Shoals: what do you know you don’t want?

Shoal, n. an area of shallow water, especially as a navigational hazard.

a photo of waves crashing on rocks near a cliff face

There are lots of questions that it’s helpful to know the answer to. One of these is “What do I want?” But this is a hard question to answer… which means despite its theoretical value, it’s not particularly practical. A question being worth answering doesn’t make it a good question. If it’s a hard question to answer, then asking it might be fruitless and frustrating. So one generally effective tip is to consider what other questions you could ask that will be more tractable than a hard question but yield similar insights.

In the case of “what do I want?” which is often a scary question, one great alternative is “what do I know I don’t want?” In particular, in a given domain.

My friend Shane Stranahan calls the answers to the second question “shoals”. The idea is that if you’re on a ship, and trying to land it ashore, then the shore is the goal… but the water may be treacherous, containing a bunch of shallow water that you can run aground on. These are the shoals: they’re close to the goal, they’re made out of the same stuff as the goal (land) but they’re not the goal, and they represent a risk to you reaching the goal.

And, if you have a good map of where they are, you’re much more likely to sail safely to shore.


Social outings & downtime

First: a really simple example (I hope). Figuring out what to eat or what to do for a social interaction. There are a bunch of different restaurants that you could go to with your friends, and you can’t decide. Aaah. Well, do you know restaurants that you probably don’t want to go to? That’s information too. Tell your friends that: “I don’t feel strongly about any place in particular, but I’m really not feeling italian or greek tonight.”

Another, related scenario might be “what do I want to do with my Friday night?” There are lots of things that you definitely don’t want to do with your Friday night, like eat a live swordfish. Ideally you can find some ways-your-night-might-actually-go that you’re also pretty confident you don’t want. Of course, don’t forget to step outside of your comfort-zone now and then.


One more significant situation in which people commonly struggle to figure out what they want is in their careers. People are actually relatively good at using negative desires in career-reasoning: “I don’t want to end up working as a janitor.” But that’s a pretty weak claim—it doesn’t actually carve out much of possibility space… and what it does, is probably not that relevant to where you’re likely to end up.

I think that the concept of shoals—not just things you don’t want, but things you don’t want that are pretty close to what you do want—can be helpful here. Imagine someone making a career decision, about say where to work right out of university. They might try saying “I’m not sure exactly what I want for the next few years, but… I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be working long hours…” This is a start. But you can go further.

CFAR teaches a technique called Murphyjitsu, (a reference to the eponymous law) in which you try to fight off everything that can go wrong in your plan. You imagine, for example, coming home from your errands, and realizing aloud, “CRAP I FORGOT THE ____” and wait for your brain to fill in the blank. Similarly, you (or our new graduate above) could try kind of imagining, “What are plausible ways that this career decision I’m making turns out in a way that I really don’t want?” This might generate even more specific don’t-wants like “I can imagine myself accepting a job in Toronto, but I actually think I really wouldn’t be happy living there” or “With my skills I could end up with a programming job… which would be okay but I have a sense that it wouldn’t me along the path for my ideal career (whatever that is).”

A career is a context in which it’s probably worth taking the time to sit down and figure out what you do want though. If you can’t think of this directly, try enumerating a bunch of options, asking people in those professions what they like & don’t about their jobs, and then trying to compare the options.


Another often-challenging arena for wants-out-figurement is relationships. I think that part of the issue here is that we don’t know how to want things sincerely without feeling entitled to them, and so in trying to respect our partners’ and friends’ autonomies, we try not to want anything at all. Then of course there’s fear of rejection. I think that it should therefore not surprise us that a lot of communication around intimacy ends up being about peoples’ boundaries, which are kind of like shoals, rather than about their desires, which have these scary properties just mentioned.

But as for relationships more broadly, I think people often don’t really do either, and they just sort of end up in whatever relationship they’re in. There’s a wanting process at work at the start: “who do I want to date?” but once people are dating they often seem to just… do stuff.

In my current primary relationship, my partner and I sat down at the start of our relationship and tried listed out the various things that we thought we might want in the relationship. We also listed things that we didn’t want. (and things we weren’t sure about). This was really helpful for giving us a clear picture of how the relationship might ideally go.

I personally found one of the don’t-wants really helpful: I noted that one thing people sometimes want from a relationship is a lot of teasing / playful antagonism. I knew from a past relationship that this wasn’t something I found very attractive usually, which I specified. We talked a bit about this to make sure we had a shared understanding. Over the coming months, there were several instances where my partner actually noticed before I did that they were teasing me in a way that was starting to make me uncomfortable, and the shared knowledge that this was about me and my needs made it easy for them to stop without feeling like I was mad at them in particular.

Other contexts

If you’re struggling to figure out what to study, try asking, “What do I know I don’t want to study?” Or if you’re looking at an imminent tense conversation, and you don’t have a sense of what you want from it, try asking “how do I know I don’t want this conversation to go?” It’s not quite as clear, but it can still be helpful for navigating. Similarly:

“what do I want to do with my life?” → “what don’t I want to do with my life? what would I consider to be a fail?”

“how should I spend my time?” → “what things do I know aren’t worth spending my time on?”

“what do I value?” → “what do I know I don’t value?”

Closing thoughts

The shoal-concept isn’t a panacea. In lots of contexts you’ll benefit hugely from taking the time to really figure out what you do want, and then aiming for that. But it can be an easy way to get started with figuring out what you want because it doesn’t produce the same sense of needing to get it exactly right at the beginning. You can hone in more gradually.

Also, even once you know you want something, it can be hard to honor that in the face of conflicting parties. Don’t-wants can sometimes be as hard to honor as wants. If you’ve previously flagged something as a dealbreaker, but then you get a really friendly message from a really cute person on OkCupid…

…you know, hey. Maybe you were too strong with your dealbreaker. But you made it for a reason: it was designed to keep you from crashing on the rocks in the shallow water.

(Related reading: pattern-botching)

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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