The Freedom To Get Real


It started in my late teens. I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that told me that I didn’t have to follow the rules as scripted. I went to school, then university, worked in my family’s small business and tried to ignore my gut. I enjoyed school and work but, again, that nagging feeling was there. I just kept getting better at suppressing it by becoming an adrenaline junky off hours.

In our offices and in our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get you through the day, but only the latter will get you through the night.
— p. xi, Drive by Daniel H. Pink

Other than some stupidity in my late teens, I mostly did the “right” things. The things that make your parents, employers, friends, colleagues and everyone else comfortable. I was predictable. Familiar. Safe. I kept myself in line. But still, my gut nagged at me to look for more and that pull became harder to ignore after my father’s unexpected death.

The feelings would come in waves and were strongest whenever I took yet another step along the path I was supposed to follow. There was:

  • Mild nausea when we bought the SUV.
  • Contempt when I participated in business events with people I didn’t like to discuss “appropriate” topics I didn’t believe in or care about.
  • Sadness when faced with another requisite business dinner to forge artificial relationships to grease the skids for more favourable sales or contract terms. 
When you ask people who are fulfilled by their work why they do the work they do, money almost never comes up.
— p. 1, Why We Work by Barry Schwartz

I even felt a sense of dread when faced with the next promotion. You know the one where you know you'll be expected to sell your soul for a fatter paycheque, hefty benefits and corporate perks?

I shudder to think about what I would've been giving up to make more money to buy things I would either have been too busy or too exhausted to enjoy. Luckily, I’ve always had a strong need to be self-sufficient and, as my already-sensible husband and I became more financially secure, I started to make decisions that felt right and stopped doing what didn’t.

Financial Freedom Helped Me Get Real

[Human beings have an] inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn.
— Edward Deci

The process took about five or six years. I wish I could say I had a master plan, but I was simply moving forward one step at a time. I didn’t know where I’d end up—and still don’t— but I started following my gut and it made me feel happier, more certain and, most importantly, more like myself. You know the "self" I'm talking about: how you felt as a kid, when you felt

The science shows that the secret to high performance isn’t our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but our third drive—our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to live a life of purpose.
— p. 145, Drive by Daniel H. Pink

It also made me a better employee. I was working where I was working because I wanted to be there. I was passionate about doing the right thing and I spoke up when something didn’t feel right and that enabled me to work on some amazing projects over the years.

The key was that I wasn’t fearful of losing my job. I wasn’t dependent on it. And, when circumstances changed and it was clear that it was time to leave, I was able to make the decision and move on. That was, and still is, a powerful and comforting feeling.

[T]he richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamouring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice—doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.
— p. 146, Drive by Daniel H. Pink

I’m not going to say that I won’t choose some predictable checklist items again in the future. It’s just that the criteria I use to evaluate the choices I make in my life have fundamentally changed.

I now ask myself the following:

[Autonomy] means acting with choice—which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others…A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude.
— p. 90, Drive by Daniel H. Pink
The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity, whether it’s in the arts, sciences, or business.
— Teresa Amiable, Professor, Harvard University
  • Will this next endeavour excite my curiosity? 
  • Do I like the people I’ll be involved with?
  • Does the environment feel comfortable?
  • Is the work/project/endeavour in line with what I want and value?
  • Is it worth what I have to give up to make room to pursue it?
  • Will it be exciting/fun?
  • Will it be rewarding? Fulfilling?
  • Will it expand my comfort zone?
  • Will I be a better version of me for having done it?
[Carrots and sticks] can warp almost any work into bad work.
— p. 35, Why We Work by Barry Schwartz

I’m mostly driven by internal drivers now, as opposed to carrots and sticks. I’m staying true to what keeps me curious, engaged and productive (now thankfully defined by effectiveness, not efficiency). 

I’m more grateful and giving than I can ever remember and rarely feel obligated anymore.

The daily terms and conditions I live by are largely self-imposed and I vow to ferociously guard this newfound freedom.

How about you? Do you feel able to get real? Do you feel like the real you?

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