Editor’s note: I recorded this as a podcast long after I originally published this post. I hope you enjoy it, and if you’d like to hear more episodes of the Productive Flourishing podcast, you’ll find them in the show’s archives.
Have you ever made a choice to increase your freedom only to figure out that you were no happier after you had it? Or have you ever found that you’ve been the most happy in the times in which you were least free?
If so, you’ve experienced the reality of there being two kinds of freedom. Negative freedom is about being free from interference or constraints; positive freedom is being free to self-actualize. (Tweet this) We can be free from interference but be unable to self-actualize, just as we can be self-actualizing in the very times in which we don’t have a free range of choices.
Failing to grasp this important distinction can cause undue disruption or a loss of positive momentum in our lives and businesses. It can cause undue disruption as we make choices that end up diverting energy from our progress for no end good. It can cause a loss of positive momentum because momentum largely comes from finding what’s working and intentionally doing more of it – if we’re confused or unclear about what “working” looks like, it’s hard to do more of it in an intentional way.
Not only are the two concepts of freedom distinct, but they often hang in tension with one another experientially. Boundary issues often are a result of the two concepts in conflict. Alas that to be human is to be in a state of grappling with and resolving tensions.
The distinction between the two concepts of freedom becomes even more tense for those of us who are service-focused and enjoy working in groups. If we push the limits of negative freedom, we exclude ourselves from the possibility of working with other people towards a common good. To work with others is to open yourself up to interferences and inconveniences; if a key member of your group is available for something you need only at a particular time and making progress on that goal is a condition for your self-realization, you’ve got to show up then, too. That limits your ability to be somewhere else doing something else.
To work with and serve others, you give up something else.
For instance, I was a guest facilitator at Jonathan Fields’ Good Life Project Immersion last month. In one view, I was required to be there and couldn’t do other things I might have wanted to do. But in the truest view, I was thriving and doing exactly the things with the exact type of people I want to be spending my days with.
Why, on earth, would I try to limit those possibilities?
Wanting More Than a Lifestyle of Freedom and Travel
This is where I so often don’t resonate with the starting point for many modern discussions on entrepreneurship or starting a small business. The focus is almost exclusively on becoming more free in the negative sense. All too often, people want to quit their jobs and start a business so that they can be more “free.” They don’t want to commute, they don’t want to have a boss, they don’t want to work certain hours – in short, they want to be free from the interferences and inconveniences caused by employment. (Please know that, as Pam Slim has said, hating your job is not a business plan.) (Tweet this)
It’s relatively simple to satisfy those conditions: quit your job. Unless you’re independently wealthy or have someone that’ll provide for your wants and needs, you’ll soon find that you have other inconveniences, like sleeping under bridges and finding food.
Those who have reached Stage 1 of their businesses quickly figure out that starting your own business is not a way to avoid interferences and inconveniences, for business-owning comes with a much larger host of interferences and inconveniences than you might think. The chief difference is that you have a choice about the interferences and inconveniences you want to face.
That picture of someone sitting by themselves on a beach doing nothing doesn’t call to me; nor does traveling, holing up in a cave and writing, or many of the other things that the aspirational market gets sold on. At least, it doesn’t now – and that’s precisely the point. Do those things for a little while and you might find yourself in a similar position of “Meh.” (Give me a group of friends who can both play and work together, though, and I’ll buy that ticket.)
In a similar vein, lifelong bachelors and bachelorettes are often so because they want to be “free.” Sure, they’re free from distractions, but what about the good parts of growing together with a romantic partner?
To be clear, I’m not saying that everyone should want the same things. Angela and I have decided not to have children because we’re not absolutely sure we want kids and that seems like something you’d want to be damn sure about before getting into it. We’re quite aware that having children has made other people’s lives complete and given them richer meaning. We’re doing alright as we are.
The Distinction Between Positive Freedom and Negative Freedom Isn’t New
That problem of divergent wants and needs turns out to be a big problem when you look at what to do with groups of people. Ideal versions of States and groups gets us into the realm of social and political philosophy. Let’s head there for a bit since I first started thinking about this while I was doing graduate studies in philosophy.
In 1958, Isaiah Berlin shared an influential philosophical lecture called “Two Concepts of Liberty,” which later became one of the pillar discussions in last century’s discourse on political philosophy. It illuminated that the concept of liberty carried with it a negative conception and a positive conception. Negative liberty was about non-interference from outside agents, whereas positive liberty was about self-realization.
Berlin showed that the political conditions to satisfy negative liberty were relatively straightforward, but setting up a State that allowed for positive liberty was anything but because of the biases we all carry with us about what type of self there is to be realized. Throughout history, political power has been used to force people into some type of ideal in the name of positive liberty/freedom; if only people were more educated, more virtuous, or more reverent, they wouldn’t need to be “forced.” More insidious versions of this very thought hold that it’s not coercion if it’s for their better good.
The challenge is that, though it’s a simple matter to satisfy the conditions of negative liberty, few people want to live in that type of society. It doesn’t allow for government-sponsored schools, well-structured road networks, fire departments, libraries, parks, or museums, to name a few things. As soon as you take resources from someone in order to fund something for the State or individual’s good, you’ve interfered with them. (This is by no means meant to be a definitive discussion of these concepts. If this whets your whistle, find a graduate course in political philosophy at a university near you.)
Studying political philosophy is also a lens for studying individuals. The same problems that show up when we talk about ideal States come up as tensions within us as individuals.
In the decades that have passed, the words “liberty” and “freedom” have diverged a bit more in use than they did in Berlin’s day. Liberty has a decisively political connotation, and freedom is used more broadly when talking about individuals. Regardless of the divergence, the lines between negative freedom and positive freedom remain the same.
What Constraints Will Give You the Most Positive Freedom?
Negative freedom gives us a baseline for survival and a basic set of living options; positive freedom, on the other hand, is what we care about because it’s where we move beyond surviving toward thriving. Flourishing in this way requires a lot of challenging choices and daring greatly, largely because the simple answers and safe choices are not what make life the rich adventure that it is.
Freedom shares the same relationships with constraints as creativity does with structure; the right measure of the one augments the other.
For instance, being bonded (constrained) to a particular community enables you to have a relationship of reciprocal evolution with it. The more you dig in and support it, the more the community pushes you toward being your best self and supports your doing so. Flitting from one community to another means you’re associated with a lot of people but never in real community with them.
Similarly, having a job that taps into your talents, bumps you into the right people, and removes concerns about finances may set the conditions such that you’d have a broader impact on the world rather than doing it alone in your own business. Entrepreneurship and owning a business aren’t for everyone, not because some people can hack it and some can’t, but because some people’s self-actualization is enhanced by having the right job. It doesn’t matter how fast you’re moving down a given road if it’s the wrong road for you in the first place.
Since the freedom/constraint relationship appears to be a metaphysical dyad like possibility and actuality, we can apply it to businesses as well as to people. Picking a business strategy/model and sticking with it enables more positive freedom for your business. Figuring out which assumptions are both critical and true for your business – the true constraints of your business – and systematically addressing those give you constructive buckets in which to channel you and your team’s creative energies.
All of this is to say that, despite the fact that we may often think that freedom is intrinsically valuable, deeper reflection will show that it’s usually only instrumentally valuable for other ends.
A better question than “how can I be more free?” is “what conditions enable me to thrive, and what do I need to do to get them in place?” (Tweet this) Let’s pick up that question another day. 🙂