Note: this blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts, and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. J. E. Sumerau is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. J. is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted. Zir teaching, research and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities, and zir creative writing, such as the coming of age novel Cigarettes & Wine, focuses on LGBTQ experience in the South.
The Dreaded Should
I should be working on Project X. I should be doing Work-Related Task Y. I should be preparing for Academic Meeting or Conference Z. I should be more productive in comparison to that person, goal or norm. I should be doing more in my work about that issue, problem, population or concern.
I should …
I should …
I should …
“Should” is a word I’ve heard rather often from colleagues in my career, 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 know are hardworking, incredibly talented, deeply committed and quite impressive by any measure 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.
I must 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 it — 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 one is losing a game 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. Why? Because the effects of such stress on people probably — and from what I have 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 as though nothing will ever be good enough. This is a recipe for negative outcomes, yet it is encouraged in the academy.
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 it all that well. But I wanted to talk about how these patterns 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, but in so doing, I am continuously struck by how powerful and damaging “should” can be in the current academic climate.
As such, I want to highlight here 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 as though you should be doing more, take a moment and instead ask yourself, “What have I done?” I ask this simple question all of the time when colleagues start talking about how they should be doing something. Universally, the answers reveal a lot of accomplishments. 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 have accomplished far more than they have been giving themselves credit for.
I also think we need to look at where the dreaded should comes from. Whether through comparisons to other people or norms within a given department or program, it tends to arise from the conditions of contemporary academic life — a culture that is focused on what you are doing next rather than what you have already done. People face serious concerns about, for example, job security; time for lovers, friends, family and self-care; and deadlines tied to advancement or even landing one of an increasingly small pool of decent-paying jobs. Such 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 a) is never quite good enough, b) should be constantly working toward something new to set oneself apart or meet some (often vague) requirement for a job, tenure or other potential source of stability and c) 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 will 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 have 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 the right now people miss due to these patterns. What might academe be like if we were encouraged to celebrate the present moment instead of wishing for the future? What might it be like if we came together against the broader cultural patterns that create such conditions? Until those conditions can be changed, I also wonder what little things each of us can do in our own lives to ease the dreaded should we face and help to lessen the negative consequences of such patterns.
I am 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 that 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 that we should talk about such 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.