Two friends and one enemy: Could, Should, and Must.

4 Dec 2017

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For years, years I say, I have been banging on about the dangers of the words 'should' and 'must'. 'Should' and 'Must' have been my enemies - enemies of freedom and productivity. But one of them has just shifted from long-term enemy to firm-friend.

'Should' is a modal operator of necessity. It's a way of helping us understand the often hidden rules we live our lives by, and by which we judge our experience as good or bad, right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable.

'Should' can be challenged with a great question:

"What would happen if I didn't?"

For example, a useful rule is that I 'should' ring my mother more often than I do... To test the value of this self-imposed rule, asking myself, "What would happen if I didn't?" then opens up a useful stream of thinking:

She may not feel loved

I would miss out on her news

We would weaken our bond.

Since I would like Mum to feel more loved, hear her news, and relish the opportunity to strengthen our bond, it would be a good move to call my Mother! The important difference to be made is to shift from the disempowering 'should' to the empowering word: 'could'!

Suddenly, there seems to be a more empowering option - to choose to call my Mum because I can (could), not out of guilt but rather out of love and in the quest for positive possibilities.

'Should' then, remains an enemy of the state - the state of freedom.

By now you must have guessed who my new friend is: 'Must'!

'Must' is a modal operator of necessity, equally as dangerous and challengeable as 'Should' but one that can be turned to good use. 'Must' can disempower or it can empower.

Let's take a rewriting of the Ten Commandments as our example. "Thou shalt not..." is actually very strong language. It is non-negotiable. It is absolute. And, unfortunately for many of us, it is archaic and thus open to misinterpretation. For most of us, 'shalt not' means 'shouldn't'... and therein lies a lot of trouble.

Listen to one of the commandments written in three ways, beginning with the archaic:

Thou shalt not commit adultery (archaic)

You should not commit adultery (interpreted as)

You must not commit adultery (new alternative form.)

Laying aside the 'shall not' for now, let's consider the difference between 'should' and 'must'.

If I should not commit adultery, that sounds to me like adultery is ill-advised, best not to commit it. However, there is the possibility of exploring the option.

If I must not commit adultery, that sounds to me like adultery is never an option, I must never, ever commit it. There is no possibility of entertaining it as an option.

I hope you agree.

'Must' then can be used to change my behaviour because it changes my options and possibilities. It takes the choice out of the equation. The negotiable becomes non-negotiable, and the energy wasted on choosing is saved because there is no choice.

Let me illustrate.

"I must not eat crisps." This is far easier than, "I should not eat crisps."

Smoking, drinking, swearing... you name it. The power to change is in the shift from 'should' to 'must'.

I recognise that this has the potential to transform your future, so let's start gently and in a manageable way with just three promises to yourself where you will move from the good idea of 'should' to the great action of 'must'.

Kurt Lewin, I believe, suggested that a goal we commit publicly to is a goal we are 10x more likely to achieve. Please feel free to commit publicly to your own 'must' goals in the comments below.

Now I must tidy the lounge...


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