Find Your Inner Compass: Shirk "The Shoulds"

  "The Inner Compass" is a series inspired by every competent, bright, and thoughtful writer who gets caught in THE SHOULDS. They worry about how they're supposed to do things instead of trusting their instincts. I've been there often. Worrying. Questioning. Avoiding work. Yet when I let go & do things my way, I find more opportunity than ever results from following The Shoulds. This series is dedicated to finding a new way to write—one that leaves us open to possibility & energized to do the work---one that speaks to the WritingStrides philosophy.


When I was a junior in college, I REALLY wanted to drop out of school. I was majoring in biology, but I'd gotten a C in chemistry, a B in biology, and I hated class. I cried every day. Naturally, I called my mom.

"I can't do this anymore," I sobbed.

Because she is WonderMom, she said okay. If I took time off, she'd support my decision.

"Just have a plan," she said. She didn't want me to move back home and do nothing. She wanted it to be a purposeful decision to help me find clarity.

But as often happened when WonderMom shared her wisdom, I ran with it. Translated situation-specific advice into a Life Rule: I SHOULD always have a plan.



The sneaky thing about the word "should" is that it multiplies and slips into places it doesn't belong. It speaks to us in absolutes:

"I should have a plan if I take time off from school" becomes "I should ALWAYS have a plan."

should know what I want to major in by now.

should know what I want to do with my entire life.

I shouldn't feel so lost in my junior year.

And because we haven't figured it out, "Should" shames us. We feel like failures. And how do we excel then?



The Shoulds love writers. I see them sitting on the shoulders of writers all the time.

Picking a date for a coaching session, a writer tells me all the things he or she needs to do before spending an hour with me: finish an article, send a query, on and on and on.

Or I tell myself: I should write that blog post before I write for fun. I should write for an hour and a half before I go for a walk. I should carry pen and paper so I can capture every idea as it comes to me.

Would you feel more freedom if you went after things your own way?

It all translates to this: If I were a better writer, or a real writer, I would do things differently than I do. I can't reward myself until I act like a real writer.

But when I go for that walk before I write, my writing is clearer. I finish faster. When I write an idea down at a random time and place? I never look at it again.

When we let go of The Shoulds, we change the order of operations: I will take care of myself (by walking, meeting with my coach, writing when I'm at my best) so I can be a better writer, and work in the way that is right for me.




Pull out a piece of scrap paper and a pen. Write down a few "I should" statements swirling around in your mind. Things you think you should do, or need to do. Star the one that feels the most important and the hardest to do.

Mine is: I should work from 9 to 5 like a regular day job even though I work at home, otherwise I'm being lazy.

Now, imagine for just one second that you let go of your "should". It's no longer true. You don't have to work from 9 to 5, you can work whenever you want. Who would you be without that rule?

I would be liberated. I would be focused and productive in the morning, and in the afternoon, when my eyelids drooped and I stared out the window, I'd go for a bike ride. I'd come back refreshed and have a second burst of inspiration and productivity.

Who would you be?



If you're like me, you're torn. It feels damn good to do things your way, but a voice in your head (one that's trying to sound an awful lot like wisdom) tells you that the only way to succeed is to follow the rules.

Flowers in Bloom

But that's not the voice of wisdom. That's the voice of fear.

When we give ourselves freedom to do things our way, we experience relief. We breathe. Our shoulders relax. We feel lightness and space... and it's that space that leaves us open to opportunity.

Take my junior year of college. As soon as I had my mother's blessing, I gave myself the freedom to drop out. And a new option appeared: a major that combined environmental studies with international relations. I could study the principals of science and then dig into the ethics of managing the environment. I smiled just looking at the course list.

I didn't drop out. I changed my major. I took an extra year to graduate, but I also enjoyed my classes, studied in Costa Rica, and graduated with my closest friends.

The same will be true in writing. When you let go of The Shoulds, you'll see new options and you'll be able to act on the ones that feel right for you. You'll still follow the principles of freelancing and writing. You'll be respectful to editors. You'll find time to write. You'll just do it in a way that feels better. In the coming weeks, we'll talk about how.

For now, think back to the exercise above. Tell us, in the comments below, who would you be if you let go of your shoulds?

Read the next post in the Find Your Inner Compass Series: Learn to Listen.