My Favorite Things: What Do You Want?

Posted inDesign Theory

What do you want?

This is the question that shapes your life and the personal environmental ecology in which it unfolds.

Yet it is a question we rarely ask ourselves. And, one that is difficult to answer directly even if we do.

Ironically, it is probably the question that is most frequently asked in the fictional stories that we watch and read. Don’t believe me? Pay close attention to the next episode of any drama or comedy you watch on TV. I’m willing to bet that in the course of a one-hour episode the question, “what do you want?” will appear at least once.


Characters in stories are like interacting forcefields of desire. We understand them individually and in relationship to one another by virtue of the alignments and conflicts of their answers to the question: “what do you want?”

In fiction, it’s important for creators to make the various characters’ desires as clear as possible so that audiences know what is motivating their actions. We mostly want our fictional characters to be clear and comprehensible. The more complex and difficult their motivations are to predict, the more demanding the story becomes. That’s why Greek myths and Aesop’s fables are often stripped down versions of the question, “what do you want?” (More recently, motivationally complex characters have become increasingly popular. Of course, there’s always Shakespeare.)

But real life is not that simple. If anyone were to ask any of us, “what do you want?”, it would be difficult to answer without knowing the question’s context. That’s because the question’s answers are deeply contextually dependent. If it’s lunchtime, the question calls for one answer. If it’s a job interview, an entirely different one. If we’re thinking about our lives in the broadest sense, the question is highly nuanced and multifaceted.

That makes the question more easily answered indirectly. Like so many aspects of our lives, direct reflection on the answer might leave us puzzled, or even more likely, yield responses that reflect aspirations or ideals: “I want the world to solve the climate crisis!” That’s why the most insightful answers can often be found not by looking inward but by looking outward.

What does that mean?

It means that what we want is most clearly revealed by the choices we have made up to now. As psychologists put it: past behavior predicts future behavior.

If we take a step back and look closely at our immediate environment, for example, we will get some clear clues about answers to the question. If what we want (often, secretly, even sheepishly) is a life filled with social signals that reveal us as particular kinds of people (e.g., American flags, MAGA hats, and Ford 150s or rainbow flags, pink pussy hats, and Teslas), then we can infer that what we want is to be the kind of person who would create an environment filled with those kinds of things. In other words, the things in our lives, the environment or ecology that we have shaped for ourselves, is a consequence of our compounded answers to the question. (This is what makes visiting someone’s home for the first time so fascinating: we get to see a concentrated, un-veneered version of who they are.)

In a very real sense, we imagine our lives into existence. That means that the person whom we picture ourselves as being guides our choices on both a day-to-day and a lifelong arc. We become who we imagine ourselves to be. It’s as if we have an ongoing narrative filter running in the background saying: “I am/am not the kind of person who…” and complete that sentence with the guiding image of ourselves that shapes our world. We implicitly know, for instance: “I am/am not the kind of person who wears a MAGA hat.”

We do not imagine ourselves into existence haphazardly. Our imaginings are guided by our lived-history, our past experiences with others and the world, mostly in the form of pre-reflective feelings rather than by thoughts or opinions. We are drawn to something or someone first by an attraction, an invisible connection with it/them, and then concretize that feeling into thoughts and words.

That’s what the image at the beginning of this post is meant to illustrate. If we think of ourselves as bundles of desire moving through the world, the landscape we experience—my lifeworld, what the Germans call my unwelt—is a function of those desires. My lifeworld is shaped by zones of attraction. This is often difficult to wrap our heads around. That’s because we are used to the idea that the world is “out there,” that it exists “in itself.”

This notion has haunted Western thinking since Descartes formalized it in his dualist ideas about the separation of mind and body, and person and world. This approach turned the world into objective data that is “out there” and processed by the subject’s mechanical processes “in here.” This led to our belief that there are “correct” perceptions of the world that are shared by all normal, functioning people. (We’ll leave the idea of “normal” for another time.)

But we all know this is nonsense.

Our experience of the world is deeply situational: that’s why the world appears totally different to us in different contexts. Not only is the answer to the question “what do you want?” radically different for someone who is searching for water in the desert but the world itself is different. When you’re hungry, all you see (literally) are places to get food.

Going back to the everyday, think about the kind of things you typically notice and the kinds of things you don’t. Some people notice the jewelry that people wear, others people’s musculature, still others footwear. Our perceptual world is shaped by things we care about, which are reflections of the person we have (unconsciously) imagined ourselves into being. “I am/am not someone for whom an athletic physique is important.”

Walk around your home. Look at the things you’ve gathered into your immediate ecosystem. What do they tell you about what you want? Look especially closely at your favorite things. They will tell you a great deal about the person you have imagined yourself to be in the past, and likely will continue to imagine into the future. Remember: the answer to “what do you want?” shapes our environment, which in turn shapes us.

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.