“It’s not about what you want to do, it’s about what you have to do”

(ESL learners – see bottom of page for explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after! 🙂 )

Whenever I’m faced with some kind of daunting task, I think back to Germany. In 2016, I spent almost 4 months there on an internship which had me doing all kinds of tasks I never thought the university would need someone to fly from Canada to Northern Germany to do. I remember being in the International Centre for graduate and post-graduate students and hearing one of the other workers say, “It’s not about what you want to do, it’s about what you have to do.”

Somehow, this ended up sticking in my mind as one of the most vivid memories I have from that place. It pops into my head at random moments, usually when I’m trying to talk myself into doing something I reeeeeally don’t feel like doing.

Over time, I slowly came to a realization. This kind of advice is what pushes people forward, what helps us to get ahead, but it’s also what leads to severe burnout for people whose willpower is just amazingly strong. Certainly, if we want to achieve our goals, we will have to do things that aren’t “fun”, but necessary. Just like brushing your teeth. I’m pretty sure most people don’t “want to” brush their teeth every day, but they do it because they know they “have to” in order to avoid serious health issues. At the same time, if you don’t know when to stop, the list of what you have to do may never end. You can always study longer, work harder, research further……

What I’ve gradually realized over time is that, it often is about what you have to do, but sometimes what you have to do is what you want to do. The things you have to do feed your goals, but the things you want to do feed your happiness and your “soul”, and that is the very driving force behind everything else you could possibly do.

This isn’t an exact science, and at the end of the day, everyone’s threshold for working hard is different, but I think it’s highly important that everyone, no matter where you are in your journey, is able to do something to work towards your personal happiness with as much motivation as we try to work towards our goals.

ESL notes (10 words / expressions):

daunting: a daunting task is a task that looks difficult to do and is therefore intimidating

think back: to remember a past event. Usually this is followed by “to”. (think back to a past event).

have someone do something: if your boss “has you do” a task, it means he/she tells you to do it, it is one of the responsibilities that he/she gave you.

end up: this is a tricky but very common phrasal verb. It is used to talk about the end result of a situation, usually an end result you didn’t expect, or an end result that’s very different from the beginning. For example, “I really don’t like parties so I wasn’t expecting to have fun at the party yesterday, but I ended up meeting some new friends and having a great time”. Note: after end up we use the gerund! (ended up meeting, not ended up to meet).

pop into your head: if a thought pops into your head, you think about it suddenly or randomly

talk yourself into doing something: if you talk yourself into doing something, it means you convince yourself to do that thing. Often people do this when they don’t want to do something but know that they should do it anyways. Other people can also talk you into doing something that you didn’t want to do. For example, “I really didn’t want to go swimming in the lake, but my friends wanted to and they talked me into going with them.”

get ahead: this is a phrasal verb which means to become successful in your life or career

pretty sure: a lot of people think this means “sort of sure”, as in about 50% sure, but actually, pretty sure means almost 100% sure.

driving force: the driving force is the energy or cause of something happening. This is also a great word for more formal / business communication. Another example: “Trade is the driving force for economic prosperity.”

threshold: this word literally means the piece of wood that is along the floor in a doorway (the piece of wood that you step over when you pass through a door and enter a room). Metaphorically (like in my sentence), it means limit.


Want to practice these new words? Try thinking about these questions or writing down some answers to them using the words! 🙂

  • What are some things you consider daunting? (some hints: climbing a very tall mountain, speaking in front of a very large audience, reading a very thick book in a foreign language)
  • How often do you think back to your childhood? To your high school? To your hometown? Are there any particular happy memories you like to think back to?
  • If you could have a personal assistant do anything you want for 1 day, what would you have them do?
  • Think about a party, festival, movie, vacation, or any other type of event that you went to, which you thought would be very boring but which ended up being a lot of fun.
  • Which person pops into your head the most throughout your day?
  • Do your friends often talk you into doing things you don’t particularly feel like doing?
  • What’s one thing you could do in your career to get ahead? (work overtime, take training courses, learn a foreign language, do research, etc…)
  • What are your plans for the summer / winter / your next vacation? (try to use the expression “pretty sure” for things you are almost but not completely 100% sure you will do).
  • Would you agree that money is the driving force behind most businesses? What else could be their driving force? (ex: a deep desire to help people or the planet)
  • Do you have a low or high threshold for boredom? (low threshold = you feel bored easily, high threshold = you don’t get bored easily).

Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.

Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply! 🙂

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