This is a simple question, but one very difficult to answer.
Do you want fries with that?
What do I want? When I wrote that poem (below), I was a 20-something undergrad in the midwest, struggling to pay my bills, and support myself through college. In fact, I conceived the poem, and drafted it in my head while mowing grass for income.
What did I want then? I wanted self-awareness. I wanted financial freedom. I wanted to live in a world free from prejudice. Three simple things.
Today (though it is an ongoing process) I believe I have a degree of self-awareness. I am mostly financially solvent. If we ever sell this house, the first thing we will do with the proceeds is pay off all of our student loans. That is the last remaining debt my wife and I have. We own our car. We own our van. The mortgage on our house will be paid off once it sells. We own our books (many, many books, filling a 4'x7' and two 3.5'x6' cases, plus overflow). Finally achieving that complete freedom will be a time for much celebration.
I realize, on the last count (a world free from prejudice) that sadly, unlike the first two, this rests in wanting things of the outside world, on which I have but a small influence. But I can live my life without prejudice, and I can confront it when I encounter it.
So, I know what I wanted at 25. But what do I want at 38 that perhaps I could not have foreseen then? First, I have realized the importance of knowing the difference between what I want, and what I need. There are few things in life that we truly need. At the moment, none of them are denied me. But what do I want?
Perhaps I'll start with the easier question: what don't I want?
I don't want to give up my search for a faculty post.
I don't want to become my father. He had great potential, that was never fully realized. He saw in me the fulfillment of one aspect of himself. I wish he had lived to see me complete the dissertation. But that, alas, is the past.
I don't want bitterness, dissatisfaction, and frustration to rule my life.
I want delight in my family life. I want to watch my children grow. I want to hold my wife in my arms twenty years from now and lovingly look into her eyes with joy and amazement that we are still together and still in love.
I want to find satisfaction in my professional life, a modicum of recognition that what I do is worthy. I want to see the eurekas in my students' eyes as something I say fires off neurons in conjunction which have never before met in their brains, and join them excitedly after a lecture, as they breathlessly and incoherently exclaim what they will spend the next 30 years pursuing.
I want to publish books about my research that inspire others, both academics and the general intellectual public. I want to be invited to give talks, and be interviewed on the radio.
I want to become truly fluent in the seven languages I've studied (okay, English I've already mastered), and learn another seven more.
I want to travel and see parts of the world I haven't seen. I want to walk arm in arm with my wife, and hold my children as we see polar bears in Alaska; the midnight sun in Finland; Mango trees in the Phillipines; Komodo Dragons in Indonesia; Rainforests in Brazil; Hominid fossils in Kenya.
I want to never fully retire from research and teaching, and living life. But I want to sail in exotic seas, and feel at one with the wind, and the waters, and the sky. I want to garden in my old age, and never feel old, eating ripe tomatoes fresh from the vine, with the warm ooze dripping off my lips, and know that I have truly been a part of this world, and most of all that it is a better place for my having lived than the one I came into.
That is what I want!