What We Want: Cracking the Code

by Jennifer Paros

September 2017

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.”

~ Jim Carrey


When I was nine I wanted to be pretty. But, in truth, that was code – I actually wanted to feel secure. The previous year I’d had a kind of breakdown involving intense fear of my new school. After some hiding and running, I changed schools again. I got what I thought I wanted: a place in which I felt cared about. But though the new environment inspired me to feel safer, I still didn’t feel strong in myself. I was inadequate in my own eyes, which I then, unwittingly, turned into not pretty. So, at nine, I wanted to be pretty – but not really.

In Pixar’s online course in storytelling, emphasis is placed on the arc of characters starting out wanting one thing and eventually getting what they need instead. When we consider need in this context, as something required more to thrive than survive, it becomes very similar to “actually wants.” Sully, from Monsters Inc. is given as an example. He wants a promotion and recognition within the organization, but then he meets Boo, a human child. Because their relationship is against the rules, it threatens his career. Gradually, Sully finds what he needs and chooses it over the pursuit of his original goal. Sully starts out wanting a promotion and status but what he really wants is love and appreciation (given and received), which he finds in a richer way in his relationship with Boo.

A young prince wants to be king. Decoded, this statement might mean the prince wants to feel powerful and respected. Perhaps he has linked king and feeling powerful together and equated the two. Time passes and the young fellow gets to be king, but he is a miserable king. His decisions are disrespected and he doesn’t feel powerful. There is revolt in the air. He obtained the form of what he wanted, but not the actual experience. The king could have both but he would have to bring it himself, not just look to conditions to provide it.

This coded language is worth learning because pursuing things, jobs, or relationships as the end goal can be rough if underneath we yearn for something else. When my youngest son tells me he wants a future living an isolated, quiet life, in which it is just him and some cats, it seems to me he doesn’t actually want permanent seclusion. He wants to be able to enjoy being with others, but if he believes he can’t, exile and solitude sound like a solution. Through the thought of isolation, he gains momentary relief, but the pursuit of it would actually put him in conflict with himself.


Dedicate yourself to the good you deserve and desire for yourself. Give yourself peace of mind. You deserve to be happy. You deserve delight.

~Hannah Arendt


In an episode of the BBC show, Call the Midwife, a woman, expecting to have just one baby, gives birth to twins. One of the babies dies, however, and she and her husband are left grieving. They’d anticipated only one new life but now want both the children and so mourn the loss. But included in and beyond their original desire for a child is the desire to love and nurture – and the opportunity still remains before them, lying in their arms, alive and ready. They have what they want whether or not they can receive it.

We are given the chance to embrace what is alive for us and release what is not. Sometimes, what is void of life is just a symbol for what we want, and what is alive is the truth of our desire. If we misunderstand our longings, we can hold ourselves in a state of grief – fixating on what has no life to give, while that which offers new life, connection, and what we really seek, remains unrecognized.

Our desires encourage us to focus, harness our energies and drive, our gifts and talents, and carry them forward. They’re the potential means for our expression and appreciation – not just things to get. What we really want (or need) to thrive is never outside us; we always bring it. We are the providers of our own joy – or not. Beauty, wealth, fame, success are good, but incapable of making us feel good in and of themselves. It is good to know what we want, and better to crack the code on what that means to us.

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.

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