Enough With The Shoulds

I’m looking at a word scratched in lime green on our office white board:


I had written it earlier in the day after feeling closed in by conventions and “shoulds.”

  • You should get your book back in print.
  • You should have a 3-day event.
  • You should create a new class.
  • You should offer workshops again.

You know how it happens.

©Christine Gedye, Begin Again. Oil on panel, 20 x 20 inches. Used with permission.
©Christine Gedye, Begin Again. Oil on panel, 20 x 20 inches. Used with permission.

It starts with a voice that comes from a position of authority – a coach, mentor, author, or blogger.

Suddenly, you think you have to drop everything and tackle the latest should-bomb hurled at you. (scene: violent internal struggle)

The biggest should on my list every week is to write this newsletter. I am proud that I’ve written and sent it every week, without fail, since March 30, 2002.

But there’s no heart in it if I’m just doing it because I don’t want to break a streak. I’m more interested in sharing juicy material when I have it than in maintaining a record.

Someday soon you won’t get this email in your inbox on a Thursday. You may not get it at all one week. I’ll still be here, but I will be trying on a new story to see if it fits.

What’s Your Should Story?

What are you doing only because you’ve felt that you should do it?

Maybe you saw other artists doing it and thought you should do it. Or perhaps you read the advice on one of those authority sites – maybe even this one.

The “s” word may have never been used, but it doesn’t matter. You now feel guilty because you’re not doing it.

As an artist, the only thing you should be doing is making art.

©Mary Ahern, Bayard Breezes. Mixed media, 24 x 20 inches. Used with permission.
©Mary Ahern, Bayard Breezes. Mixed media, 24 x 20 inches. Used with permission.

If you want to sell that work, it’s a different story. There are other things that you must do.

For example, you have to tell people that your art exists and that it’s for sale. How you do that is up to you. Do you send emails? Post to social media? Mail postcards? Organize open studios? It’s your call.


Okay, one additional should for you: You should also be disrupting the status quo. That’s why artists are on this planet, and the rest of us need you to fill this role.

Help us see the world differently.
Force us to question our values.
Carry us on a journey that we could never imagine.

You’re unable to live your purpose when you’re wrapped up in shoulds, musts, and need-tos – when you’re following others without (eventually) forging your own path.

I’m not suggesting you ignore advice or instruction from others. I’m saying that a better approach than swallowing it whole would be to make it your own – just as you would a composition. Put your own spin on it.

©Stan Friedman, Triangle. Photograph. Used with permission.
©Stan Friedman, Triangle. Photograph. Used with permission.

What’s a different way to use the knowledge so that it feels right for you?

And perhaps a better question to ask yourself than “What should I be doing?” is “How do I want to be?”

Being yourself might be the peak of performance art. The ultimate disruption.


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64 thoughts on “Enough With The Shoulds”

  1. For the last year or so, I’ve been cleaning out remaining shoulds and cookie-cutter advice from my business. There are still some that linger. For example that you should try to stick to one subject on your blog. That is one I intend to get rid of after I get back in August.

  2. Totally agree! I hate that s word! And the should problem doesn’t stop with our art biz. Thinking we should is a major cause of creative block. Because as long as we’re thinking what we SHOULD do, we’re not thinking what we’d LOVE to do. And it’s putting love into our work that gives it its zest!

    I’m looking forward to the new direction that I sense you’re emerging into, Alyson!

  3. Victoria Pendragon

    Hmmm… so you write an article on the dubious value of “shoulds” and end it with “As an artist, the only thing you should be doing…”

    Just sayin’.

    1. Yes, that was on purpose. You should be making art. Without it, you are not an artist. I don’t mean every day. But you should make art. I stand by that, Victoria.

  4. Wow Alyson, this really hit home. I decided last fall that I was going to go to IAPS this year instead of doing the Summer Art Market. Then I decided I was not doing any art festivals this summer. It was a huge relief and freedom to just refocus and do some things I had put on the shelf that were becoming more “shoulds”.

    I know I SHOULD be doing more painting, but I have also learned over the years that it is OK to take breaks and spend time with family, doing things that need to be done and healing my own soul.

    I love Christine Gedye’s painting and title. Begin Again is perfect for me. No condemnation for what I didn’t get done or should be doing, but to start fresh everyday and begin again.

    Cherry Jeffs comment is spot on! May I share it? I want it posted in my studio too. 🙂

    Thanks for posting this and being real with us.

  5. Thank you for this, Alyson! So timely, for me.

    Yesterday, I felt a bit on edge all day. I had this feeling that there was something else I ‘should’ be doing other than making art. You know, like working on my website, applying to art shows, promoting myself in a dozen different ways. It was like a low grade vibration running in the background. However, I sat down to make art and finished 2 pieces!

    I had a bigger sense of accomplishment from that than from constantly trying to figure out how to sell my work. An added bonus was that a couple of good promotional ideas came to me while I was in the meditative space of art-making!

  6. Love the article and really timely for me as I struggle with jet-lag. Yesterday I “should” have watched lesson 2 of Creative Content Camp but I was too tired so I took a break instead. This morning I cleared my desk to mind map my practice. Should I have used the forms you so kindly provided for us? They felt a bit constricting so I worked on loose paper and designed my own form for listing story ideas and where to post them.
    The thing is, I knew that you would be ok with me not exactly following your instructions to the letter, so long as I actually get the work done!

  7. Oh Alyson, how do you always send timely advise? I have been dealing with shoulds and shouldn’ts for a while now and a shouldn’t is making me unhappy. I was given the advise (from an authority, not you) to stop writing my blog which was about my painting and teaching. “No one wants to read it and ditch the info about children’s art, it only confuses people, stick to painting.” So I dutifully stopped writing. But I miss it and I’m sitting here with a list of ideas and the beginning of a post, with the intension of starting again. Even if the writing is just for me, it’s seems important to my process.
    I’m grateful for your guidance. Thank you!

    1. I hope they delivered that observation much more nicely than “no one wants to read it…” I can’t fathom that that felt very good to hear. Don’t feel guilty about writing your blog, especially if you enjoy it. I work in marketing and content curation all. day. long. and all I wish for sometimes is for someone who really enjoys blogging! My personal take is that to hell with “no one wants to read it”. The internet is a big place. Someone might want to read it. And if you like doing it and you like to read it…then you’re someone.

      I’m all about telling someone the truth (and being told the truth) about work or strategies, even if it hurts but if you’re inspired to do it–do it. We need more people in the world doing things that make them happy, I think.

    2. Hi Larissa, The consultant I went to was very straight forward and not much fun. I removed everything she suggested to see how I would do. I have had some results but I have gradually added in lots of Alyson’s suggestions; a price list, getting to know people, genuinely complimenting them, sending notes. All things that make me a happier business person. Thank you for your support about my blog, some people did read it and I even got a few compliments; but you’re right, if I’m the only one who enjoys it, that’s o.k too.

    3. Pamela: Sounds like it would be lacking soul without it. There might be a compromise – if you can combine your art with the kids’ art. Tell us why you’re interested in it. That gives us keen insight into your approach.

      Larissa is right. “To hell with it.” Too many people are writing in hopes of attracting a specific audience and you can tell that there is no heart.

    4. Alyson, I read back on my blog, I can see that it’s more about teaching and creativity than my paintings, you’re right about my needing to explain my interest in the kids’ art. You’ve got me thinking about it in a new way. I’ll try and make it work and if it doesn’t I’ll have fun with it anyway.

      Thank you!

    5. Pamela,
      I’m very new to Alyson’s IRBIS program, but I feel compelled to chime in with a description of what I do for my writing and jewelry making.

      I keep a folder named ART BLOG on the desktop of my computer. Most days I put images from on-line, ideas for new approaches to design, etc, basically anyhting that feels creative in the writing side of my craft.

      I have intentions of publishing a book about a process of making my own materials for jewelry making that I can teach to others. I do not post my blog on-line. Up to the present time, it is solely for my own indulgence in reflecting on my concerns, goals, problems and successes.

      It is a great comfort to me that I have this record, complete with dates, images and any other data that may be used later IF I decide to use it in my book and/or an on-line blog.

      Why refrain from writing your blog. You may well be the most important and appreciative audience for it, at least for now. And if you do start your blog again, you would have plenty of resoures for it.

      Best wishes for your happy outcome.

  8. One “should” has come from my blog metrics since I started a genuine newsletter this year. I used to get FAR more clicks on my blog following a new post when I sent out a simple email notification (before I understood the opt-in step requirement). Now people appear to open newsletter but skip the blog link. (I do get blog traffic from other sources.) This has made me wonder if I “should” quit the blog writing I’ve been doing–although the writing is a huge joy to me, as it’s how I process verbally what I just accomplished visually in an art blanket. Then yesterday a woman told me, “I LOVE your latest blog post. I’m so glad you write about what you do! I was about to send it to my mom to read but she told me she had already read it–because she had subscribed herself.” My lesson: I may want to respond to my metrics somehow, but not with quitting 🙂

  9. I was wondering where my joy went! It’s been strangled by “should’s”! Thank you for this insight into breaking from the status quo and finding my voice. I’ve been trying to do it all with newsletters, social media and blog posts without taking the time to think what truly fits me.

  10. Excellent article! And such good advice, something I need to pay attention to. It’s so easy to get caught up in the “should”s!

  11. Thank you forever! I’m listening, i am here, waiting, getting ready, on my way to start again. It’s been 1 1/2 years of no painting. Doing some creative things here and there when I can. But other than that just listening. To people, you, my trees. The wind, life around me and realigning myself all,over again. Waiting for my brain to wake up just a little more.
    It’s coming I can feel it! Thanks again
    I was in a car accident and got a concussion that did a lot of damage. Long story short I can feel waking up. Who knows how I’ll paint now. It’s going to be fun to watch. Thanks for the no pressure. Because I cannot do all of those things!!!!! My brain gets too confused so………..
    I am now very simple… easy….patient….kind….happy…. and ready to accept even if my art does not sell anymore. It’s ok. I’m still me. I love your blog and your happy face. Shelly

  12. Good post, Alyson. Your own “should” resonated with me. The thought of preparing blog posts in advance so I have something to publish in months ahead feels terribly stifling to me. I decided that I will only write blog posts if I have a burning desire to share something on the spot. We’ll see how that goes. Thanks for the nudge.

  13. The trouble with “should” thinking is that it gets in the way of “do” thinking and they cause needless guilt. When we are feeling guilty we are using energy that is better used elsewhere, whether that is creating art, working on our business, being with our families, taking care of ourselves, etc.

    There will always be more “shoulds” than we have the time and energy to deal with, anyway.

    This is true for other fields and other aspects of our lives as well.

    Thank you.

  14. This is a great post and one I’ve written about myself (http://www.unravelledonline.com/burn-should/) because it’s something I struggle with. I “should” be in studio. I “should” be sending out an email. I “should” be trying to grow my facebook following. I “should” be making art that is challenging and not pretty.

    I hate it. I hate the word. So we’ve been actively trying to burn should in our house. Another way we phrased it was “get rid of intractable problems”. So if it’s been on a “should” list for a while and hasn’t gotten done…it probably won’t. Get rid of it, reframe it, do something but don’t feel guilty about it because you’re not doing it.

    Anyway–well said and I look forward to the new iteration of your mailing list (c:

  15. Thanks for this post, Alyson. It backs up my decision earlier this week when I said no to two opportunities which didn’t match up with my goals. It can be hard to say no when part of you is saying “maybe I SHOULD do it”. Well, the should didn’t win, and your post made me feel even better about it! Excellent.

  16. Echoes from the Past

    I had a previous career before turning to my artistic career. It was in mental health. Back in the 1980s, a poster hung in many therapists’ offices. It showed a very sad person. The text read, “I will not SHOULD myself today.” I’ve always thought it was very good advice and applies here. Just a thought!

  17. This year I decided to not participate in our annual Open House Weekend, even though I felt I “should”. What a feeling of relief. I immediately was free to paint what I wanted without worrying about producing enough to have new stock for the weekend. I’m using the extra time (no committee meetings, proof reading brochure, etc.) focusing on selling year-round from my studio.

  18. Alyson, love that you lead by example. Over the past three years that I’ve followed you, your advice has been spot on – by setting goals and boundaries, we can deflect “shoulds” and stay focused on our individual plans. High five on YOUR continued growth, too.

  19. Oh Alyson,
    This newsletter was so refreshing. Not shoulding myself was taught by a mentor years ago, however somehow it seeps it’s way back in to my life. I appreciate the reminder. Now that I have moved again (hopefully for the last time in many moons) and setting up my studio I have your shared thoughts spurred in my mind and what perfect timing, about not keeping things that were for old art ideas that have long passed. I needed this! Your “why we are on this planet” hit home. I’ve a new freedom to embrace.

  20. I had my should moment last year when I didn’t know what to do. I saved the money to take part in the Art Career Success System and found inspiration. So a big thank you from me Alyson! Life has become exciting again.

  21. Beautifully said, Alyson. I have struggled with shoulds all of my life which is probably what kept me from creating some art for many years. Now that art is my business, I still struggle with the shoulds and it is still something that keeps me from making heartfelt art. Thank you for the topic! I will bolster up my boundaries to protect me from the hundreds of shoulds so I can make art!

  22. Hi Alyson,

    Loved this. With a family, occasional teaching, a blog that needs work, commitments right, left and center, I could get lost in shoulds. My husband and I say “shoulda, coulda, woulda.” Even the fact that we “should” be painting is a should. Sometimes we can’t. All kinds of events and obligations, both great and not so great, get in the way. And what we “could” do is love ourselves enough to know that we do paint, will paint, and can give ourselves slack whenever we need it. I think that is everything. When I taught positive psychology at a community college I discovered that one of the things holding students back from being creative was the word “should.” You are so right. Almost all of the shoulds come from someone else. So the answer is to love what you do, and do it as much as possible. One of the things I love is reading your work. And anytime you need a break I am 100% with you.
    XOXOXOXOXO Barbara

  23. How interesting to find this idea dropped into my inbox! I got so wound up with all the shoulds that I dropped every one of them to concentrate on just making better art. Since May I’ve barely been on social media. I feel a bit guilty dropping my blog and newsletter. I’ll probably pick them back up after a while, but for now I’m excited to just be hunkered down with some new ideas I’m trying out. All I need to do now is let my collectors know that I’ve just gone out in the desert for solitary concentration and will ultimately bring them a better product.

  24. Wow! The “shoulds” I have been plagued with for the past few months have put me back so far in my creativity. I have been working to help build a classic car by doing a painting on the skin plate in high temp paint – a new medium for me. Then making a dash pad in naugahyde with complicated stitching. I kept telling myself as soon as these projects were finished I could get back to my artwork. When new projects come up I am now going to forget the shoulds and just go with the art I want to do and not feel guilty.

    I have always wanted to have a blog but didn’t know where or how to get it started. Where and how does an artist start a blog? I don’t think of it as a should but a do. A blog might help me to straighten things in my mind when I’m stuck.

    Like others have stated, your “shoulds” letter is timely and spot on. Thank you, Alyson.

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