Life is a series of choices. Every act of decision-making is a crossroad and, one way or another, we arrive at them every single day. In these moments, we exercise our freedom to pick our battles, directions, and outcomes, and the power to control the narrative of our lives rests firmly in our hands. To have a choice is to be blessed.
Should and must are the most frequent options laid before us. Two very different energies, one tinted with a sense of duty, the other loaded with pure potential. More often than not, following one, renders the other a distant memory. How do we determine which of them leads to a fulfilling life?
In her Medium post turned book, Elle Luna, artist and speaker, brings the should versus must intersection to our attention to help us understand where some of our life dissatisfactions come from. As she points out through the words of Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher from the turn of the century, in order to break out of prison, it’s not the key to the lock or befriending the guard that is essential. What we need is to first realize that we are in prison.
Should ranges from a simple modal verb in a sentence, “You should listen to that song”, to complex systems of thought that pressure us into living according to somebody else’s rules. It is a set of expectations layered on us by the external world. At its most insidious, should is a sequence of subtle, camouflaged influences over our lives that derail our vision, purpose, and happiness.
Shoulds are bestowed upon us the moment we are born. Parents use them to take care of us, the school system implements them as a moral code to unify their students’ behavior, and culture imposes them on us to predict, to a certain extent, the maneuvers of the tribe members. Shoulds have been ingrained in us so deeply that very often we lose the ability to evaluate them critically.
You should never…
You should always…
You should not…
Where do all these questionable restrictions come from? Do we need all of them to be able to navigate the world and be part of society? Which ones do we keep and which can we discard? Can we feel them in our hearts as true?
A lifetime of shoulds builds a prison around us. The longer we choose shoulds over must, the harder it will be to unlearn our conditioning. In order to reverse the damage, we need to get to know our shoulds intimately, examine their origins, analyze when and how we incorporate them into our decision-making.
Make a list of anything and anyone who holds you back. Identify the areas of your life you feel most uncomfortable with. Analyze past mistakes, failures, but also successes that did not spark as much joy as you anticipated. Listen to your emotions. Any elements of your notes that appear incongruent with your truth are the shoulds you need to let go of to make space for must. Self-awareness is key.
“It’s your life—but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt
Must is truth, your personal, innermost, deepest truth. It’s who you are at your core, it’s what you believe, and what you do when nobody’s watching. Loaded with your convictions, passions, and desires, it’s your connection to your inner self and inner peace. It’s the familiar pull you feel towards your dreams. Must is you being fully alive and fully aligned.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ― Howard Thurman
Non-conforming, unafraid of hard work and sacrifice, must is anything but compromise, it’s unshakable. No matter how hard we try to cover it with piles of shoulds, it always rises to the surface in the end. Must is your undeniable authenticity. It’s the most persistent of your inner voices, and it’s always with you, even as merely a whisper.
If you’re unsure of what your must is, look for it in your childhood. As Elle Luna advises, call your parents. Whatever you naturally gravitated towards as a kid – these are the seeds of your must. What were you drawn to? What was the first thing you reached out for when it was play time? Look through old journals, dig up a photo album, ask your mom to dust off her box of memories she keeps in the attic, and go down memory lane for clues. Everyone has a must. We promise yours is waiting to be discovered, too.
Must likes to hide in anything we do for fun or while procrastinating. It lives in our daydreams, fantasies, and night visions. It manifests in goose bumps, butterflies in our stomach, or the kind of excitement we sometimes mistake for fear. Look within. If you had one day off to pursue an activity, what would it be? Look for patterns in your life, acquire new skills to develop different connections in your brain, engage in creative activities to disrupt the stiffness of everyday life. Sometimes must has to be activated.
Once it takes shape, choosing your must relentlessly and consequently will help you live in the state of flourishing. Write it down, make it your screensaver, scribble it on a bathroom mirror, pin it to a vision board, or use it as your affirmation – internalize it, embrace it, and live it. Create space for it – whether it be a physical area in your house, a slot in your calendar at the end of the day, or opening up your heart to newly found potential – your must needs room to breathe. Keep choosing must with the same devotion it keeps choosing you. Your must is your calling.
Follow Your Bliss
If you’re scared or apprehensive about pursuing your calling, you’re not alone. It is a universally scary experience to dive into something that raises so many valid and important questions regarding the unavoidable practical side of life. What if your must doesn’t pay the bills? What if it’s selfish? How will you balance it with other obligations? Will your ideas even matter? What if your loved ones are unable to understand your must? What if it makes you lonely? What about criticism? What if you ran out of steam?
Let us address two of the most common concerns: time and money.
Must does not have to devour your entire life. Take writers, for instance. T.S. Elliot had a prominent career as a banker, Kurt Vonnegut was an automobile seller, and Elizabeth Gilbert vowed to never expect her writing to pay the bills. Instead, she funded her calling by working as a waitress. Should you want to take a leap of faith and quit your day job to pursue your must, we’re here to assure you it is not necessary.
At the end of the day, set a timer for 30 minutes and do something related to your must. If you have kids to take care of, 10 minutes will work, too. The most seemingly insignificant actions such as listening to a song, taking a walk in nature to clear your head, or talking to your pet may all contribute to fortifying your must against the dismantling tides of life. It is all in your persistence, or lack thereof. If you truly want something, you will find a way, if you don’t, you’ll come up with an excuse.
“If you’re not prioritizing the things you say you care about, consider the possibility that you don’t actually care about those things.” ― Elle Luna
For further clarification, listen closely to the ancient wisdom in your body, it will light up the path for you. We like to use the Marie Forleo method for decision-making – whenever you’re faced with a dilemma, close your eyes, take a breath, and think deeply about your options. If an outcome makes you feel contracted inside, it is most likely one of the shoulds. If you feel expansive, it is your must calling for your attention. Lean towards it. Invite it in. Your must will never lead you astray.
If you need an extra nudge towards your must, write your obituary. Two versions of it, to be precise, one for the life of shoulds, and one for the dream life you will live the moment you start following your bliss. We know you will keep smiling while writing the latter.
As soon as you hear the singing of your must, you have the option to follow your bliss, or let it perish in the fire of shoulds. Whatever you do, make sure you choose what is right, not what is easy. Must is you. Take care of your must, take care of yourself.