What my English hertigage didn’t teach me

I was born in England and raised in a culture where being “proper” was the the socially accepted norm, at least in the circles into which I was born. I have no axe to grind with English culture, but one particular aspect I’ve since noted was that children were taught, at least in my experience, to express their desires in polite forms such as “I would like…”, instead of using the more direct form of expression “I want…”. 

Teaching our children not to want

When children first learn to speak, the words “I want” are usually among the first phrases spoken, not long after nailing down “mine”. Well-meaning parents, myself included I have to admit, often seek to make their children less selfish, or simply more civilized, and encourage a softer form of “I want”. Or, worse yet, they combine the change in language with a message that what they want is actually not the thing they should want. “No, you don’t want that, you’d be better off with this…” Along with all the times we’re told by friends and family that we can’t actually have what we want, it’s easy to start getting a bit sheepish with speaking about our wants.

To this day, it doesn’t come naturally for me to use the phrase “I want”. There is one voice in my head which says that it’s rude. Then, there is another voice which also asks to consider what others want. The idea is that it’s better to find out what someone else wants, or even just assume you know what someone else wants, and go with that. That’s the less selfish way to behave and will make you look better to others. Never mind that in all this, what I really want gets pushed to the back-burner and potentially not even spoken.

Say what you want!

Stating honestly what you want is a key first step to success in almost any situation and aspect of life. Failure to do this is at the core of many an argument and much discord, both between people and inside one’s own self. Simply asking the question, of yourself and others, “what do you want?” can help resolve conflict, by getting the end goals on the table and into the light. When arguing, we often end up bringing up all kinds of issues and grievances, many of which may be valid, but they don’t get to the heart of the matter – what do I actually want, but am not actually saying?

What do you want for breakfast?

You can’t get what it is you want without first stating, at least to yourself, what it is that you want. Either say it out loud or write it down, but be clear and unashamed about what you want – whether from your career or marriage, or even what you want for breakfast.

I’ve noticed in myself that the way I act when it comes to small things, like what it is I want for breakfast, is often a reflection of bigger things. So if I’m being deferential and overly polite about something small, failing to even ask myself what it is that I really want, I’ll do the same in other areas as well.

Once we successfully articulate what we want, the issue of how we get what we want comes next. Identifying what’s in the way and working out how to deal with the obstacles is part of the process, but being honest about what you want is the first critical step in the path to success.

Chris Saye
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Chris is a family office executive, coach and writer. He is a former partner with both Arthur Andersen and Ernst & Young, and currently manages MarcWhittaker, a network of family office advisors in Singapore. He is a fluent Russian-speaker, having spent 15 years living and working in Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Chris has been married to his wife Galina for over 20 years and together they have three children and two grandchildren.

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