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Unpacking the “Ought” Fallacy

Why Dismantling the Expectation to Do, Know, Be, and Think Everything at All Times Could Improve Your Life

Adefoluke Shemsu
8 min readMay 22, 2022

I’m going to start this selection off by saying that I don’t think I’m the first to address this matter, nor do I think that this school of thought is some esoteric or unexplored area within the zeitgeist; especially at the height of public discourse around personal and professional self-care. My hope here, however, is more or less to consolidate the ideas in this realm and to communicate them in a way that offers some net-positive value to you.

In my experience — which is the only perspective I can accurately speak from —the employment of logic and reason combined with an engagement with one’s intuition meet at a single point: The point at which managed expectation meets subjective desire. This is where we find our intellectual and emotional “flow” state, or the point at which we no longer exist in the perpetual cycle of high highs and low lows while actively engaging the world around us more meaningfully and effectively; thus, ideally living lives more grounded in content and gratitude.

What do I mean when I say “managed expectation”?

The axiom in itself has historically negative implications, but I think it has been monopolized and co-opted by pessimistic thinking, where it can only ever equate to minimizing one’s skills, dreams, and experiences for the sake of avoiding social or economic disappointment. I think we’ve all heard the all too common trope: “Expect the worst; hope for the best.”

In my purview, however, expectation management has more to do with taking ownership of what is within your immediate grasp and can be controlled. Not controlled in the sense of being bent to your will, but within the context of simply being able to influence a direct outcome. Since very little falls into the category of what can be controlled, you may then become privy to the unavoidable vicious circle that appears when your vernacular and thought processes align with “ought to be” rhetoric — the antithesis of peace and productivity, in my experience.

After spending some time contemplating this topic, I’ve contrived a hypothesis around the issue of why living in a world of “should’s” is a dangerous place to exist continuously, and how a more structured approach to the “ought to” fallacy can save you precious time and energy while enabling you to be more intentional with your attention and actions.

That being said, here’s my hypothesis:

Awareness for the sake of being aware can do more harm than good, and a failure to check that inner pull to know, do, and see all nowadays causes a compounding negative effect that leads to a warped sense of what matters.

This issue is then amplified because it has never been easier to see, learn, and speak about things for which we have no direct influence or proximity, yet still can connect viscerally to at an intellectual or emotional level.

Unchecked, this can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with things beyond our reach, which eventually turns into innate negative internal and external projections resulting from the tumultuous fallout of heavy emotions like guilt, envy, and hopelessness caused by a cycle of continual information consumption.

Once stuck in this cycle, it becomes customary (due to desensitization) to live more passively from an intellectual standpoint because it becomes the easiest way to stomach the sheer volume of information and self-imposed pressure to stay in the know without burning out.

We’ve falsely conflated temporary cognitive occupancy caused by exhaustive content consumption with genuine caring and authentic engagement, and we treat ourselves and others unforgivingly on subjects in which we are truthfully more ignorant than objectively well-read about.

So, what happens when there’s a discrepancy between intellectual exhaustion and the necessity to actively participate in your life, coupled with the social pressure of staying on the right side of moral and ethical discourse 100% of the time? I believe this is where the growing prevalence of “ought to be” versus “is” is born.

Expounding on this Hypothesis

It seems our increased awareness of the world around us has also brought forth a heightened perception that our capacity to experience and do positive things has diminished. If three positive things happened today in your direct sphere of experience, but ten negative things occurred on a global scale — each accompanied by a slew of online comments, soundbites, hot takes, and op-eds — the three positives suddenly seem insignificant.

You may feel guilty about having experienced them at all, or secretly frustrated that the state of the world — both good and bad — always seems to either supplant or dwarf your personal peaks and valleys.

Now, what is the relevance of this hypothesis on the topic of repurposing your inner “ought to”? Look no further than the origin of “ought” within this context.

Structuring the Problem

Where does the proclivity to venture away from “is” come from? Some would say a cultural attachment to every aspect of time but the present tense is to blame; others may argue that it derives from a deeper sense of unhappiness that has arisen on the heels of an increasingly image-oriented, consumerist perspective on what elicits satisfaction in one’s life. Others would argue that prioritizing “ought-to” is actually a form of protest against the status quo, while still others would deem its prevalence in today’s lexicon as reflective of the platitudinous nature of political discourse these days.

Regardless of semantics, the common theme between each idea seems to be that a hyper-focus “ought-to” originates from some form of dissatisfaction with the present.

Bringing the Idea of Unfiltered Awareness Back into Play

If we were to break down every factor of what comprises our day-to-day lives, then determine which daily decisions most exacerbate the pull to deviate from logical, reasonable thinking about our present, the conclusion would almost unanimously be our compulsive need to be aware of or to raise awareness of a thing. Why? Well, I think the answer to that comes down to human nature; the natural draw to consume information from and disseminate information to one’s community. It just so happens that our communities are full of millions of digital acquaintances.

Frankly, I don’t know that there is a “cure” per se, beyond taking the time to amend your relationship with awareness. Much like anything that can be helpful, awareness is best felt as prescribed, not in perpetuity. If awareness is constant, is it not synonymous with paranoia or anxiety? In other words, are you really aware if you’re always aware? In this constant state, are you watching, or are you looking? Hearing, or listening? Let’s reverse-engineer the problem (using your personal experience as the use case) to find out:

  • What is the impact of perpetual, exhaustive awareness on your ability to think with clarity?
  • How do you think a clouded sense of clarity would impact your overall attitude about your everyday life? Would you feel more or less in control of your life? More or less physically energized on a daily basis? More or less sharp from a mental perspective?
  • In this state of mind, do you think you’d feel more or less inclined to possess yourself with the past or the future?
  • Barring a potential reduction in mental acuity, do you truly believe that you can endlessly widen your scope of awareness without an impact on your mood, energy levels, perception of people, or general appreciation for the life that you have?
  • Is there a point at which you could picture entrenching yourself in black and white idealisms or “ought-to” scenarios in order to self-soothe, make sense of, or avoid the fatigue associated with the speed at which we consume information these days?

If answers to any of these questions indicate a negative impact on you, can you also see where an obsession with the rhetoric around “should” begins? More importantly, can you see why this way of thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy with a compounding net-negative impact on your psyche, thus leading to a crescendo of subsequent impacts on your thoughts, self-concept, actions, and outcomes?

More importantly, do you see the potential value in recognizing and engaging this challenge?

“Maybe, but what’s your point?”

I suppose my only point here is to attempt at dissecting an idea that is far out to some and taken for granted by others. I have a slight obsession with the origins of the mundane; of the forgotten and overlooked. So, on yet another topic that I’ve picked apart to the point of being devoid of meaning, here is my final conclusion:

There’s nothing inherently wrong with believing in something. With thinking about what something should or could be. There’s nothing wrong with seeking opportunities to broaden your awareness or to widen your scope of impact. In fact, I think this very notion is partially what propels humanity forward. The caveat to this, however, is due to our newfound opportunity to immerse ourselves in an ever-revolving door of confirmation biases and echo chambers, it’s easy to lose track of the reality that still exists beyond our literal and figurative purview.

So, to meet this challenge, I leave you with a suggestion that has helped me tremendously as I traverse my personal peaks, valleys, and plains of life in the 21st century:

Should is only the beginning, and we can’t stay there for long. If we do, we risk getting stuck in an illogically linear perspective to a point that it shifts from harmless idealization or mere belief to a position of adamant, near-evangelical self-righteousness and self-criticism. A world of black and white, with little consideration for context, nuance, and the many other grays on the black and white spectrum. A feeling that may feel good and satisfying in the moment, but serves no productive purpose in the long term.

So, what’s the true solution here? Well, in summation, your best bet is to remember that you and everyone else that you’ll never know are human. That all ideas, while ideal, are facilitated and driven by humans. That actions, while well-intended, are performed by humans. That beliefs, while seemingly flabbergasting, are subjectively valid within reason.

This understanding, while seemingly simple, remains one of humanity’s greatest obstacles. That’s why this is also where managed expectation meets subjective desire, as it takes a measured mind to remember and acknowledge the somewhat hilarious, freeing notion that you control, know, and impact very little. Yet, when you let go of what think perpetually “should be”, you can finally appreciate what is, which is comprised of the good, bad, and ugly of what makes us unique on this unexplainably vast planet, within this unexplainably large universe, within this uncanny period of time.

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Adefoluke Shemsu

Just an inquisitive guy with a proclivity for asking questions that hopefully enable me to better attempt at reading between the lines.