In The Shawshank Redemption, the prison librarian is paroled after 50 years behind bars. Unable to adjust to freedom, he hangs himself.
Freedom is terrifying. I wonder how many people hold the keys to their own prison doors, and know they hold the keys, but sit in their cells day after day, too afraid to find out what’s beyond the cage.
And why shouldn’t we be scared? We all know of retirees who, absent a specific reason to get up in the morning, struggle to keep busy for the sake of keeping busy. We applaud the once highly successful doctor or engineer who now bags groceries just to keep his mind from turning into sludge. Humans are built to be creative and productive; employment, while often a drudgery, at least gives us a reason to set an alarm clock and do something with our day.
Self-employment is no different. Sure, you can set your own schedule – but you still have a schedule. You have an action item list, deliverables, deadlines, and metrics for success (and failure). You are held accountable.
But I am no longer employed, self- or otherwise, and that was my choice. My lifestyle has granted me the ability to pursue whatever passion tickles my fancy. Yep, I’m free.
But don’t envy me.
It’s a way fucking harder position than you can imagine. Sure, you might have told yourself a thousand times, “If I won the lottery, I would [enter pipe dream here].” In a chapter entitled “Does Money Buy Happiness?” Arthur Brooks describes in Gross National Happiness a 42-year-old forklift operator who won a lottery worth $14 million after taxes and told the press he planned to move to Australia and “totally get away.” That’s what he thought he would do with freedom. What he actually did was buy expensive cars and exotic pets, drink heavily, and die three years later with cirrhosis of the liver.
I didn’t win the lottery, and my wealth is of a very different nature than what might be colloquially dubbed rich, but I am dealing with many of the same questions. Perhaps even more, as my definition of “free” is exhaustive.
Being free to pursue my passions means knowing what they are. As an intelligent and highly introspective man in my mid-30s, I should know what makes me tick by now. But we are so accustomed, as a society, to part-time and weekend hobbies that when faced with an entirely open calendar, it’s not obvious how to fill it.
“I’d hit 18 holes every day,” a golf enthusiast might say, whose only solace for mind-numbing full-time employment is his Saturdays with the guys. But reality and expectation rarely align. If he actually did golf every day, while all his friends and colleagues were at work, he might start doubting any lasting meaning in inserting a small white ball into a hole in the ground. The professional golfers who actually golf full-time are motivated by lots of things (competition, perfectionism, fame, awards, the ability to have lots of extramarital affairs, etc.), but I don’t think love of the game ranks high on the list. Passion got them into it, no doubt, but self-sacrificial workaholism keeps them there.
One doesn’t get to play for the Boston Symphony Orchestra by playing a violin for sport. Even passion isn’t enough. The ones who rise to the top in their field and “succeed” (depending on your definition) are the ones who intentionally devote enormous amounts of effort, far beyond what could be attributed to ordinary interest or enthusiasm. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000 Hour Rule: essentially that 10,000 hours of practice seems to be a necessary (but insufficient) condition for greatness in any field. And not just any practice: practice of the hardest parts, the distasteful parts, the frustrating parts, the un-fun parts.
What’s that? I won’t be great at something unless I spend at least ten thousand hours forcing my way through the most agonizingly painful aspects of learning it? And even then I still might not be great? Even then I’ll be competing against hundreds of other perfectionists who’ve been working their asses off since elementary school?
Ugh. Seriously fucking Ugh.
The net result? I have freed myself from financial obligation; money no longer motivates me. I have freed myself from the lies about career; climbing the corporate ladder no longer motivates me. I have freed myself from the artificial and fleeting notion of greatness; becoming highly skilled and celebrated at some endeavor, like chess or underwater hockey or getting attention, no longer motivates me. Most of what has motivated me for the past three decades is now irrelevant or has turned out to be an illusion.
When a person doesn’t have to do anything anymore, his entire world flips upside down. When that person isn’t motivated by things that motivate everyone else, it feels like quantum tunneling into a parallel universe. Escaping into the wilderness is inherently a lonely affair; remaining in the confines of prison may be uncomfortable, but at least it’s familiar, and all your friends are there.
Freedom is a responsibility. Perhaps it’s easier to paint freedom on the wall and remain encaged because then it’s a hell of a lot easier to make – and believe – excuses. “I would have traveled the world, but I got caught up in my career.” Or: “I wish I could start my own business, but I need to pay off my debt first.” When a person’s life doesn’t turn out quite as she had hoped, she can blame a thousand people: her parents, her husband, her kids, her alma mater, her employer, the government, perhaps even God.
But when you’re accountable to yourself, and you have no one left to blame, and your fate rests in your hands – and you know it – it becomes a lot harder to sleepwalk the years away. Life becomes intentional. And when you’re not being dragged along by others, when you control your path, when your motion depends entirely on the steps you take, those first few steps are scary and overwhelming and exhilarating.
Okay, don’t envy me, but don’t pity me either. I asked to be here. I chose to escape. The sum of my decisions brought me to my goal, which was to be free of constraints.
But I am full of self-doubt because I don’t know anyone in my position. People who free themselves from one cage tend to voluntarily enslave themselves in another.
I don’t have a role model. The trail feels unblazed. Not because there are no trailblazers, but because without motivation for fame, fortune, or recognition, the truly free will simply live how they choose without needing to recruit disciples. You won’t hear much about them. Without fanfare and attention whoring and publicity stunts – without sex and money and ostentation – few will notice. The contemplative life makes for bad reality TV.
I am scared because forging my own path will require looking myself closely in the mirror and asking hard questions about who I am and where I’m going. I’m nervous about what I might find. You can’t unring a bell and you can’t reclose Pandora’s Box. It would be very easy to ignore my responsibility to freedom, to find a diversion, and to mindlessly flutter through life instead.
At the risk of sounding trite, only I can live my life. So if I don’t do it – if I don’t courageously open the box and claim my freedom – no one will do it for me.
Wish me luck.
My question for you: If you didn’t have to do anything, what would you do?