Can vs. Should
One of the all-time great movie quotes comes from Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park:
"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."
I use this quote or my personal variation ("Just because I can do it doesn't mean I should do it...") frequently because when you are a highly capable human being, you need to make judgment calls all the time as to what is worth doing or not. These decisions include whether you should do it or leave it to someone whose role it is, whether you should do the thing that is good for you in the long term versus the thing that feels good in the moment, and whether you should help someone in need (because they truly need help) or not (because they're actually taking advantage of you and could do it themselves). The decisions are up to you and aren't always easy to make.
The decision between "can" and "should"—i.e., the freedom to do something vs. it being the right thing to do—can be very difficult. One example is when a person has to decide between doing work themselves or taking more time getting someone else to do it. I've seen both sides of this personally: I always do something myself if it would take the same or more effort on my part than to try to get someone else to do it, and I've seen people write long e-mails taking more time than the action being requested to avoid doing something themselves. You make every decision trying to understand the pros and the cons so that you get what you want and need in life.
As such, there are a few ways to evaluate your options so that you make the right decision in these situations:
- Short-term vs. long-term (also "feels good" vs. "does good") – Yes, you could go out partying and study for that test later, but how will it affect your health, your score on the test, and your long-term success? When you ask whether you can or should do something, always look at the consequences. Yes, it will feel great to do drugs, have unprotected sex, or gamble, but the short-term pleasure could have long-term consequences that you don't want to face.
- Your capability vs. your responsibility – Yes, you could do someone else's homework, loan someone $500, or cover for someone at work, but is that the right thing to do? You'll want to check the conditions you are in to ensure that something is the right thing to do. For example, there could be a very good reason why someone needs your help, in which case bailing them out once is the right thing to do. But if it turns into a "blood in the water" situation where they either keep coming back or tell everyone about you being a "mark" (i.e., gullible), then they're taking advantage of you. You can definitely do something that you're able to do if it's convenient, easy, etc., but if it's difficult once but then easier from then on out, do the more difficult thing and save the time and effort going forward.
- Beneficial behavior vs. ethical behavior – Lying, cheating, stealing, etc. all fit into this category. You could lie and avoid getting in trouble. You can cheat to win at someone else's expense. You can take a product or service instead of paying for it. You could do those things. You might not even face consequences if you can get away with them. But the right thing to do matters because you hurt others, it reduces your trustworthiness, you might have to lie in the future to cover it up, thus hurting your trustworthiness and relationships in the future, and you might even end up hurting yourself either through consequences/punishment or through guilt and projection (i.e., feeling bad about what you had done or accusing others of doing what you did).
- Risk or standing out vs. safe or fitting in – You can wear underwear on your head. You can poke a bear. You can base jump. You can cause a scene in public. There are a lot of things you can do, and they might be interesting just because they're risky, make you stand out, or break up the monotony in your life. On the other hand, you can never go after your dreams, try anything new, or do anything to draw attention to yourself. That would keep you save and help you fit in, but is it right for you? Only you know what is appropriate for your life at any given time, so you can choose how you wish to behave or present yourself in terms of risk/reward for your life situation.
There are likely more, but it's very important that you ask yourself whether you should do something or not just because you're able to. Freedom is a great thing to have, and it's wonderful to be able to do whatever you want to do in life. But just because you can doesn't mean you should, so consider the life decisions you make carefully to make sure that whatever you choose ends up being the right thing for you and not just something in a fleeting moment that "seemed like a good idea at the time" only for you to regret it later.