The Framing of the Should: Learning to Say No

The last few weeks have been some of those weeks. You know. The weeks when you pay 25 bucks for an Uber ride just under two miles because you really have somewhere to be. When you scrape your knees and tear one of your favorite pairs of pants falling on the road as you’re crossing it. Assignments cause your sleep cycle to move out of whack. Phone calls about group projects extend until 1 a.m. and start up again at 8 a.m.

Those weeks.

But the weeks also had great moments. My roommate and I hosted a sunrise breakfast party. My family made plans to fly down for my birthday. A friend bought me a coffee and a blondie just because they saw I was tired. I attended a great talk on the usage of data for social good and another on imposter syndrome.

I’ve talked about imposter syndrome on this blog before, but the talk revealed some things to me that I hadn’t really noticed before: the prevalence in our minds of the word ‘should’. Before feeling worthy of recognition, we ’should’ have published a paper, ‘should’ have created a successful YouTube channel, ‘should’ have passed the CFA exams and also invested in Facebook in 2005.

I’d had a conversation with my brother about university education a few days before the imposter syndrome talk. We talked about how I sometimes felt like I ‘should’ have gone to the Ivy League schools I’d been offered for grad school, instead of the school I was currently attending. I was talking to one of my closest friends one day when I mentioned that I ‘should’ have taken advantages of more opportunities in undergrad. 

I frequently feel like I “should” have ticked off a bunch of milestones by now, especially when I see people around me doing it: filing a patent, pursuing a double major and a double minor, publishing a paper, modeling for a company, getting engaged, passing certain global examinations, learning a dance form, playing an instrument, mastering the Scorpion pose in yoga.

The problem is that that mentality really doesn’t hold up in adulthood, when the choices we can make expand to an almost unimaginable degree. I have friends pursuing PhDs. One is planning her wedding, another for a kid. So the idea that we ‘should’ be doing something, most likely a leftover from school, when most of our accomplishments are evaluated by those in senior positions, is something that most of us probably wouldn’t benefit from.

I feel like why the ‘should’ mentality partially doesn’t work is because of the word itself. Saying ‘should’ means that the task is something you don’t want to do, but feel like it would be beneficial or it’s something that someone else or just society as a whole wants you to do. If it’s the latter, it usually helps me to draw up a pros and cons list. For the first one, I know it’s always helped me to replace the word ‘should’ with ‘want’. It makes it clear whether I really want to do something or if I’m, well, kidding myself.

(This really worked with vegetables. Hearing that ‘I should eat vegetables’ made me feel 5 again, even though I loved vegetables at that age. Saying ‘I want to eat vegetables’ helped me be an adult and make a choice.

Also, I really like vegetables.)

My goal? To try out all of these ice cream flavors.

My goal? To try out all of these ice cream flavors.

I’m not sure I have entirely escaped the ‘should’ mentality, nor am I sure I want to. I think the idea of external influences helps us guide ourselves and see what we do and do not want out of life. And of course, there are areas where ‘should’ does help us out (like if you haven’t taken a shower in three days, you probably really should).

Another thing I use to try and extricate myself from the ‘tyranny of the should’ is try and remember that I don’t have to accomplish everything in the world immediately. At 21, I frequently catch myself thinking “this is it”. What I have now is all that I will ever accomplish and that this is do or die. I think a lot of us have this mentality, where we have to race ahead and do what we can right now…before what? 


I know that I want to direct Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ one day. And learn the ins and outs of antimatter. And write a paper on the intersection of economics and data.

But I also recognize that these are not things that I have to do right now. I can grow towards them, realizing that I will be able to do them justice when the time is right.

So I take a few more photographs than I normally would, improving my perception of depth. I talk to my friends studying Physics about their assignments and papers. And I run a newsletter analyzing links between economic theories and the usage of data.

I was talking to my brother about this a few days ago and he gave me a really good rule of thumb: Is your goal worth failing for? Do you feel like you would like to pursue this path even if the risk of failure is high? If yes, it might be great to pursue. 

(My brother is super smart. Seriously, I don’t know how he does it.)

Another strategy we both discussed, in which he is more experienced than I am, is practice. Practice making decisions intentionally for some time. Even the small ones, like your breakfast or what you wear for the day. Practice until personal choices become distinguishable from socially conventional ones. Eat spaghetti for breakfast, if that’s what you feel you want. Wear green with yellow (idk, this is apparently a no-no according to “Confessions of a Shopaholic”). And figure out the ‘shoulds’ as you go along.

So maybe I’ll think about this next time I decide to wear sock-shoe-sock-shoe. Why shouldn’t I wear sock-sock-shoe-shoe? And hopefully, this will help me with other ‘shoulds’, like my choice of courses and where I go post grad school and what my next blog post ‘should’ be about.

What are some of your guys’ ‘shoulds’?