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Summary: I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It by Barbara Sher

  • The book helps you uncover your true desires and goals by using “touchstones”, which are clues to your inner self that can be found in your childhood memories, hobbies, fantasies, dreams, and feelings.
  • The book addresses the specific challenges and barriers that different types of people face when finding and pursuing their passion, such as fear, guilt, self-doubt, perfectionism, procrastination, and external resistance.
  • The book shows how living your passion can improve your health, happiness, relationships, creativity, and productivity, and how to balance it with other aspects of your life.

I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was (1994) offers practical guidance to help people figure out what they want in life and how to use that knowledge to go after it. It tackles the most common obstacles to goal-setting with exercises and tactics that help people customize an approach that works best for them.

Introduction: Unlock what you truly want in life

What do you want?

Perhaps you’ve explored self-help literature or courses that claim to show you how to get the life of your dreams. But what if you don’t even know what that dream life looks like?

The late Barbara Sher ran into this question repeatedly from readers of her first book, titled Wishcraft. While they loved her strategies for reaching goals, they wanted to know how to set them in the first place. That feedback inspired her to write I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was.

Sher emphasized with her approach that “there is always a good reason for everything.” It’s absolutely not that you lack talent, drive, or smarts. She felt that the key was figuring out your obstacles.

While the answer to what you want is as unique as every individual, the reasons for not knowing what you want are common. We’ll explore those first.

Then, we’ll cover just a few of the many chapters devoted to typical scenarios people face when struggling to find purpose, like staying stuck because it feels safe, looking successful on the outside when you’re not feeling it, or figuring out what to do when you’ve reached a goal but lost it.

If you see yourself in any of those examples, you’ll come away with quick exercises designed just for you to help find what you want in life. Let’s dive in.

Book Summary: I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was - How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It

You must overcome expectations, non-action, and hidden resistance

Three big themes usually keep people from knowing what they want: what they think others expect; not taking action; and “hidden resistance.” Let’s consider each.

First, there are other people’s expectations. You may have zero clue what you actually want, but you probably have a clear idea of what you think others expect of you. Expectations are conveyed through the stories about you passed on by parents, other family members, friends, or peers. Say you grew up in a family of doctors, and you were told that you also would become a doctor. Or it could be something more subtle – maybe your father complaining about politicians all your life has made you steer clear of a career in politics.

Even with good intentions, all of these inputs can make for too much noise. You have to cut through that clutter to find your own voice. Here’s how: Make a list of everyone who matters in your life and what you think they expect of you; next, consider any decisions you’ve made based on those opinions. Note which choices have made you happy, if any. Keep the list handy so that as you move on, you’ll know the dreams you are chasing are yours and no one else’s.

The next big block to goal setting is not acting at all. You have to start doing something, even if it’s small. While it’s tough to get moving when you don’t know what you want, you still need motivation to act when the goal is finding the goal.

There are four big pushes for taking action in this conundrum. First, you have to at least try something to know whether you like it or not. Even disliking something will steer you toward what you do like through the process of elimination. Second, the act of trying new things on its own raises your confidence, regardless of the outcome. Third, lucky things do happen, but can’t if you don’t open the door to them. And last, going with your gut trains you to follow your instincts, or at least fine-tune them in cases where things don’t work.

It also takes action to identify your personal hidden resistance, the third thing that can keep you from knowing what you want. This one is unique to you, and only you can find it. To do that, Sher offers a series of exercises to make you consider what would be your perfect job. For the sake of brevity, we’ll combine the concepts into one exercise.

Grab a pen or your notes app and let your imagination run wild as you list every aspect of your ideal job, right down to the hours you’d keep, what you’d do, and where you’d do it. If you struggle to think of what would be perfect, instead write down the same kind of list – but describing the absolute worst job you can imagine. Take that list of negatives and change each detail to a positive counterpart. Either way, you’ll arrive at a fantasy job description.

Now imagine actually doing the fantasy job. Do you feel uneasy? Why? Are there any thoughts popping up telling you that you can’t? What exactly are they saying? Those feelings and messages are coming directly from your hidden resistance. Jot them down – we are going to explore just a few of the scenarios where others’ expectations, non-action, and hidden resistance rear their heads, and how to knock them off your path to knowing what you want.

Small actions make a big impact

Have you ever stayed in a job that wasn’t a good fit, but paid the bills? That was the case of a man Sher called Jerry, who exemplified the patterns of “sure thing” people — those who say they want to follow their passion yet choose a sense of security over the unknown.

Jerry dreamed of writing screenplays, yet held a well-paying job as an editor at a company where the work tired him. In fact, he claimed he had no energy left to do any screenwriting on his own time. Yet when asked to consider dumping the job and pursuing writing full-time, he balked at the idea of not having colleagues around.

It turned out the real reason he disliked his job was that he was identifying with it too much. He didn’t want to be an editor forever when he knew his passion was writing. All it took was writing a bit each day for him to re-identify as a screenwriter. The lesson here is you can do both your passion and your job, and you may even start to appreciate the job more. Jerry became happier overall just pursuing his passion a few hours a day. Taking a leap in a small way is an excellent approach for people who tend to cling to safety.

There are various reasons why some people value security more than others – usually all rooted in a fear developed earlier in life. This could come from an overly fearful parent, an unstable home life, or even homes that were rigidly stable. As you might surmise from that list, it’s a common vibe that’s passed along.

No shame here. It’s just an important thing to know about yourself if you’re struggling to figure out what you want. You can use it to craft a strategy that works for you, like Jerry did. As we learned in his case, you don’t even have to do anything wild to mix it up and see what happens.

For example, if you worry about finding the time to devote to yourself, give up just one task you do for other people each day and replace it with something you love. For one woman in Sher’s workshop, that meant giving up making family dinners in exchange for an hour of reading each evening. If that sounds like a bad plan for your family, do as another workshop attendee did and stop ironing laundry.

All that matters is that you create time and space to take action. A little can go a long way.

When success isn’t satisfying, change course

We just talked about people who feel their lives are ho-hum and have to break routines to find what they want. But what if you are the opposite — at least on the outside?

To most observers, your life looks like the definition of success, with a family, a nice home, and plenty of income to spend on vacations and other luxuries. Or perhaps the picture is a bit different and you’re a star athlete, high-profile entrepreneur, or have otherwise attained the highest levels in your field. Meanwhile, you aren’t happy at all. Now pile on a couple of valid fears about giving it all up: How will you sustain your lifestyle and responsibilities? What will people think?

Sher covered five typical scenarios of not enjoying success, including being in a job you didn’t actually choose, work that consumes your whole life, toxic work environments, disappointing work, and general dissatisfaction after winning a competition. While there are specific exercises for each, we’ll focus on the two principles that help with all of these scenarios.

As you consider what success means to you and how you will redefine it, you should first check in closely with your feelings. Sher referred to successful people as “fast trackers.” That’s great for the drive needed for success, but not so great without a GPS. Tuning into feelings can reveal useful information for a needed course correction – and if you’re not happy, your course may need correcting. As well, repressing feelings causes stress, and you need to let some of that loose before rethinking your entire life. To practice this, take a notebook and create three ten-page sections. Label each section, starting with “anger,” then “fear,” then “hurt.” Pick a section and start writing about everything you can think of that brings up that emotion for you. This kind of journaling is a simple way to release tough emotions and lower your stress levels.

Next, find a way to save toward whatever your new life is going to be. If you have been living below your means already, great. Even so, you’ve probably gotten used to a certain lifestyle and may not want to give it all up. Making adjustments a bit at a time will allow you to put away money to support a more modest lifestyle later. You may not even have a vision of your new life yet, and simply plan to reduce your working hours so you can figure it out. Saving now will buy you that time.

The final group of people we’ll consider are those who have identified what they wanted, got it, loved it – and lost it. If you are one of them, you’ll learn how to recover and reset.

Use major transitions and loss to find new purpose

So far, we’ve covered ways to get around blocks and fears to figure out what you want, which is useful mostly for people who have never identified what they truly wanted. Now let’s consider another group who are also searching despite having known what they wanted – and gotten it. What put them back in the boat, searching for purpose?

First, there are people faced with major life transitions, like losing a job or having children leave for college. These transitions require what the author termed regrouping. Second, there are those who’ve suffered a major, irreversible life event that changed their picture completely, leaving them back at square one. Perhaps a sure path to a professional sports career was cut short by injury – or, worse, they suddenly lost a spouse.

Sher separates these groups into two chapters to differentiate between the severity of the different kinds of loss. However, the groups are combined here because exercises for both rely on the same concept of finding your “touchstones.”

For people looking at a transition in life, grab a pen and paper and think back to your earliest memory of something you liked to do. Then work your way up in five-year increments to the age you are now. Sher remembered loving books and watching the snow at age five, riding her bike and reading at age ten, riding around with friends and writing in her diary at age 15 … you get the idea. The next step is to look back over your list for common themes. The author saw that reading, writing, and a sense of adventure were all recurring themes in her memories, so she tried her hand at travel writing.

For those dealing with serious loss, the exercise is more intense. It focuses more on processing feelings first. Write a detailed essay about everything you loved so deeply about your life before the loss. While remembering good times can be painful, we have no choice but to carry grief forward. This exercise helps you transmute it into fond memories. Later, you can also use the essay to look for touchstones for setting new goals. From the essay, make a list of every detail you loved about your old life, and whittle it down to three. See if you can connect the dots among them to point you toward a new pursuit. Some may choose to start over completely.

The choice is up to you – and the key is to remember that you do still have choices amid grief. It’s never too late to find what you want all over again, even if it’s something completely new.


While it may seem obvious that the first step to getting what you want in life is figuring out exactly what that is, for many of us, determining that desire is the whole problem. Fortunately, you have the power to solve it by figuring out your personal obstacles and then shaping your strategy accordingly.

If you’re putting too much stock in what you think is “safe,” taking even small actions will help you open up new possibilities. Maybe you’ve “won” your race, but found yourself miserable at the finish line. You can choose a different pursuit. Other times, outside circumstances – like losing a dream job or even a loved one – may force you to adapt after you’ve already achieved many goals.

No matter your personal obstacles or circumstances, you can make use of both to find purpose and keep going.

About the author

Barbara Sher is a therapist and career counselor who conducts workshops all over the United States and throughout the world. She has been featured on Oprah and Donahue, as well as in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today. Her bestsellers include Wishcraft, Teamworks!, and I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was. Heard on the radio in cities all over America every day, Sher lives in New York City.


Personal Development, Self Help, Nonfiction, Psychology, Business, Productivity, Unfinished, Reference, Inspirational, Dreams, Success Self-Help, Motivational, Personal Transformation, Self-Esteem, Relationships, Personal Growth


The book is a guide to finding your direction and passion in life, especially if you feel lost, confused, or dissatisfied with your current situation. The author, who is a career and lifestyle coach, argues that you do know what you want, but you may have hidden or forgotten it due to various reasons, such as fear, guilt, social pressure, or self-sabotage. She helps you uncover your true desires and goals, and overcome the obstacles that prevent you from pursuing them.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part explains why finding your passion is important and how to start the process of discovering it. The author introduces the concept of “touchstones”, which are clues to your inner self that can be found in your childhood memories, hobbies, fantasies, dreams, and feelings. She also provides a tool to help you identify your touchstones and use them as guides.

The second part explores the different types of people who struggle with finding their passion and how to overcome their specific challenges. The author identifies six categories of people: scanners, who have many interests but can’t commit to one; blueprints, who follow a predetermined plan but feel unfulfilled; dreamers, who have a vision but lack action; survivors, who are stuck in survival mode and can’t think of anything else; rebels, who resist authority and conformity but don’t know what they want; and humanitarians, who want to make a difference but don’t know how.

The third part discusses the common barriers that block us from pursuing our passion and how to overcome them. The author explains how fear, guilt, self-doubt, perfectionism, procrastination, and external resistance can sabotage our efforts and how to deal with them using various strategies, such as affirmations, visualization, reframing, action plans, support groups, and mentors.

The fourth part describes the benefits and outcomes of finding and following your passion and how to maintain it in the long term. The author explains how living your passion can improve your health, happiness, relationships, creativity, and productivity. She also provides tips on how to balance your passion with other aspects of your life, such as family, work, money, and time.

I found the book to be very helpful, inspiring, and motivating. The author has done a great job of combining practical advice with personal stories and examples. She has also provided a lot of exercises and tools to help the reader apply the concepts and techniques to their own situation. The book is written in a friendly and conversational tone that makes it easy to read and relate to.

The book is not only useful for individuals who want to change themselves but also for anyone who wants to help others change. The book can be applied to any personal or professional goal that involves finding and following your passion. The book is also flexible and adaptable to different situations and needs.

The book is not a quick fix or a magic bullet for change. It requires a lot of self-awareness, reflection, courage, and action. It also requires patience, persistence, and support from others. However, the book offers a powerful framework and methodology for finding your direction and passion in life and living it fully. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about themselves and their potential for growth and transformation.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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