I have a bucket list. It has exactly two things on it:

  1. See Bruce Springsteen live.
  2. Visit the Rothko Chapel.

And I’m crossing item #1 off my list tonight. So I think it’s safe to say that the remaining item does not meet the minimum requirements of a “list.”

I have friends with great bucket lists. I get excited for them when I read them. Somehow, though, I could never get into the project for myself, and I wasn’t sure why, exactly.

Historically, I’ve been big on goals, targets, and aspirations. I do a lot of visioning, both personally and professionally. But in the past year or two, I’ve hit on a different way of working that’s more about focusing on aligning with my core purpose – and allowing life, serendipity, the universe, and what have you, to bring opportunities along that I might not have dreamed of yet.

We all know that life rarely serves up exactly what we ordered. Very few of us set out to be one particular thing when we were very young, and wound up being exactly that. (I suspect this is part of why we are blown away by star athletes, classical musicians, and other performers who had to start training when they were insanely young and stay focused on The One Thing until they were adults: We know that path is incredibly rare, genes and innate talent aside. How many of us can say we always knew what we wanted to be when we grew up – and then became that thing? I bow to those shining few who fall into that camp.) My career path has been anything but a straight line; on the contrary, it’s been a serious exercise in zigzags. Classical singing – zig. HTML programming – zag. Entrepreneurship, writing a book, public speaking… zig, zig, zag. These opportunities found me, and none of them were in my mind’s eye before they happened.

But it’s not all happenstance, either. We need an inner compass that allows us to evaluate the opportunities when they come our way. Ambition and big dreams have their place – it’s about holding them lightly enough that when life shifts, we can sway gracefully with the dance, and keep our footing.

So, how do you design, build, and polish that inner compass? As with all good things, there are many paths – but a very, very good one has just made itself known to me.

Danielle Laporte, known for her bestselling book, The Fire Starter Sessions, and her wonderful blog, is about to release a new program called The Desire Map. I’ve been lucky enough to get a preview copy of the e-book & workbook, and it is a thing of beauty and wisdom.

Danielle’s premise is that when we set goals, what we’re really doing is dreaming up things that we think will make us feel a certain way – and that if we were to focus on those feelings first, rather than the goals, we’d get a lot farther. It’s one of those notions that reframes things in a seemingly subtle way – but once you shift your way of looking at it, there’s no going back.

Let’s say, for example, I’ve got a goal of hitting the NYT Bestsellers list with my book. I might examine that goal and ask myself: Why do I want that? What will that feel like? Immediately, I get back answers: Validation that my ideas are good; social status; financial success; approval; something I can tell my parents so they’ll be proud. I’ll feel resonant, successful, intelligent, peaceful. And I expect my inner critic will be silent, if only for a moment.

It’s enormously helpful to uncover the desires beneath the goals. Perhaps there are other ways of fulfilling them, that deserve to be included on my list of goals. Perhaps I might notice some desires that deserve a different kind of attention. (Making my parents proud, for instance: Could be time to check in with my folks and see what they actually want for me.) I might also notice that some of the desires are just surface-level and mask deeper desires. (How will financial success make me feel? What does that look like?)

Thanks to Danielle, I’ve been making this shift gradually over the past couple of years. The Fire Starter Sessions contains a worksheet called The Strategy of Desire, that asks, among other things, the critical question: How do you want to feel? It’s a simple but transformative exercise. And when you allow it to sink into your everyday life, it’s powerful.

I’m not giving up my to-do lists (unlike Danielle, I love ’em) but when it comes to the big stuff – the bucket lists and the New Year’s goal-setting and the birthday self-reflections – I’m shifting to working with core desired feelings (as Danielle puts it), rather than hitching my happiness to specific external goals.

The bucket list, and the specific, measurable goals – those come second. They are examples of what might help me attain my core desired feelings. They aren’t the be-all-and-end-all. Because who knows what other, better options might come along – and how sad would it be if I were so attached to my specific goals that I couldn’t see the other, better option for what it is?

I’m all about measurable, data-informed decision-making on some stuff (everything to do with user interfaces, for example) – but when it comes to the big life stuff, it’s not about the exact number of widgets you sell, or for that matter, the number of items you cross off your bucket list. It’s about love, and happiness, and feeling right with yourself. And the only way to figure that stuff out is to ask yourself how you really want to feel.

If you want to dive deeper into this, you should sign up for Danielle’s Desire Map event on December 5th. The full program, when it launches, will include a printed book, as well as e-book and audio versions, an app, and multimedia contemplations – a complete toolkit for transforming your relationship to goal-setting. I highly recommend it.

Full disclosure: I’m a friend of Danielle’s, as well as a fan, and I’ve signed up as an affiliate for this program, because I think it’s excellent. I’m very choosy about doing the affiliate thing: I only do it when I have complete confidence in the quality and integrity of the stuff I’m helping to sell, and I think it will be of interest to my readers. I’ve known Danielle for over a decade, I trust her integrity, and I love her work. I hope you will, too.