Perspectives, Pt. 2 - Can vs. Should

Perspectives is a series about just that - perspectives: how we view the world; how we process the information and events we experience in everyday life.

In order to self-correct we must first be self-aware enough to know what needs correcting. Self-awareness entails an objective view of how we personally think and operate, which leads to a greater empathy and understanding towards others with whom our views and perspectives differ.

The heart behind this series is to examine the power of perspective through blog posts, to help illustrate and open our eyes to the power perspective can bring. At some point, your perspective and mine will undoubtedly differ... and that’s the point. This is my take on it, what’s yours?

“Everything that is within your grasp is not meant to be in your hand.”  - Terry Crews

“Thinking is a tiring process; it is much easier to accept beliefs passively than to think them out, rigorously questioning their grounds by asking what are the consequences that follow from them.”  - L. Susan Stebbing

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

Recently I was meeting with a friend of mine discussing all the things that are on my current plate in life. I was waxing eloquently about this and that when suddenly she reeled with repulsion after something I said. I was taken aback at this reaction because I had no clue what set her off. I sheepishly and nervously asked her what I had said… hoping I wasn’t ignorant of some large offense. Her response was: “I hate the word: ‘should’”. So much so, that it was repulsive to her.

My argument is: that should be the case for all of us...

What We’re Up Against

This is not some trivial phrase. This is a perspective that has the power to unlock our truest and best selves, if understood correctly.

Today more than ever before, we are bombarded with an endless array of choices. There are options on options on options. When we want x, y, or z, there will undoubtedly be multiple variations of that product along with at least half a dozen brands to choose from, and maybe even half a dozen knock-off brands beyond that. From toothpaste, to t-shirts, to vacuums, to golf clubs, to loaves of bread, to paper, to accounting software, to tv providers, and on, and on.

Not only do we have a plethora of choices, we are able to do almost anything we want. More than ever before, we can. Want pizza at midnight? No problem. Need a last minute book before your trip overseas? Two clicks and you can have it tomorrow. Tired of grocery shopping? Pay someone to do it for you. Always wanted to be a movie-star? All you have to do is sign up to start recording and uploading to your very own channel. We can do more than ever before.

Paired with the increased availability of activities or pursuits, is the improved convince-ability of marketers and advertisers. With the collection of more and more data on each individual, advertisers and marketers are constantly getting better at incentivizing consumers to want more things - to consume more goods. Never before have we been so manipulated to be discontent with our current state of being or possessions.

And as if those weren’t enough, we still have to come to terms with our inward propensity for novelty. Each one of us is obsessed with finding out the new cool thing to do, the new fad/trend, or the next viral wave of fill-in-the-blank. We increasingly want to fill our novelty tanks up with premium experiences, making them more and more scarce. Not only does novelty’s scarcity increase, but so too does our FOMO addiction - the fear that everyone else is living their best life while we're stuck with our lousy version of life. It is a never ending cycle of one-upping ourselves and others in the amount of cool thing we can do, see, or post online about.

An overwhelming abundance of choices, a fierce opponent of contentment, and the incessant longing for novelty - this is what we’re up against.

What’s At Stake

Perspectives always have stakes. There is going to be something gained or lost through the perspective you hold. Opportunity costs are a part of life, and choosing sides means that, in order to make an informed decision, you will have to think through the associated trade-offs.

In this case, the stakes are high because the forces against us are great. Our culture is obsessed with telling us what we should do and what our lives need. Simultaneously, we are obsessed with finding out the newest, bestest thing. When you combine our internal wiring - our affinity for novelty - with the external pressure and coercion of the cultural influence and messaging, what you get is a pressure-cooker that leads us to think that: can = should. This is the perspective at play, and it’s a perspective that is dangerous, toxic, and deadly if left unchecked or unseen.

What’s at stake is choosing a proactive life over a reactive life, empowerment over entitlement, self-ownership over self-servitude, freedom over bondage. And this is literally a bondage-producing perspective. When the two forces of our internal wiring and the external messaging are combined, what’s created is a feeling of duty, an obligation to own or do all these things that we “can”, but not necessarily “should”.

When “Can" = “Should"

Should is a guilt-riddled word.

Guilt is: "the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime”. Feeling guilty results from doing something in which guilt is deserved - the feeling from our conscience when we know we did something we shouldn’t have… shouldn’t have.

Should indicates obligation. It is a word that tells us: “Hey - you should really be doing this because you can, and since you’re not doing it, you are thus guilty of not doing what you should be doing, which you are obligated to do because you can.” Should is word that, by its very nature, blurs the lines between “can" and “should”. Living under the shadow of guilt is not conducive to our best or truest selves, and it will always be limiting.

If guilt is the external burden that “should" brings, the internal force is self-deprecation.

Self-deprecation is a pervasive practice among our society today. It has the appearance of wisdom and the feel of humility, but in reality it is a self-limiting practice that binds us to mediocrity. In one of the greatest self-help books of all time - “The Magic of Thinking Big” - David Schwartz says this about self-deprecation: “Probably the greatest human weakness is self-deprecation - that is, selling oneself short.” - Selling oneself short of what one is truly capable of.

Incorporating “should” in daily vocabulary is adding dry pieces of wood to the already-lit flame of self-deprecation we so lovingly cling to. “I really should have done that workout.” “If I am going to be successful I should really go to that event tonight.” “In order to be seen I should really post to social media at least once a day.” Should, should, should. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

Taking Control Back

Like perspectives, language is powerful.

My brother-in-law is an executive coach, working with high-achievers in major corporations to help them perform better and take new ground in their work. Through this, he has developed a keen ear for the power of language. When someone says: “yeah, I should really do that”, it instills little to no confidence that the person will actually follow through with what they are communicating. By saying: “I commit to doing that”, the individual has convinced the hearer and themselves of a new reality that they are going to follow through with.

We should be so repulsed by the use of "should" in our vocabulary that we commit to removing it from our mouths. We need to take ownership of our language back from the guilt-laden, discontentment-producing influence that comes from our personal propensities and the cultural pressures. Seeing the need starts with seeing our ability - that we can take ownership back.

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should… but in this case, I think we really should.

My goal in this post (and every other in this series), is to highlight a perspective - my perspective. My perspective is that “should” is a limiting word that never equates with “can”. My plea is for you to recognize the times when you fall into the trap of assimilating “can” with “should”, and then to take control of your language back into your own hands, in order to live empowered and intentional lives.

This means that, instead of it producing both duty and obligation which creates a cycle of guilt and bondage, “can” should be viewed as a privilege and a blessing, one that frees us from the burden of the expectations of others (and ourself), allowing us the vision to see clearly what we truly need to do in the midst of a plethora of choices, activities, and pursuits that we can do.

Tim Ferriss had this to say:

“What you don’t do determines what you can do.”

Seth Godin puts it this way: 

“Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.”

Can doesn’t equal should.