Discovering what you want: How to use “criteria” … without getting stuck

Are you also trying to rearrange your life? Perhaps because you somehow need to find a new way of living amidst the impact of Covid-19? Or because you’re entering a new phase of life as you finish school, finish a relationship or finish working? Or simply because it seems your current life just isn’t what you’d like it to be anymore?

It seems change is on the wind for many of us these days. But finding the way forward can be difficult. Especially when the reality around us seems to be shifting at an accelerating speed. What do you do when you’re not entirely sure what you want or what the best next step would be?

This edition of Maxand’s Insights focuses on a strategy that will help you set your eyes on the horizon and empower yourself to start taking next steps. A strategy in which you use “criteria” to discover new future directions, while making sure you don’t get stuck in the process.


1. A closer look at criteria

Sometimes we find ourselves at a loss around what we want in life. We’re not certain what direction to take. We feel stuck and unable to move forward.

There are different ways to help yourself get unstuck and kickstart a series of steps into the future. For example, by creating new experiences that could introduce you to a wide range of potential possibilities. Or by exploring your core values and seeing what they tell you about possible future directions. If you’re new to the Maxand website, have a look at the articles “Small & simple things to start with today” and “Finding direction in life: A step-by-step approach to working with your own core values” for more information about those two strategies.

There’s also another way to get started when you just don’t know what you want: using so-called “criteria”.

a. What type of criteria are we talking about?

When you’re not sure what you want, very often this means you’re not sure what it might look like exactly. For example, you’re not sure what particular education or job to go for. You may not be sure where exactly to move to. Or what precisely you want to do after retirement.

But there are always things you do know. Perhaps you do know that you want a job that includes working with others. Or that you love the buzz of living in the middle of a big city. Or that you want to do something after retirement that will take you outdoors a lot.

And so, even though you may not be able to identify exactly what it is you want, you may still be able to identify “criteria” for what you’d like to be the case.

Usually, you can identify such criteria by finishing the sentence “No matter what my future looks like, I want …”. Have a look at the next examples.

No matter what my future looks like, I want …

    • … to be financially secure.
    • … to do something meaningful with my life.
    • … my home to be in a safe place.
    • … to be close to my family.
    • … to feel loved and supported.
    • … my life to be full of new experiences.
    • … to meet people from different backgrounds.

b. What can you use such criteria for?

Identifying criteria like this can help you discover what you want in a number of important ways.

  1. Criteria can help you generate ideas for the future
  2. And they can make it easier for others to help you generate such ideas
  3. Criteria can serve as a checklist to see which ideas might fit you best
  4. And they can help you see a longer term perspective in turning ideas into reality

The following exercise highlights each of these elements and provides practical guidance around how to use criteria effectively.


2. Find and leverage your own criteria: An exercise

If you find yourself unsure about what you want in life or in a particular area of your life, take some time to do the following exercise.

Step 1: Generate a first list of criteria

Find a place where you can have some time to yourself. Bring a pen and piece of paper (or a laptop or other device you can record your thoughts with).

At the top of your page, write the sentence “No matter what my future looks like, I want …”. If you’re reflecting on a specific part of your life (such as a switch of career, where to live etc.) replace “my future” with that particular topic. For example, “No matter what my next job looks like, I want …” or “No matter what my next home looks like, I want …”

Once you have the sentence written down, take a moment to reflect on what is important to you. Then start writing down a list of things to finish the sentence. If you’re not sure where to start, look at the examples in the text above under 1a for some inspiration.

Keep going until you can’t think of any more criteria. You now have your first list.

Step 2: Prioritise your criteria

Once you have a first list, rank your criteria according to how important they are to you. Start with your most important criterion first (or give this criterion the number 1). Then identify your second most important one and so forth.

If you find it helpful, you can also classify your criteria as “must have” and “nice to have” in 2 different columns. The first indicates criteria that are critically important to you. The second indicates those that would be a bonus, but not critical to have.

Step 3: Let them simmer a bit

Keep your initial list in a safe place for a few days or weeks. As you go through your life, stay alert to any additional criteria you may think of. Add any additional criteria to your list until you feel relatively certain that you’ve got the most important ones.

Step 4. Start using your criteria

Time to start using your criteria. You can do the following part of the exercise on your own. However, this is also great to do together with someone you trust. With someone else present to help you, you’ll be able to generate more ideas and test your criteria more thoroughly.

Find a place where you can have some time to yourself. Bring your list of criteria. If you enjoy using different colours for a creative exercise like this, you may find it inspiring to bring different colour pens, post-its and other materials that you could use to express your ideas. But don’t worry, if you don’t have any of this. A pen and a piece of paper, or a computer or other device will work just fine.

a. Generate as many ideas as possible!

Take a moment to examine your criteria again (and to explain them if you’ve brought someone you trust along). Then start identifying as many ideas as possible that would theoretically meet your criteria.

IMPORTANT: At this point, don’t worry just yet about how realistic or absurd your ideas may be. Your main goal right now is to generate as many ideas as possible. Some ideas that may turn out to be unrealistic or unfeasible, may generate additional ideas that actually are.

Go all out! Get a little crazy! And if you find it helpful, turn it into a competition. Perhaps having multiple rounds of 10 minutes in which you come up with as many different ideas as possible! For general tips on how to boost your own creativity, have a look at the article “Creativity: How to help yourself generate more ideas in discovering what you want“.

As an example, let’s say you want to change careers, but aren’t sure what job to look for exactly. You’ve identified the following criteria.

No matter what my next job looks like, I want …

      • … to work with other people.
      • … my days to be varied.
      • … it to be within a 1 hour commute one-way by public transport.

Theoretically, you could now think of a whole range of jobs that would meet these criteria. Have a look at the following examples. You can probably think of a few more!

Jobs that would theoretically meet these criteria, would be:

      • Trainer
      • Counselor
      • Taxi driver
      • Host/Hostess
      • Team leader
      • Consultant
      • Working at a bar
      • Working at a hotel
      • Community worker
      • Nurse
      • ….

Write ALL of your ideas down. From the ones you absolutely love to the ones you don’t like at all. If you have very many ideas, see if you can cluster them in groups. Alternatively, use the next step (b) to do some intermittent screening of ideas before continuing to think of more.

b. Examine your ideas for any hidden additional criteria

Once you have a list of ideas, first, take a little break. Do something else for about 15 minutes or longer. Then come back to your ideas and make 3 columns. Cluster the ideas that appeal to you in the first column, the ones you feel neutral about in the second and the ones your dislike in the third.

Examine the ideas that appeal to you and ask yourself if they indicate any additional criteria that you haven’t listed just yet.

In the job example above, let’s say the idea of being a community worker or a nurse really resonates with you. You realise that the idea particularly inspires you because you find such jobs meaningful. The additional criterion would then be “No matter what my next job looks like, I want it to be meaningful.”

Now turn your attention to the ideas you dislike, even though they seem to meet your criteria. Ask yourself why you don’t like these ideas. You may discover that you actually have additional criteria that are important to you.

Again, in the job example, let’s say you really don’t like the idea of working in a bar even though it seems to meet the initial criteria you’ve listed. When thinking about it, you realise it’s because you don’t want to work at night. It’s important to you that you’re able to spend time with your family in the evenings. The additional criterion would then be “No matter what my next job looks like, I want it to be a day-time job.”

Add any additional criteria to your list. Focus on the ideas that resonate with you. Put the ideas that you feel neutral about or that you dislike to the side. However, don’t get rid of them completely. You may find them insightful at a later stage of your journey.

Step 5: Take the next steps

You now have (1) a solid list of criteria as well as (2) a bunch of ideas for the future. It’s time to take the next steps. And while these steps may vary depending on the types of ideas you have, they generally include the following.

a. Stay conscious of your criteria

While you already have ideas for the future, do stay mindful of the criteria you’ve identified. They can help you test to what extent any ideas for the future might fit your needs. Keep the list in a safe place and go back to it if and when needed.

b. Do some more research/brainstorming around your ideas

If you already have ideas that really appeal to you, do a bit more research on what they would look like in reality. You could for example look for information on the Internet and/or speak with people who can tell you a little more from personal experience.

If you don’t yet have any ideas that resonate with you, it may pay off to do some more exploring. It’s entirely possible that there are other options out there. Options you simply haven’t thought of.

In the job example above, you could for instance take a career test, scour online vacancy platforms for ideas around jobs, go to career fairs, talk to other people et cetera.

See if you can come up with more or other ideas that meet your criteria.  Once you have a number of ideas that you like, proceed with those. You can always go back to generating more/other ideas. Time to take some next steps.

Note: It’s possible that additional exploration still doesn’t lead to any ideas that appeal to you or that you experience trouble identifying any ideas at all. If so, have a look at Chapter 3 below to examine any potential issues with the criteria you’re using. Alternatively, use one of the other strategies offered on the Maxand website to identify the best way forward (also see Chapter 1 above).

c. Examine the way forward and start taking steps

It’s likely that your favourite ideas vary in terms of how easy it would be to turn them into reality. In our example, if you’ve always worked in administration, but have always done volunteer work in different communities, it may be easier to become a community worker than a nurse. For the latter, you’d have to do additional training and further build experience.

For your favourite ideas, identify how you may be able to turn them into reality. If necessary, proceed in small steps across extended time periods.

If you could use some additional tips in how to approach this, have a look at the article “Taking charge of the direction your life is taking: A stepwise method“. Note that the exercise you’ve just done leads you straight into Phase 1, Part B of that article. Alternatively, you could choose to also still complete Part A.

If you find that turning your ideas into reality requires you to learn whole new capabilities, you may find it helpful to have a look at the article “Too much to learn? Here’s what to do …” to help you prepare for that.


3. How criteria can sometimes get you stuck … and how to get unstuck

Ideally, criteria help you see the world and potential ideas for the future more clearly. However, under certain circumstances, they can blur your vision and prevent you from seeing or taking any next steps at all.

If you find that you have a set of criteria, but you don’t seem to be able to find any ideas for the future that meet your set of criteria, examine if any of the following is happening.

  • You’re using too many and/or conflicting criteria
  • Some of your criteria are built on hidden assumptions that aren’t true
  • You’re using context-dependent criteria that you could (temporarily) discard

a. You’re using too many and/or conflicting criteria

Perhaps the most obvious way you can get stuck is when you end up using too many and/or conflicting criteria.

As an example, let’s say you’re considering a new place to move to. Your criteria include both living in the center of a big city as well as in the mountains with the next neighbour a few kilometers away. Obviously, this doesn’t sit very well with one another.

In such instances, the way forward is to identify which of the conflicting criteria is most important to you. Perhaps living in the center of a big city is more important than living in the mountains (but you do love the mountains). Then look for a big city where you could live in its center, ideally with mountains close. Or make a plan that allows you to spend time in the mountains every now and again.

Similarly, if you have – let’s say – a long list of 34 different criteria, it may be very hard to identify any option that meets all of those criteria. Again, the way forward is to consider how important each of the criteria really is (or isn’t). Think about whether to drop any criteria that aren’t as important, or perhaps how to find an alternative plan for them.

b. Some of your criteria are built on hidden assumptions that aren’t true

Some criteria have a way of stopping you in your tracks because they’re built on hidden assumptions that – upon closer inspection – aren’t true.

For example, let’s say you’re about to finish your education and need to consider what to do next. You may feel that in some ways you need to find “the perfect job” to launch your career. What that looks like, however, is very hard to identify and you may find yourself completely at a loss.

The interesting thing is that the criterion that the job has to be “perfect” as a launch of your career, is – in most cases – built on assumptions around why it has to be perfect. Here are some that are relatively common in this case.

  • It has to be perfect, as I won’t be able to switch careers anymore (not true => although you may have to do some retraining and be willing to begin in a starter’s job, in the vast majority of cases there are possibilities to switch)
  • It has to be perfect, as it will determine the rest of my career (not true => while a first job can help you set off on a certain path, it definitely doesn’t determine the rest of your career)
  • I have to be able to make a perfect choice, as everyone else seems to know what they want (not true => many people struggle with career choices and even if they wouldn’t, that still doesn’t mean you have to be able to make whatever a perfect choice would be)

If you find yourself stuck, ask yourself if any of your criteria may be based on assumptions that may not be true. Delete or adjust any such criteria.


To test whether assumptions are true or not, don’t just reflect on them by yourself, but do some research. Ideally, try to find and speak with people who seem to have defied the assumptions you seem to be making. In this case, for example, people who have switched careers/industries/types of jobs et cetera (find them in your extended network, LinkedIn etc). Ask them about their experiences and reflect on what that tells you.

c. You’re using context-dependent criteria that you could (temporarily) discard

Many of the things we have come to find important are things that depend on the context we grew up in and that we find ourselves in today.

Let’s say you were brought up in poverty, find yourself in economically difficult circumstances and in a society where there’s limited social welfare. Financial security will likely be much higher on your list than it would be on the list of people who grew up in economic stability and find themselves in a society with good economic conditions and ample social welfare.

Our upbringing, early experiences and current socio-economic, political and geographic environment, together with the personalities we’ve become, all exert a relatively obvious influence on what we find important. However, other factors may have an influence we tend to be far less consciously aware of. One such factors is culture.

As an example, let’s take the question what motivates people in their professional lives. In some countries – like my country of origin, the Netherlands – “liking what you do” is very important when it comes to work. In choosing and maintaining careers, liking what you do is far more important than being successful or being the best. For many people raised in such cultures, it’s often hard to imagine that in many other countries across the world “liking what you do” is of less or even little importance¹.

If you grew up in a country like the Netherlands, your list of criteria when exploring a career shift could very well include “No matter what my next job looks like, I want to like what I do”. There’s nothing right or wrong about this criterion in itself. However, imagine economically challenging circumstances, when vacancies are few and far between. Then, this criterion quickly becomes one of those criteria that could get you stuck. While you may forget to question it, because in your culture this criterion is so “normal”.

When you find yourself stuck, examine to what extent your criteria are context-dependent and ask yourself if you can let go of some of them, temporarily if need be.


1. This example is taken from the research on Culture Dimensions in work values by Geert Hofstede and further elaborated on by his son Gert Jan. Please see the Hofstede Insights online culture comparison tool, where I’ve selected my country of origin, the Netherlands, alongside my current home base of Hong Kong SAR as an example. Note that you can access a country-based description of the Culture Dimensions by alternating between the Country Tabs right underneath the scores. Also note that you can access the data of around 100 countries in this online tool by changing the country names (maximum of 4 per comparison).

For a more detailed discussion of the model (including its pros and cons), please have a look at the article “Broadening your vision: The value of cross-cultural differences – Part 1“.


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