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Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

Speedos, Sailboats, and the Limits of Freedom

Freedom is a tricky topic, and I’ve been wrestling with it for several blog posts now. How do we help people maximize their sense of freedom and power, but still hold them accountable to follow the rules? How can we maximize our own sense of freedom and power, without letting the consequences of our choices sabotage our lives?

When I think about consequences, and how our choices today can create more freedom or less freedom tomorrow, I start wondering about the limits of freedom.

To better understand the limits, let’s see a dictionary definition of our topic:

Freedom: the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.

Freedom: the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.

Given this definition, and all the blog posts, here’s what I feel like I know:

  • We’re incredibly free to make choices. We don’t “have to” do much of anything. We don’t have to show up on time. We don’t have to eat. We don’t even have to breathe. We have more free choices than we think we have.
  • But we do have to accept the consequences of our choices. If we show up late, we’ll lose our jobs. If we don’t eat, we’ll die.
  • This means the choices we make today have an impact on our freedom tomorrow. We’ll either have more options or less options later, depending on the types of choices we make now.

So we’re incredibly free, but consequences create limits.

How the Laws of Nature Limit Freedom

There’s another limiter as well: the laws of nature. The structure of the physical world, and the structure of the mind and body, create constraints and restraints on our desires.

  • We’re not free to go back in time. We’re bound to live in each moment. Even though we want to go back and change things, we can’t. History is what history is.
  • We’re not free to be in two places at the same time. If we want to spend the evening at a dinner party in New York, we can’t spend that same evening at a similar dinner party in Seattle. We can’t get what we want. We have to choose one or the other.
  • We’re not free to land a space ship on the surface of the sun, or burrow to the core of the earth. These things are too hot for us to endure. We might want to visit these places, but we can’t get what we want. There are places we can’t go and things we can’t do.
  • We’re not free to go without sleep. We can want to stay awake, but our body won’t let us. The world record is eleven days straight by Randy Gardner in 1965. Researchers have been able to study participants staying awake eight to ten days, but that’s it. All it takes is one day without sleep to start harming the body.
  • We’re not free to go without water. The record holder there is Andreas Mihavecz, who was accidentally abandoned in a police station basement cell for 18 days without water. By the time officers discovered him, he lost 53 pounds and was near death.

How Social Norms Limit Freedom

Still another limit is social laws and norms. There are things people won’t let us do. The moment we try, they’ll coerce and restrain us.

  • We’re not free to yell “Bomb!” in an airplane, call it a joke, and keep our seat. We want to crack the joke and keep our flight, but stewards and marshalls will usher us off promptly.
  • We’re not free to board that same airplane wearing only a speedo. We may want to wear rubber underwear, but we can’t get what we want. They’ll block entry for that.
  • We’re not free to assault airline workers who block our entry. We may want to, but the second we try, they’ll swarm and hold us down.

So when we talk about freedom, we need to see it as a bounded freedom. There are things we may want but will never be free to have. Within certain boundaries, we are free. Just like a sailboat is free to sail in the sea, but can’t sail into the land, human freedom is bounded.

  • There are structural limits to freedom.
  • There are social limits to freedom.
  • There are consequential limits to freedom.

Living Free by Loving the Limits

The secret to feeling free is accepting these limits. Loving them, even. It does no good to try and defy real boundaries.

The irony is, accepting the limits of freedom is the way to feel most free in life. It keeps our sailboat in the water for more sailing, instead of tempting us to crash the shore.

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