The “What I Don’t Want” List

“All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.”

Charlie Munger

There are many approaches to living a good life. I’ve explored, and written about some of these over the years. Some of my favorites:

More recently, Morgan Housel was on Tim Ferriss’ podcast where they talk about his life goals. One caught my eye: “I don’t want to get fat.”

It struck me that life goals are usually written as “What I want.” For example, if you’d asked the 25-year-old me, I’d have said: “I want to be rich and famous.”

That’s great, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Charlie Munger and all the smart people above, it’s to look at problems from multiple angles. For living a good life, I’ve been thinking about my wants for decades now.

What about what I don’t want?

Why Don’t Want?

As an optimist, thinking about “don’t wants” feels weird. Why not focus on the endless good possibilities? It feels like I’m giving in to negativity.

But there’s power in inversion. In looking at problems backwards.

Famed researcher John Gottman says successful relationships have at least five positive interactions for every negative interaction.

One way of improving relationships: increase the number of positive interactions — listen to your partner, make coffee for them, hold their hands to keep them warm. The other, higher-impact way: reduce negative interactions. Avoiding the strip club will make your girlfriend happier than cooking her 50 meals.

Another example: I once read that it’s easier to navigate your career based on what you don’t want. Especially at the start.

This makes sense — when you’re in your early 20s, it’s hard to tell exactly what you want for your career. You probably don’t have enough foresight and experience. On the other hand, you probably already have strong feelings about which parts of work you hate.

Here’s Stanley Kubrick, widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, when interviewed about his work process in his 50s:

“I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want.”

A wise old man, at the peak of his career, admitting to something every 18-year-old knows.

Frameworks From Other Worlds

In the business world, there’s a tool based on the same principle — the inverse post mortem. Introduced in 2007, it’s also known as the premortem. Ba Dum Tss.

Normally, when planning for a work project, we think of “How do we make this succeed?” The premortem also seeks to achieve success, but in an inverted way:

Imagine the project has already failed. Well, what things caused its failure? How do we prevent those things from happening?

Another related concept is Anti-Goals — a more sophisticated way of saying “What I don’t want.”

Everyone knows how to set ambitious goals, but there’s always a chance you become miserable as you strive to achieve them. Easiest example: Someone who works till 10 p.m. every night to earn big money, but misses watching their kids grow up.

Adding anti-goals to your goals helps shape them better. By narrowing the scope, you increase your chances of success. For example:

  • Goal: Earn $120,000 this year
  • Anti-goals: Don’t work more than 50 hours a week. Never miss a weekend family outing.

Check out Andrew Wilkinson and Sahil Bloom‘s articles for more on how to practice this. Andrew’s OG article is more focused on work, whereas Sahil’s zooms out and asks “How could we apply this to your health?”

You could apply this framework to any goal, on any time frame.

For example, in the world of personal finance, Ramit Sethi has a brilliant saying: “Spend extravagantly on the things you love (goals), and cut costs mercilessly on the things you don’t (anti-goals).”

My “What I Don’t Want” List

My favorite angle though, is to think about it from an entire life perspective.

What’s on your “What I don’t want” and “What I want” lists for your whole life?

Imagining the sunset of my life at 70, here’s mine:

  • I don’t want to be poor. I want to be wealthy and healthy
  • I don’t want to be famous. I want to be respected in my field of expertise
  • I don’t want to be lonely. I want great relationships with my wife, family and friends
  • I don’t want to be selfish. I want to contribute to my community and humanity
  • I don’t want another job. I want many enjoyable side quests
  • I don’t want to retire. I want mastery of my career

Take note of things that are widely desired, yet you don’t want. That could be something powerful; something that makes you unique. Like, “I don’t want to be poor” is a specific anti-goal, but it’s common. Nobody wants to be poor.

Meanwhile, in a world where many people aspire to retire early, aiming for a meaningful career is powerful.

What could I do today that would lead to fame I don’t want? That could lead me to lose control of my time, relationships, reputation and career?

Try to avoid those things.

Shane Parrish (also inspired by Munger) said it best:

“Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.”

– – –

RIP Charlie Munger — who taught, inspired, and set an example for so many of us.

Pic from Pexels: Airam Dato-on

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  • the mindset of trying to not achieve something u dont want is surprisingly powerful. It flips a different switch in my head. Thanks for sharing

  • How timely this is as I reflect on the year 2023, and subsequently setting goals for the years ahead. Wishing you a restful year-end season, Aaron.

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