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The Book That Gets Me Unstuck and Helps Me Find My Passion

When you're at the crossroads of 'should' and 'must'.

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illustration of woman standing on open book
Jin Xia
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Whenever I’m in doubt or feeling stuck, there is one book I turn to for guidance. It doesn’t provide specific answers or give me 10 steps to optimize my life. Rather, The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion by Elle Luna (Workman Publishing, 2015) helps me find the answers I am looking for within. And then, equally important, it gives me the courage to act on them.

Let me go on record as saying I have very little patience for books that tell me to “follow my bliss” or go to a mountain top for three months to “find myself.” Frankly, I have bills to pay and responsibilities to meet. What I do want, though, is to live a life more closely aligned with my deepest desires, one that is constructed to enable me to do what I truly want to do and be who truly want to be.

The older I get, the more important that is to me.

“There are two paths in life: Should and Must,” Luna writes. “We arrive at this crossroads over and over again. Should is how other people want us to live our lives. It’s all of the expectations that others layer upon us. When we choose Should, we’re choosing to live our life for someone or something other than ourselves. 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 convictions, our passion. Must is when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own.”

Most of us have internalized a lifetime of “should” Though they differ for everyone, some of the heavy hitters include: when you should marry/who you should love/what you should or shouldn’t do for a living/how you, as a woman, should or shouldn’t act. That’s a lot to go up against.

But dig deep, and chances are buried inside is your very own “must,” yearning to be set free. Maybe your “must” is learning to paint, going on a trip alone or taking a dance class after years of thinking you are too clumsy.

Maybe it is being more outspoken about your needs or making a big life change you’ve always dreamed of but kept putting off. The Crossroads of Should and Must poses a series of questions that will help you distinguish what others may think you should do from what you actually want to do.

The book then outlines realistic ways to start living a life that is true to who you really are and want to be. (Added bonus: It’s filled with completely lovely drawings.)

The book has a permanent spot on my coffee table, though I do go long stretches without looking at it. Recently, I turned to it again when I found myself flailing at the crossroads of “should” and “must."

Some background: When I was young, the only thing in life I wanted to be was a writer. It was my “must.” I was confident enough to ignore the “should” (find a steady job) and lucky enough to have novels published quickly, though I wasn’t exactly getting rich.

And then life happened. I was widowed early and suddenly had a child to raise and put through school on my own. I placed my writing on hold to get a well-paying, if demanding, job in publishing, eventually rising to be an editor in chief. I don’t regret a second of it.

My daughter, now 29, is a lawyer and following her “must,” working at a nonprofit that speaks to her heart.

I have worked hard for the right to reclaim my “must” and devote more time to writing. Yet instead of celebrating, I quickly discovered that I had internalized so many “shoulds” (what I should/shouldn’t spend time/money/effort on), I was stuck. My brain was swirling with doubt: Am I too old? Can I afford it? Can I even do it? I felt as if I needed permission to break the shackles of the “shoulds,” and realized the only person who could set me free was, well, me.

Luna doesn’t ignore realities in her book. Rather, she encourages us not to use them as excuses. She holds up the objection “but I’m past my prime,” and reminds us that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, in her 60s and John Glenn returned to space at the age of 77 on the Discovery Space Shuttle in 1998. When it comes to finances, the author does not tell readers to quit their jobs or to drain their savings to pursue their passion. The moral of this inspirational book is about finding a balance that prioritizes your “must-do’s."

Luna provokes us to examine some of the toughest questions: How much is enough money? What is nice-to-have money and what is must-have money for bills, mortgage, healthcare? In a society that too often defines success by wealth and material goods, this isn’t always easy. It requires deciding what success looks like for you and you alone, and budgeting accordingly.

Choosing the “musts” in your life requires action, and Luna points out the wisdom of starting small, whether it means getting out your old watercolors and starting to paint again, or calling someone you wish you knew better.

“You make time for what you want,” Luna reminds us in this passage: “Finding pockets of time for your Must is a daily effort. And once you have that pocket of time, move from thinking about your Must to doing something about it.”

Of all the questions Luna poses in her book, the one that really got to me recently was this: “How long will you wait to honor who you are?” The minute I put The Crossroads of Should and Must down, I went out and bought a new notebook. I dug up the outline of the novel I had started years ago, and I rearranged my calendar to ensure I have two hours a day for writing. Then I pinned a note on my refrigerator: #ChooseMust

What book got you "unstuck"? Let us know in the comments below.

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