The difference between Goals/Wants and Desires

From “Step 1 – Become Aware – Setting goals versus pursuing your desires” in Unscribbling: the art of problem solving and fulfilling your desires.

What is the difference between wants and desires - important question to ask to fulfill your dreams!So, what is the difference between goals (or wants) and desires? Well, goals & wants tend to be specific solutions or benchmarks – rigid, unchanging and tangible. Something like:

  • I want to be promoted to manager by the time I am 35.
  • I want to be married by the time I am 28.
  • I want to own my own home.
  • I want kids of my own.
  • I want to retire by the time I am 62.
  • I want to be a billionaire.

But…. What happens if you are unable accomplish them in the timeline that you thought you should, or if they don’t work out at all?

Life is fluid, unpredictable and constantly changing. The rigidity of goals can send you into a tailspin if, say, your fiancé dumps you at age 27, or a parent becomes ill and you need to financially support them, or you are unable to conceive a child, or the economy crashes and your retirement investments take a plunge.

Technically, you might still be able to meet your goals, but is that going to be what is best for you? You might be able to rustle up someone and still get married by the time you’re 28, but is he or she going to be the right person for you? You might still be able to retire, but will it be the kind of retirement you enjoy?

If life throws you a curve ball (as it often does), what happens to your goals? Do you throw them out the window? Push back the timeline? Get angry with God, because God has not answered your prayers? Play the victim? Dive into that pity party? What happens when you can’t solve the problems you are facing or meet your goals?

You want to be married, you want to make more money, you want life to be easier, etc. When you have the want, and no way to meet it, it’s natural to feel frustrated. Once we feel that frustration, we tend shut down. We end up doing nothing, or we bitch and moan to our friends about how rough we have it. We focus on our lack and on the problem, not on the solution and the good that is present; thereby getting us nowhere.

All in all, goals are not bad. It’s when we get stuck on them and lose sight of the desire behind them when goals start to do us a disservice. The good news is that behind each of your goals and wants is a hidden desire – the underlying wish or longing that brought it into being.

Instead of rigid goals, look at the desires behind the goals/wants. Like:

  • I desire to have a career that uses my gifts and compensates me fairly.
  • I desire a loving companion in my life.
  • I desire to be financially prepared for my future.
  • I desire to love and be caring towards another.

It is not just a matter of changing the word “want” to “desire.” It’s about finding the true desire behind the want.

Think about your goals/wants and desires as if you WANT to book a flight from New York to San Francisco, but the airlines are grounded due to bad weather. So you end up taking a train. Along the way, the train breaks down in Chicago. So you end up jumping on a bus. But there is a whole section of I–80 that is torn up, and you end up taking I–70 instead. However, the bus driver will not go past Las Vegas (something about bad mojo and he doesn’t want to risk his luck on the tables). Since they can’t get another driver in for two days, you end up renting a car to drive the rest of the way. You WANTED to take a flight to San Francisco, but when that did not work out, you did not lose sight of your true desire – to get to San Francisco. You had to use alternate routes than you had planned, and you might have gotten there on a different timeline, but ultimately you still got there.

In this scenario, your goal/want was to take a FLIGHT to San Francisco. The true desire behind it would be to get to San Francisco.

Once you know your true desire, it opens up a world of possibilities. If it is your true desire, there will be no roadblocks to accomplishing it; perhaps a few detours and paths that seem surprising, but never a complete dead end. You won’t let there be a dead end because you know that there is always more than one way to fulfill your desires!

“When a child screams, ‘I want my doll!’ is it the doll, or love and comfort they are looking for?” – Anonymous

Takeaways: Wants/goals are just some solutions that can help you meet your true desires. 

Goals are rigid benchmarks, desires are helping to guide you to your happiness. 

P.S. I need to clarify something here. Unscribbling is NOT a goal setting book. However, investigating your goals and wants can help you unlock the secret of what your true desires are by looking at their essence.

Why do I embrace desires?

Three reasons to embrace desires:

1. It just makes more sense. Desires find the heart of our goals – the true motivation behind the goal. Pursuing a desire (with its many options to achieve it) just makes more sense to me.

Let’s look at the approach of two different sales agents. Rigid Rick has the goal to close 5 deals a month. Desire Danny has the desire to connect people in need of his company’s services with his company. They both go to networking meetings, join online user groups in their company’s area of interest, make calls to prospective target markets, and create social media campaigns geared toward their company’s interests, etc.

What happens? Can you feel the difference? Well, so can the prospective clients! The two sales people may participate in the same networking options, but the heart of what they are doing with those tools is very different.

When you get to the heart of your desires, you tend to identify desires that fit more accurately and are more heartfelt. Pursuing a more heartfelt and targeted desire will be felt by those you are interacting with.

Let’s look at it another way, feel the difference between the following goal and desire:

“I want a relationship” and

“I desire to be loving towards another”

“I want a relationship.” Sounds and feels kind of needy doesn’t it?

“I desire to be loving towards another.” Wow! Now that is someone I want to be around.

Following a true desire, not just a rigid goal, will not only bring you to the heart of your goals, but more than likely the heartfelt reason behind your goals too.

2. Desires give us something to focus on while remaining open to play within the unpredictable flow of life.

Your desires help to give you a direction, but life can be unpredictable. You have to be able to zig and zag if needed, or pick a new solution that can still fulfill your true desires if necessary. If you are stuck on one solution (or goal), you could be in big trouble.

Our desires serve us as the military’s “commander’s intent” serves them. In “Made to Stick “ by Chip and Dan Heath, the authors discuss the military’s use of a CI or commander’s intent, which is the desired end state of an operation. The desired end state being more important than the tactical plans. On the battlefield, plans (aka goals) don’t always work the way we want them to. The CI identifies the heart of the mission, like “clear the hill of the enemy,” versus more of a strategic plan, like “bring in 60 troops at 14:00 and sweep the area.” The CI does not get into the details of how that is to be done, as those plans may get thrown out the window at any moment that the enemy does not agree – messing up your plans entirely – but your intent stays the same regardless.

The Heath brothers go on to say, “You can lose the ability to execute the original plan, but you never lose the responsibility of executing the intent… When people know the desired destination, they are free to improvise as needed in arriving there.”

The commander’s intent is like your desire. When you have your desire in mind, you will be able to improvise your strategy to get there, as needed, no matter what curve balls are thrown at you. You may not be able to fulfill the goal/solution of bringing in 60 troops at 14:00 to sweep the area if you suddenly find a bridge out between the troops and the hill, but you can improvise a new solution if you know the intent to “clear the hill of the enemy.” Perhaps it is time to call in an air strike.

Knowing your desires allows you to stay open to solutions. You don’t become stuck on one solution (or goal). You stay open to all solutions, so you can zig, zag, and adapt as needed.

3. Desires lead you to take action NOW.

When you have desires in mind, they can help shape your actions in the present. Even if your strategies change, you’ll have a direction for your actions now.

For example, if you desire to be in a relationship, should you be watching TV tonight or signing yourself up on a dating service website? Which action is more likely to get you to realizing your desires?

What is important is identifying, admitting, and becoming aware of your true desires to yourself. THIS is hard work, and probably one of the reasons more people do not realize their desires.

“Desire is the starting point of all achievement, not a hope, not a wish, but a keen pulsating desire which transcends everything.“

–Napoleon Hill


Takeaways: Your desires help you find the heart of your motivations, and create an energy at the heart of your actions. 

Knowing your desires keeps you open to other solutions, despite any roadblocks.

Knowing your desires can shape your actions in the present.