The Difference Between “Can” and “Should”

I’ve always had a pretty big problem with this one.

As soon as somebody says, “You can’t do that,” my immediate instinctual reaction is as follows: “Oh yeah? Just you wait.”

Every. Single. Time.

This has served me well countless times over in my life. I’ve taken on projects that maybe felt impossible, I’ve figured out how to get into places that were apparently closed-off to me, and I’ve brainstormed thousands of solutions and workarounds to any little problem that I fixate on enough to care about. To be quite frank — it’s motivating to me. If I was always told I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, life would be a little less fun.

Let’s be real: The fun is in the friction.

But there are two areas where this “can challenge” comes back to bite me:

Scenario 1: I think I’m hearing “You can’t do that,” when really they are saying, “We literally could not care less”

It’s good to respond to a direct challenge. It’s bad to treat everything as one.

Sometimes I’ll interpret an idle glance, question, or passing thought as the start of a new challenge. This is hugely problematic. Think back to the days of the TV show, “How I Met your Mother” and you’ll understand why. The character Barney Stinson is constantly looking for ways to up-level his own game and show off to his friends, himself, or both. Any time a passing thought strikes the friend group — say, “Nobody could ever pick up a girl wearing that shirt” — he launches himself into competition mode: “Challenge Accepted.”

In the real world for people like me, these challenges aren’t quite as obvious as Barney’s pub games. (Though, I’ll admit: It sometimes is. Back in college, I essentially forced my friends to “challenge me” to eat an entire box of spaghetti in one sitting. Why? I wish I could tell you.) Instead however, I’ll make inferences about micro-challenges about people all around me. It doesn’t matter the context — on the subway, in a class at the gym, at the office. In whatever situation I’m in, I’ll things from the benign (“You can’t possibly carry all of that”) to the abstract (“You can’t keep up”). And again, while this can be a way to continually push myself to do more, it also means I’m basically constantly using all of my reserve challenging and competitive powers. Leading me to…

Scenario 2: I don’t consider the opportunity cost of whether I “should” do that thing.

There’s “can” and there’s “should.”

I’m not talking about the greater moral or the ethical “should” here. I like to think I’m not going around taking on challenges simply in order to spite other people, break systems, or wreak havoc on the world around me.

The “should” I’m talking about is more personal and internal. “Should I actually do that thing?” It’s not about whether that thing should happen. It’s about whether I, as a solo human who is likely already over-committed on any particular day, should take it on.

In other words, I fail to ask myself this question: “What would be the cost to me doing that? And is that *really* worth it?” The cost to travel, for instance, is time away from home and less time to recover and restore for the week ahead. The cost of taking on a new project is less time to spend with friends and family. The cost to buying something really expensive is a little less money in your bank account for next time.

I can afford to buy that dress. But should I? Sometimes the answer here is “no.” But of course, this is often easier said than done.


Breaking out of the challenge loop

You might call this, “picking your battles.” But that phrase reminds me of things to argue about, as opposed to considering new things to take on. It’s occurring to me that the only way to get out of the can/should spiral might be to set clear action and oversight for yourself on a regular basis. Instead, I’d like to commit at the very least to “choosing my challenges” as opposed to letting them choose me.

At the beginning of the year, I set a New Year’s Mantra for myself (as I do every year) to “settle into your rhythm.” With this statement, I intended to spend time in 2019 looking to do more of the things that give me energy and eliminate the things that take it away. As we’re approaching the end of April, I’ll admit that I’ve really only succeeded about 50% of the time with this so far.

With any deliberate change, it takes time and trial and error to get right. But if you’re also stuck in a “challenge loop” of your own, I hope this helps you think about ways to reset a little too.


Originally published at Dry Erase.