Last week, at a reading in Seattle, WA, a young woman who’d recently graduated from none less than Harvard, raised her hand: She and her girlfriends had been so thrilled when they were accepted to the school whose name is virtually synonymous with overachievement, accomplishment, and success, she said, “it was like, this is what we’ve been working for our whole lives!” But now that she’d graduated, she had exactly zero idea what to do with herself. Having come of age when she did—in an era where children’s time is programmed to within an inch of their lives, when every activity is undertaken with the explicit aim of servicing the future—is it any wonder she was at a loss, once she found herself thrust out into the real world and left to her own devices to navigate a landscape utterly devoid of any clear path? “What are we supposed to do now?” she asked.
As it turned out, though, she was the rare 20-something woman who knew exactly what she wanted to do next. She came up to chat later and laid it out: Grad school for medival history. She said it with such certainty it left me momentarily speechless: this girl didn’t seem undecided at all! So what was the problem? “Everyone,” she said, “says I shouldn’t do it.” In other words, the problem was this: she wanted something a little bit different, a little outside the culturally-approved norm, and hadn’t yet found a way to trust herself, to go for it, to escape what we like to call the tyranny of the shoulds.
That’s no small task, mind you. Tyrants, after all, are notoriously tricky to oust from power. And the shoulds are seriously entrenched: There are the big bad societal shoulds, of course, and there are also the shoulds you hear in your best friends’ voices, your mom’s, your significant other’s. TV and magazines remind us we should be thinner, happier, and sexier, while our doctors remind us we should sleep more and eat less frosting. And we give the nay-sayers the power—they’re the ones we affix with the name “everyone.” Rather than cueing the voices of our supporters—and surely, there are some—when we’re feeling a little doubtful, we call up the voice of “everyone,” which sounds so much like the voice of our own self-doubt, so damn familiar, it’s tough not to use as your go-to guide. But perhaps we might tune in a bit more, and see if we can hear the voices of everyone else. Search out our yay-sayers. They’re there.
It’s tough, of course, especially for women who’ve been bred to please, to go against the conventional wisdom “everyone” seems to believe. But that might be the surprising upside: knowing how hard it is to buck the “Shoulds,” how much easier it seems to just stick to the program—well, if knowing that and despite it our deep-down self continues its yammering about medival history or whatever – that’s an awfully powerful indicator that it’s our real voice we’re hearing. And that’s the one voice everyone should listen to.