I confess that I don’t feel like I’m working to my potential. And it makes me feel sick. I know the signs. It starts with me not being able to cope with my to-do list. It all looks too overwhelming. So I scale things back: I take out everything that has to do with starting a company.

The next stage of not living up to my potential is that I can’t read anything. I tried to read the New York Times magazine cover story about fixing a marriage. I can’t open it, though. The woman who is the author wrote about her own experience. Fuck. I should have posted about that.

I should have written the post about how our couples therapist fired us because neither of us seems to be capable of getting past our horrible childhoods long enough to connect with someone in a real way. He fired us but then I used my amazing negotiating skills to convince him to take us back and then I had a screaming fit in the therapist’s office and said he’s incompetent and doesn’t give us clear direction. It was a good moment, actually. Because now that I fired him, instead of him firing me, I am fulfilled in my need to ruin relationships with people all around me and I now I have space to let the Farmer get close to me.

Elizabeth Weil, from the New York Times magazine, will get a book deal from her piece. I will get a lot of comments from my paragraph. The comments will be: You should write more about that.

It’s true. I should. I should have a book deal, right? Don’t tell me that, okay? Because first of all I make way more from this blog than I would from a book, so why do I need a book? But I worry that maybe I should have another book because I won’t feel like I’m a real writer until I have a book New York Times book reviewers fawn over.

Should is a dangerous word. Someone once told me there is no word for should in Spanish. Is this right? Surely, though, there is a Spanish way to say I feel like crap because I’m not living up to my potential. After all, Spanish is the language of Catholic guilt. Should is the American way of putting ourselves down in the name of the need to impress other people.

I should be starting another company. Here’s why: I can’t stop thinking of companies. I have a community that is always receptive to my ventures, and I have tons of connections into mainstream media where I could market whatever I come up with.

Instead of all of that, I am homeschooling.

Oh. Please. Please God of Editorial Decisions stop me right now from writing about how sick I am of my kids. Let me write something poetic about the joys of parenting.

I am homeschooling because my job is to be a parent right now. It is such an incredibly boring job. As a whole, the job is enthralling and rewarding and full of joy. But day to day I could cry. Day to day I think, “All my interesting friends are sending interesting emails today and having interesting meetings.”

My kids have such fun days. They are my dream days. Private lessons in everything they are interested in. Reading for hours each day. Wake up with mooing cows, go to bed with star-filled skies.

Sometimes I think of taking skateboarding lessons while my son does. Or swimming while my kids learn racing dives.

If I really hated this life, I’d be changing it.

But all I want to do is write. I don’t feel like I should write, I feel like I have to write or I will die.

So the stuff I think I should do. I’m not doing it because I don’t need to, I guess. I guess I’m blogging because I need to.

I did an experiment last month. My traffic went down 50% because I didn’t do all the little things I usually do to keep traffic up (like write something to get on the homepage of CNN.com). I didn’t post very much. You know what happened? I made more money from my blog last month than I have in forever.

So my blog traffic is not that important. And it’s not that important to post regularly. Except that I have to.

So this is what I’m telling you: There is no should. There is no living up to your potential. There is just doing your life. You can’t do someone else’s life.

If we know our goal, and we know our life, and we are working toward it, then we never talk about our shoulds.

So maybe I can just focus on a single goal: being vulnerable enough with the Farmer to connect with him and get us back into couples therapy. Or maybe living up to my potential is giving my kids great days and giving my husband a good wife. And maybe all I need to do is write this.


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152 replies
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  1. Kathy Ver Eecke
    Kathy Ver Eecke says:

    As several have pointed out deber is the verb, but when you
    learn Spanish you're taught that it mean – €˜ought to.' Debe de X – I ought to X.

    "Ought to" is something Gomer Pile says. Along with "aww,

    I SHOULD start a business, change careers, end my marriage,
    live up to my potential. I should do very big things. I ought to take the trash

    You SHOULD give yourself a break; that's the real lesson to learn
    from Spanish. Sentences (formal ones) are set up to give the speaker a break.
    Se me perdio el libro, translates literally that the book lost me, not that
    I lost the book. That damn book.

    You should give yourself a break.

  2. Anna
    Anna says:

    You used to write coherently. Now that you’ve self-diagnosed yourself with Asperger’s, one can hardly follow a post without ending up down the rabbit hole. I’m very close to giving up on you, Penelope.

  3. VinceVaughnIsSuperSexy
    VinceVaughnIsSuperSexy says:

    Last night, Penelope, I was about to “rub one out” while thinking of you but just as I was getting started, the thought of your self-diagnosed Aspergers’ made me as uncomfortable as you are reading this. So I stopped, ate some frozen berries and laughed about it.

  4. Nukrisgo322
    Nukrisgo322 says:

    Hi Penelope!
    I have been reading your blog for a year but have never commented. I often don’t agree with you but your quote “Should is the American way of putting ourselves down in the name of the need to impress other people.” is really clever. I wholeheartedly agree! (Except I don’t think that thought is confined to American culture).

    Your point is one that is made over and over by nearly every self-help, spiritual, motivational book I have ever read. Check out this blog by Mastin Kipp: thedailylove.com.
    He likes to talk about how we “‘should’ all over ourselves”. You’re right in that feeling you “should” do something is stressful and counterproductive.

    I agree with Chris K that it sounds like you and your family might enjoy the opportunity to all learn together.

    Also, I recommend a book called “The Time Warrior” by Steve Chandler. He makes good recommendations for getting out of the kind of funk you are describing.

    My observation is that far fewer people care about what you do than you think, and they tend to observe your attitude toward what you do more than what you actually do.
    Hope this helps a little.

  5. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    In French, the infinitive form of “to owe” or “to be obligated to do” or similar meanings is “devoir” — exactly equivalent to the Spanish “deber.”  “Je dois” means both “I must” and “I owe,” and you get the meaning from context.  As a noun, “devoir” means “duty.”  Very strict, n’est-ce pas?
    But the French have another, more vague, way to say the same thing.  “Falloir” means “to be necessary.”  “Il me faut fermer la fenetre” means “I should close the window,” but it literally translates to, “It is necessary for me to close the window.”  (Or else the window will stay open…) It sort of makes duty a more remote thing.

  6. Gib Wallis
    Gib Wallis says:

    Penelope, since you said that your marriage counselor fired you and then you negotiated a comeback and then you fired him, I really want a lot more details since it’s a job allusion and you write so much about career.

    What were the reasons he gave for firing you? How did your exit interview go? How did you win a reprise? Can your technique work in the 9 to 5 world? When you fired him, did you tell him you were firing him but the door is open for networking with you?

    I’m a contrarian, so forgive me… Spanish isn’t the Catholic language of guilt. Italian is. Meet any East Coast Italian mother and you’ll feel like you’re talking to an East Coast Jewish mother, but with a louder voice, more gestures, and food that tastes good.

    Spanish is a little all over the map, both literally and culturally for guilting people good. Insular cultures refine guilt better unless they’re shamed based cultures like many Muslim cultures or the British.

  7. Kathryn C
    Kathryn C says:

    Just popped over and read your article on CNN about law school. I have a gazzillion friends who went to law school, and don’t practice law. I wonder what the stats are for people who went to law school and actually practice law. I’d bet not that high. 

  8. Aurian
    Aurian says:

    P – I have a lot of career ‘shoulds’, but I am trying to take your advice on reframing. 
    It’s simple and lame, but it’s a good visual to try to reframe my ‘shoulds’ by the cognitive/change triangle.  You know the one: thinking, feeling, behaviour (http://bit.ly/tvOrJo) where you need to change all three for the change to be complete.  I wonder if the order I move around the triangle is the same as yours:
    The thinking part is easy – that’s the should.  Change from being happy where you are to thinking you should change something. 
    Then the personal guilt starts the change in feelings, which eventually morph into personal anger at your own inaction. 
    Then, hopefully, once you’ve changed enough on each of those parts of the triangle, you eventually have enough oomph to move to the ‘doing’ part.

  9. dancinglonghorn
    dancinglonghorn says:

    This NYT Magazine article is 2 years old.  At first, I honestly thought it was an update as I remembered the original story.  But then I was sadly disappointed to realize that it was a recycled story.  Not interesting.

  10. DouglasC.
    DouglasC. says:

    I like your post today! For me it simply, we must be and strive to be the best version of ourselves. That means unconcerned by the comments of others and focus on that thought of us.Life is very short, between the cradle and the grave there is only one blow. Why not try to live to the fullest and feel satisfied with what we are and who we are. Thank you.

  11. Gloria
    Gloria says:

    Love your honesty, I used to write posts like this in my blog all the time and then just delete them or make them private. Now I know this is one of the keys to being a successful blogger, openness.

  12. Dennis
    Dennis says:

    If ya got to write, write a book on Home Schooling on a Farm, what works and does not work, the good and the bad. I think one of the reasons I like your blog is that you are so consistently random, which keeps things real and fresh.

  13. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    “I” “I” “I” An 856 word post. 69 “I” words used. About 8%. Your writing surely does not mask the problem here.

  14. clark
    clark says:

    wow did you fire the guy that edits comments or are you making a point? Has the stew of peurile sexual menace been bubbling away under the surface and we just didn’t know until you gave up? Point taken, blecch

    I think it’s natural for men to have sexual thoughts about ANY attractive woman, at the office, on the blogs, in the grocery store. Ordinarily we keep it to ourselves because duh. I am all for anonymity on the internets but I guess its cost is borne by the comments editor. Or had been, until the last couple of days.

  15. Adam Dudley
    Adam Dudley says:

    Sounds like a bad case of Resistance. Ever read The War of Art or Do The Work by Steven Pressfield? Those two books are my Bibles when I get in a quandary such as you describe. It’s really helpful to be able to boil down all this mental junk we experience under one umbrella term. Makes it not so scary and more manageable.

  16. Jean
    Jean says:

    Maybe you should focus on being vulnerable with YOURSELF and giving YOURSELF great days….some days that’s blogging, some days skateboarding or volleyball, and some days sex :)

  17. PrimoLED
    PrimoLED says:

    just part of being a parent, specially an old school parent that are devoted to their kids, not these modern ones that get controlled by their kids. never the less, still need some time out from the kids.

  18. C
    C says:

    This is the best post you’ve ever written! It also comes at a time in my life when I struggle with meeting my potential and feel very jaded. I also feel conflicted about how people in my personal life have interfered with my ability to be 100% at my job. I was a “good girl” who spent a lot of time reading and getting good grades and somehow until this year I still thought that past would translate into a perfect life. I could not be more lost.

  19. K. J. Southall
    K. J. Southall says:

    The whole idea of “living up to your potential” I increasingly find to be specious feel good, pat on the back, malarkey.

    We all have potentials, amazing potentials, for good and evil, nurturing and violence, lazy sloth and industriousness.

    Your life is here, and now, lived every single day. You have 24 hours, 10-14 of which are typically lived awake, and your “potential” is often a limit.

    A limit in almost a mathematical sense. When a light bulb lives up to it’s potential, in terms of the maximum wattage it can take, what happens to it? It burns out faster.

    The point is NOT to live up to your potential, it is to get as close to being best able to enjoy life while *also* being productive, in a given day, taking what it has to offer.

    This can be a janitor smiling at the sunset on his way to the car, going to another night of office cleaning, and savoring the PBJ sandwich he packed with him. And then doing the best job he can do, on a sustainable level, in cleaning the office.

  20. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I think you get a reprieve on the “Live Up to Your Potential” front. How many times have you done it, over and over again? And when you least expect it, you probably will find yourself doing it again. You’re probably doing it right now.

    As always, I love your work. And P.S. Happy Holidays is for the entire Holiday season, including Thanksgiving and New Years, so no, it’s not a substitute or synonym for Merry Christmas. It’s the more fun expression for these times!!!

  21. pfj
    pfj says:

    Penelope –

    Years ago, when I left a months-long temp job (as a paralegal), the secretaries took me to lunch. Toward the end of the lunch, someone asked if I had any advice for them.

    I did, and I still think it’s really excellent advice: all mothers of less-than-teenage but more-than-toddler kids should work part time. (Away from home, or in a home office away from the main house.)

    You need a separate office. And you need to not be doing home schooling all day, every day.

    You could write for 4 hours. And (even including meals sometimes, and dish-washing times) you could manage to do home schooling for about 4 hours.

    But about your writing, remember Virginia Woolfe:

    ” . . .a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”

    I think that should be broadened to “if she is to write.” And maybe the same requirement is true for men.

    You’ve got the “hvae money” part of it taken care of — but only if you manage to get the writing part figured out.

    You write because you must write, in the same way that painters must paint and musicians must make music. No choice.

    Might as well figure out a separate space and “work part-time” — I promise you it’s a great antidote to balance the time with kids.

  22. pfj
    pfj says:

    About the question of what you “should” be doing . . .

    Perhaps if you use a different way of expressing that?

    Try this: instead of thinking about what you should be doing, ask yourself why you are here on this earth.

    I an no fan of religion(s), and this is not a religious question. But some people definitely have a purpose; they know it, they feel it, and sometimes it takes many years to discover what it is.

    Although some people find it or know it very young.

    When I was in high school, I knew a girl who was just born to be a painter, a boy who was already a professional concert pianist, a boy who discovered physics (in junior high).

    All of them were born to those things, and they are still doing them.

    I was born for something else and I’ve spent most of my life learning about it, and what it is. And now I’m beginning to actually do it.

    You were born to write. And to write about some field or topic. Only you know, or eventually can know, what this is.

    Figure it out. All of the ‘shoulds’ may become easier if you have that broad field of view for perspective.

  23. Olga
    Olga says:

    Just like you sighed seeing the NY Times write up I sighed when I read this post but not because I wanted to pitch for a book) I find lots of comfort in reading these posts of yours with ramblings but always making sense.

    “Should” things are often times those which are easier to present to the outside world – they are tangible trophies. “Should” is a kind of “go-getter” guy. Specific bar, specific effort, specific result achieved.

    Homeschooling and being a wife are less visible and tangible. They are “why” guys. It’s interesting that it does not take less intellectual capability or time than, say, running a company but you can’t really brag about being a good mom or wife. You can only hope that you are appreciated as one. You don’t “go and get it”: you just keep giving and maybe at some point you will be rewarded. But when you are it feels much more real than all the should-go-getting stuff because the reward comes to you like a little blessing. And at that very moment you think “This is why!”: the “why” may be not very visible to the outsiders but very obvious to you. What matters is not “should” but “why”.

  24. Ron
    Ron says:

    Skateboarding lessons? Kids learn to skateboard by hanging out with their friends, watching them, and trial and error. I can’t help but wonder whether skateboarding lessons are a downside to homeschooling.

  25. Lea
    Lea says:

    An advissor of mine in high school once gave me this magic sentence: “Don’t should on yourself.” It has stayed with me for more than 20 years, and it’s a good one to live by. You’ll get there.

    And as for needing to write or you will die – well, welcome to writing for a living. That’s why writing is like opening a vein and bleeding on a page (be it paper or web). You’re doing what you need to be doing. Now see if your high-achieving brain can handle it.

  26. Jacob
    Jacob says:

    I didn’t even know your blog had ads until I paused Adblock in Chrome after reading this. How long do you think before ad-blocking plugin critical mass is reached and the banner ad business model falls apart?

  27. Christy
    Christy says:

    I don’t care for the word “should” myself, it connotates someone looking at you with judgement. Just concern yourself with what YOU want to do! I liked the post.

  28. Canovals
    Canovals says:

    … and then you reach retirement age and you can finally shuck all the shoulda wouldas and sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep

  29. Phenom
    Phenom says:

    Thank you so much for this blog post.

    I just left my short 2-year marriage that never lived up to its potential. Probably because I “should’ed” myself right into the marriage in the first place thinking that I “had to” do this, “had to” do that and we “had to” blah blah blah (and at the time, those thoughts where obviously — I should do this, and I should do that and we should blah blah blah etc.)

    I won’t should myself any more about my life. It is a goal of mine and the only way I’ll ever live up to my potential. Married or not. Divorced or not.

  30. Amy Collette
    Amy Collette says:

    I love how you end this post – with the desire to be a great mom for your kids and great wife for your husband. And what about for you? Your “potential” is how you show up every day – for yourself and for your family. Today maybe it’s enough to write this post and hug your kids.

  31. Jason
    Jason says:

    Good post, you make me feel thankful. Living my life as much as I can is great enough, even though not all of my plan is realized :)

  32. Yeoman
    Yeoman says:

    Why do we need to “live up to our potential”?

    Shouldn’t living the life we want to be enough?

    A lot of people have high potential in all sorts of things that they don’t like doing, don’t want to do, and which ultimately make them unhappy. Heck, I’m living up to my potential in some ways career wise right now, and I want out.

    Potential is really meaningless. Living in accordance with ones true vocation means a lot more.

  33. Kay
    Kay says:

    I came across your blog today. I was put off by the “f” word in the second paragraph and didn’t finish reading the rest of your post. It seems sometimes that people feel they cannot be interesting without using that word.

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