The Dreaded Should

In this post, J. Sumerau reflects on interactions with other academics who experience considerable stress due to structural and interpersonal conditions encouraging them to focus on “what they should be doing” instead of what they have accomplished. 

I “should” be working on project x. I “should” be doing work-related task y. I “should” be preparing for academic meeting, gathering, conference z. I “should” be more productive in comparison to this person, that goal, or this norm. I “should” be doing more in my work about this issue or that problem or this population or that concern.

I should…

I should…

I should…

“Should” is a word I find myself hearing rather often from colleagues in my career to date, and it often carries with it an expectation that one is not doing enough in some way, shape, or form. In such cases, people I happen to know are hard working, incredibly talented, deeply committed, and quite impressive by any measure I can come up with downplay whatever they are doing, accomplishing, or achieving at a given moment based on what more they feel they “should” be doing, accomplishing, or achieving at that moment.

I should note that I am not in any way disparaging the people in question. Rather, from what I can tell, the dreaded should – as I call – is something they feel and experience deeply that causes them pain, turmoil, or other forms of anxiety and stress. I further recognize, as others have noted, that this “shoulding” is encouraged in academic contexts as well as broader capitalistic contexts. People are constantly exposed to messages suggesting they are not doing enough, requirements that are often incredibly vague and subject to interpretation, and very real fears concerning job security, opportunities, and resources in the academy. Put simply, I am not knocking the people who feel this way, but rather I find it quite impressive that they manage to do so well while feeling these things on a daily basis. For me, their management of such feelings demonstrates a special type of strength wherein one feels regularly that they are losing a game, and yet somehow manages to continue on, do solid work, and inspire and connect with others.

At the same time, as someone who – thus far it appears – is immune to “shoulding” or thoughts about what I “should” be doing, I think this is a pattern that should be noted, discussed, and recognized because the effects of such stress on people likely – and from what I’ve seen empirically do – take an incredible toll on their happiness, health, and well being. In many cases, for example, I see people who experience their lives in ways where “I should be doing x” overshadows all the things they are doing, takes them away from important self care, and / or leaves them constantly feeling like nothing will ever be good enough. This is a recipe for negative outcomes, and yet it is encouraged in academic fields in many cases.  I cannot pretend to understand what it is like to feel this way – I tend to live in the moment to the point where even when I need to plan for the future I don’t do so all that well – but I wanted to talk about how these patterns feel or appear to me as I often serve as a source of support for many people who experience such feelings.  In many cases, I am lucky enough to be helpful to them in such cases, but in so doing, I am continuously struck by how powerful and damaging “should” can be in the current academic climate.

As such, I wanted to focus here on what we may miss when we become – or are trained to become – focused on “should” instead of “did” or “done.” If you are one who often feels like you “should” be doing more, take a moment and ask yourself what have I done instead. I ask this simple question all the time when colleagues start talking about how they “should” be doing something. Universally, the answers reveal a lot of accomplishments – for example, well I did submit that paper; well I did inspire that student; well I did something special for my partner, friend, or other loved one on Tuesday; well I did rest and relax this weekend; well I did get to the gym; well I did start outlining that grant; well I did just present at a conference last week; well I did some volunteer work or charity last month; well I did get better at “insert hobby here” this week; well I did come up with that new teaching technique I wanted to try this semester; well I did get to hang out with my partner, friends, kids, etc this week; or well I did think about a paper idea that could be really cool.

I could go on, but odds are you are doing lots of things – personally and / or professionally –  that you could be giving yourself credit for, and when I have asked people these questions and they have answered they often feel better at least for a little bit. Ask yourself how your life might be different if you could learn – or be trained to – focus on what you did do instead of what you “should” be doing. I’m not saying this will work for everyone, but in many cases, I have seen people realize that they accomplish far more than they have been giving themselves credit for.

I also think we need to look at where the dreaded “should” comes from in most cases I have seen. Whether it is comparisons to other people or norms within a given department or program, the dreaded “should” tends to arise from the conditions of contemporary academic life.  People face serious concerns about, for example, job security; time for lovers, friends, family, and self care; deadlines tied to advancement or even landing one of an increasingly small pool of decent paying jobs; and a culture that is focused on “what are you doing next” rather than “what have you already done.”  These pressures are greatly exacerbated for academics from marginalized backgrounds, and scholars in search of stable employment in the present market context.  Each of these factors – and many others – feed the idea that one is never quite good enough, should be constantly working toward something new to set one’s self apart or meet some (often vague) requirement for a job, for tenure, or other potential source of stability, and should spend as much time as possible working on that next thing that will make all the difference.

We see these patterns translate into a continuous series of “shoulds” and “somedays.”  When I have the job, then I’ll focus on my self care, my personal life, that study I want to do, or other factors, but for now, I should be x, y, and z.  When I have tenure, then I can have time for a family, take that trip I’ve been planning, write about what I really want to write about, or otherwise do something else, but for now, I should be x, y, and z.  These types of feelings and statements are not only commonplace among academics from what I can tell, but also understandable when we consider the broader context of academic norms, markets, and opportunities.  In all such cases, however, we are encouraged by these structural and interpersonal patterns to downplay right now and what we have achieved or are achieving for the sake of some future possibility.

As a result, I find myself wondering how much of right now people miss due to these patterns?  What might academia be like if we were encouraged to celebrate the moment instead of wishing for the future?  What might it be like if we came together against the broader cultural patterns that create these conditions?  Until such conditions can be changed, I also wonder what little things each of us may do in our own lives to ease the dreaded should we or our colleagues face, and help lessen the negative consequences of such patterns?

I’m not saying it would be easy to change the culture of “should” or the economic and political conditions that facilitate such stress, but I think we would all benefit if we came together, and gave ourselves and one another credit for the tremendous amount we all do accomplish personally, politically, and academically.  At the very least, I think we should talk about these issues, help each other as we face and experience these shared conditions in our own ways, and look for ways to create better conditions for ourselves and our colleagues individually and on a broader structural level.

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