Don’t allow others (or yourself) to should on you!

I’ve been reflecting on how often we allow other people’s (and society in general’s) ‘shoulds’ to influence our choices and even our identity.  Now I have to say up-front, some ‘shoulds’ are legitimate, for example, everyone should respect life and not go around murdering other people, and it’s probably best not to cheat on your spouse (assuming you want to stay married).  However there are many other ‘shoulds’ that come from a prevailing belief system or culture and we often simply allow them to shape us without ever questioning them.

A personal example:  I was born quite late in my parent’s lives, my mom was 41 when she had me.  So from a generation theory perspective, I’m an X’er with Silent Generation parents (as opposed to most other X’rs who have boomer parents).  My father was a school teacher, and taught me maths for 2 years in junior high.  He firmly believed in the virtue of obtaining academic qualifications as a pre-requisite to a good and stable long-term career (preferably in a single company). So, he told me for as long as I could remember that I SHOULD become a scientist.  He firmly believed that there will never be a shortage of scientists, and that therefore my future would be secure.  He really meant well, problem is that I made the mistake of blindly accepting his “should” and never even considered all the “coulds”.  What COULD I become?  What was possible?  What made me come alive?  I never asked these questions, and in the process lost a part of my own identity. Luckily it’s all worked out well in the end, but I sometimes wonder where I could’ve been today had I made different choices.

This is just one personal example, there are many other “shoulds” e.g. how ‘good’ parents should treat their children; how a ‘good’ leader should act; the role of a ‘good’ wife (notice the implied value judgement that comes with each should).  In business we’ve been told that our primary focus should be on creating shareholder value and that people are expendable human resources. ‘Shoulds’ are also pretty fickle, what is a ‘should’ one year may to be the next.  Some of the most damaging ‘shoulds’ are the ones we place on ourselves.  We are often much harder on ourselves than other people are on us.  How often do you hear that little voice saying “you should be perfect”, “you should’t even try, what if it doesn’t work”, or “by now you really should … be married/be a CEO/be more organised”.  Do you ever question your own ‘shoulds’?

I liken this to the following metaphor:  Imagine life on this planet as one gigantic puzzle and each of us a unique piece that along with all the other pieces complete a rich and meaningful picture.  What happens when we allow others (or ourselves) to ‘should’ on us is that we allow the color and shape of our piece to be fundamentally changed.  Each time you defer to someone’s ‘should’, it’s like a layer of dust that is deposited over your piece.  Over time, the color becomes so faded under all these layers of dust that you can no longer remember what it used to look like.  Similarly, the shape of your piece becomes distorted so that it’s no longer able to fit into the unique place that it was made for.   Over time the entire puzzle becomes distorted because so few pieces are able to fit into their rightful place.

Many people wake up  one day and realise that they’re not fulfilled, that they’ve been living up to other people’s ‘shoulds’ for so long that they’ve lost sight of your own story, their own passions and dreams.   Often it takes a lengthy excavation process to get through the layers of dust that have accumulated to once again be able to see your true colors and authentic shape.

So I’ve decided to question every ‘should’ and ask more “could” questions.  Next time you have a “should” coming at you ask: Who says?  And if there’s no ligitimate answer follow the story of your “coulds” instead.

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