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On needing

The difference between needing and wanting

In his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey describes a memorable conversation. He was in the middle of a lecture when a student paused him and asked: "Will you excuse me from class? I have to go on a tennis trip." A discussion ensued:

"You have to go, or you choose to go?" Stephen asked.

"I really have to," he exclaimed.

"What will happen if you don't?"

"Why, they'll kick me off the team."

"How would you like that consequence?"

"I wouldn't."

"In other words, you choose to go because you want the consequence of staying on the team. What will happen if you miss my class?"

"I don't know."

"Think hard. What do you think would be the natural consequence of not coming to class?"

"You wouldn't kick me out, would you?"

"That would be a social consequence. That would be artificial. If you don't participate on the tennis team, you don't play. That's natural. But if you don't come to class, what would be the natural consequence?"

"I guess I'll miss the learning."

"That's right. So you have to weigh that consequence against the other consequence and make a choice. I know if it were me, I'd choose to go on the tennis trip. But never say you have to do anything."

"I choose to go on the tennis trip," he meekly replied.

"And miss my class?" Stephen replied in mock disbelief.

Most of the time, when we say we need or have to do something, we instead mean we want it. While this might sound like a negligible difference, I argue expressing our wants is a better way to take responsibility for our actions and desires.

When I say I need something, I imply a lack of control and choice. With statements such as "I need to clean my room" or "I need to pay my bills" I hide my true desires. I typically want to do all of these things for some reason. I might want to clean my room to have a clean environment to work or play in and I might want to pay my bills so we can have mobile phones and electricity to cook food.

We have a reason for doing whatever we do, whether we say them out loud or not. The good news is that we can learn to express our desires in a way that clearly states what we want. This might initially be a bit difficult, as expressing our desires makes us feel more vulnerable. But the upside is that expressing our desires forces us to be clear about our motivations. Also, in my experience, people who are more clear about their desires, are more honest and trustworthy.

Next time you think you need something, think if it's something you want – and practise saying that instead.

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