Using the Guilt-Test to Figure Out What You Really Want to Do

Tools & advice on how to get things done are easy to find. But what about how to choose, from many options, the things you actually want to be getting done? That’s a tougher problem for some of us.

For example, my partner and I share a love of languages combined with an inability to choose & stick to just one thing…

Those are just some of the foreign language learning books we own. In the past year and a half or so, we’ve gone from studying Spanish together, to German, then back to Spanish, and on to Japanese. Both of us have been jumping around between languages like this since we were teenagers. How far have either of us gotten in any one language? Since we keep starting & stopping, we forget almost anything beyond the basic excuse me/I don’t understand/I want a beer level.

The other day I read a great post on the language learning blog AJATT, about how to pick which foreign language to learn. What khatz advised in his post was to pick whichever language we felt most guilty for choosing. Make the easy choice, he writes: “The choice that feels good, that feels “you”; you’ll know which choice is the easy choice because you’ll feel guilty for it.”

“If you’re ever stuck between two languages, pick the less “useful” one: it’s the one you really want to learn.” – khatzumoto, AJATT

In my case, I feel like I should learn Spanish, because a lot of people in my country speak Spanish. It’s the responsible thing to do. It’s a useful language.

But the language I feel most guilty for learning? Japanese. Definitely. I just find it so fun and enjoyable. I love learning the kanji, and how visual or drawing-based the language is. I love that nouns aren’t gendered. I can read books about “notebook surgery” in Japanese, play EarthBound in the original text, and follow owls from Japan on Instagram. But Japanese isn’t practical at all. Learning Japanese will take about four times as much work as learning Spanish, according to the Foreign Service Institute, which not only sorts Japanese into the small category of languages that are “exceptionally difficult for native English speakers” like me to learn, but puts a little asterisk next to it to indicate that it’s even harder than the other languages in that same category, like Chinese and Arabic.

Plus Japanese is so much fun to fill notebook pages with!

Though khatz calls your guilty choice “the easy choice,” he notes later that “it only seems easy to you because it’s your thing.” The guilt here isn’t for taking the least difficult path, but for choosing to do what we like the most, what we’re most intrinsically motivated to do. The other choices, the ones we feel less guilty about, have some amount of “should” to them, some extrinsic motivation that makes us feel more responsible and less selfish for choosing them.

Applying this to a different context, lately I’ve been facing a big decision about what to do with the rest of my life – or at least, what to do now that I’ve finished my undergrad degree. Do I go to grad school? If so, what to major in? Something practical, like data mining or math? Those would lead to high-paying jobs in cubicle farms, working full time in an office like a successful adult. They are definitely the most useful choices. Or I could keep going with philosophy (my “useless” undergrad major), or not do grad school at all and just focus on building my planner business, or try to make a living making art, or I don’t know, become an alpaca farmer (again).

What would I feel the most guilty about?

I know the answer to this just as easily as I know that Japanese is the language I want to learn the most. I would feel major-league guilt for choosing to be an artist. This could mean being a painter, a writer, or both. These are the things I keep abandoning in order to do something more useful that I feel I should be doing instead, like learning statistics or coding. But I always come back to making art and writing, just like I always come back to Japanese. I come back of my own free will because I just like doing those things.

Is making a living as an artist the path of least resistance? Definitely not! Neither is learning Japanese. But they are the “easy choices” for me, because they’re “my thing.” I feel most guilty for choosing them because they are the most selfish choices, the ones that maximize my own personal enjoyment and satisfaction.

If you’re having trouble deciding how to narrow your wide interests down, or figuring out what you most want to do, maybe this guilt-test could help. What would you feel most guilty for choosing? It might not point you at the best choice all things considered, but it can help clarify where your own desires are pointing.

And then consider – would you feel guilty for making that choice, if you stuck with it and were successful at it someday? For example, if I become fluent in Japanese, or successfully make a living from my art someday, I wouldn’t feel guilty then. I’d feel awesome because I put in a lot of hard work doing something I love, and actually made it work. Compare that to some of your other options – how would you feel if you keep jumping between different interests (not getting far in any one of them), or if you chose something more responsible but that you don’t love as much (and kept wishing you had more time to do what you really wanted to do)?

That’s How It Works

In a place you may recognize, there is a closed curtain. A heavy, important curtain of the sort drawn across a stage. You are curious about what is hidden behind it.

With a small flutter in your belly, you step closer and touch the dense fabric, find an opening, and slowly pull the curtain aside. Peeking in, you are awed by what you see – an enormous space filled with living, changing forms. A complex, vibrant jungle of shapes, colors, and structures pulls at your aching heart with a sweet, painful intensity.

It’s beautiful,” you whisper in a whimper to yourself.

“Yes, it is,” a quiet voice says nearby. Someone has been watching you. He stands guard on the outside of the curtain, dressed as a trickster, as usual for this place. He knows what you want, but you voice it anyway: “Can I go inside?”

“No,” he replies in a calm voice.

Your heart sinks so low it just about falls out of your soul.

“You may not go inside. But – if you bring everything that is behind that curtain out here, then you will be in there, won’t you? That’s how it works.”

We all have a curtained world inside of us, full of visions and ideas. We could spend the rest of our lives peering into that inner space, enjoying our personal view of “endless forms most beautiful.”

Our imagination is powerful even just within the bounds of our own heads. In some cases, mental rehearsal of an activity – doing something only in our imagination – leads to actual improvement in our ability to do that activity. Or we can watch another person make a painting, and feel a bit like we’re doing the painting ourselves. Or we can fill our heads with images of other people’s paintings online and feel like we’re surrounded by and immersed in art…yet with not one painting on our walls or easels.

If a tree falls inside your head, no one hears it but you. If a really awesome, beautifully painted forest full of trees has been falling inside your head for years, still no one has seen it but you.

And all of those wonderful ideas for projects popping around in our minds every day? All those interior visions that make our everyday experience so interesting? They are nothing to anyone else, they are mute, invisible, non-existent to the world beyond our heads…until we bring them out from behind the curtain and make them exist in this world we share with others. We can actually live in the world we imagine – if we bring enough of the contents of our imagination out into the world. That’s how it works.