I’m a career and leadership coach, and in my line of work, “should” is a dirty word that reflects a sense of obligation to a task or feeling. When my clients begin a sentence with, “I should …” it tells me that there is internal conflict: “On the one hand, something external (like my parents, society, my friends, my classmates, my co-workers) is dictating a course of action. On the other hand, if I’m being truly honest with myself, I do not desire this action.”
Those of us whose lives are governed by “should” choose external gratification over internal satisfaction. We engage in professional activities out of perceived obligation, not true desire.
For my upcoming book, “Breaking Up With Should: Abandoning Dread and Embracing Joy at Work,” I embarked on a large-scale interview process. I spoke with individuals who had “impressive” careers but who found themselves unhappy and depleted. Fast-forward to now: They’re all pursuing professional work that brings them great joy and fulfillment.
How were they able to make the professional transition from dread to joy? How were they able to break up with “should?” In my qualitative research, six answers to that question emerged:
Lesson 1: An Objective Guide
Everyone who broke up with “should” had an objective human being to help them on their journey. They were mostly coaches or therapists, and critically, they were not a friend or family member. They were people with no emotional stake in the person’s outcome.
The objective guide must be exactly that: objective. The person must not have strong personal feelings about the client’s actions and no preconceived notions of success — nothing to project onto the client. These types of conversations are sacred spaces for many people. They were able to voice for the first time the origins of their “shoulds” and begin to break free of the limiting beliefs that were holding them back from happiness.
Lesson 2: There’s Always a Catalyst
There was always a key catalytic moment that stands out in interviewees’ memories. Sometimes, it was trauma — one big event that put everything in perspective, like an illness or a death. Other times, it was the buildup of experiences and unhappiness over time. There were two types of catalyst: one traumatic event or a series of smaller traumatic events, and the “Aha!” moment.
Lesson 3: Introspection
The only way to break up with “should” is through a deep commitment to introspection. Every person I interviewed embarked on a journey of getting to know their own mind in a different way. They focused inwardly and learned to tune out external pressures that were holding them back. They engaged in metacognition, or thinking about their own thinking. Many of them started journaling or writing in some capacity in order to memorialize their thoughts, track their progress and reflect.
Lesson 4: Unpacking “Impressive”
Each person I interviewed did a deep dive into his or her definition of the word “impressive.” Some questions they asked were:
- How do I define this word?
- Where does this definition come from?
- Does it serve me to hold onto this definition? Why or why not?
There is an undeniable link between “should” and our often misguided ideas of what’s impressive. Everyone I interviewed committed to unpacking this word, understanding its origins and rethinking its application to their lives.
Lesson 5: Listen to Your Body
The signals our body gives us are unequivocally the best data points we have when it comes to “should.” We succumb to “should” when we ignore the signals our body screams at us. The people I interviewed described powerful, maladaptive feelings in their body with words like “dread,” “heaviness,” or “fight or flight.” They all admitted to having ignored or suppressed these feelings for a long time. It wasn’t until they started listening to their bodies that they were able to create change.
Lesson 6: Sometimes, You Have to Trial-and-error Your Way to Passion
None of the people I interviewed innately had a clear sense of his or her professional passion at a young age. Finding passion required trial and error for most of them. Critically, most of the interviewees ignored obvious signals and data points in early jobs about what made them tick. On the other hand, when they noticed and internalized it, this information was invaluable. They tried many things professionally, and they learned about what energized them. These individuals went out in the world, had lots of professional experiences and collected data.
Are you ready to break up with “should?” Start by applying these six ideas to your own life to start your journey: Abandon dread, and find joy.