Want, should, will

While spelunking my network of assumptions, I often find it helpful to understand what animates my actions. What are the underlying stories that shape how I behave? Over time, I ended up with this simple framework of sorting my stories into three buckets: want, should, and will.

The “want” is the bucket where cravings and aversions live. “I want ice cream. I don’t want to be alone.” The “want” forces are lightning quick. They’re here before I know it, impulsive and somehow innate. “Wants” feel urgent and important, yet they are indiscriminate: there are many specific ways to satisfy them. Ice cream might be swappable for reading a fun book.

The “should” bucket is occupied by stories learned from experience. “I should put away the food before it spoils. I should be a good neighbor.” The “should” stories represent my understanding of the rules that make the world go, identities imposed or uncovered. “Shoulds” feel rigid and immovable, but they are also full of errors and gaps. Some of these were learned very early in life and encased in the amber of my mind. The lack of subtlety in “I should be nice to others,” if left unexamined, can quickly get me into the trap of insincere manipulation.

Finally, deliberate and persevering stories fall into the “will” bucket. “I will work extra time to finish the task. I will do push-ups every day.” The “will” stories feel like exercising agency.  Here’s where I need to pay special attention. More often than not, these stories are animated by other stories. Looking at “I will study hard for the exam… because I should be a good student” reveals that the seemingly deliberate choice to study (will) is animated by conforming to an identity (should). Whenever I find that a “will” is animated by a “should” or a “want,” there’s a chance that I am deceiving myself. There’s less agency in that causal chain than I’d like to believe.

This framework helps the most in situations where I feel stuck or caught up in a vicious cycle. Taking a quick breather and labeling the stories, I can turn each over and apply a corresponding move: discern the animating story behind the “will,” swap for a different outcome in a “want,” examine a “should” to enrich it with subtlety. Each move has potential to open up my option space even in seemingly hopeless situations.

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