To choose is to be free

“But I don’t have a choice”

If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard this through my career, I’d be able to buy you all a round of drinks. It is a curious phrase and worth another look,

I don’t have a choice.

As I sit here writing this I”m struggling to think of situations where this is entirely true – hitting the ground when you’ve fallen off a building, growing old, chewing on a fruit pastille. The examples are few and far between.

In most cases people are either saying, “I can’t see the choices that I have” or, “I don’t like the repercussions of the choice that I have”. The implications of either stance is one of impotence. Simply put, when we refuse to see or accept the choices that we have, we deny the very essence of being. And in doing so, we diminish ourselves.

The nub of this human dilemma is often played out in a scenario where a house is on fire and you have the ability to save one of two much loved people. Who would you choose? Who would you save? Of course any choice in these circumstances is unpalatable, but as grotesque as it is, it is undeniably there.

Closer to home we can see it manifest in our organisations, where colleagues, employees and bosses will talk in tricky situations about, “not having a choice”. This is rarely, if ever, true. Or colleagues and friends who become stuck, lost in a self induced mental fug that leaves them static and inert.

In most circumstances where I see people unhappy, demotivated, depressed or disengaged, the root cause is their inability, or unwillingness to engage with the choices in front of them. This is overwhelmingly more common than people who are feeling the same way because of a decision or choice they have made.

As one of my favourite philosophers put it, “freedom is what you do with what’s been done you”. Given it is a Monday morning as we slide towards autumn, I’ll frame it a little more positively; happiness isn’t about the choices that you make in life, but the ability to see those choices exist.

From strength to strength

You won’t remember, nor should you, but back in 2011 I wrote about you. It was about being yourself, being strong, being able to make your decisions and hold your own in a world where people will be quick to tell you how you should be, how you should feel and what you should say. It was about never being afraid to stand up and have a voice, no matter what people, what society said was right or wrong.

You have one of those moments now. One of those times when everyone else is going left and you’ve chosen to go right. Its time to test your strength and your will and your mettle. It’s no longer about whether you wear your favourite purple jumper in the playground, but how you choose to push yourself, the adventures that you take and the places that you go.

And whilst I knew this moment would come, and whilst this is only really a trial, it feels wholeheartedly like your first step to starting something new The end of the beginning and the beginning of the end. The moment that fills you equally with joy and with fear. The moment that every parent works for, but secretly dreads.

The writing that I do now is so different to the time I first wrote about you. You realise that you’re probably losing me followers, kudos and street cred just by these very words? I know…..to you I have none of these things anyway, so what’s the big deal?

“The world is full of people who will tell you what you can’t do. Ironically they’ll also tell you what you should do. And even sometimes how to do it.  But in honesty they have no idea, they’re just scared and huddling together for the security that mediocrity and conformity brings.  Strength comes from difference.  The way you think, the way you behave, the way in which you treat people.”

And you have never once failed to surprise me in your willingness to grab the world by the neck and forge your own path, with a confidence and assuredness that I can only dream of having. You have never failed to use your strength, your opportunity, your good fortune to help anyone around you that you saw wanting. Not least that morning as you were saying your goodbyes.

I still burst with pride, just less obviously. I still hold you close, just now looking up at you. I am still by your side, just not physically. You’re writing another amazing chapter in the story of your life, one where only you really know the end. Yet as before, my only ask of you is this,

Be strong. Be humble. Be gracious. And beyond everything else. Be yourself.

Is this liberation?

My daughter told me this week about a conversation with one of her friends. The subject was whether it was possible to complete your homework without access to the internet. Before we all start to roll our eyes and talk about generations, it was a thoughtful conversation about whether the sources of data that were available to them offline would be sufficient versus the wealth of data available online.

I’ve been known to say that my children think they know everything, because they have Google. The smartphone and the search capability provide them with a surrogate brain and borrowed knowledge. Maybe there is something wrong with that, maybe there isn’t.

What I do question, is whether we are effectively outsourcing our decision making capability to technology and therefore losing the skills and experience to help us effectively and quickly work things out.

When I worked in a bar as a student, the landlord refused to have an electronic till. Instead we had one of the old push button ones with a cash drawer that pinged open with delight and the very real risk of losing a kidney. As a student of economics and accounting at the time, my maths was never stronger than when I was running mental totals of drinks orders for customers who would invariably use it as a chance to question your answer.

In the modern workplace, we rarely calculate anything ourselves. Walk around the streets of any town or city and you’ll see people looking at their phones to show them the direction. We are more likely to look at an app, than out of the window, to know the weather.

In some ways, if we’re using the liberation from the mundane to focus our minds on higher matter, the more complicated and meaningful topics, then you have to argue that this is a huge step forward. If the systemisation of the transactional allows us to learn, to be curious and thoughtful; to read, to think, to share, to talk and grow.

But if we are being led down the path of unconscious disempowerment and the destruction of creativity, problem solving and reduction of our innate ability to guesstimate, approximate and divine, then we need to think again.

If our liberation merely allows us the ability to take photos of our food and share them with people we have never met, to find out where we need to be, without knowing where we are, to be given an answer, without understanding the question. If our liberation does nothing more than reduce the sum of our parts, we have to question whether that is liberation at all. When we are beholden on something or someone else to allow us to fulfil our lives, we are more likely to find ourselves trapped, rather than free.