Goals, Part 3: Should versus could

In case you’re wondering, I don’t really intend  this as a series of how-to posts about setting goals. There’s lots of great advice already out there–I saw plenty of good ideas in blog posts around the beginning of the year–and most of us have lived long enough to figure out things that work well for us. I’ve seen people limiting themselves to one or two large goals at a time, repeating similar goals from year to year, setting short-term, attainable goals throughout the year, and so forth.

But what still interests me are  the cultural assumptions about goal-setting that continue to get repeated, despite evidence they don’t work, and the counter-intuitive things that do seem to work. False assumptions could include, as mentioned in my other posts, that you have to write your goals down ahead of time or tell someone about them in order to achieve them, or thinking things should take less time than they do, or that our schedules are more flexible than they are.  And things that do seem to work would include quietly going about accomplishing even unexpressed goals that are intrinsic to who we are and what we want, and allowing the time things really take.

Also, since it seems that to attain a goal we have to really want it–not just want the outcome, but welcome the work and the process of achieving it–I’m interested in how to achieve that integration: how to be genuinely eager to work at a goal, rather than just thinking that we ought to want it. (That does make it sound like these are how-to posts, after all. But I’m exploring these ideas as I go along, rather than giving you a list of things I already know work.)

Should versus could, punitive attitudes versus optimistic ones, and fear versus love:

Recently on NPR’s news-quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” they quoted a cultural guide for foreigners visiting the U.S., and the radio contestant had to guess which of several statements Americans don’t sincerely mean when they say it. The correct answer–the thing visitors needed to learn not to take literally, was “Let’s do lunch.”

Similarly, my brother Tracy read somewhere (feel free to fill me in on the source, Tracy) that whenever we say “I should” do anything, the word “should” is a cue that we won’t do the thing mentioned. We use the word “should” whenever we talk about things that we think we ought to want, but actually have no immediate plan for how to accomplish.

This has made me alert (and self-conscious) when I find myself saying things like “I should take the kids to the dentist.” And when I tell someone “We should get together some time,” it’s made me feel guilty that there may be an element of insincerity to what I say. And I have sometimes been hurt in the past when I realized that someone’s repeated statements that we “should” get together weren’t going to translate into action.  But before I make anyone paranoid about casual figures of speech, I should say (and in fact, I really am about to say) that I’ve decided to be forgiving of myself and others about casually saying “we should,” because I know that I sincerely would enjoy spending time with people I say that to, even though I don’t always have a specific plan for how to do so, and even though, if I delved deep enough, I’d be forced to admit that I really might not have the time.

(By the way, I once heard Judith Martin give a reluctant, fascinating defense of American manners when she was talking about this book of hers, and I’ve been meaning to order it ever since. (And–since I’m discussing fulfilled and unfulfilled intentions–I did just stick it in my Amazon cart–but now I’m thinking I should (“should”) look for it at the library first.) One of her points was that what people in other cultures take for American insincerity stems from our need to spread ourselves thin in a large social circle, since Americans are so much more mobile than most people have ever been, and befriend so many more people. That made me feel a little better about my inability to keep as close to the many people I care about as I could if I had “but world enough and time.”) (If you follow the link to the poem those words come from, you should know that I’m all for being “coy” with men like that. But that could open up a whole new topic, but–no. Not right now.)

Dean just read the above and wanted me to point out that other cultures have their own linguistic “escape hatches;” for example in Arabic cultures they’ll say “Insha’Allah” (“God willing”) meaning that things might not go as planned and there’s nothing any mere mortal can do about it.  (And then I might add that the concept of Insha’Allah can be frustrating to Westerners, if they’re, for example, waiting for a paycheck.)

But getting back to the pitfalls of “should” statements, on the other hand I really do sometimes end up taking my kids to the dentist after several reminders to myself that I “should,” and I also occasionally follow up a statement such as “Let’s do lunch,” with a query about the friend’s availability. So I don’t suppose we need give ourselves an electric shock every time we say “should.” But if we listen to when we say it, it could help us identify times when we’re considering a course of action, but might not be ready to act. And it might also help us discover where a sense of duty or guilt might be intruding on or replacing feelings of interest and possibility.

Here’s another interesting tidbit from my mom: she heard about a study in which  people who asked “Will I [do such-and-such a task]?” were much more likely to accomplish the task than people who said, “I WILL do such-and-such.”  I guess expressing an idea as a possibility (“Will I?”) keeps one’s mind open to a question, whereas saying “I will” closes off the question and makes it sound final and accomplished, even though it isn’t really accomplished yet. Those are just my guesses as to why people behaved as they did, but it makes sense to me that asking, “Will I?” would create a feeling of possibility rather than a feeling of duty. “I could do such-and-such; it might be interesting; I wonder what’s involved,” just sounds more motivating than, “I will (and “should”) do such and such, but I haven’t yet, and quite likely that’s because I’m a lazy good-for-nothing.”

Next time: punitive attitudes versus optimistic ones, and fear versus love.

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13 Responses to Goals, Part 3: Should versus could

  1. Rachel says:

    Lori Deschene, in an interview with Gretchen Rubin, makes the same point about the words “wish” and “hope” as you mention about “should”. It rung true to me, though I wish it didn’t. 🙂

  2. the MomB says:

    So interesting and useful, all of this.
    As I’ve thought about it since we talked, it occurred to me that asking “Will I…?” preserves one’s vital sense of agency. We’re less (or un-) motivated when we feel locked in, which is an aspect of your duty/possibility assessment. A very great part of the Sermon on the Mount, all that second-mile business and so forth, isn’t so much about service (I know, shocking!) as it is about feeling in control when we’re subjugated. Of course it’s also about practicing forgiveness, leaving retribution to God, cleansing our hearts–but all those things are also meant to give us the greatest possible sense of freedom. God’s interest in protecting our agency is profound. Partly because we can’t be fit to serve or give genuine service (full circle), or repent, or do much good at all, if we’re wasting our energy on, oh what are the words I want here–it boils down to being overly preoccupied with the letter of the law.

    • zstitches says:

      Thanks! Yes! If I ever got to it I was meaning to describe your oh-so-useful explication of the 2nd-mile principle. And along with that, another thing I may eventually get to, that I’ve been thinking about and thinking about, is that TED talk I linked to here:


      I tacked it on at the bottom of a math post, but it’s all about motivation, and I keep thinking about the principles of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as they apply to education, church service, and, well, everything.

    • zstitches says:

      And then the other thing that ties into all of this are the principles that a) the only gift we can truly give God is our will, b) true conversion (change) happens when we have “no more desire to do evil, but to do good continually” (https://lds.org/scriptures/bofm/mosiah/5.2?lang=eng#1 Mosiah 2:5) and c) the greatest freedom comes from submitting our will to God’s, which allies us with real power and goodness.

  3. Lili says:

    Excellent post. I’ve heard you vocalize some of these points, but it’s fun to read your written articulation on these themes.

    I have to laugh to myself, though, because here’s what I thought about as I read your post: What with being sick all winter and being set back in terms of productivity, I’ve been waffling a lot about whether I “should” at least try to get my MFA application in at the U, even if I didn’t get one in anywhere else, or just not worry about it and move on to whatever’s next for me. Well, I waffled a lot, and the due date came and went… (and I can’t help but feel a bit of guilt)

    But it’s good for me to recognize that a large part of why I felt like I “should” was attached to guilt and fear etc. I’m not sure if I _want_ to attend the U for an MFA, but I’ve also felt like I should (there it is again) at least open that door, so that I could (haha) at least have the option of starting classes come autumn. If I’d been certain I wanted to get in, I probably would have been more aggressive… (BYU, Telluride, West Dean, finding internships in London, meeting deadlines for clients and even, albeit just barely, my thesis–I met those deadlines, right?)

    What I have been doing, though, is starting to get my portfolio/artist’s resume, letters of intent etc together (even thought the deadline passed)… which didn’t help me with this deadline, but hopefully it will help me to be better prepared to meet future deadlines… You know, the things I “could” do…

    Sorry this turned into a “help me figure out my career” comment 😉

    Anyway. Very interesting stuff…

  4. Mrs. Organic says:

    I think “should” is just another way of saying “in an ideal world we could or would, but sadly, it’s not, so….yeah. But wouldn’t that be great?”

  5. Laura says:

    I figure I will get to all my shoulds in my 40’s and 50’s. So Zina, can we go to lunch in a couple years when our lives slow down? Cause I REALLY do want to have a cousin visit on a regular basis……

  6. Acheté says:

    Interestingly, it is only after some recollection that I vaguely remember having said that. No memory of where I read or heard it—I might have just been making the observation that linguistically it can carry that connotation. I should try to look it up …

    Interesting, because it means that I apparently inoculated a mental tic in you while remaining an unaffected carrier. Sorry. By way of forgiving yourself (and others), there are ways to mentally recast the same words more positively, often in a way closer to the original meaning:

    “should”: “Barring unforeseen complications, it can be expected.” The train should arrive at 6:00. That should work just fine. We should get together; how could we not?

    “wish”: Okay, this one’s harder. “I wish you would listen” is hard to redeem, killed by the conditional mood. When did we lose such faith in wishes? “What did I wish for? If I tell you it will come true: I wished for your listening ear.”

    “hope”: “I have every hope that …” I hope they call me on a mission. The righteous can hope for a place in the kingdom. I hope he gets home when he said he would, and that hope calms me down.

    “will”: “It is my will that …” I more than just want it, I will it—so it will happen. Ask me just how much I will do such-and-such; I am highly motivated.

  7. Jen says:

    I enjoyed this post, and I am really glad you linked to that poem. I just finished The Time Traveler’s Wife, and while I read it I thought, “I should look up that poem.”

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