Over the past several months, while I’ve been traveling Freedom Road on my personal journey of growth and transformation, I’ve had this feeling of newness… like I’m discovering things for the first time. It’s a little humbling to find out that what’s a revelation to me has been around for almost 2000 years.
I’ve recently begun reading about Epictetus, an ancient Greek philosopher who was born a slave during the reign of the Roman Empire. It seems counter-intuitive at first, but it seems those that understand freedom the best are those that have so little of it, at least on the surface. History provides many examples of this idea, from Viktor Frankl, to Nelson Mandela, to Vietnam POWs such as James Stockdale and John McCain.
Epictetus taught “we cannot choose our external circumstances but we can always choose how we respond to them.” Choice is one of the most basic elements of freedom. This is the core of what the people I mentioned in the last paragraph understood. We all have the power to choose our mindset. We can choose our response. We even have choice in how we experience emotion. For many of my coaching clients, this is at first hard to believe. Indeed, most of us think that’s a crazy idea, but it’s true. Our minds make decisions (choices) every moment; it’s just that most often they are unconscious. We act from habit. We act from patterns of conditioned response. We learn things early on– from our parents, in school, at work, in all of our interactions with other humans– and we continue to let those things drive us, unconsciously, long after those things have outlived their usefulness. Our brains our actually designed to work this way. But we evolved that capability when the world was a simpler place, when humans were focused on surviving and avoiding predators. When we shine the light of consciousness, or awareness on our thoughts, we gain the freedom to choose our response in every moment.
When I was a kid I was a big fan of the rock band Rush. There’s a line from one of their greatest songs, Freewill, that goes “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice / You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill / I will choose a path that’s clear / I will choose freewill.” If people who were slaves of the Roman Empire, victims of the Holocaust, or POWs in Vietnamese prison can find their freewill, who’s to say we can’t find freedom in the corporate workplace?