Why you should never use the word should

Last month, Jordan Oram and I had an incredibly inspiring conversation about collaboration and individual creativity. In the middle of this discussion, I told him of a frustrating experience I was having with a colleague.

“A person should know how to manage basic social interaction by the time they reach 35,” I told him.

The politics of should


He stopped me. I don’t like should he said. It implies judgment. “Why would I insist that people know how to do certain things by certain ages? Maybe that is just not what their life experience or ability has brought them to yet.”

This of course lead to a longer conversation about should.

Should reflects the self

Should is a reflection of the values and expectations of the should-er rather than any real measurement of the should-ee. I want my colleagues to meet deadlines, because I end up having to work harder and feel more stressed if they don’t. I want my friends to make an equal effort in our relationships, because then I feel valued. I want my students to be valued by their teachers, because I connect with them and want to see them succeed.

It’s not wrong to want what you want. It is, however, important to realize that your wants won’t necessarily line up with what the world and other people have to offer.

That doesn’t mean I have to give my colleague a pass. Or that I have to put up with waiting around for a friend who won’t show up. It means I need to take responsibility for my own reaction and feelings and communicate them effectively.

What gets in the way of effective communication?

Effective communication is without anger. It is aimed at finding solutions. It is not judgmental.

Why? Because you can’t expect another person to meet your needs if you haven’t told them what you need.

What happens when the should is aimed at the self?

I hear people shoulding themselves all the time in all facets of their lives.

Such as:

I should have a higher objective in my life.

I should have my business plan in place.

I should be more ahead with my blogging.

I should work out every day.

I should go to sleep earlier.

What do these shoulds accomplish? 

Nothing worthwhile.

When you should yourself, you tell yourself you’re not doing the right thing. Your values aren’t the right values. You’re not doing enough, and whatever you do isn’t good enough.

When I hear myself shoulding I  immediately know that this is a sign thatt there is a conflict in me that needs to be resolved. It tells me I am uncomfortable with something and need to address that conflict directly through honesty and communication.

You’re better off writing everything down, making a list  or diagram or mind map of all the things you want and then find ways of making them happen.

When you should, you devalue yourself.

None of this is helpful to you in either finding a higher objective or in reaching your goals, because you’re tearing yourself down. How much better off would we all be if we could focus, instead, on what we have accomplished and showed a bit of patience? Why not have faith in ourselves and believe that what we want will happen. We can do it. We are more than capable.

Try it yourself. What are the shoulds in your life and how would you address them with this in mind?