Want to Do, Should Do, Can Do

Food for Thought

I took a train to see an old friend in New Jersey. Another old friend drove in from Philadelphia. I can’t remember the last time we conversed for hours without interruption.

In our twenties, we were not particularly ambitious and too self-absorbed to consider having kids, but as fate would have it, we all did. Soon, I’ll be the first to exit parenthood.

In a Japanese movie I was watching the other day, the main character said we start our adult life thinking about what we “want to do,” and at some point “should do,” and eventually “can do.” This is the inverse of how we start our life as an infant, driven to satisfy our basic needs, demand more from our mothers, and then learn to desire what we cannot have. It appears that we climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in childhood and descend downward in adulthood.

This is how a nation develops too. The so-called “least developed” countries offer unskilled labor, fulfilling our basic needs, like agricultural products. These nations have no choice but to do what they “can do” to survive. “Developing countries” acquire skills in demand and produce more complex products. China transformed from the former to the latter in the last few decades. “Developed” or “advanced” economies shift their focus from “should do” to “want to do” and cater to our desires. France, for instance, produces mostly luxury goods.

Who you are is irrelevant to labor, whether skilled or unskilled. An engineer, for instance, can be replaced by another engineer of the same skill level, like Japan being replaced by South Korea. If you stop at offering labor, you never achieve self-actualization. At the top of Maslow’s pyramid, you go after what you “want to do,” not “need to do.” You offer who you are, talent, or je ne sais quoi, which makes your products irreplaceable. France has no competition because no other country can be a better France. You cannot imitate your way up.

The question at my age is: Is it inevitable that we give up our desires and attend to our needs? As we become older and frailer, it’s tempting to cling to the life we have left, but perhaps an alternative is to give up life to continue pursuing our desires.