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“If you want it enough, you’ll find a way.”

by Mary Macfarlane on October 31, 2012

Ever heard that before?

You want to do something, but there are obstacles.  Perhaps there’s a qualification you’d need; perhaps you’d need to support yourself some other way until you got a break; perhaps it’s difficult to manage around your family responsibilities.  You express some reservations about how you’ll manage, and someone who’s already made it shrugs and says, “If you want it enough, you’ll find a way.”

You hear it most often in competitive and oversubscribed sectors, like academia, media, law and creative careers.  The last time I heard it, an entrepreneur talking about starting your own business.  “But how will I find time to do all that, when I also have to work and I have two kids?” one woman asked.  “If you want it enough…”

It makes me a little nervous. There often seems to be a undercurrent of challenge: “If you want it enough, you’ll find a way.  Therefore if you don’t succeed, it’s because you didn’t want it enough.”   It seems to judge the person who doesn’t succeed, or who decides the sacrifices are too great: well, if they didn’t make it, they didn’t deserve it.  They gave up too easily.  I just googled “if you want it enough” and found this image, and a lot more like it:

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You don’t want to be a quitter, do you? You don’t want to be someone who doesn’t want it enough!  What, you need to pay the rent to keep the roof over your head?  Excuses, excuses!  The only way to prove you want it enough is to succeed!


And yet.  There’s also the flipside: it can be surprisingly liberating to admit you don’t want something that much.   Five years ago when I finished my PhD, I was trying to work out how I was going to stay current with research whilst also working to pay the rent.  “What am I supposed to do?” I wrote on Facebook.  “I’ve got so to do – how am I meant to do all that and still earn enough to live on?”  “You could do this … or this … or this…” suggested a friend who was already an established academic.  “But perhaps you just don’t feel that you want to do it enough?”

At first I was outraged.  How dare he, I thought.  He’s saying I’m not motivated enough!  Of course I’m motivated.  I need people to acknowledge that it is literally impossible, so I’m justified in giving up and focussing on Plan B instead!

Except … why did I need other people to validate that decision?  Did I really owe it to anyone else to slog away at something that wasn’t going to make me happy?  Perhaps, just possibly, it wasn’t a judgment, but a statement of fact.  If research was my passion, I probably would do it. I’d even enjoy doing it, at least some of the time. Yes, it would be hard work, but I’d look forward to getting home from my day job to spend time reading and writing.  I thought I was committed, because I’d been telling myself and other people for a long time that this was definitely what I wanted to do, but it actually felt like an awfully long, uphill battle for very little reward. Plan B still involved lots of work, and it would probably be three or four years until I got to the place I wanted to be in, but the difference was that the journey looked fun and exciting as well as the destination.

These days, I see it as quite a useful test of motivation and commitment.  You’ve identified your goal and worked out what it would take to get there: are you excited about the process, or just the goal?  When you’ve worked out that you want to be a teacher, then taking a year to get some experience in the classroom and another year on a PGCE doesn’t seem too bad – hey, you want to be a teacher because you like being in a classroom and you find the process of education fascinating, and that’s what you’ll be doing.  On the other hand, two whole years to qualify sounds like a very long time if the main appeal of teaching is a secure job with a regular salary.

So yes, I do believe that if you want it enough, you’ll find a way.  If you find something you want to do, and the journey excites you as much as the destination, you can be pretty sure you’re on the right track.  If that’s how you feel about starting your own business, qualifying as a psychologist, making films, seeing your name in print, or whatever else, go for it!  There’s never a perfect guarantee you’ll get to exactly where you want to be, but if you enjoy the journey too, you’re certainly not losing out.

On the other hand, if you’re focussed on the goal, but the process fills you with fear, exhaustion and dread, keep thinking.  Maybe it isn’t the right goal.  Maybe you actually want something else more.  Sometimes it’s difficult to admit that you’ve changed your goal, but it can also be a big relief.  So there’s my corollary: if you want it enough, you’ll find a way; but if you don’t, that’s OK too.

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