The Power of Should

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Hi, I'm Andy Bernstein. As we go deeper into the skills involved in doing Active Insight on our challenges, one of the key skills involves using the word "Should." Sometimes people say that we just avoid the word "should"-- we're "shoulding" all over ourselves, and need to stop using this word. But I respectfully disagree. In fact, I think we can harness Should to be better parents, better partners, better leaders, and better human beings. To help you see why, let's start by understanding how the human brain evolved. Take a look at this graphic.


Historically, our ancestors skulls were much smaller than they are today. You can see here that millions of years ago, based on fossil evidence, the hominid skull was around 500 cubic centimeters. Today it's almost 1500 cubic centimeters. So over time, the skull tripled in size, and the brain inside the skull tripled too.

But the whole brain didn't grow proportionally. One part of the brain in particular grew much more than the rest. That part is called the neocortex, and it's the wrinkly outer layer that is so characteristic of human brains.


Humans don't have the largest brains in the world, but we do have the largest neocortex-to-brain-size ratio, and that means something. The neocortex is responsible for spatial reasoning, language, and abstract thought. Animals that don't have a neocortex don't have the same ability to think abstractly.

Imagine there's a lizard staring at a mirror. The lizard can see itself. It has immediate sensory perception, like all animals. But as far as we know, it doesn't have the ability to override its sensory perception and think abstractly. It can't think, "I should weigh less" or "I should be more popular."

A reptile's brain just sees things as they are.

Humans can see what is, but we can also see what isn't, what we think "should" be. "I should weigh less." "I should have more money." "My parents shouldn't tell me what to do." Many of us do this all the time without even realizing it because of our neocortex and our incredible capacity for abstract thought.

This ability to override the descriptive world of our senses with the prescriptive world of our neocortex has an upside. Reptiles don't create art or business strategies. So abstraction fuels our creativity.

But it also produces all the stress in our lives. Every teenager thinking she should be more popular, every spouse thinking that their partner should be more considerate — it's all a byproduct of this abstract thinking.

Now you might say, if we just see things as they are, wouldn't that make us passive and prevent us from driving change?

And this is one of the trickiest things to grasp about Active Insight and the paradoxical way we approach change on this site. The answer is a hard no. People who see reality as it is don't give up wanting to change reality. They become much better at changing it.

Let me give you an example. Let's take "They should see it my way," which you've done already. That use of Should is prescriptive — you think this person's way of seeing things should be different than it is. That's your neocortex at work, conjuring a fantasy of how this person "should" be and then trying to hammer that fantasy in place on top of them. What happens as a result? You feel frustrated, and they feel lectured to. So how helpful is your prescriptive Should at leading change? Not very.

But let's say you took the red pill. You challenge yourself to move your mind from the PREscriptive should to the DEscriptive one, and you start seeing the inputs that make the outputs happen — their past experiences, their influences and beliefs, your past actions. What you're doing is grounding your neocortex in reality and preventing it from leaving the Earth.

When we say "In reality, they should not see it my way at this time" really what we're saying is "They don't see it my way at this time." Those two statements are equal. They don't see it my way at this time = in reality they should not see it my way at this time, and until I see those two statements as equal, my mind is not fully seeing the truth.

But this is confusing at first, because your brain is so used to thinking abstractly, or what I sometimes call counterfactually. So let me give you an even simpler example to try to help.

If I drop a glass and it breaks on the floor, it should have broken on the floor. Why? It's made out of glass, the floor is hard, we're on Earth, there's gravity.

Am I just making up excuses or justifications? No. I'm seeing the truth. "The glass broke," and "In reality, the glass should have broken at this time" are 100% the same. I can change what happens in the future by making bouncy glass or cushioning my floor, but I don't believe that it shouldn't have broken this time. In reality, at this time, it should have broken. My mind is clear. Can you see that? Let's try another one.

Let's say it's raining outside.

"It's raining" and "In reality, it should be raining at this time" are 100% the same, and if I can see that, my mind is clear.

If I think it should not be raining right now, but it is raining, I'm confused.

Holding that confused belief doesn't motivate or empower me. It blinds me. The sun heats the ocean. Water vapor rises. Clouds build up. Raindrops fall. I can try to address the various causes and effects along the way, but if it's raining, I can see that in reality, at this time, it should be raining. My mind is clear.

The dynamics of this are always the same, but the level of difficulty changes. Almost everyone can see that in reality the glass should have broken at this time, but most people have a harder time with "In reality I should not weigh less at this time" or "In reality my kids should not listen to me at this time," and almost everybody would struggle if I were to share a level 4 or level 5 topic, and that's why we don't do those topics until we're ready.

But what we're doing here is learning to move our minds out of these stuck places, just like in yoga or physical mobility work you learn to move your body. And progressively challenging yourself to use Should descriptively instead of prescriptively is a big part of this.

Let me give you a more realistic example and you can see how your mind feels. Take "I should weigh less." You could argue that that prescriptive belief is motivating, but if we're honest we can see that for most people it motivates a one-way trip to shame and poor food choices.

So instead of thinking prescriptively, let's use Should descriptively, and say "In reality, I should not weigh less at this time," That is 100% the same as "I don't weigh less at this time." And of course I don't weigh less than I do at this time. Why not? Because I joined a gym and I don't go, or I eat for taste and comfort instead of nutrition, or I haven't studied how to break bad habits and build better ones. That's why in reality I don't weigh less at this time AND it's why in reality, I should not weigh less at this time.

This is not a value judgment. This is not an act of surrender, or a decision to be passive, or an attempt to justify or condone things. It's cause and effect. It's truth.

When someone believes that life should be different than it is at this time, in the language of Level 1, they experience stress. In Level 2, we see that it also affects their happiness — they push love away. In higher levels, we'll see how this also impacts their parenting ability, their family life, and their ability to lead change. The prescriptive Should creates a kind of prison for our minds.

That's when Active Insight can become a master key. By using should DEscriptively, you see your body, your relationships, your world as they really are. You literally come back to your senses. It's why this process can be so powerful.

It's also why this process is so counterintuitive and so hard. It asks you to think in a new way — or, you could say, in a really old way. You go against the newer parts of your brain that think abstractly, and return to the old parts that see life as it is. And paradoxically, by seeing the world as it is, you are better able to change it.

So when you do Step 5, remind yourself that we're always using Should descriptively, not prescriptively. And look for proof that supports it. You can do what I did in this video, and replace the Should in your head for a second, so that "In reality I should not weigh less at this time" becomes "In reality, I don't weigh less at this time," or "In reality, they should not appreciate me more at this time" becomes "In reality, they don't appreciate me more at this time" and then look for why.

But as you start to see why, put the Should back. Because what you want isn't to avoid the Should, which keeps it alive. You want to completely defuse it, and really to harness it. You want to see the truth fully, and then use that honesty and insight to lead change around you, with your eyes wide open — not as a reptile, but as a more compassionate and enlightened human being.