Illustration by Brock Davis
Here's the truth: People who get what they want tend to be the ones who make the effort to know what they want.

They say feminism had several "waves," though I can never keep them straight. All I know is, back in the day, one of these waves sloshed me into many passionate conversations with classmates and colleagues about the changes we wished to see in the world. These were mostly good old bitch 'n' moan sessions, in which we lamented everything from unfair wages to sex slavery. True, the potential for another type of conversation did occasionally arise, when someone would ask, "So how do we fix things?" But at that point, a funny thing always happened: We suddenly ran out of things to say.

I don't blame us for clamming up. I understand the buzzkill. Complaining is easy, even fun, compared with the challenge of creating a plan for positive change. Watching some of the brightest women I've ever met struggle to invent practical alternatives to sexism, I gained huge respect for anyone who pushes beyond kvetching and into clarity.

These days, as a coach, I see a similar dynamic play out for my clients. They complain in rich detail about the things that are wrong with their lives: demanding children, overbearing bosses, the bafflingly low sales of their topiary sculptures. But when it comes to specifying the fix, people haul out their broadest brushes. "I just want love," they say. "Passion." "Inner peace." It's like telling a waiter, "Bring me something delicious. I have no idea what, but I'll know it when I taste it." No order that fuzzy is likely to produce a satisfying result.

Here's the truth: People who get what they want tend to be the ones who make the effort to know what they want. So this year, as I make my usual commitment to bettering myself, I'm going to start by clarifying my desires. If you'd like your life to vastly improve, you might want to do the same.

How to Get What You Want: The Four Ps

Because I am capable of making only small moves toward personal improvement, I find it helpful to break down the process of clarifying desire into steps. I call them the four Ps: Pushback, Possibilities, Preferences, and Pinpointing. Let's consider them.

Step 1: Pushback

While visiting China, I heard a story of a wise man there who taught his acolytes by holding a little songbird on his finger. When the bird tried to leave, he'd drop his hand so it couldn't get enough lift to fly away. Lesson: The ability to soar often depends on pushing back against something you don't want. My feminist friends and I did lots of this; every time we identified things that felt wrong to us in a deeply authentic, visceral way, we were articulating the Pushback.

Since most humans are expert complainers, I'll bet you're feeling some level of Pushback right now. Somewhere in your life there's a sense of resistance, resentment, discomfort. When babies feel this way about pureed liver, they clamp their mouths closed, shake their heads, hurl spoons. Though I doubt you do this at business meetings or parent-teacher conferences, maybe you should. Inwardly, I mean. Outwardly, you can nod and smile the way you always do, while noticing the feeling of Pushback.

And when you're ready to start complaining—to your spouse, a cabdriver, the pope—don't just bitch and moan. Bitch and moan about precisely the things that bother you. Find the central flaw in the boardroom strategy session. Figure out what exactly about the teacher's condescending attitude makes you want to punch her in the kidneys. The more specific you are about what upsets you, and why, the clearer you can make your desires.

Step 2: Possibilities

Once you've complained yourself into a nice high dudgeon, release the energy of finding fault and take up the energy of imagination. Holding in your mind the situation that leads to the strongest Pushback, begin mentally playing out ways it might change. Emphasis on playing. If you feel confined in your tiny office, imagine working in Cinderella's castle, at the beach, on the moon. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible." Each time you feel your Pushback, ride that energy and use it to imagine outrageously awesome Possibilities.

Step 3: Preferences

If you stay loose and relaxed as you're conjuring Possibilities, you'll notice that some of them leave you feeling intrigued, curious, a bit lighter. These are your Preferences. Let them tiptoe into your consciousness. Don't think; just allow. (If you could already think about your Preferences clearly, you'd be creating, not complaining. As T.S. Eliot wrote, "Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.") Let yourself form a vague impression, then go for a bit more specificity, as if you're slowly bringing a camera into focus. Allow, and watch.

Step 4: Pinpoints

If you're playful and patient, the Preferences forming in your consciousness will eventually become clear enough to describe in words. You'll begin articulating exactly what bothers you and scenarios you'd prefer to see. Don't jump the gun; hold on a bit longer and get maximum specificity by Pinpointing your desires. Thinking of a solution you'd like to see, ask yourself, What would be even better? After allowing an answer to come into focus, ask, What would be even better than that? Repeat this until you've got an image of a situation so perfect you literally can't imagine a way to top it. This is Pinpoint clarity. Now you're telling the waiter, "Please bring me two free-range eggs boiled for exactly three minutes, seasoned with a dash of sea salt and coarsely ground Tellicherry pepper." That kind of clarity may raise eyebrows, but guess what? It lets everyone and everything around you deliver exactly what you want.

Illustration by Brock Davis

Practice Makes Perfect

Success at creating clarity relies on getting a feel for the four Ps, and that comes only through another P—practice. So let's walk through a couple of examples. The first imagination exercise that follows, involving your home, will ease you into the process; the second involves the trickier business of human relationships.

Example A: Embrace a Space

Say you're wandering around your home, tripping over the magazines you've been meaning to read, the clothing you've been meaning to donate, and the weight-lifting equipment you're definitely going to start using any year now, and you decide it's time to spruce things up. Use the four Ps to clarify the change you'd like to see at home. Go into the least pleasant part of your living space. You may immediately experience Pushback as a desire to leave. Don't. Instead, to figure out exactly what you can't stand about it, imagine that you are this icky space and try to sense what it "wants." Does your bedroom long to be rid of clutter? Does that dark and dismal corner yearn for a lamp? Do the living room windows crave curtains in a shade other than mustard? Imagine these things, letting the space suggest Possibilities. Notice which image has the yummy feel of a Preference. Then, while holding in your mind any image that feels positive, ask yourself, What would be even better? until you can Pinpoint at least one or two changes that are both joyful and doable.

Example B: Rejigger a Relationship

For this example, think of someone you like, but not one of your nearest and dearest (the closer the relationship, the harder it is to envision clear changes, so start with acquaintances and work up). Imagine sitting with this person, having a cup of coffee. Then picture yourself pulling away from the table like a movie camera, so you can see yourself, your friend, the coffee shop. Just as you did with your living space, imagine that you can become the situation—not just you, but both of you and the energy between you.

Now feel for areas of discord in the relationship, the places where you experience Pushback. Let's say you feel Pushback from your cousin Myrtle. Getting specific, you realize the feeling is strongest when you think about the birthday present you're planning to give her: a gorgeous throw handwoven from the wool of an albino alpaca. Not that you're keeping score, but the last time Myrtle remembered your birthday, in 1992, she gave you a spatula.

Let your mind dream up some Possible scenarios that might correct this imbalance. Imagine simply asking Myrtle to give you better presents. Imagine ignoring her birthday. If that feels sad because you love giving birthday gifts, imagine a range of things you might give her—coasters, birdseed, a tongue scraper—allowing your feeling of Preference to Pinpoint the item that fulfills your generosity without sparking resentment. Keep the throw for yourself. Now that you've got what you want—the chance to give without feeling like a chump—you can remain cheerful and loving no matter what Myrtle does.

The Year of the Four Ps

To this day, some of the feminists I met in grad school are still complaining. They seem to enjoy it. I wish them all the best.

For you, however, I wish something better: a new year full of clarity regarding the persistent problems in your life. These problems may look uncannily like burdens, but they're actually invitations to change. That change will happen if you use the force of complaint to reach precise solutions. Knowing what you want—exactly what you want—is the first step to getting it. I hope I've made that clear.

Think of a solution you'd prefer, then ask yourself, What would be even better?

Martha Beck's latest book is Finding Your Way in a Wild New World (Free Press).

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