A Quick Guide to Self-Discovery

Orin Davis
3 min readAug 21, 2023

In a prior post, I wrote about how people don’t know what they want, or why they want it, but the questions I’ve received on the topic (along with many queries from my students over the years) suggest that people are missing something even more fundamental. We all come into this world and discover that people around us have expectations for us, which provides some guidance about the first steps we should be taking. We learn from our families, schools, societies, cultures, and the like, and most of these are nominally well-intentioned. But, there’s a danger of getting lost in the whirlwind of learning and expectations, and our own voices can get lost in the chorus. We sometimes even forget that what we want really does matter and that, no matter how much is put upon us, we are the ones who need to act on the advice, expectations, passions, and so on.

If you feel like you lost your voice, and you don’t know what you want, here are some questions you can start with:

What do I like?

This question is about your sensory preferences, because no matter what else you have been handed, you certainly have favorite colors, foods, songs, sights, sounds, smells, touches, et cetera. You have a set of preferred stimuli that is definitively your own unique combination, and is a key basis for how you share yourself with others. People or circumstance can put whatever stimuli in front of you, but there is nothing on this Earth that can make you like it!

What do I want to do?

Consider what it is that you like to do for pleasure. Again, you can be told, and things can be handed to you, and you can even be forced (to varying degrees) to do any number of things. But, nothing can make you want to do it. Go back through your life, and look for the things that you wanted to do, and the things that you enjoyed doing and that you were glad you did. Think about the places to which you were happy to go. (Remember also that some things are an acquired taste, and that you may have been forced to try some things that you later liked — this is fine, as long as you developed a genuine liking for it.)

What inspires my gratitude?

One of the few interventions that has been repeatedly shown to increase happiness is gratitude. Over and above the myriad benefits of gratitude is finding out what it is that we value in this world, what we have, what we don’t, and what we wish we would have. The things for which we are thankful are the things that are important to us, and these show what our preferences really are. The world can tell you what to be thankful for, and the culture around you can try inculcating values, and you can certainly fulfill your obligations of saying thank-you with all due pomp and humility, but none of that can make you feel true gratitude. It is only when what you receive fits with your values and preferences that you feel grateful. What are you grateful for?

My list of preferences

As you go through these questions, you will develop a list of preferences, wants, desires, and values, that really is different from the list that anyone else would have. It would have to be, because only you have the set of experiences necessary to make the full list in front of you. We feel connection when we are able to share parts of our lists, and perhaps also harmony and concordance that comes from feeling seen or understood. But, there are also moments when we need the certainty of having our own voices, and that begins by knowing our own preferences. When we speak aloud to others, we may already feel that we need to put on personas, and this can lead us to lose ourselves at times. But, it is our preferences, our likes, and our wants that can never be prescribed by someone else. They can be suggested and recommended, to be sure, and we can present a façade of appreciation, but we know what like. We always do.



Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.