. He killed recently as a guest host on Saturday Night Live, as spry and ironically witty as ever. Something tells me he remains open to possibility. I wish to do the same in my personal life, my professional life, and my creative life.

23 thoughts on “Getting What You Want vs. Getting What You Need

  1. Jenny Alexander

    Great post! I think this is the essence of the creative process – having an idea, but then being open to all its possibilities… and if it has its own ideas, being ready to let go of the one you started with!


  2. We’re often told that we have to visualize every detail of our success and focus on those specific things to reach our goals. But I think you’re right about vague notions. I’ve found that with my writing and with many other aspects of my life, if I have too firm an idea in my head, I’m doomed to disappointment. There are many paths to the places I hope to go.


    1. “There are many paths to the places I hope to go.” Well said. I have also found that, if I pay attention while on one of those paths, I sometimes find there may be a better destination ahead than the one I’d hoped to go to. Again, all about possibility.


  3. Love this, and yes, I did start hearing the Stones when I saw the title in my inbox. I mean, really, who wouldn’t?

    In the Kaizen-Muse creativity coaching model I use, we talk about “essences.” It’s basically what you’re talking about here. You identify the essence of what you’re after — satisfaction, entertainment, mischief, peace of whatever it may be — and then let go of how that has to look. Sometimes it’s helpful to have something specific in mind as a way to get started (often the hardest part of the creative process), but beyond those first few steps, you can follow the creative detours that appear.

    To me, that’s where the magic is, in life and creativity. It’s the surprise and serendipity that come up when you’re open to them. In fact, that’s basically my definition of creativity: doing something without following an already established procedure.


    1. Sue, thank you for sharing that Kaizen-Muse insight on “essences.” I like the idea of focusing on a goal that isn’t a concrete state–sitting on a million dollars, owning a sports car–but rather on an abstract state of mind. It certainly allows for more possibility. The person wanting a million dollars probably wants the happiness he or she thinks awaits when that money is acquired; why not instead focus on the happiness itself? Of course, with broad “essences” like that, I can see you’d want to start with something specific, and then remain open to detours.

      Your comment at the end reminds me of some of the discussion that emerged in the comments in Carole Jane’s post the other day.


  4. You may have an idea of what you want. Open door. Discover path. Pick direction. what you can’t see are the myriad paths and tributaries shooting off from that original want. Much easier to get into a zone and go with it.


  5. I think most of us know what we want and yet know nothing about what we need. But like you said, the key is to be open possibility. Love this post Patrick.


  6. It’s quite possible that we don’t open to what we need until we’ve been utterly disappointed in our attempts to get what we want. (Society seems built on and for “want”.) If what I say is true, then we need to want like crazy, want to the point of disillusionment… then we open to need. And in all likelihood, the need we glimpse will be of the larger community, others. I’m not being moralistic… I honestly think that this the way the human organism works. It’s also the hero’s journey. She wants to the point of self-destruction, then sees the light and adopts a higher cause. I’m building my new novel on this theory of story. It seems to be the modus operandi in the best works of fiction. That`s my observation and I`m sticking with it… at least through a first draft.


    1. “It’s also the hero’s journey. She wants to the point of self-destruction, then sees the light and adopts a higher cause.”

      Love that insight, PJ. And, of course, how about the powerful flawed hero, who reaches the point of self-destruction but never truly sees the light, or to put it another way, flames across the sky as a bright comet and is then extinguished. Perhaps they die a martyr, and are celebrated in story and song, like Braveheart. Or perhaps they finally triumph over the man, but fail to see what they’ve lost in the process, like the Greg Kinnear character in Flash of Genius who lost his wife and became estranged from his kids while pursuing litigation against an automaker.

      Much to think about.


  7. I really appreciate the contrast of your two stories, Patrick, and hope that (mostly) I’m flexible enough with my expectations so I’m more like you rather than the fella you tried to help at your day job.

    But I find myself engaged in quite the internal wrestling match at times, as I am not the most laid-back person on the planet, and can be quite tenacious when I have a fixed idea of how something ‘should’ be played out. That said, I’ve been greatly rewarded in my creative life especially lately by being more spontaneous and open to possibility, and I’m grateful and having a better time with it all as a result. Thanks for another great post.


    1. Thank you, Carole Jane! There’s nothing wrong with being tenacious when you have a fixed idea. I think the key is to have a certain degree of self-awareness, and you clearly have that. The poor gentleman who wouldn’t let me help him lacked that gift, I fear.


  8. Jeez, I think I’ve had that same client, Patrick. ha ha! Isn’t he a peach?

    Love this post. Sometimes we just have to keep what we’d like in mind, and let the Universe provide it as it sees fit. What we get often ends up being better than what we imagined, in my experience.


  9. Wonderful post, Patrick, and so true! And I think it applies to the creative life even beyond creativity itself and into the business side of things. Maybe a writer has it set in his head that he wants to be famous for writing about bridges, but can’t seem to get his great American novel about a bridge-builder published. If he’s open to meeting his goals in another way, he might realize that his true strength lies in photography – and get a coffee-table book of famous bridges published – or that he’s truly a poet – and have a whole collection of poems published about bridges. Really, this principle of being open to alternative routes can apply to most everything in life. What a great reminder; thank you!


    1. Thanks, Annie! I love your example about the bridge-fascinated author. I want to write biographies of cartographers someday; maybe I need to produce a coffee-table book of antique maps instead!

      That bridge-obsessed guy would have been smart to think about writing a book about a middle-aged photographer of covered bridges who has a torrid affair with a woman in a place called Madison County, but I digress.


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