how to figure out if you should

“Somebody, somewhere, told you you were a bad guy. Or you got convinced you were a bad guy. So you spend your time trying to do the things that you think good guys do.” – Sloane Sabbith on “The Newsroom”

It’s not supposed to be profound wisdom, but like many of Aaron Sorkin’s works (he’s the creator of The West Wing, as well) there are solid truths in the offhand remarks of his characters. In this case, Sloane was berating a man for making decisions that were based on what he thought he should do, as opposed to what he actually felt was right.

It’s an easy platitude among many personal-development blogs that you shouldn’t use the word “should.” Even e.e. cummings, the poet, had nothing good to say about “should” (along with “would” and “could”, all crumbs in little Effie’s head). But that’s a cop out, I think; we spend a huge amount of time teaching our children, our colleagues, our mates and our lovers what they should or should not do. Entire industries are built around teaching people what they should do when visiting Japan, for example. It can be argued that shoulds are the means by which cultural mores are transmitted from generation to generation.

But should they be?

It’s a tricky subject. If everyone around you is telling you something is right, and you feel that it’s not, how do you evaluate it? Which is more likely, that everyone else is wrong or that you are? It’s enough to drive you mad – in fact, that’s basically the plot of Hamlet. So how do you evaluate the “shoulds” in your life?

That’s more than just a clever word construct. I mean the question very specifically: are shoulds really the best building blocks for a life? They save time, certainly. Ask any parent who has told a child they need to dress a certain way before a special event. Perhaps it’s just my kids, but these “why” questions always tend to come five minutes after you were supposed to leave for whatever event they were dressing up for. As a result, the voice of authority is quick to reply: “Because I told you so, that’s why.” Or apply peer pressure: “Because that’s the way it’s done!” Or even threats: “Because that’s how I want it, and as long as you live under my roof, you’ll do things my way!

I would like to propose a method for figuring out the shoulds. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s useful.

Introducing the ButWhyzer Method to Figure Out If You Should

Now, this won’t work with time pressure. Fact is, if you are in a rush to deal with the realities of life, you might as well just go along with the “should” path, assuming it’s not going to kill you or harm anyone else. At the same time, it’s entirely possible to file away that “should” moment. You can figure out if you “should” using the ButWhyzer Method, and it can help make it easier the next time that particular “should” comes around.

Here’s how it works. Put out the “should” statement (You really should do that), and immediately answer it with “But why?”

You’ll have an answer, I’m sure of it. It will probably fall into one of those voices of authority I mentioned above: Because that’s how it’s done!

I’m sure you can guess the next step: But why is it done that way? And you answer it, and you keep “ButWhyzing” the answers, until you reach one of three results:

  • You realize you should do this to please other people. There’s nothing wrong with that. Take neckties and earrings, for example. My uncle, a conservative financial wizard, once seriously questioned why I wore an earring. At the time I was starting out with my freelance consulting work in the arts, and he was concerned about my ability to be taken seriously. “Why do you wear that?” he asked.”Why do you wear a tie?” I asked him, pointing out that it served no practical purpose whatsoever. He quite rightly explained that it helped his clients feel that he was a professional, and feel more secure in his services and abilities.I replied “If I wore a tie, my clients would not trust me. But seeing my little yin-yang earring lets them know I’m one of them, and helps them feel more secure with me.” Both of us were doing things because we should, in order to fit in with our particular status quos.
  • You realize you should do this to please yourself. This is possibly the most authentic, satisfying, and easy one. If you simply are doing something because you want to, then most other things really don’t matter. But knowing it can relieve a lot of social anxiety and Hamlet-esque soliloquies. I believe that when you’re doing something from a place of personal motivation it adds a bit of extra gusto to your actions.
  • Hey, JoeYou realize it’s ludicrous. Because a lot of the “shoulds” in our lives are just plain silly. Example: during my last weekend in San Francisco, my friend W and I went out for coffee at the ominously-named “Café Taboo.” I took my coffee over to the sweetener-creamer-area, and noticed that along with my usual (the little yellow packets) they had a large selection of raw sugar. Suddenly I was overtaken by an attack of the Shoulds: I’m in a town where everyone is concerned with being healthier and responsibler and making more fulvous choices; why am I using my usual sweetener? I should move to raw sugar, which is obviously more healthy since it’s packaged in more earth-toned packets. 

    I put two packages in my coffee, sat down, took a sip…and felt like a complete idiot. The coffee tasted nothing like what I wanted. Why was I sacrificing one of the simpler pleasures – a beverage while I drew inspiration from the effervescent W – for some weird ideal of a Better Life Through Coffee Additives? That particular should was ridiculous, and as I chuckled at it, ripping open my trusty yellow packet, it lost power over me.

That’s it. I think that when the shoulds come into life, application of the ButWhyzer Method can shift the locus of control from them to you. Sure, you can say that “shoulds” have no place in the enlightened life – but the fact is, we don’t live all the time in an enlightened state. So taking some practical steps to counter the power of stereotypes, of marketing, and of our own person demons is one way to betterify you life starting now.

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