‘Should’ is a four letter word

Is 30 the new 20?This morning I watched a TED video joyfully titled ‘Why 30 is not the new 20’. In it, clinical psychologist Meg Jay talks about the plight of indecision and nonchalance afflicting huge swathes of 20-somethings around the world – 20-somethings that live their lives in a comforting bubble of ‘I’m young, I’ve got time, I’ll do it tomorrow’.

That such 20-somethings then wake up at 30 lamenting those lost years, panic-marrying and diving blindly into any old career because they spent too long ‘seeing what would happen’, is not, Meg says, okay. And she’s right. But as rousing as that speech is for 20-somethings that do still have time on their hands, for those hurtling towards the big 3-0, it’s a hell of a kick in the face. And thus…


This bloody video comes at a sarcastically-relevant time for me, because like the case studies discussed, I too am beginning to feel the panicky sensation of life speeding up, when right now I just need it to calm the hell down so I can figure out what I’m doing. And at the crux of the problem (my ‘identity crisis’?) is a single word. Should.

Last night I read that the Independent’s new editor – Amol Rajan – is 29-years-old. By comparison, I should be much farther along in my career than I am now. Of course, there’s little point in making comparisons, but it’s given me cause to consider the job I do. Should I be doing something differently? Should I consider a different direction? Should I accept that freelance journalism is not a sustainable way of life and get an office job? Where should I start? Should, should, should.

Then, and perhaps more distressingly, is the fact that some 95% of my female friends have shacked up with their other halves (and given this blog’s readership there’s a very high chance you’re one of them). Again, I am rational enough to recognise that there’s no basis for comparison, but it makes me consider what I should be doing. My bloke and I are very happy living separately, but should we be living together? And if not now, then when should we consider it? And if we’re not living together by now should we be asking why not? Again with the shoulds.

The word pours into every aspect of imminent-30s life in a very toxic way. The ‘shoulds’ that presented themselves in my early and mid-20s were concrete and finite, with clear outcomes and consequences rendered irrelevant by the wonderfully intangible sands of time that lay beneath every question.

Now, the ‘shoulds’ are abstract, the outcomes uncertain and it’s the consequences that are concrete. Many (myself included) live in constant states of happy/unhappy: ‘I’m happy with my life, but should (there’s that word again) I be happier?’ Or, perhaps more damagingly: ‘I’m not happy with my life, what should I be doing to be happier?’ And for guidance, they look to others:

‘What is the control group doing?’

And if you’re not doing what the control group is doing then it’s very easy to feel like you’re trapped behind a pane of glass, watching everyone else skip merrily along with their lives. There’s momentum in you, but you’re not going anywhere, and the whole thing is worsened by the media reports and scare stories and blimmin’ TED videos promising definite misery if particular life objectives are not met within certain timeframes.

It’s time to ditch the word ‘should’.

‘Should’ is inherently doubtful. ‘Should’ is inherently indecisive. ‘Should’ paves the way for ‘maybes’ and ‘perhaps’. It’s kinda negative, really.

So forget ‘should’. Replace it with ‘will’, and ‘can’, both positive, hopeful and empowering words free of uncertainty: “What will I do…?” “What can I do…?” After all, Obama didn’t emerge victorious on the back of ‘Yes we should’, did he?

It’s no mean feat to entirely change the way you think about life – after all, we’re all subjected to damning ‘Big 3-0’ narratives for years and years before we actually get there, but it’s your choice as to whether you keep listening to them. It’s within your power, and the power of ‘can’ and ‘will’. Let those words pour through imminent-30s life. The only alternative to doing so is the ‘shoulds’ and the debilitating whispers of the control group, but if you’ve read this far, it means you’re already pretty sick of those.

Thirty is not the new twenty, no. It’s not the new anything. But it has come to represent some kind of invisible cut off point for joining the control group, or for doing the things you really think you should do.

But it’s not a question of whether you should. It’s whether you will.


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6 responses to “‘Should’ is a four letter word

  1. A wee note on the ‘control’ group: they’re more than likely an enormous flock of swans. Everything on the surface might look hugely serene as they glide from one end of the pond to the other, but you can guarantee that underneath the water, there’s furious scrabbling just to stay afloat…

    • Oh lordy, I don’t doubt it at all! I suspect this line of thinking applies to even those within the ‘accepted’ control groups, and that the ‘control group’ is in fact no social body but instead the fictitious result of worrying we’re not ‘up to par’ or aren’t ‘doing it right’ and so on.

  2. amyjonesuk


    I love that TED talk you’re talking about, but because of the ideas at the end (investing in your own life, doing things to be the person you want to be etc) and not the message that people “should” be sorting shit out in their 20’s so that their 30’s are fine and dandy.

    Okay, so, when I was in CBT, one of the first things that my therapist got me to do was look at my “I should…” thoughts and challenge them. And as soon as I got rid of thinking “I should…” thoughts and started focusing on my “I want to…” thoughts. And then when I looked at those and saw what was realistic and what wasn’t and started DOING the things I wanted to and could do, I became much happier.

    I genuinely believe that people should do whatever the fuck makes them happy and/or is good for them in some way. Sod everything else. And sod “should”.

  3. amyjonesuk

    Damn, errant “as” in second line of the second paragraph, sorry.

  4. Meh, throw the “shoulds” in the bin. Then refuse to empty the bin just because you “should”.

    Thing that keeps me going, similar to what Blonde said. Got kids? Never see your friends again. Bought a place? Interest rates go up and now you are eating Morrison’s savers coleslaw. Move in with your bloke? Have to explain what all the cotton balls are for. Become the editor of the independent? Everyone hates you and your circulation is dropping every second.

    • YES. Exactly this (except in my case, it’s kirby grips). It’s like salary – you only ever compare yourself to the people you think are doing better than you…

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