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Your Life Doesn't Have to Look Like Anyone Else's

What is it about the word "should" that seems to make life so uniquely miserable?

Sometimes I think that if we somehow excised that one word from all of our brains, our society would be completely transformed. No more external pressure to live a certain kind of life, no more unsolicited advice; just a shared understanding that each of us is an individual, trying our best, with the innate freedom to live life on our own terms.

Unfortunately for me and all the other idealists, that ain't the world we live in. In the dominant capitalist culture, "shoulds" abound. In fact, from the moment you're born, the "shoulds" start flying. Some of them come with good intentions: a parent telling their kid that they should eat a healthier snack, or try out for that play they're afraid to audition for, etc. Some things do fall under the umbrella of "common sense shoulds"; in other words, imperatives that are useful for almost all humans in a given culture to follow in all but the rarest occasions.

But the other category of "shoulds" is much more insidious and damaging: individual preferences/social norms masquerading as imperatives. These "shoulds" often come in the form of subtle social cues to keep you in line, or unsolicited advice when you're facing major life decisions. Maybe you feel pressure to go to university because all of your friends are. Or a distant relative at a family reunion insists that you invest in real estate ASAP, since everyone knows that "renting is a waste of money."

But maybe you've always felt called to tradeswork, and sitting in lecture halls all day long just isn't your thing. Or perhaps you have no desire to spend your weekends maintaining a house when a small apartment will do (and what does your great-great-aunt know about what's best for you anyway?). The point is, "shoulds" usually only tell you one thing: what works for the person giving the advice. The problem with any kind of so-called universal maxim, or general advice, even when given in good faith, is that you are not everyone else.

Unfortunately, all this "shoulding" often causes us to start doubting ourselves and our inner compasses. Rather than feeling motivated and spurred on to success, we end up confused and torn in two. If we stop and listen deeply to our intuition, to our deepest longings, we usually know exactly what it is we want, and what we value in this life. We don't need Uncle Bill or some guy on the r/Productivity subreddit telling us how to live.

And even if we don't yet have a good grasp on our inner values, this confusion can paradoxically be a wonderful launching off point, allowing us to dive headlong into exploring life and discovering those values through active participation in the world. We learn for ourselves what "shoulds" we want to live by.

If we're constantly being pummelled by social messaging that's trying to funnel all of us into the same "life script" (e.g. monogamous, married, 2+ kids, house in the suburbs, 1-2 cars, full-time job, 2 vacations/year, consumerist lifestyle, etc.), how can we ever begin to know ourselves? And how can the world benefit from our unique gifts if we never discover what they are in the first place? Instead of celebrating plurality and variety, "shoulds" turn society into an oppressive monoculture. And that, in turn, leads to a stagnant and decaying culture (aka Late-Stage Capitalism).

A woman asleep at a desk. In front of her on the desk is a laptop, her glasses, a journal, and a small decorative flower arrangement.
Actual photo of me "living the dream" circa 2022

Perhaps most insidious of all is the tendency to begin internalizing these "shoulds" as we age, until we forget that we're essentially free beings, that life doesn't come with an instruction manual with only one way to "do it right" as most advice would have you believe.

We act as if life is some kind of zero-sum game to either win or lose, but maybe there's a different way to play. We've gotten so used to locking ourselves in our own prison cells, we've forgotten that we each possess the key to get out. Freedom is just a matter of remembering who we are, and taking that first step out into the uncertainty of the unknown.

A word of warning (from experience): if you decide to throw your "shoulds" to the wind and walk your own path, it won't always be comfortable. You'll often butt up against other people's conceptions of success, and their judgements about your choices (or, perhaps more accurately, their fears about their own choices). You'll stick out, and it'll sometimes be awkward and tiring. You'll make mistakes, fall on your face, over-explain your decisions to people who don't matter, and you'll have to do a lot of inner work to challenge your own self-reinforcing beliefs about what "the good life" really means to you. You won't have the safety of "shoulds" to guide you, and that's scary. But you'll be guided by something a lot more powerful: your own wisdom.

Your life doesn't have to look like anyone else's.

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