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 are most effective to reduce the physical infringements upon freedom. What you and I have direct control over each day, however, is the freedom of our own minds and actions. These are the key areas where two individuals in the same circumstances can have completely different amounts of freedom.
The key is in 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 and today they are everywhere. If we are not careful and intentional, we will bounce from one influence to another and never uncover and live our own life. Steve Jobs said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” So how do we exert “self-influence”?
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 we get results by what we do, which is based on how we 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. So, we start with asking each other if we would be open to the possibility of seeking a third and more complete alternative.
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. Steven R. Covey talked about the tragedy of people living from their rear-view mirror instead of from their imagination – of what is possible. This may take a long time and include setbacks, but it is certainly worth striving for.
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. 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. 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 we set goals it is important to not only consider the “how”, but also the “why”. In the why we find our intrinsic motivation and the greatest power to overcome obstacles and stay the course.
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 own mind. 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?
This is not exhaustive, but here are some guidelines to take you through the three capacities of developing “self-influence” and enhancing your personal freedom.
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 to 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 our behaviors & intrinsic motivation:
These two concepts are completely interrelated so I will address them together. 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.
As Dr. Bandura notes “It is because self-influence operates deterministically on action that some measure of freedom is possible.” In other words, 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 and I develop our capacity for self-influence we produce freedom that can never be taken away and moves us toward the future we 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. May you also consider and develop your self-influence to enjoy the ultimate freedom that nobody can take away.
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