Don’t “should” the small stuff
And other responses to my inner critic
Photo by David Perlman.
Hi friends and fans! How was your summer? Mine was pretty quiet. I found myself with more unstructured time than I'd had in a while, and though that can be lovely, it can also be disquieting. Was there more I should be doing to drum up work? I wondered. Should I be looking for different kinds of work? How should I fill the blank space in my calendar?
One day, as I mulled over these questions for the umpteenth time, I quite literally heard a voice in my head say: You wanted writing time? Well, this is it.
So I wrote. I made myself sit at the computer every day, and in a little over a month I’d finished a major project that I hadn’t been able to focus on when my schedule was fuller. Once complete, I sent it where it needed to go and settled in to wait for a response. (The publishing business moves at a glacial pace. I’m getting used to it.)
Then I had a burst of inspiration for a new project. I started writing; I fizzled out. I started researching; I trailed off. The summer came to a close. Now, faced with some more potential writing time in the coming weeks, the critic in my head is beginning to bully me.
You should build your audience. You should pitch to publications. You should develop that new idea. You should do some more research. You should write a new blog post. You should spend more time on Instagram. You should spend less time on Instagram. You should…
The life of a freelance artist contains inevitable gaps. They’re the days with no incoming emails, the weeks with no assignments, the months in which inspiration feels as distant as the moon. But it’s common knowledge that nothing will happen if you simply snuggle into your nest of laurels and wait for opportunities to appear. As we’re constantly reminded by the myriad of books, articles, columns, and social media posts directed at creators: if you want to succeed, you have to put yourself out there. Build your brand! Find a community! Create more content! If you don’t do these things, it’s implied, you’ll remain on the couch holding a tub of ice cream and watching someone else’s work on TV for the rest of your (truncated) career.
Of course, all of this advice has merit. But for those of us who’ve been around long enough to remember when trying to get published or produced simply meant putting paper copies of your work and/or credentials in the mail, the modern path to success, which zigzags through all corners of the internet, can be daunting. There’s so much one should be doing, it’s hard to feel like you’re ever doing enough.
I’ve also come to realize that when one has been a professional performer, the “hustle” dies hard. As a young actor, I was told that I should do one thing every single day to propel my career forward. So I spent countless hours scanning audition breakdowns and self-submitting. I mastered the art of the Equity Principal Audition—rising before dawn, standing in long lines, rushing from one studio to the next—sometimes attending three or four per week. I devoted entire evenings to prepping for coveted callbacks. One time I even arrived in Connecticut for a visit to my family and had to turn right around and go back to New York because my agent had called to tell me that the producers of a Broadway show wanted me to audition for them the following morning. I always resented the implicit expectation that I should sacrifice my personal life in the pursuit of my acting career. But it seemed that was the price of success. So I went along.
There were times when all that hustling paid off. There were other times when, no matter how hard I tried to get work, no work came in. And that’s the strangest part about being a freelance artist: much of your time is spent in the pursuit of work, rather than the work itself—or, in the case of writers, in the pursuit of opportunities to share your work.
Ironically, though, I think it’s because we’re artists that we’re so susceptible to the message that we should be doing more to promote ourselves. Because our work isn’t just a job. It’s a passion, a calling, a part of our very being. It isn’t something we leave behind at the end of the workday, and for the most part it isn’t something that someone pays us a full-time salary to do. So of course we must actively seek out opportunities. But how do we do so without putting so much pressure on ourselves to do it right?
These days, I live my actor’s life at a much more measured pace, mostly performing onstage when people ask me to. But having shifted my focus toward audiobooks and writing, I haven’t been able to shake those pesky voices that tell me I’m never doing enough. That I should always be doing more. That I’ll never succeed in the ways I want to if I waste a single available moment.
On the flip side, social media is chock full of slogans extolling the opposite end of the achievement spectrum. “You are enough,” they assure us. “You’re doing your best. You’re doing better than you think. You are not your accomplishments. Congrats for just getting out of bed today!” Yet, these admonitions also contain implicit shoulds—or rather, shouldn’ts. You shouldn’t feel dissatisfied. You shouldn’t overachieve. You shouldn’t try too hard. You shouldn’t worry. You shouldn’t care.
I’d like to abandon all of these voices. To send them off in a little rocket to outer space. The only time I’ve successfully done that was in 2019, when I took a break from my life to travel around England for a month on my own. The best part of that journey was the complete absence of the word should. I simply woke up every morning and asked myself, What do I want to do today? And then I did it.
More Want, Less Should became my motto when I returned home from that trip. But real life is not a vacation, and over time I lost touch with the essence of that message. Four years on, I find myself once again trying to find that coveted balance between enough and not-enough, between should and want, between doing and being.
I was inspired this week by an interview with actress Ellen Burstyn, who said: “I have what I call ‘Should-less Days’…a day where there’s nothing I should do. So I only do what I want to do. And if it’s nap in the afternoon, or watch TV and eat ice cream, I get to do it.” Even after enjoying decades’ worth of success, she still feels the pressure to produce, to create, to do. But she’s found a unique solution. “I have wiring in my brain that calls me lazy if I’m not doing something,” she went on. “And that wiring’s there, I haven’t been able to get rid of it. But what I can do is I can put in another wiring. I can put in Should-less Days. So when that voice goes off and says ‘You’re being lazy,” I turn to the other wiring and say ‘No, this is a Should-less Day, and I’m doing what I want.’”
I’ve also been experimenting with what herbalist and wisewoman Robin Rose Bennett calls her “Simple Kindness Practice,” which she included in her book The Gift of Healing Herbs. “Substitute the word ‘could’ whenever you might otherwise use ‘should.’ For example, when you hear yourself say: ‘I should (take my herbs),’ change it to: ‘I could (take my herbs),’” she writes. “In the first sentence you are already judging yourself. In the second, you are offering yourself a choice, which is kinder, more truthful, and more empowering.”
So: what could I do to enhance my writing life? And, more importantly, what is it that I want to do?
Well, I could write a new blog post, I thought over the weekend. I’ve been wanting to do that for a while, but I haven’t known what to say. In casting about for a subject, I decided to take Pema Chödrön’s advice: start where you are.
So here I am. Right where I should be. In progress, in process, in conversation with my inner critic. Trying out a new motto: Don’t “should” the small stuff.
I'll let you know how it goes.
How does the word should show up in your life? Start a conversation by leaving a comment below.