This word has been the rallying cry of nations, the dream of the oppressed, the call to arms of many a leader, the aspiration of teenagers as they grow out from under the wing of their parents, the justification of jobs quit or relationships ended. It’s something one can reasonably assume that every living person values. It comes in many forms: autonomy, liberty, free will, agency and many more—each with subtle, but important difference of meaning.

Freedom is recognized as a fundamental force and element in the Taxonomy of Human Elements in Endeavour and manifests across multiple levels and in multiple domains.

But total freedom is an irrational goal. It simply cannot exist.

In this short series, we’ll examine freedom in its many forms as it shows up in the Taxonomy of Human Elements in Endeavor (THEE).

The Individual 

Our inner experience is where freedom is closest, where we can directly exercise it and where we most desire it.

We might think of it in terms of action—freedom to do, or personal freedom—but that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves. All endeavor begins in the Will, so perhaps the most fitting notion to begin with is “free will.”

Here, in our mind, is possibly where we enjoy the closest thing to ultimate freedom. We can think or believe or want anything at all within ourselves. The most crushing fascist regime, the most imposing or intimidating authority at work or even the most powerful religion (whose power lies in the thoughts and beliefs of its adherents) cannot ultimately control what goes on in the minds of people. As Jean-Paul Sartre said:

“Imagination is not an empirical or superadded power of consciousness, it is the whole of consciousness as it realizes its freedom. “ 

Our imaginations soar unbounded within ourselves. But unless the plan is to live out our days secluded inside our own minds, we must at some point interact with the outside world. And in doing so, the context changes. We are, at once, subject to the endeavors of others, or the laws of the land, or social conventions and prevailing ideologies, or any number of relevant outside forces.

In the taxonomy, this dilemma is expressed as the duality of autonomy vs. constraint.

I many ways, what we want—what we are free to want—must be balanced and made to fit within these constraints. Let’s say for example that you want to start a business.

You are certainly free to want to start a business. But by looking at the outside world through the lens of this goal, what do you see? Is your society tolerant of entrepreneurship? If you happen to currently live in North Korea, probably not. Do you have the necessary capital (money, land, buildings, equipment, etc.) to give your business a fighting chance at success? Is there a demand for your product or service?

Maybe the answer to all of these questions is yes, (or if it is no, you can still try, though things might not end well) but you probably still have quite a bit of red tape to get through before you can get started. Your local government might have zoning restrictions; the bank probably has conditions to giving you a business loan. It’s a big endeavor and countless outside factors come into play.

We must attempt to find either balance or reconcile the disparity between our autonomy and our constraints.

Luckily, most of our endeavors aren’t as involved as entrepreneurship. However, similar principles apply to even the simplest things. Ordering a meal at a restaurant requires communicating in a meaningful way with a server, ordering something that the particular restaurant offers and being able to pay for your food. At every turn, when what we want comes from outside of ourselves, we face challenges to our freedom.

Perhaps it sounds grim, but rather than cry infringement on personal freedoms at every turn like some paranoid anarchist in a mountain bunker, (silly reference, I know but I live in an area where these folks really exist) take solace in the fact that everyone on the planet is in the same boat as you. And just like them, without really thinking about it, you probably handle these constraints with grace using your own unique brand of creativity.

Everyone is creative—because they have to be. We all face challenges where what we want or what we want to do isn’t just handed to us on a silver platter. And creativity arises in the face of a challenge. At this moment, there is freedom: The freedom to take up a challenge or not. The freedom to choose what’s right/good or to take an easier path. The freedom to give in to instincts, biases and conformity—or not.

Plus, being creative is fun and true, ultimate personal freedom probably wouldn’t be much fun.

Stay tuned next week for a discussion of freedom and organizations.

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