The Freedom Paradox

The Freedom Paradox

December 18, 2019

Freedom is both an asset and a liability. Freedom is a paradox.

From a young age we’re told to work hard and do the right thing because the universe will repay us with the freedom to explore what life has to offer. Sacrifice rewards us with options and earning this power of choice makes freedom an asset.

Since freedom is an inalienable right it is often not perceived as a liability, but assets and liabilities are a matter of perspective. If I want to buy a home but only have 20% of the cost as a down payment, I need to get a loan for the other 80%. Even though the new home feels like an asset to me, it is a liability. I now have an obligation to make payments over the life of the loan. Irrespective of what is going on in the future, I need to make those payments otherwise the bank will take the home from me. From the perspective of the bank, who is earning income on the loan and will receive more than they lent, my home is an asset.

Similarly, freedom is an asset or a liability depending on perspective. But what makes freedom a paradox is that the two perspectives belong to the same person.

Two Approaches to Freedom

Historically, the drive for freedom was rooted in a scarcity mentality. Most of those reading this won’t have direct experience with the lack of fundamental freedoms – freedom from hunger, thirst, or lack of security. The freedom from mindset is the natural state of things. As Maslow suggests in his hierarchy, freedom from solving for our basic needs creates the space for the freedom to pursue our higher needs. In a world of scarcity, both freedom from and freedom to are assets.

However, the wealth of modern society moves us toward a place of abundance so we can focus on thriving without applying much bandwidth to surviving. Each generation’s efforts build on those of the previous generation’s, creating new baselines such that our context for freedom is primarily a desire for the freedom to. We exchange our time for money, money for things and experiences, and our things and experiences become a measure for our quality of life.

Before we are aware of the freedom paradox, freedom to feels like the only responsible approach to life because not pushing to create assets limits our possibilities. But the paradox becomes visceral when freedom from feels like an asset and freedom to is seen as a liability.

Noticing the Paradox

In The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism Upton Sinclair addresses a dynamic he called the “dress-suit bribe”. The premise is that once someone has a taste of the good life – the rush provided by the initial bribe of nicer things – they are more willing to justify any means necessary to experience that lifestyle. A journalist’s new suit might cost $1,000 but the suit more than pays for itself because of the opportunities it provides. The new look could earn the respect of social circles that were previously beyond reach. As the possibilities for new heights present themselves, so do the fixed costs of maintaining the new position at every step up the social ladder.

Nothing is wrong with buying a nice suit or leveraging our resources to create opportunity. Promotions, more money, higher status, and better comforts can support our goals and facilitate a better life for ourselves and those we love. But it’s important to remember that accomplishments are just signals that we’re making progress. These signals do not, in and of themselves, facilitate greater freedom.

Much like a bribe, we don’t notice the paradoxical qualities of freedom because we experience the benefits first. Promotions come with more money but the increased responsibility limits time for other important things like family and health. Social status offers prestige and a sense of belonging but keeping that role requires playing the game a certain way until we can afford to stop. Accomplishment is a fleeting feeling that keeps us pushing or else we lose it.

It’s difficult to notice the freedom paradox because we are distracted by the signals broadcasting a meaningful life at the moment. And signals fool us just as easily as they fool others because the true costs add up over time. We eventually notice that freedom is a paradox when our future-self becomes our present-self and obligations limit choice as much as we thought not pursuing more would.  

Perspectives on Freedom

It sounds silly to complain about abundance, but our society tells us that if we aren’t actively making progress, we’re undermining our freedom to choose. Life has never been easier, the world is your oyster, now go make something of yourself. But it is precisely this abundance that created the freedom paradox.

Freedom is a paradox in our world of abundance because freedom can be perceived as an asset and a liability by the same person; our present-self and our future-self. The nuance of the paradox can be distilled into a simple diagram:

In a Ted Talk called A New Equation for Intelligence Alex Wissner-Gross asserts the purpose of goal seeking is to increase future choice - which aligns with our tendency to prioritize freedom to. However, he proposes that the equation for intelligence is the ability to maximize freedom of choice across a given time horizon. Freedom along a time horizon speaks to the necessity for freedom from. Most of the times we feel the tension of the freedom paradox is not because we didn’t prioritize choice, it’s because we didn’t place enough value on the flexibility our future self would need.

The ability to intuitively change direction is at odds with loading ourselves with commitments. This does not mean that commitments are bad, since many are necessary. It means we need to navigate the freedom paradox in a dynamic balancing act between possibilities and commitments by understanding the perspectives of the present- and future-self.

Navigating the Paradox

Acknowledging the freedom paradox is the first step to experiencing freedom differently. Awareness is critical because, like a flashlight, it expands what we can see. It helps us navigate the paradox.

Illuminating beyond our current path is the only way to know there are other routes to our destination. Although course correcting is not easy, understanding it is possible is a precursor to identifying the perspectives that make change less painful.

Identifying the appropriate perspectives for your journey requires asking good questions. There are no right or wrong questions, but there are good and bad questions. Good questions begin with the end goal in mind. This is important because life is dynamic and what got us where we are is likely not the appropriate behavior to get us where our future-self wants to be. Renewed clarity will automatically filter our options.

- What expected outcomes are appealing about going down this path?

- What experiences have you had so far that offered at least a small piece of the preferred future and how did you do that?

- How will you notice when you’ve arrived at the next reorientation point?

Gratitude is a byproduct of asking good questions and it also serves as a bridge for what's next. Appreciation for what we’ve been blessed to experience and the role we played in creating that experience instills confidence. Often what leads to an overemphasis of the freedom to mindset is that some aspect of our life is not good enough yet. Taking the time to appreciate our blessings and not just celebrating the signals of our progress creates space to decide if reorienting is authentic.

Reorienting cannot be done without proper space because signals make it easy to continue in the same direction for their own sake. Space provides us the freedom to attune to what is interesting and relevant about what is going on in our lives. Our interests point us toward what is truly meaningful and worth pursuing now and into the future.

Navigating the freedom paradox requires balance because freedom is an asset and a liability depending on who is looking at it. What feels limiting to our present-self is freeing to our future-self and what feels freeing to our present-self imposes restrictions on our future-self. There is no prescription or algorithm for which approach to freedom to prioritize in any given chapter of life or how long that approach should last. But experiencing the best of what freedom has to offer is accessible if you are aware of the paradox, ask good questions, practice gratitude, follow your intuition, and begin with the end in mind.

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