Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Is it possible for two people in the exact same circumstances to exercise greater or lesser freedom? Let’s define freedom first. The dictionary defines it as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants” or “the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved”. Virginia Woolf said, “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
Our collective efforts like voting and organizing are most effective to ensure physical freedom. What you and I have direct control over everyday, however, is the freedom of our own minds and from there our actions. It is in our mind and actions where two individuals in the same circumstances can have completely different amounts of freedom. In the extreme conditions of a German concentration camp this freedom of mind was literally the key to survival for Dr. Viktor Frank and others who not only survived, but upon being physically freed used this skill to thrive post incarceration. This is ultimate freedom.
Key to ultimate freedom is what Dr. Albert Bandura calls “self-influence”. This is the capacity of an individual to see multiple alternatives, practice control over their behaviors, and regulate their personal motivation. There are so many influences today and they are everywhere. If you are not careful and intentional you will bounce from one outside influence to another and never uncover and live your own life. Steve Jobs said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” So how do you exert “self-influence”? Here are three foundations.
Multiple Alternatives – Steven R. Covey wrote the book, literally, on considering multiple alternatives (The 3rd Alternative). In his epic volume he shares the key principles to moving beyond my will or your will and coming up with a 3rd and even better alternative. It starts with understanding that you get results by what you do, which is based on how you see the world.
If I only see things my way, and you only see things your way, we will never have a chance of combining those views to create a potentially better way than either of us could conceive with our singular limited perspective. If you are a carpenter and I am a plumber and you conceive of the perfect house and I conceive of the perfect bathroom each of us is likely to end up with a nice shack and an nice outhouse. How much smarter we are to exercise flexibility of mind to create a single combined concept that is better than either of us individually is likely to achieve. So, we start with asking each other if we would be open to the possibility of seeking a third and more complete alternative. Think of making 3rd alternatives as a creative process that has structure but no boundaries. You can go through this on your own but it is most effective if you consider bringing others into the process.
Ask the question: “Am I (Are you) willing to seek a solution that is better than any of us have come up with before?”
What would better look like? This is not a restatement of positions, but a sincere list of criteria of what we would consider success could look like. This is an exercise of imagination as much as anything.
Once the success criteria are listed and shared you start experimenting with possible solutions that might meet the criteria.
Lastly, we know when there is energy in the room (or individually in your mind) that we are getting to that new place created in our collective imaginations that is better than any previously entrenched “position”.
Control over behaviors – A first step here is to recognize that you are free. No matter what you have done in the past, or how you behaved, it does not have to shape how you behave in the future – you are free. Do you live from your rear-view mirror of past limitations or through the front windshield of your imagination – of what is possible? This may take a long time and include setbacks, but it is certainly worth striving for. Here are a few key ideas.
Be aware of how you are feeling. Your state of mind can have an oversized influence over your exercise of self-influence. Take stock of your emotions and recognize how they are affecting you. If you are in a down mood you can take steps to improve that mood and be in a better position to exercise your freedom. For myself I find when I am down, I take a few minutes to listen to some of my favorite music. Even if the effect is temporary it puts me in a better position to take the next steps.
Take time for reflective thought. This is the core of self-influence. In reflective thought you consider what really is most important to you in the long term. With this frame you can work back to today as you consider various courses of action that will lead to your desired results. Without reflection you are a sailboat without a rudder and incapable of self-direction. In this situation your enthusiasm and motivation will wane quickly.
Recognize and draw on the skills that you do have. As you reflect on your goals and steps needed to accomplish them, you need to take stock of the skills that you have currently, and any that you might want to improve on. A goal that you determine to pursue is only a dream if you don’t have the skills to achieve it. Going through this step creates a realistic vision of what your possible future is and the confidence that it is in fact possible, it also starts to create a reasonable timeframe.
Intrinsic motivation – This is also called personal motivation. It is different than external motivation since it comes from within you and is based on what you value most, your own values. You may work super hard to earn a bonus – which is external motivation. You may work super hard because you believe that what you do is important, or to feed your family. Which type of motivation is more likely to take you through hard times? Certainly, doing what you feel is important is much more powerful and enduring than any external motivation which almost by definition evaporates once you have achieved the goal, or find the goal to be impossible.
As you set goals it is important to not only consider the “how”, but also the “why”. In the why you find your intrinsic motivation and the greatest power to overcome obstacles and stay the course.
Self-influence is a force of intent that determines what action you will take. As Jean Nidetch said “It is choice, not chance, that determines your destiny.” As you develop your capacity for self-influence you produce ultimate freedom that can never be taken away and moves you toward the future you most desire. This week we celebrate Canada Day in Canada, and Independence Day in the United States. As we relish our external freedoms, and strive to protect them, we recognize that those freedoms can be taken away.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Said “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” While he was referring to our physical freedoms, the idea applies equally to the exercise of your own freedom of thought, your own exercise of control over your mind and life. This is one way to interpret Dr. King’s statement “A nation or civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan.” Are you being soft minded in the great adventure of life? Are you the captain of your life or have you ceded your self-influence unwittingly to the influence of others? As you ponder the many freedoms you are grateful for may you consider and develop your self-influence to enjoy the ultimate freedom that nobody can take away.
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