Here’s what you should do

Let me tell you how you should run your entrepreneurial internet business.

You should have a blog, and you should write on it regularly. You should have an email list and you should use it, but not wear it out. You should to have services in some cases, but there are also some cases where you should only have products for sale. You should think about your product funnel, meaning you should have some entry-level stuff for sale that leads up to higher-tier products. You should respond to all emails promptly.

You should work hard almost every day, but you should also allow time for yourself. If you have a family, you should allow time for them too. You should make a schedule and stick to it. You should never back off from a good idea. You should persevere. You should remain positive and never give up.

Those are the things you really should do.

Yeah, what a load of shit.

The problem with shoulds

Should implies that something is necessary. If someone says “You should do X,” it really means, “If you don’t do X, you won’t get the result you want.”

Should is the mark of a formula.

A formula works well when mixing chemicals or baking a cake. If you take this and this and this and put them together in this way using this exact sequence of steps, you’ll end up with nitroglycerin or a tasty dessert, or possibly a batch of awesome exploding baked goods.

Where a formula falls apart is when actual human beings and chaotic systems are involved. Your cake batter isn’t changed by the economic whims of millions of people or vacation schedules or politics in the way a life decision is — and if it is, that’s one fucked up cake and I’d like to try a slice.

Formulae don’t work. Advice works, but “works” means that it can steer you in the right direction, point out a few potential land mines, and suggest a few areas that might be sweet spots.

Another way to put it is that advice can point your rudder and set your sails, but it’s not so accurate that you can go below deck and take a nap. If you want to land in the right port, you’re still going to have to do some steering, and adjust to the big waves and gusts of wind that nobody saw coming.

There are no hard and fast rules. There are only guidelines. The point of mentorship or coaching (and I say this as a coach, hint-hint) is to lend experience and knowledge to a situation and to work together to plot a probable best course of action. This is what seems to frustrate so many people. No advice can do it all for you. You’re the one in the ship 24/7, with your hand on the rudder. The map helps, but the map can’t steer for you.

Now… think of all those things you think you should do. Think of all the things you’ve been told that you really should be doing, because there are almost certainly a lot of them. If you’re trying to get good at something new (a business, a sport, a lifestyle change, a discipline of any kind) and you’re like most people, you’ve read a lot of articles, blog posts, and books. You’ve listened to audio and watched video, and all of it from different people.

But you can’t do everything that all of those sources say to do, because a lot of it conflicts. But you try, and you feel guilty about the stuff you’re not doing that you should be, because if you don’t do it, you’re doomed to fail.

Stop shoulding on yourself

Stop it. Stop feeling guilty. There are no rules. There are only guidelines, so you get as much information as seems reasonable and you take your best shot. Then you see how you did, you adjust, and you take another. And another. You constantly tweak the position of the rudder and the set of the sails, and if you have to, you ditch the sails and you turn on the damn motor, or you break out the oars.

(NOTE: I guess I really do believe this, seeing as it just now occurred to me that the above is essentially the thesis behind Question the Rules.)

Think about some of these shoulds. Do they apply to you? Maybe. Probably, in fact… but not “definitely.”

Should you answer all emails promptly? In general it’s a good idea… but not if it’s something you can’t keep on top of; not if the tone of your brand doesn’t require or imply it; not if you have an assistant who’ll do it; not if it’s robbing you of time you need for more important activities.

Should you do joint ventures to get your name out there? Well, I’ve done a few JVs, but you don’t necessarily have to do them. They’re generally pointless if all of the partners bring the same skills and knowledge to the table, if you do just as well on your own, if too many cooks around you just leads to more problems, or if your partner is an asshole.

Clients ask me all the time: “Should I do X?”

And the unsatisfying answer is almost always, “It depends.”

Which really means that at each decision point, you get to consider where you are, where you want to go, your assets and your liabilities, and a bunch of other information unique to that one moment, that one situation. You get to take some advice and maybe consult a mentor or a coach, who can help narrow your options, give you ideas, and open some more possibilities.

But then it’s up to you.

And as always, the best advice seems to come from the Matrix movies. Like when Morpheus, after learning the prophecy he’d based his life around was a lie, said to the Oracle, “After everything that has happened, how can you expect me to believe you?”

And the Oracle says, “I don’t. I expect what I always expected — for you to make up your own damn mind.

If you’ve got a lot that you think you should do, stop beating yourself up about the rules that other people have used to play other games. Stop riddling the solutions to other people’s problems. Look at where you are, what you know, and what others can advise you.

And make up your own damn mind.

P.S: If you’re looking for some of that specific guidance that will help illuminate the way but will not not relieve you from the need to steer your own ship, I should mention that I recently released my more-affordable, very to-the-point Bullet Sessions coaching.


  1. kaarib says:

    Awesome. Just awesome. Been thinking about this lately, since everything seems to be changing up again. Thanks!

  2. Christiaan says:

    There are so many things out there you “should” be doing it’s enough to drive you crazy! But as you say, the only one in control is you.

    The big problem here – as I see it that is – is that we all try to change something in ourselves and fall short, or after some success over time, revert back to old ways. Without actually moving our position of being into one of participation, authorship, and sourcefulness, so that we can and will take on the matter as a function of our own event, transformation cannot occur.
    We constantly think from a given position, which includes a lot of shoulds because we see others doing something and having results we want.

    But we are not them, we are our own person and need to find what works for us. Formulas are nice to think a bout for a bit, but that’s about all they are good for. A kick in the right direction saying “look here”. Nothing more.

    Thanks Johnny

    • Johnny says:

      Exactly. The metaphor I used with QTR was that I can give you the plans I used to build my ideal dream house… but if you follow them, the best-case scenario is that you’ll end up with MY dream house — not yours.

      Nothing is for certain and nothing is static, and we should really start factoring that in.

  3. I should try to follow your advice and make up my own mind.

    Thanks for telling me what to do.

  4. I enjoyed this post, Johnny. Calms me down.

    And I’m sorry I’m not going to Blogworld. I would have enjoyed meeting Mrs. Truant. And you, of course. But particularly Mrs. Truant.

  5. Great stiff Johnny. So often we want someone to tell us EXACTLY what to do and it just isn’t possible. It doesn’t mean that we shoudn’t be listening to what people tell us we “should” do but it does mean that we must apply that advice to our own circumstances.

    Thanks for writing this!

  6. Joel Wright says:

    You should all over yourself. Hilarious! This may be cork that I needed to plug up the should. The thumb isn’t very effective.

    I like the the experimental approach to giving ideas a try. It takes the “I must succeed at this or else” feeling and replaces it with “let me give this a try and see what happens… and if it fails I will try again in another way”.

    Ignorance (to self doubt) is bliss. My logical self has no clue what I am doing and it’s more fun that way.

    Well, great post Johnny – as always. I’ve been reading for a while and decided to speak up a little and say thanks.

    • Johnny says:

      Ha, I can’t take credit for “shoulding” used in various places where it sounds like “shitting” — that’s something I stole from Hale Dwoskin, the guy behind the Sedona Method. But I say it better. 🙂

      • Joel Wright says:

        Funny! You do have some swagger about you. You’re a rebellious, foul mouth inspiration with a positive motive. Those are all qualities I respect. It gives me hope that you are being yourself (amplified) and succeeding.

  7. Thank You, Thank You for this wake up call.

  8. Great post and you basically ruined about 10 posts for me because I tend to write about cases where it is o.k to break the “rules.” Today I wrote on exactly this topic for Social Media Explorer but you said it very well, all at once.

    By the way, I told a friend a couple of weeks ago that I found out you were really a woman now I’m trying out how to let her know that I found out that I fell for an April Fools joke.

    • Johnny says:

      Man, I think I caused so much reputation damage with that joke post!

      • Re. the Copyblogger post: it was an interesting exercise in authority… anything on Copyblogger *must* be true… even if the author says at the time it’s not. It could be used for great evil.

        People want ‘shoulds’ not because they want results, but because they want to avoid making mistakes.

        If you want results you know whatever you do you’re going to make mistakes, so you can’t be held back by fear of that. The aim *should* be to do enough activity so you improve.

        • Johnny says:

          And to think… all of that potentially evil power in the hands of Brian Clark.


  9. painterdon says:

    I don’t listen to any sentence that contains the word should or any of its variants. They are just an attempt to impose by an external “authority”. I believe that there are none. Some years ago when I asked Jim Dine if he had any advice for a younger artist, he said, “If you are an artist you don’t need any”.

    I need or want no help as an artist. I seek out expert advice about art marketing and I follow it.

    • Johnny says:

      Great point, because I think this is especially true for creative endeavors. I hated getting unsolicited (read: “should-type”) advice about creative writing. I had teachers say things like, “Sentences should be less complex” and other such bullshit.

      I think art is what it is. Whether someone will pay for it is a separate question, but art is what it is, and to say it “should” be any one thing in and of itself feels crazy to me.

  10. Shoulds are so presumptuous. Like, “I should be an artist because then I would be happier”…or whatever. Presuming that if I were a whatever, or had whatever, or lived wherever or was loved by whomever, the pain of seeking for something even better would go away. But it doesn’t, ever! So whether you do something that you “should” do, or tell that should to go fuck itself, you are still going to have to deal with the recurring existential angst, and that has nothing to do with “doing”. Happiness is in the existence place, whether there is any doing going on or not. If you aren’t NOW finding it there, all the doing or not doing is not going to do the trick.

  11. Alison says:

    God damn it you are cool.

    I’m gonna stop shoulding myself right now and believe me that’s a tall order: I should past myself. I’m exhausted by my very own long list of shoulds. So enough already and I thank you…

  12. Right (Write?) on JT.

    should [shud] n. Used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions

    Don’t let other people should on you either!

  13. Brad says:

    So what your saying is, gather the info and take a long walk off a short pier and hope for the best. If that wasn’t the desired outcome, then take shorter walks… Got it.

  14. Janet Brent says:

    The only rule is.. there are no rules. 🙂 That sounds like the Matrix too, but I’m too lazy to look it up.

  15. Archan Mehta says:


    Thank You.

    This article is so cool that I am tempted to refer to you as “The Fonz” of the blogosphere.

    For the uninitiated, “The Fonz” character was played by Henry Winkler in the American TV Series, “Happy Days.”

    If this still does not make sense, do yourself a favour and go check out the old re-runs on your idiot box. It’s a gas, really groovy stuff.

    The great thing about “The Fonz” or “Fonzie” was that he could dance with the devil, leave the devil in the ditch, and walk off with the booze, hot chicks and cold, hard cash. Metaphorically, of course, but you get the picture?

    What I like about your angle is the word “guidelines.” You are spot on here, because life is fluid. You have to remain flexible and adapt to change, because when change happens all your plans are gonna go out the door and you’ll end up flat on your face.

    With guidelines, you know where your going–you have a roadmap–but you are not necessarily en route to your destination. Thus, if you find a new and better opportunity along the way, hey, you can kiss your destination good-bye and sweet dreams.

    You don’t have to, could, shoulda, anything or anywhere. The locus of control should be an internal matter and the final decision should be yours without the burden of rules, regulations, policies and procedures. It is your life, after all, live it large.


  16. Bev says:

    Hey! Someone in my Facebook group shared this website with us so I came to check it out.

    I’m definitely enjoying the information. I’m book-marking
    and will be tweeting this to my followers! Superb blog and brilliant


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