What is freedom?
We rarely consider this question, and yet, we all have an answer to it. We think we know what freedom is. We think it’s obvious.
“Freedom is not being oppressed!” you might say, thinking back to history class, even though until this day, you’re not quite sure what “being oppressed” even means.
“Freedom is being rich!” you might think, because hey, rich people can do what they want, can’t they?
These concepts aren’t irrelevant, but the truth is they’re very narrow, limiting definitions of freedom. You got them from a book or from other people. You didn’t come up with them on your own, and therefore, you’ve given up your freedom before you even thought about what it means to you.
There’s a famous German folk song called Thoughts Are Free. If you can think what you want, aren’t you free? Conversely, how can you be free without choosing your thoughts? Now that’s a good starting point.
Let’s try this again: What is freedom?
“I’m more into freedom from rather than freedom to.”
When the host Shane asked him how his values had changed over the years, Naval said the biggest shift was his new definition of freedom:
My old definition was “freedom to,” freedom to do anything I want. Freedom to do whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like. Now I would say that the freedom that I’m looking for is internal freedom. It’s “freedom from.” It’s freedom from reaction. It’s freedom from feeling angry. It’s freedom from being sad. It’s freedom from being forced to do things. I’m looking for “freedom from” internally and externally, whereas before I was looking for “freedom to.”
I’ve spent about seven years fantasizing about “freedom to” and another seven actively working towards it. The idea that freedom is mostly internal, that we carry it inside ourselves and that we can choose it any time, hit me like a truck. Could it really be that simple?
I still think “freedom to” has value. You want autonomy. You want to control your time, to cover your bases, and to have new experiences you’ll enjoy. However, none of this is the best part of freedom. The best parts are all “freedom from.”
I thought a while about what “freedom from” really means. Here are the best answers I could come up with. Here are the 7 true kinds of freedom.
1. Freedom From Dogma
There’s a great line from Macklemore: “Whatever god you believe in, we come from the same one.”
If you treat people differently based on religion, no matter which one you have, you’re likely not living it as it’s meant to be. Of course, people fight over, within, and between religions every day — because dogma gets in the way.
Dogma is anything that clouds your ability to see clearly. Joining a cult leads to dogma. Investing in a bubble leads to dogma. Even your clique leads to dogma. Dogma is everywhere, we all fall for it, and there’s no way to avoid it completely. Your 200+ biases induce some form of dogma every day.
The best we can do to find freedom from dogma is to fight it at the highest level: Don’t join any groups that practice obvious black-and-white thinking. Don’t blindly trust any rulebook. Reflect a lot regularly, develop self-awareness, and account for your biases as best as you can.
Nothing must lead to dogma, but everything can. There’s enough room for endless religions, chess clubs, and subreddits in the world. Fighting dogma isn’t our priest’s job, our leader’s job, or our friends’ job. It’s ours.
Fight for your freedom from dogma.
2. Freedom From Status
Status is the false belief that material success and social influence guard the gates to happiness.
If it isn’t already, it’s quickly becoming today’s most pervasive form of dogma. After all, if I had to guess, I’d say even more people want to be rich and powerful than go to heaven. At the very least, they want both.
Status’ complete dominance over our lives is surprising, because status is one of the easiest masters to free yourself from. You only need to do two things:
Stop being a consumer.
Stop caring what other people think.
If you stop buying into the idea of “more,” quite literally, you’ll see how calm and comforting it is to live below your means. Technology has made this quite easy, and countless comforts are available to us at little to no cost. Sure, there are some big decisions you’ll have to make, like where to live and how to pay down your debt (or not to take on any), but other than that, $1,000, $2,000, $3,000/month can buy you an incredible amount of freedom if you don’t throw it down some car dealer’s insatiable gullet.
Similarly, not everyone on this planet will like you, no matter how much money you have. If you could buy your way into dinner with your hero Bill Gates tomorrow, it might just turn out he hates your guts. Why not admire him from afar? Better yet, once you stop caring what Bill Gates thinks about you, you’ll give even less of a damn about your high school friends’ opinions.
Freedom from status is easy to attain. What’s hard is making the two decisions that’ll get the ball rolling downhill: “I will stop buying what I don’t need, and I won’t care what people think.”
Once you make them and kick that ball, your life will never be the same.
3. Freedom From Anger
Status comes with many outgrowths, one of which is anger. The social power aspect of status is a zero-sum game. In order for you to look better, someone else must look worse.
Naturally, you’ll spend a lot of time comparing yourself to others, which will make you jealous and, therefore, angry. In his interview, Naval quotes an ancient Buddhist saying: “Anger is a hot coal you’re holding, waiting to throw it at somebody.”
Asked about his biggest mistakes, Naval says:
“I wish I had done all of the same things but with less emotion and less anger.”
Pain is inevitable, but anger is optional. Any situation you can think of that involves anger, you can take the anger away, and the problem will still have a solution.
There’s always a path forward without anger, but it’s a path you must choose.
4. Freedom From Reaction
Anger is a good example of being unfree because it’s one of our strongest impulses. An impulse is a real, physical sensation, and while emotions can trigger them, it takes conscious thought to reinforce them.
Meditation allows us to not act on our impulses because it enables us to let go of our emotionally charged thoughts. Your stomach growls, and you think you’re hungry — but if you can drop that sentence from your mind, the growl in your stomach will subside. Similarly, the hotness of anger quickly fades if you don’t pour more semantic fuel on the fire.
All emotions are bad in excess. If you’re too excited about a change, your disappointment might crush you when it doesn’t happen. If you’re too sad about a change, you can’t move forward and adapt to it.
We can’t avoid the emotions that kickstart our impulses, but we can let go of the thoughts that catalyze them. Practice dropping individual thoughts, and you’ll find freedom from unchecked reaction.
5. Freedom From Heteronomy
Once you’re not pulled around by dogma, status, and emotions, you can focus on getting the few tangible kinds of freedom that really matter. One of them is freedom from heteronomy.
Heteronomy simply means that other people control your life. It can take many forms — a toxic boss, an overbearing family, an abusive relationship.
Regaining your autonomy takes time and work, but it’s the practical, less obvious, more important consequence of goals we naturally chase, like wealth and happy relationships.
“Freedom to” may drive us, but “freedom from” makes it worth being driven.
6. Freedom From Unconcern
As much as autonomy is a worthy long-term pursuit, we often overrate it in the short run. We think that if we had $10 million and could spend our entire day running naked through our garden, all our problems would magically disappear.
We dream of shedding our responsibilities because we think our anxieties will leave with them, but even if we get there, we learn that’s not the case. It really was just a dream. Life always catches up to us, because we can never shed our ultimate tasks: Choosing what to think and how to spend our time.
Instead of obsessing over how to win the rat race, we should realize that, most of the time, we chose our responsibilities to begin with, and if we accept them, they can actually be meaningful. All commitments are stepping stones to bigger commitments, so it is better to show up for our current task than worry about how to get rid of it.
Don’t worry so much about being worriless, and you’ll find what you seek.
7. Freedom From Desire
“Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want,” Naval says. It’s a complaint about the present you carry with you into the future.
In that sense, the ultimate freedom is freedom from expectations. That’s what desire breaks down to: An often passive-aggressive, somewhat entitled stance towards life.
“Today, I have this, but I should already have that. Why don’t I?” There are a million good answers to that question, but, unlike the one we asked at the beginning of this piece, it’s not a question that matters.
What matters is that you learn to be content with today.
Freedom takes many forms. Thinking is freedom. Non-judgment is freedom. So is autonomy. Calmness is freedom. Low expectations are freedom.
Freedom can be “freedom to” and it can be “freedom from.”
There are infinite definitions of freedom, but the ones that matter most are your own. Unlike your mind wants you to believe, however, none of them are obvious. The only way to find them is to keep asking the question, now and forever.
So let’s try this again: What is freedom?
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