How Early Do Your Students Trade Must for Should?


It looked like it didn’t belong. That’s what caught my eye. The cover and the binding were too artistic, especially compared to the traditional hardcovers stacked neatly nearby.

And those differences compelled me to start paging through Elle Luna’s book, The Crossroads of Should and Must

Oddly enough — though there isn’t a single person’s photo in the book — I began to picture the faces of students I’d taught. I also remembered our conversations.

That’s because these young people had been at the crossroads that Luna describes. They were choosing between what they felt compelled to do (their Must) and what they ought to do (their Should). They could pursue the electives, the extracurricular activities or the summer work they loved or they could make the smart choice, the one everyone claimed they wouldn’t regret.

Most decided to prioritize Should over Must and, for many, that’s when the compromises began.

Should vs. Must

And those are the compromises and the choices that Luna contests. As someone who spent a lot of life living her Should (she’d been a successful designer at Mailbox, Uber and IDEO), she shares what happened when she decided to live her Must (check out her interview with Debbie Millman on Design Matters).


Luna never says it’s easy – in fact, she explores all the reasons it’s not – but she does make a compelling case for why it’s essential. To clarify, here’s what she has to say about Should:

Should is how other people want us to lives our lives.

It’s all the expectations that others layer upon us. Sometimes, Shoulds are small, seemingly innocuous, and easily accommodated. . . . At other times, Shoulds are highly influential systems of thought that pressure and, at their most destructive, coerce us to live our lives differently.

When we choose Should, we’re choosing to live our life for someone or something other than ourselves. The journey to Should can be smooth, the rewards seem clear, and the options are often plentiful.

And here’s the thing. As human beings, we’re designed to learn and to connect. Should stifles those natural tendencies. That’s where Must comes in:

Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s that which calls to us most deeply. It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges and desires . . .

Must is when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own – and this allows us to cultivate our full potential as individuals. To choose Must is to say yes to hard work and constant effort, to say yes to a journey without a road map or guarantees, and in doing so, to say yes to what Joseph Campbell called ‘the experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.’

When Does It Start?

So that’s where the images of my former students came in. I thought about all the conversations I’d had with them as they were making plans for college and career. There were so many Musts they wanted to pursue and so many Shoulds that got in the way.

I remember a student forced to choose between a language course that aligned with his Must and a math class that served his Should. He was at the crossroads.

And when his guidance counselor made it clear he’d never be considered for the colleges he hoped to attend if he didn’t take the math class he loathed, he rationalized his choice.

I spoke with students who loved to write and act but who chose business, pre-law or pre-medicine. They opted for Should so that, some time in the future, they might get to enjoy Must as a hobby.

That got me thinking: If we looked for it, could we start to identify when our students trade Must for Should? Would we say something?


  1. Brittany Jordan on August 18, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    I would be the first person to defend taking a language class instead of calculus if it represented a personal passion. However, a lot depends on the context. Passion can emerge through getting really good at something—getting to a level where there are nuances and opportunities for deep engagement. Unless you are wealthy or have an amazing support system, getting the opportunity to become masterful in a field will require support in the form of a job, either because the job itself is lucrative enough that you can pursue your passion in spare time, or because the workplace facilitates mastery through PD and experience. Fast Company has a pretty good take on this:

    All to say that Shoulds can be incredibly rewarding and perhaps less heartbreaking than unrealized Musts.

  2. Gayle on August 18, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    Great comment, Brittany! Luna talks about this in her book – importance of earning a living to sustain and support Musts. She also talks about jobs vs. careers vs. callings. Interesting stuff. Austin Kleon does a great job of this, as well. Thanks for the FC article – eager to read it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts – imagine most of us are in that situation – not wealthy and must learn to juggle both.