There are two paths in life: Should and Must. We arrive at this crossroads over and over again. And each time, we get to choose.
Should is how others want us to show up in the world — how we’re supposed to think, what we ought to say, what we should or shouldn’t do. It’s the vast array of expectations that others layer upon us. When we choose Should the journey is smooth, the risk is small.
Must is different—there aren’t options and we don’t have a choice.
Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s our instincts, our cravings and longings, the things and places and ideas we burn for, the intuition that swells up from somewhere deep inside of us. Must is what happens when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own. Because when we choose Must, we are no longer looking for inspiration out there. Instead, we are listening to our calling from within, from some luminous, mysterious place.
Must is why Van Gogh painted his entire life without ever receiving public recognition. Must is why Mozart performed Don Giovani and Coltrane played his new sound, even as the critics called it ugly. Must is why that lawyer in his thirties spent three years writing his first novel only to be rejected by three dozen publishers. He honored his calling, eventually received a “yes,” and that is why John Grisham is a household name today. Must isn’t exclusively for writers and painters and composers, though. Must is why, in the early days, Airbnb sold boxes of cereal to make ends meet because no one would give them money.
Choosing Must sounds fantastic, right? To step into the fullness of our gifts and offer them up to the world in the form of our work.
Well, it turns out that choosing Must is scary, hard, and a lot like jumping off a terrifyingly high cliff where you can’t see anything down below.
Growing up in Texas, I had a vague idea of what it meant to be “called” — in the grand sense of the word — although I had never experienced it for myself. Moses was a favorite story of mine, because Moses was the last person on earth we would choose to lead thousands of people to the promised land. He was quiet; he had a stutter; and yet, Moses was called.
“Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before,” modern philosopher Joseph Campbell wrote.
Recently, someone asked me a question, “But what if I don’t hear the call?” he asked. “What if I want to hear it but I can’t? What do I do then?” At Mailbox, we adopted a well-known practice from Amazon to write our future press release. That’s right, we wrote a real press release about a nonexistent product — the one that we wanted to exist in the world. We envisioned the headlines. We dreamed of what would happen if all of our wildest dreams came true. We even taped it inside of a magazine and put it on the coffee table. Most of us do this kind of big scary dreaming with our products, or our companies, but very few of us do it with our lives.
Roz Savage, a management consultant in London living “the big life” was 33 when she sat down and wrote two versions of her obituary:
The first was the life that I wanted to have. I thought of the obituaries that I enjoyed reading, the people that I admired… the people [who] really knew how to live,” she says. “The second version was the obituary that I was heading for — a conventional, ordinary, pleasant life. The difference between the two was startling. Clearly something was going to have to change… I felt I was getting a few things figured out. But I was like a carpenter with a brand new set of tools and no wood to work on. I needed a project. And so I decided to row the Atlantic.
Must comes from somewhere deep inside of us, a beautiful truth that calls to us from within, Should comes from somewhere external, a place that’s equally important and powerful. Should comes from the place we call home, the people we love, the world we’ve created—the people, places, and things that define us.
It is here, standing at the cliff’s edge, peering down below, hearing the siren’s call, that we feel the terrifying prospect of abandonment, failure, and humiliation. And this is the exact moment when people decide against taking the leap — to avoid that great unknown, that transformative place where nothing is written, nothing is guaranteed, and everything is possible.
Grab a piece of paper and write the numbers one through ten on the left side of the page. At the top, title it “What am I so afraid of?” This is your Worst Case Scenario list. This is your list of things that make you think “They’re all going to laugh at me.” These are your largest fears, and you’ve got ten minutes to write them down.
Line by line, walk yourself through each one. Would they really laugh at you? They would? How do you feel about that? Line by line, have a conversation about all of your fears. Would you really be homeless? Would you really be alone? Do you really need that much money? This is a list of your tradeoffs. And they are the biggest things standing in your way.
"When you reach a crossroad in Life, take it."