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What is freedom for you?

“This verse in one of Alice in Chains’ most haunting songs captures the essence of the Stoic battle:

“And yet I find And yet I find Repeating in my head If I can’t be my own I’d feel better dead” The need to be one’s own. One’s own man. Free from outside influence. Free from tyranny. Free from anxiety. Fear. Unnecessary pain. To be free from the slavery that Seneca talked about — the slavery of pointless obligations, other people’s expectations, materialism, the slavery of addiction or ambition. And yet it is with some tragic irony that the man who wrote that lyric was for too much of his talented artistic life not his own. He was addicted to heroin and cocaine, cigarettes and self-loathing. In the end it was death that relieved him of those forms of slavery, or rather we could say that the slavery killed him and deprived us of him exactly 16 years ago yesterday.”

— The Daily Stoic

This piece in yesterday’s Daily Stoic newsletter struck me like a physical blow.

It made me realise that we spend so much time in the pursuit of some vague sense of freedom that we never stop to quantify it or define it very clearly.

In the startup world particularly, many of us find purpose in our work. We dedicate ourselves to a mission — maybe we want to improve the world, to make money, to enjoy ourselves along the way.

This represents freedom in the sense that we are able to define & pursue our own goals in life.

Yet we rarely delve deeper into the superficial assumptions defining such goals.

When we enjoy working at a company, what does that enjoyment constitute?

When we feel a sense of purpose. Why?

When we just want to make money. What’s the ulterior motive?

A rich guy does not pursue being rich just to frivolously spend it lighting cigars Seth Godin, the Dalai Lama of the marketing & business world, rightly points out that there is always a base need underlying our actions.

When we want to make money, for example, it’s not that we need the money.

Endless academic studies (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on positive psychology being most notable) show that, once our basic needs are met, wealth does not increase our well-being.

Therefore why do we continue to pursue wealth?

Because of status. Because of the need to belong. To be respected. To be looked up to within a certain community.

It’s a basic animal instinct: that need for one’s place in a community.

Wealth equates a sense of important social status But in the pursuit of such primal urges (for sex, for status, for dopamine) we sometimes find ourselves trapped, heading further and further away from true freedom in happiness.

I’ve seen this in my own life.

I started a business at university to take control of my own life & avoid the monotony of a cubicle job. To travel. To create a unique company culture. To work with people I loved spending time with. To make my own decisions.

But the status. The magazine features. The valuations. It all distracts you from the vision you started out with and leaves you questioning why you even started.

If the trappings of wealth, of status, of expectation, of obligation prevent us from feeling free, then what is the point?

These forces are insidious. They coat our lives with a residue that is difficult to identify — one that gradually builds up over the years.

Yet we must strive to wipe away this sediment from our lives and re-focus our efforts around the pursuit of true freedom.

That is freedom from anxiety. Freedom from stress. Freedom from negativity. Freedom from triviality. From purposelessness. From expectation & obligation.

True freedom is to pursue what makes you truly happy, giving no regard to the whimsical opinion of others, without benchmarking your life against others.

True freedom is spending your time doing only what make you feel a sense of fulfilment in life.

Do not lose hope like Layne Staley, the author of those lyrics, in the face of adversity.

“yet we fight, yet we fight…” The only advice that is worth giving is simple:

Fight, as an earlier part of the song suggests, to pursue what freedom really means for you.

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