Experts and women like you share simple tips for landing whatever your heart desires, whether its comfy shoes or your share of the American pie. But sometimes knowing – really knowing – what you want is the hardest part of all. So let author Pam Houston guide the way to hearing your heart's true voice.

A few weeks ago, I went backpacking in the canyons of southern Utah with nine other women. Our ages spanned three decades, 23 to 53, our occupations—lawyer, bookseller, botanist, social worker, yoga instructor (to name only a few)—were as varied as the colors of the desert flowers that were just starting to bloom on all sides of our campsite. We spent our days hiking, cooling our bodies in pools the creek had carved into the canyon floor. We wrote in our journals.

We talked long into the warm spring evenings about our lives and the changes we wanted to make in them. Danika had put her scientific studies on hold to build schools and medical facilities in earthquake-ravaged Pakistan. Sarah was considering giving up a 10-year career guiding troubled teens in the wilderness for something more stable, more lucrative, more relationship-friendly. Amy was about to go to law school, though she wasn’t entirely sure why, because no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t imagine herself as a lawyer.

Three days after the trip ended I would fly to New Orleans, to accompany the man in my life on a drive back to Colorado, where he would move in with me and my four Irish wolfhounds. We’d been friends for 20 years, long-distance lovers for one, and this next step seemed on the one hand inevitable, and on the other absolutely insane, given the history of relationship disasters we had each left in our separate paths.

Each of us women on the backpacking trip was at some kind of crossroads, and we all kept coming back to the same questions: How do we know when we are truly following our heart’s desire? How can we tell the difference between our one true voice, and all the other voices that have taken up residence in our head and constantly compete for our attention, telling us what we should and should not do? How can we tell the difference between what the people who love us want for us, and what we want for ourselves? How do we learn to quiet the nay-saying voices that belong to bad fathers and bad bosses and bad TV shows that tell us all the things we can’t have, and get quiet enough, brave enough, to imagine the life we truly want?

My mother wanted desperately for me to be an actress; my father wanted me to be Chris Evert. For the first 12 years of my life I played tennis as though my life depended on it, and I went into Manhattan a couple of times a week with my mother to audition for commercials and soaps. I couldn’t seem to stop running around my backhand, though, and I never got the knack of saying I liked the potato chip if I didn’t like the potato chip. When I came home from an eighth-grade exchange program in Wales and announced I wanted to be a writer, my parents’ suspicions that I was an alien baby were confirmed. I understand now that it was the width of the Atlantic Ocean that afforded me the time and space to begin to separate my parents’ dreams from my own. My mother eventually learned to see the writing life as “a kind of acting,” but my father’s frustration with my choice lasted as long as his life. And though they have both been gone many years, I still feel their desires in my own decision-making, still hear their disappointments echoed in the advice of friends and lovers, still find it so hard not to act on behalf of them, or in spite of them. Where in all of that longing, do I find the voice that speaks more softly than all the others: my own?

What further complicates this process for me and all women, I think, is our capacity for empathy, our penchant for caretaking, the way we can’t seem to be truly satisfied unless we are doing something for someone other than ourselves. Our generous nature is the best of things about us, but we run into trouble when generosity turns into martyrdom and resentment, when our good intentions toward those we love deafen us to that quieter call of our own desires.

Over a breakfast of strong coffee, dried apricots, and granola, I asked my hiking companions how they knew when their truest voice was speaking. Tami, the owner of a marketing agency, has come to the Utah canyons from Sonoma, CA. The energy she feels around a heart’s desire is completely different from what she feels about a “should.” She feels a genuine pull, the excitement of what if, and also the fear. Following a heart’s desire involves risk: starting her own business, falling in love, writing fiction, running a marathon for the first time. She has to try it, and she has to be willing to fail. When she is in the realm of the shoulds, she is 100 percent in her logical brain, and she has total confidence in her abilities—she is doing what her head knows she is good at, rather than what her heart longs to try. And the shoulds can be an important part of the process. “Sometimes,” she says, “the confidence you build up from all the
shoulds is what allows you to reach for your heart’s desire.”

I have an extremely competent analytical brain, so I’ve been told by the standardized testing people, and in many situations it serves me well. I am an excellent chess player, I usually know what is about to happen next in the movie, and I have been able to win most of the arguments with most of the men who have lived with me, without crying or slamming doors. But my overactive (some would say obsessive) analytical brain can be the biggest impediment to listening to my heart’s desire. In fact, sometimes I have to trick my logical brain into looking the other way for a minute to give my intuitive brain the floor. I look into the short stories and novels I write to see if my heart’s desire is hiding in their plotlines, and into my dreams, and into the most passionate advice I give my friends. I pay attention to what my body is doing when I talk or think about a new life path. Is my chest open or closed? Am I standing straight or slumping? And most important, am I breathing? And how deeply? If I can’t remember the last time I filled my diaphragm with air, I am probably making the wrong decision.

Out in the wilderness of southern Utah, the Red Rock Canyons served as a makeshift Atlantic Ocean, giving me enough space to think about moving in with my old friend Gary. I let the questions come: Was I breathing deeply? Was that happy nervous excitement in my voice, or abject fear? For the life of me, I couldn’t be certain.

Barb, a simulation analysis engineer from Minneapolis, says that for her, fear is always part of the equation, but if she is doing something not because of fear, but despite fear, then she is doing what her heart desires. “If I don’t hesitate, if I don’t start trying to come up with all kinds of logic that will support my decision, it is probably the right one. If I have to talk myself into something, it’s usually because I am trying to convince myself to do something that doesn’t feel right in my gut.”

Gail Harris has written a book called Your Heart Knows The Answer: How To Trust Yourself & Make the Choices That Are Right For You,which outlines strategies and simple practices to help you tune into your truest voice. “The voice of the heart is always positive and loving,” she says, “even when it is asking us to change. It is direct and specific, empowering, grounding, centering, and relaxing. It is unwavering. It will keep telling you the same thing over and over, but it won’t use your own logic against you. If it is negative and critical, it is not the voice of your heart.”

After all the soul-searching and second-guessing and the final banishment of lingering doubt, Harris notes, the execution of our plans can seem like the easy part. Once you let yourself know that what you really want is to start a catering business, you head to Kinko’s for business cards and flyers, check the want ads for kitchen space, and call up those rich friends who always rave about your cooking and see how much they would like to invest. If you’ve always wanted to write a novel, but have three kids under 6, you look into day care, call in a favor from your sister, and set the alarm for 3 a.m.

As the 10 of us heaved our packs on our backs for the final time on that backpacking trip, they felt lighter. (They were lighter, of course, after all the food we’d eaten, but we felt even more deeply unburdened.) The decision-making was behind us. Danika had a grade school to build in Pakistan, Sarah was off to find a new place to live. Tami had her brand new business to attend to in Sonoma. And me? I had to go clear shelves and drawers for Gary, and welcome him with a big, generous, open heart. And if I failed, if any of us failed, we would know we had tried our best to listen to our heart’s desire, and moved forward, with honesty and commitment, and enough belief in ourselves to spread some around.

We have the right, the tools, and the capacity to live precisely the lives we want to. We are the gender that lifts cars off of babies, wins the Iditarod, and swims the English Channel, after all, and anyone who gets in the way of our heart’s desire once we have really made up our minds better watch out.

Get What You Want:

1) Get a better credit score (fast!)

Give your credit score a quick boost simply by increasing your line of credit (just call your credit card company and ask). A third of your score is based on your debt-to-credit ratio, so your $2,000 credit card bill looks less risky to banks if it represents half of a $4,000 credit line rather than most of a $2,500 one.

2) Ditch a bad mood in minutes.

Hyla Cass, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine and author of

8 Weeks to Vibrant Health says there’s one easy way to get a pick-me-up anytime, anywhere:

Get moving. Take a brisk 10-minute walk, or jog up and down stairs for five minutes. Exercise sends a shot of oxygen to your brain, and boosts endorphins in your bloodstream—both of which short-circuit crankiness. So when you’re so grouchy that even you’re annoyed with you, do yourself (and everyone around you) a favor. Take a hike.

4) Find a reliable auto mechanic

NPR’s “Car Talk” and its hosts Click and Clack have long been the go-to source for perplexed drivers dealing with stuck dipsticks, mysterious rattles, and more. So it makes perfect sense that they’d be the holders of that holy grail all car owners seek: the trustworthy mechanic. The “Car Talk” website (cartalk.com/content/mechx) features more than 16,000 mechanics recommended by people who’ve used them; just enter your zip code to find the garage nearest you.

5) Develop perfect posture

Having good posture makes you look thinner and ooze confidence—it also helps ease back pain and headaches. Here, three steps to posture that would make Mom proud, courtesy of Drew DeMann, M.D., chiropractic orthopedist at Manhattan Spine & Sports Medicine in New York City.

1. Check your alignment.

Many women have rounded shoulders and a C-curve in their back from sitting hunched over a desk all day, says DeMann. So ask a friend to take a photo of you from the side (or check yourself out in a double mirror at the department store). Your earlobe should be over your shoulder and hip. If it’s forward of them, you need to correct your posture.

2. Learn what good posture feels like.

Straighten your spine as if there were a string stretching from the top of your head to the ceiling, pulling you up. This is how you should carry yourself.

3. Practice, practice, practice.

Doing the above exercise on a regular basis will train your body to stand and sit up straight. Strengthening your upper back and abdominal muscles will help you maintain good posture; try lat pulldowns in the gym or do the cobra yoga move..

6) Tasty snacks that don’t break the calorie bank

These five treats are all under 200 calories:

  • 5 whole-grain crackers (such as Wheat Thins) topped with 1 Tbsp natural peanut butter: 184 calories
  • 1 oz premium dark chocolate, such as Vivani, Feodora, or Lindt: 150 calories
  • 1/4 cup guacamole and 8 blue-corn tortilla chips: 190 Calories
  • 1 oz (small handful) dark-chocolate covered almonds or peanuts: 160 Calories
  • Fruit and cheese: 1 sliced green apple served with 2 oz of light cheddar cheese cubes or 1 light Laughing Cow snack cheese. 189 calories

7) Sign a sophisticated signature

A scribbled scrawl might say something about you—but is it saying anything good? Andrea McNichol, author of Handwriting Analysis Putting It To Work For Yousays no. Try holding your arm and hand away from your body when signing your name. This naturally creates a more generously spaced signature, which is more attractive and memorable. Other tips: Always end your autograph with a stroke to the right—ending it to the left means you’re living in the past. And skip flourishes like excessive underlining, swirls, or oversize letters (don’t even think about heart-dotted i’s); these things will make you seem attention-hungry, not like the history maker you know you were born to be.

8) Get more foreplay

He opts for fast and furious; you’d like him to loiter. Sex educator and REDBOOK Love Network expert Lou Paget offers these tips on how to get your man to lengthen the passion prelude:

  1. Drive home the message that more foreplay will lead to more sex and your guy will go along with most anything you request. Say, “If you kiss me the way you used to for three more minutes, it will really get me hot.” He’ll dive in for a make-out session pronto.
  2. Stroke his ego. Think of a move he does well, tell him it drives you crazy, and ask for more of it—he’ll cooperate.
  3. Request, rather than demand; he’s more likely to respond if he doesn’t feel criticized. Better yet, show, don’t tell: Take his hand and guide it in the way you like to be touched—the visuals of you getting aroused will be enough to make him pay attention. 

9) A tropical vacation that doesn’t cost a fortune

Break out your beach bag. Paradise can come cheap—and you don’t even have to plan months in advance. Bookmark these websites:

  • site59.com lets you book up to three hours prior to your flight (five hours for international). By selling off packages that would otherwise go unbooked, the site can save you up to 70 percent!
  • 11thhour.com is also procrastinator-friendly. You can even hold packages for 24 hours before purchasing, which is handy when you’re not quite sure if your best friend prefers window or aisle.
  • If your dates are flexible, sign up at travelzoo.com  for  their ‘Top 20’ weekly e-mail to learn about new deals as they become available.

10) An on-call tech guy for your home

Tired of tussling with tech support? Meet the Geek Squad. This 24-hour computer-support task force comes to your doorstep for a flat fee (varies with service) and rescues you from e-purgatory: whether it’s a crashed computer ($99) or an iPod that just won’t connect ($49). Geek Squad also offers computer help via the telephone, at stand-alone stores and at Geek Squad stations inside Best Buy stores. Hey, even the FBI (yep, that’s right) has relied on these guys for tech support. Need we say more? geeksquad.com


11) A never-fail-you lipstick

Who wants to wade through the thousands of colors at the cosmetics counter? You need lipstick that looks great and you need it now. According to Ramy Gafni, New York City–based makeup artist, a berry shade with golden flecks works on everyone. What makes this hue so wearable? “It combines the same undertones found in every woman’s natural lip color—blue, pink, and yellow,” says Gafni. Get it: Ramy 2Lips Kiss and Tell, $21, or Sephora Super Shimmer Lip Gloss in Rosy Glow, $10.


12) The satisfaction of helping others (without becoming a UN Ambassador)

Have an itch to do some good? Go to volunteersolutions.org, type in your zip code, and choose a social issue that interests you. The site will match you up with a local organization dedicated to the same cause you are.


13) Find the cleanest stall in a public bathroom

Choose the first stall when you walk in. When there are three stalls in a row, most people choose the middle one so it’s the dirtiest, says Charles Gerba, a microbiologist.


14) Jeans that fit perfectly

It’s Goldilocks’s worst fashion nightmare: Jeans are always too tight, too long, too short, or just too plain expensive. Land’s End to the rescue: Go to landsend.com and fill out a brief profile, including your measurements, fabric choice, and style. Then, for only $54, you’ll get

custom jeans that are just right…for you!


15) A great—and believable—line to give your husband when he wants to have sex and you don’t

“No, no, I’m into it, really. It’s cool. Let me go wash up, Dad—I mean, Bob! Oh no, now I’ve ruined the moment.”–Amy Sedaris


16) Find an umbrella that won’t break

You were singing in the rain until your umbrella blew inside out and now you’re decidedly…soggy. For the third time today. There is a solution: The Gustbuster’s two layers of sturdy 190-thread count nylon are designed to prevent tears and allow air to flow through them, and can withstand winds of 55 m.p.h. or more. It’s also backed by a lifetime guarantee. $25-45, gustbuster.com.


17) A foolproof hostess gift for under $20

What’s a surefire way to be the best guest? Give your hostess flowers that are

already arranged in a chic, simple vase—so she doesn’t have to put her party on hold to rummage for one. Handmade from recycled paper and coated, PopVases come in a variety of colors. $6, Traffic Works, 323-582-0616.


18) Get a better price on anything

  • Know what you want and what it’s worth. “A seller who’s aware that you’re guessing or bluffing will be unlikely to give an inch,” advises Holden Lewis of Bankrate.com.
  • Be a little dramatic. Your “shocked” reaction to a price, even a reasonable one, could bring it down.
  • Enlist your guy for a little good cop/bad cop act. If a price on a big-ticket item (like a house or a car) isn’t as low as you’d like, pretend he won’t agree until the figure comes down.

  • Consider buying multiple items or services at once; a seller who won’t budge on a single piece might be willing to cut you a break on a larger sale.
  • When all else fails, be ready to walk away. If a salesperson is willing to go lower, he’ll make you another offer; if he’s hit bottom, you can use his best price as a benchmark at another store.

19) Get flat abs in a day

We know, we know. We should have been doing 100 crunches a night for the past six months. But, well, um, we didn’t. And now the wedding’s this Saturday. Is there any hope? For flat abs tomorrow, “stay away from fruits, dairy, processed carbs, and excessive fats. They can make your body retain water and leave your tummy bloated,” says trainer David Kirsch, owner of The Madison Square Club in New York City. We can’t promise you’ll look like Heidi Klum (one of David’s clients), but your belly will be noticeably less noticeable.


20) Shoes that are stylish and comfortable

Think chic comfort is an oxymoron when it comes to your tootsies? Not with these brands!

  • Geox, geox.com
  • Aerosoles, aerosoles.com
  • Faryl Robin, farylrobin.com

21) Get unconditional love

“The most likely path to receiving unconditional love is to give it. As some great philosophers—the Beatles—once said, ‘The love you take is equal to the love you make.’ It’s also important to pick the right person. He doesn’t have to be perfect, but he does have to have a track record of being present and loyal even during rough times.”— REDBOOK Love Network expert David Wexler, Ph.D., executive director of the Relationship Training Institute.


22) Find a last-minute babysitter you can trust.

Your sitter’s sick and Mary Poppins isn’t likely to drift down anytime soon. These websites are the next best thing. Just type in your zip code and, for a fee (ranging from $40-50 for the first one to three months, $5-10 per month after that), they’ll hook you up with reliable child care. Not a bad price to pay for peace of mind; the websites’ detailed profiles list things like sitters’ certifications (such as CPR), languages spoken, and whether or not they have transportation. 

  • Sittercity.com
  • 4sitters.com
  • babysitters.com

Live in an urban area? Parent-tested childcare resources in cities across the country are listed on gocitykids.com.


Also, many colleges and universities have babysitting services that pair parents with their students. Check your local schools’ websites or call their Office of Human Resources.