Nobody likes to be told what they should do. In fact, the word is often condemned as unfair to use at best, or downright harmful at worst. “Should” stifles more natural or personally beneficial inspiration, replacing it with the judgment of the “shoud”er. Kinda harsh, right? Who says who gets to judge people? Who says who gets to judge you?
“Should” in this sense can be a dangerous word to try and grapple with. While we could take this off in a debate on moral relativism, I’d rather focus more on the duality of “shoulds” that I’ve been thinking about in recent weeks. One “should” is indeed harmful, but the other I’ve actually found very helpful to keep in mind.
I think it’s fair to say most people believe it’s more important to know what you want to do than to know what you should do. Whether you seek to acquire a stoical self-control over your wants (which is popular in many FI circles) or want to shed negative or inaccurate “shoulds” for your mental health, a better sense of what you want and less dependence on should is viewed as a pretty positive thing.
Put another way, drawing fulfillment from yourself rather than from others is much more sustainable and thus desirable. Knowing what you want is understood by developing an understanding of self. What you “should” want, on the other hand, comes from an external source, and may or may not have anything to do with you. The classic version of this advice boils down to something we have probably all heard growing up – be yourself, and don’t care what other people think.
So to this point, should is pretty bad. If what you want to do lines up with what you should do, that’s great, but listen too much to “should” and you’ll find yourself pushed towards rampant consumerism and depression.
But lately I’ve been thinking that “should” gets a bad rap. There is tremendous power and pressure in the perceived shoulds of the world, and the trick is to apply this to your benefit. Rather than applying downward force on your personality, it can instead propel it forward with greater speed than you could ever achieve without it.
Sometimes I fail to self-motivate myself very well. I’m not a very good Stoic, I guess, because even when I am certain I want to do something, I don’t always do it. Worse still, even when I know I want to do something *and* it aligns with what I should do – for example, completing a job application or cleaning the house – sometimes I still don’t do it. All I can do in those circumstances is ask: What gives, self? The trouble with this scenario is that while I know I want to complete a task because past experience has taught me it will make me happier, I have trouble feeling it in the moment, whether because the immediate benefit is hard to see, or fear of failure, or simply an instinctive reticence to engage in something that seems physically or mentally strenuous. Shoulds and wants be damned, I just don’t feel like it, and I sit on the couch, wishing I did.
This is where the good part of should comes in. When internal motivation just ain’t cutting it. I’ve written about how helpful I have found external accountability and justified the expense involved in “co-working” with friends. Used as a tool, external motivation can buttress your personal drive and empower it. It’s a way of inviting other people in and letting them inspire you when you need a boost.
Much of the ability to harness external pressure becomes possible after first developing that all-important sense of self and defining personal goals that are important. How do you view yourself? How does that view stand up to external scrutiny? If the answer is “not as well as you’d like,” you have work to do, and external motivation here pushes you not down, but forward.
I’m not an ultra-competitive alpha type, but think of athletes with a “chip on their shoulder.” Yes, they view themselves as the best, but typically it’s the external pressure of those who doubted them that is credited with elevating them. They have harnessed its strength.
Here’s an example of unhelpful vs helpful “should,” as I see it. I fancy myself a writer. You could say to me, GPS, if you’re a writer, you should have a book published by now and you should have twice as many blog posts as you do. That’s a super unhelpful, judgy should that makes me feel bad about myself and is completely useless. I can’t get up from the couch, decide you’re right, and make that happen. You could also say to me, GPS, you’re a writer, you should be working hard on your writing. Yes. Yes I should. I can just get up and start doing that. I can come right here and write a blog post. That way, the external pressure pushes me in a good direction.
It’s the same thing with being unemployed. It helps me not at all to think to myself, I’ve been unemployed for seven months now, I should have a job already. That’s couch-fodder. But it helps me greatly to remind myself that as someone who is long-term unemployed, I should be working hard every day to get a job, because that’s how I can justify myself to friends and family.
Relying entirely on the self sounds like a good theory, but I know for me, the self sometimes is destructive. When your self is willing to disappoint itself, but would rather not disappoint the people you care about, the external power of should shines brightest. It’s important to remember that it’s quite ok to disappoint people you don’t care about – who cares how an advertiser or ‘popular culture’ seems to judge you – but that not all inspiration has to come entirely from within. There is some good in should.
http://www.boston.com/sports/touching_all_the_bases/2011/09/a_football_life_bill_belichick.html via Jamie Squire/Getty Images