Why I Hate the Words “Should” and “Just”

I hate the word “should.”

I also hate the word “just” (as an adverb).

In my book, these two words are profane. They’re worse than any number of slang terms to describe the reproductive or execretory organs or their outputs. They’re shamey, they’re harmful, and they have no place in the vocabulary of anyone who cares about their own or anyone else’s mental health.

I would like to punt them both directly into the sun.

But here: Let me tell you how I really feel.

why i hate should and just

“Should”

“Should” is the Borg Queen of unhelpful words when it comes to mental or emotional health. It’s worthless because it describes a place you are not at. It describes a state of being that you do not have. By definition.

“You should get out more.”

“You should quit worrying so much.”

“You should quit drinking.”

…No, see, that solution is for a different problem than the one I have.

Think of “should” in terms of a map. “Should” isn’t where you are. It’s a different place than the place you are. Maybe that place is awesome! Maybe everyone wants to be there! But you are not there.

“You should get out more” in response to depression, or my all-time favorite “you should get more sleep” in response to insomnia, are exactly as helpful as if you were standing on Woodward Ave. in Detroit and someone said to you, “You should be in Chicago.”

Okay. Maybe Chicago is great. Maybe Chicago has everything you could possibly want or need. But right now, you are in Detroit.

Telling people about Chicago while they are in Detroit isn’t helpful. Here’s what would be:

  • Asking about their satisfaction with their current location. (“Do you like it here in Detroit? Would you rather be in Chicago?”)
  • Helping them identify the steps needed to get to Chicago. (“You’re headed east, and Chicago is west of here.”)
  • Working out a strategy to get to Chicago. (“You can get on I-94 and go straight there, or Amtrak also has trains that go that way.”)
  • Providing resources to help them get to Chicago. (“Do you have a car? Can you afford a train ticket?”)

The same is true when talking to someone who is struggling with their mental or emotional well-being. Saying “you should….” doesn’t help. If they were already where your “should” is trying to send them, they wouldn’t be struggling in the first place.

Instead, find out where they want to go, and see if they want your help to find ways to get there.

“Just”

“Just,” the adverb, often rides along with “should.” Whether it’s together or alone, though, it’s crap.

“You should just get out more.”

“Just stop worrying.”

“You just need to get more sleep.”

If a mental or emotional health hurdle has gotten big enough to negatively affect someone’s ability to function – and I guarantee you aren’t hearing about it unless it’s distressing them in some way – they’re already past “just.” “Just” is somewhere on the other side of the horizon.

If fixing it were “just” that easy, they’d have fixed it already.

To return to the previous analogy, if I’m standing in front of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on Woodward Ave. in Detroit, and I’m distressed by how badly I want to eat some Church’s Chicken, I can “just” walk two blocks and solve my problem. Walking two blocks is not a problem for me, so chances are good that by the time you’re done saying “you can just walk down there,” I’m already in line ordering my lunch.

But if I’m standing in front of the cathedral and nothing will satisfy me except a giant bowl of ice cream from Margie’s Candies in Chicago, telling me to “just walk down there” is not helpful. That’s a 273-mile walk, or about 90 hours, assuming I don’t get hit by a car on M-60.

Instead of “just”:

  • Ask how they’re doing. (“Are you hungry? Do you need lunch?”)
  • Find out what might help. (“Does chicken sound good, or are you in an ice cream mood?”)
  • Offer ways to get it. (“We can drive there, but it’ll take a few hours. Are you up for the trip?”)

I’ve been dealing with mental illness literally as long as I can remember, and one of the hardest parts of recovery for me has been eliminating the words “should” and “just” from my internal and external vocabularies.

They’re tempting to reach for in tough times, because they’re easy. They feel like helping without actually doing the work required to be present in the moment, to understand the problem, and to find and implement adaptive responses.

That’s also precisely why they suck.

 

 

 

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What I’m Reading: St. Lucia Day Edition

Folks of a certain age will remember St. Lucia Day as “that thing Kirsten got to dress up as in Kirsten’s Surprise.” Like so many holidays at this time of year, it involves feeding people and questionable uses of candles.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading during various seasonal Festivals of Lights.

Learning and Creativity

To Learn, Students Need to DO Something,” Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy

“Every day, for the most part, information is delivered to them in some really basic way—usually PowerPoint—and the kids copy down what the teacher tells them to from the slides. Then they have some sort of worksheet where they’re basically regurgitating what was on those slides. After this cycle repeats four or five times, they have some kind of test. And that’s it.

This is not good. If we want our students to actually learn the facts and concepts and ideas we’re trying to teach them, they have to experience those things in some way that rises above abstract words on paper. They have to process them. Manipulate them.

To really learn in a way that will stick, they have to DO something.”

How Exercise Reprograms the Brain,” Ashley Yeager, The Scientist

“Researchers have long recognized that exercise sharpens certain cognitive skills. Indeed, Maejima and his colleagues have found that regular physical activity improves mice’s ability to distinguish new objects from ones they’ve seen before. Over the past 20 years, researchers have begun to get at the root of these benefits, with studies pointing to increases in the volume of the hippocampus, development of new neurons, and infiltration of blood vessels into the brain. Now, Maejima and others are starting to home in on the epigenetic mechanisms that drive the neurological changes brought on by physical activity.”

Laziness Does Not Exist,” Devon Price

“I’m a social psychologist, so I’m interested primarily in the situational and contextual factors that drive human behavior. When you’re seeking to predict or explain a person’s actions, looking at the social norms, and the person’s context, is usually a pretty safe bet. Situational constraints typically predict behavior far better than personality, intelligence, or other individual-level traits.

So when I see a student failing to complete assignments, missing deadlines, or not delivering results in other aspects of their life, I’m moved to ask: what are the situational factors holding this student back? What needs are currently not being met? And, when it comes to behavioral “laziness”, I’m especially moved to ask: what are the barriers to action that I can’t see?”

No More ‘Struggle Porn,’” Nat Eliason

“Entrepreneurs devour this message like doughnuts at a WeWork because most of them are failing. I think Vaynerchuk would want them to hear “If I work hard at the right thing I can succeed,” but the message is easily misinterpreted as “if I’m struggling, I’m doing the right thing.”

I call this “struggle porn”: a masochistic obsession with pushing yourself harder, listening to people tell you to work harder, and broadcasting how hard you’re working.

Current Events

Why Did Fans Flee LiveJournal, and Where Will They Go After Tumblr?“, Heather Schwedel, Slate

“For as long as there’s been an internet, fans have used it to connect with like-minded fans, first through fledgling services like Usenet and email lists, and more recently, on sites like Tumblr and the fan fiction hub Archive of Our Own. … So how do they know when it’s time to vacate one platform and decamp for a new one? Earlier this month, Casey Fiesler, an information science professor at the University of Colorado–Boulder (and Slate contributor), posted her initial findings from a survey she conducted on the popularity of different fan platforms over time. Fiesler, who is working with graduate student Brianna Dym to synthesize the data for an academic paper, spoke to Slate about fandom migration patterns, whether anybody still uses LiveJournal, and where fans might be going next. ”

Do Not Let Tumblr Frame Their Adult Content Ban as ‘Positive,’” Miri, Brute Reason

“The disingenuity of Tumblr’s statement starts very early on, when they describe their position on posting child porn: “Let’s first be unequivocal about something that should not be confused with today’s policy change: posting anything that is harmful to minors, including child pornography, is abhorrent and has no place in our community.”

That’s nice, but if you don’t want this policy change to be “confused” with banning child pornography, you might try not instituting it in response to getting criticized for allowing child pornography.”

Gifting Holiday Joy

The 100 Best Pens, As Tested By Strategist Editors,” Karen Ioria Adelson and Lauren Ro, The Strategist

“We consulted a panel of experts, picked through personal favorites, and mined our own pen coverage to determine the top contenders. Then we called in and tested dozens upon dozens of gels, rollerballs, felt-tips, ballpoints, and fountain pens, and put them to the test. The resulting list is a ranking of the top 100 pens, according to Strategist editors and writers.

One note: A lot of what makes one pen better than another is completely subjective.”

Are We Doing STEM Teaching All Wrong?

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When I was in high school, 20-odd years ago, I remember hearing a family friend say that “our schools are preparing kids for the best jobs of thirty years ago.”

It was, of course, not a compliment.

It’s also not entirely untrue. The statistics in this article are sobering – less than a third of high school students nationwide graduate at grade level proficiency in reading and math, while just over a quarter manage to complete the 4-year degree that 93 percent of them say they’re after. Career and tech ed may not be providing actual job skills.

Preparing kids for jobs that don’t exist yet is a challenge. After all, 20 years ago when I was sitting in high school English classes, my current means of making money – writing tech content – didn’t exist.

In 2009, when I started writing content, the job was radically different than it is today. Back then, repeating “panda underwear” 500 times was the guaranteed way to show up first on a Google search for panda underwear. Today, the best way to do it would be to turn out consistently interesting 1500+ word articles on pandas, underwear, and the myriad connections between the two.

In response to the fact that it’s tough to prepare anyone for jobs that don’t exist, many schools have turned to simply shoving kids toward STEM classes and careers. “Go into STEM,” is the advice. “Learn to code. Get interested in tech.”

Okay, but why?

It reminds me of the dot-com bubble that hit just as I was leaving high school: if it had “.com” in its name, folks were lining up to throw money at it, certain that it would be the next huge thing. It had to be, right? It had “.com” right there in the name!

I see the schools I coach for treating STEM education much the same way. Don’t ask if it’s a viable business model; don’t ask if it’s at all interesting or relevant to their actual lives; just throw the kids in that general direction and everything will be fine.

Fast-forward to today, in which I just spent a few hours writing 1500+ well-researched, consistently interesting words on the use of technology to improve agility in the insurance industry.

My takeaway point after reading thirty or forty articles on insurtech and agility:

The tech itself won’t save you. The tech itself won’t do anything. The tech is a tool you use to get where you wanted to go in the first place.

And I’m wondering: What are we doing by pushing kids toward tech – and STEM in general – without showing them how to figure out where they want to go in the first place?

I had this problem myself as a teenager.

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As a kid, I owned an Apple IIGS. If you booted the IIGS without a floppy in the drive, it’d kick you directly to a blue screen of death with a warning message and a little flashing cursor.

The little flashing cursor would run anything you instructed it to, as long as you did so in BASIC.

For years I hated the blue screen of death and the little flashy cursor. Sure, I knew BASIC, but I didn’t know what I could do with BASIC. I’d been taught to use BASIC to program computers to solve math problems, which held less than no interest for me, since it was faster to solve the math problems on my own than it was to type a set of instructions to do it. Back then, I only knew I had to shut down the whole machine and restart it (a process that took approximately six geological ages) because I had forgotten to put the disk in the drive before I hit the on switch.

Then one day, when I was 13 or so, I realized: I could use BASIC to write text adventure games.

And I was hooked.

Throwing me in the general direction of the tech did not help; my IIGS was just a clunky gaming system to me. Throwing me in the general direction of coding classes did not help; BASIC was just a more elaborate way to do something I could do more easily in my head.

Nobody asked what I was interested in. Nobody ever thought to show me, the kid who regularly got yelled at for reading and writing fiction while she was supposed to be programming, that the technology could be used to do what I was clearly already into.

It wasn’t until I learned on my own that I could use these tools to do something I was already interested in that I even began to care about coding…and by then, I had so thoroughly associated coding with “useless tasks you are made to do by adults who don’t want you doing what you are interested in” that I never did pursue it any further.

So here’s my question: Why do we still throw kids at the tools?

Why aren’t we throwing the tools at the kids?

Why aren’t we encouraging kids to try everything they can during their teen years, so they can learn what they do and don’t like, and then showing them which tools can help them tackle both fun and not-fun tasks more efficiently?

I’m seeing a great many app developers take this approach. MIT’s Scratch assumes that kids like cartoons and shiny objects, then uses that as a way to encourage coding: here’s how to put the building blocks together to make the cute sprites do what you want. Soundation leverages an interest in music to teach basic theory in a similar way.

But I’m still seeing schools push “tech! STEM! coding!” with zero sense of application or purpose. It’s like watching teachers tell kids to “take a screwdriver class” or “get really into chainsaws.”

Sure, those tools are great – but very few people make chainsaws their life’s work. Most people are into chainsaws for what they can do. They’re into chainsaws because the chainsaw is, somehow, relevant to their interests or passions. It’s not “a thing you do,” it’s a way forward.

And if “showing kids the way forward” isn’t the definition of “teaching for the future,” it should be.

Image credit: jarmoluk at Pixabay; AppleIIHistory.org


Help an author/artist/academic out: buy me a coffee.

PUNCH THE SUN!: Maximizing Your Future Today

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Image: silhouette of a colorguard performer with flag, PUNCHING THE SUN.

This morning, I taught seven eighth-graders–none of whom had ever touched a flag before–how to drop spin.

As everyone in the colorguard world knows (and everyone else can deduce from seeing it done), drop spinning isn’t a World-class skill. In fact, it’s a fundamental. It’s darn near the first thing everyone learns to do with a flag. In the world of colorguard, drop spins aren’t so much PUNCHING THE SUN as they are TAKING A BREATH: you’re gonna do thousands of them just as a basic function.

These kids have a week to go from “never touched a flag before” to “can compete with the veterans in the high school guard” for six open slots on that team.  So why did I start with drop spins?

Simple: It was the ONE element I could teach today that would have the biggest impact on their performance one week from today.

Colorguard instructors put a lot of emphasis on the drop spin because it teaches a lot of fundamentals at once: pacing, hand and arm placement, muscle isolation, and (when done marching or while marking time) hand/eye/foot coordination and rhythm.  It also looks good when it’s together, which is why so many parade routines are centered on it.

Granted: I wrote their parade/tryout routine, so I know that it’s chock-full of drop spins. I’m also choreographing the fall show, so I know they’re going to need the skills drop spins teach.

I’m also not interested in wasting time.

Between coaching colorguard, taking on freelance projects for clients, editing several books a year for Autonomous Press (the first of my 2017 batch, Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamberis out now), writing a novel a year, and spending time with my awesome family, I don’t have a lot of procrastination time. And I don’t get any more time than everyone else gets (believe it or not, I also eat three meals a day, exercise daily, and sleep eight hours a night).

What I’ve learned to do is to use the time I have more efficiently, by asking this one question: What can I do RIGHT NOW that will get me closest to X goal?

“X” is always the goal in question, whether that’s increasing my freelance income, getting a bunch of newbies spinning together, tapping my creativity or expanding my readership. This morning, that was skipping basics like the 27 points in favor of teaching my new colorguard candidates how to drop spin. This afternoon, it’s going to be sitting down and writing a thousand words.

(For authors, “what can I do now that will get me closest to my goal?” is almost always “SIT DOWN AND WRITE.” The fact that “sit down and write” is also the hardest thing we do is not a coincidence.)

For solid long-term growth, start by setting your five-year goal. Write it in present tense: “I make $50,000 per year in book royalties.” “I have an agreement to turn my novel into a film.” “I am the director of a Scholastic Open-class guard that just placed in the top five at Dayton.” Whatever your goal is.

Write it on a Post-It note. Stick it above your desk. Or on your dashboard. Or on your treadmill. Someplace you’re going to see it every day.

When you have to decide how to spend your time–what project to do next, whether to say “yes” to an offer, and so on–ask, “Is this the one thing I can do today that will get me closest to my goal?” If so, get on it.

Ask yourself:

  • “If I could do only one thing today that would get me closer to my goal, would this be it?”
  • “If I can only spend 30 minutes today on my goal, what will get me closest to that goal in that short amount of time?”
  • “If I doubled my goal (make $100,000, turn two novels into films, direct a World class guard, etc.), what one thing today would get me closest to that goal?”

There’s a place in life for Netflix and chill–but to reach your goals, make sure it’s after you’ve done that One Thing.