by Karen Cardozo
To everyone struggling under the weight of your New Year’s resolutions, I empathize and salute you!
Cynical as we academics may be, few can entirely resist the powerful turn of the calendar that pushes us to take inventory: to see what’s in stock, what’s expired, and what new items we need to bring into the warehouse of our lives. In so doing, we act “as if” we shape our own futures. True, many things are out of our control. But much remains within our sphere of influence. No matter how bad things get, there are still choices we can make. Speak or be silent. Apply or don’t. Stay or go. When we assert our agency, against the odds, hope tweets.
Academe has multiple new years built right in. At the start of every semester, we have a chance to reconsider how and why we do things. Ideally we would take a moment to consider our big rocks—those priorities into which we most want put our time and energy. This allows us to focus on what we can control and change. When we feel most overwhelmed by our obligations, we need to identify the self-imposed burdens: the places where we have confused “I should” with “I must.”
Must = all the non-negotiables for which there will be stark consequences, such as when you don’t eat, pay your rent, or show up for work. But it also includes essentials that feed your humanity and sanity, such as creative pursuits or spending time with loved ones. Without these, you starve in a different way.
Should = negotiable ideas about the “best” way to live or work. There is no objective measure here; such prescriptions tend to be an unholy mixture of social pressures and our own insecurities. There is always a different (and possibly better) way to do things. So go ahead: change your mind about what you “should” be doing.
Must is the essence of WHAT we most need to have, do, or be; should is the nagging voice that tells us HOW to engage in our pursuits—it often means holding ourselves to unreasonable, unrealistic and rigid standards. Liberation beckons when you stop “shoulding” all over yourself and aim for flexible rather than dogmatic, good enough rather than perfect, genuine rather than impressive.
I leave it you to imagine the potentially freeing applications of this idea in your professional and personal lives (for example, in your teaching, domestic, or social practices). But I assure you, clarifying the difference between “must” and “should” might be the crucial difference between living YOUR life and someone else’s. So, instead of resolving to achieve particular outcomes in 2016, why not commit to a process of sifting out the musts, and letting the shoulds fall where they may?! In so doing, more fitting steps on your path will emerge.
We teach (or blog) what we need to learn. Now on the tenure-track, where I never expected to land, I am working harder than ever to tell must from should. In my current work/life context, this distinction does not map neatly onto the familiar hierarchy that privileges research and publication over teaching and service. Thus I am not merely reissuing the conventional wisdom to protect your time for what the academic hierarchy considers more “productive” pursuits (although that may indeed be something you decide you must do).
Rather, I am talking more broadly about the capacity to decide what is essential and what is dispensable in any given moment…to YOU. This may mean prioritizing a troubled student over a writing deadline, a campus event over a family dinner, or a meeting over yoga; in other institutional and personal contexts, it may mean exactly the reverse. Each of us will draw the line between must and should in a different place at different times, but to be able to live comfortably with your choices, you still have to draw the line. Only you know where to put it.
To the wonderful clients I’ve met through TPII, those yet to come, and all the readers I will never meet, I invite you to embrace your own little bird of hope in the coming year, small and fragile as it may be. Risk a whole new you—doing only what you must—and maybe you will eventually “shake your head in wonder/when it’s all too good to be true.” That is my hope for you.