Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a concept of freedom that I find particularly appealing: the capacity to employ my time and energy in pursuing the goals that I’m most passionate for.
During the last few years I was engaged in a particularly time-consuming business that wasn’t aligned with anything I considered truly meaningful. Worse still, after so much work without clear purpose, I had become apathetic and confused as to what I really wanted to do next. When I finally stepped out of the busines, and took some time to rest and recharge my batteries, It all started coming back.
I “remembered” many of my truly cherished goals that I had neglected for so long, and became aware of new ones — I wanted to write, to cultivate my body and mind, to expand the number and quality of my genuine connections to others.
The certainty of my conviction and my desire to pursue such goals were so intense that they almost had a physical feel to them. It was as if each goal corresponded to a particular “itch” that I was unable to feel until then. And just like the slight discomfort of a physical itch automatically prompts us to scratch, each of these meaningful goals gave me an immediate rush of motivation to pursue it.
So I can fairly say that these days I’m very much into freely acknowledging my soulful itches, and indulging in scratching them thoroughly — I’m very much into freedom of itch.
Of course, I’m not talking about anything new. Going after what we are passionate about is at the core of our notion of happiness — at least for us living in the Western hemisphere of the world. But approaching the subject as a fundamental freedom that we must exercise can provide further insights about this age-old truism.
Exercising our freedom of itch entails two fundamental steps.
Step 1 – Becoming aware of our conformism and breaking away from it
Modern consumption societies in theory enshrine individuality, free will, and the pursuit of what we consider most important in life. Furthermore, those of us living in these societies enjoy historically unprecedented abundance of resources we can use for self-realization: wealth, fundamental political and social rights, and access to technology that can make the “4-hour-work-week” a reality.
But accepting that our fate is fundamentally in our own hands as opposed to those of God, the lord or the state, terrifies us. It implies taking unusual risks and assuming full responsibility for the outcome. By conforming, we uncritically adopt other people’s opinion of how to live a “normal” life, less risky and more consistent with “realistic” goals and aspirations. This provides us with a strong, albeit false sense of security.
The process by which we adopt a conformist stance is not a conscious decision. Conformism acts subtly and subconsciously, pushing us gently and gradually away from pursuing the daring goals aligned with our true passions and beliefs. With enough time, conformism disconnects us from our genuine purposes, and we end up becoming apathetic and confused for no apparent reason. We simply wake up one morning with a deep feeling of dissatisfaction despite our good jobs, our material possessions, our fit physiques, our families and all the other things that “normal” people “want” — and we can’t figure out why.
The common reaction to this new state of discontent is to look again for an evasive solution: from shopping therapy to gluttony, from cigarettes to alcohol, from Prozac to ecstasy, from compulsive TV watching and web surfing to sex adiction… we are never short of options to dampen the anxiety rooted in the most fundamental of modern contradictions.
The definitive, yet not simple solution, is of course to realize that we are pray to conformism and take action to break free from it — not to increase the narcotic cocktail that compounds our comfortable numbness.
Work and love
There are two critical areas of our lives that when not aligned with our true passions and beliefs become fertile grounds for soul-crushing apathy and confusion — work and love.
By work I mean the goal-oriented activity or activities that occupy most of your waking hours. Make an honest assessment of how your work contributes to your overall happiness and personal growth. Do you enjoy your work to the point that you would still do it for no pay, sense of status, prestige or approval from friends and family? If your answer is negative, you surely need to make changes in this area.
You don’t have to quit your job or shut down your business right away. Talk to your boss about re-arranging your responsibilities in a way that are more aligned with your talents and your passions, or apply for a different job within your organization where you can achieve this.
If you are a business owner, hire more staff to take care of the the most time-consuming functions of your company that aren’t of your interest, or outsource them. But if these options are not feasible, realize that you have to walk away at some point — the sooner the better.
By love, I mean all the areas of your life that imply interpersonal relationships — not only romance. Make an inventory of the most important people in your life and take a hard look at how you relate to each of them. Again, the key point to look at here is whether you genuinely want to have these people in your life or you feel attached to them due to prejudiced, socially conditioned notions of personal worth.
Make it your policy to relate to people that make a genuine contribution to your personal growth. This doesn’t mean you should relate only to self-help gurus, or that your interactions with people should all resemble a mutual life-coaching session. If someone has a great sense of humor and you have a blast hanging out with them, keep them in your “friends list”.
But you’ll realize that you spend a great deal of time with people that you tolerate only because of family ties, the antiquity of your relationship, or your perception of them as valuable in terms of social status, wealth, or other vain, prejudiced conception of personal worth.
Another useful perspective to look for when evaluating your current relationships, is how much you give the people in your life compared to what you take from them. Always aim for giving more than you take.
If you find yourself receiving much more than you give in a relationship, it could mean that you need to work on yourself in order to learn to experience the joys of giving. But it can also mean that you don’t really value the other person in genuine terms of personal worth, and you subconsciously treat him/her as an object to satiate your desire of social status, lust, or a masochistic impulse.
Step 2 – Discover what you’re passionate about and go for it
After conforming for a log time, you might have become apathetic to the point that you just can’t fathom the idea of leaving a life in which work is delightful and meaningful. As I mentioned earlier, I was exactly in that situation a few months ago.
This feeling can be so strong that it might become an obstacle towards taking the first crucial step of breaking away from conformist work. You will catch yourself thinking that it’s crazy to quit your job or shut down your business without knowing exactly what to do next. Perhaps you should just hang on right there until you figure out what your next move will be. You reckon that you won’t make a move until you start feeling that itching that prompts you to take action.
But there’s a problem with this approach — it’s the soul-crushing work what’s blocking you from discovering what you really want in the first place.
The reason is what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”. Human brains are simply not designed to hold two contradictory desires, beliefs or behaviors at the same time, especially when issues of self-worth are at stake. Whenever this happens, we come up with a subconscious mechanism that eliminates the contradiction.
Sticking to soul-crushing work and realizing there’s another line of work that we are passionate for creates this sort of contradiction. Your brain will quickly conjure some sort of rationalization to eliminate the contradiction, coming up with all sorts of reasons to tease you into believing that your current job or business is not so bad after all.
Give it enough time and this mechanism will become so efficient that your brain automatically blocks you from perceiving any alternative as preferable to your current line of work. This is known as “denial of disconfirming evidence”, and is well documented in the scientific literature. It works very well in making us feel comfortable with the status quo, and providing stability to our lives.
For example, studies have shown that after purchasing an item, people systematically give it a higher rating when compared to a series of other items than when making the comparison before the purchase. The elements of the alternative items that people found as appealing before the purchase become dissonant with the decision of choosing something else.
Stepping away from soul-crushing work frees up our mind’s capacity to appreciate the possibilities for fulfilling work available to us, eliminating our brain’s need to come up with rationalizations of any sort. And of course, an immediate additional benefit is that now you will have time and energy to try different activities that might lead to fulfilling work such as reading, going back to school, brainstorm ideas and planning the launch of your own business, etc.
There are other complementary actions you can take besides quitting soul-crushing work to help the process of discovering the work you love:
Step 2.1 – Love’s spill-over effect
There is a strong synergy between the areas of work and love. The sooner you start breaking relationships that are based on vain, socially conditioned values and substituting them with new ones based on genuine, growth-enhancing connections, the easier it will be to discover what you really want to do in the area of work.
This will simply come as a result of being surrounded by people that care for your personal development and is better able to see your true colors, encouraging you in the process of pursuing your most important goals. When true love emerges in your relationships, it will spillover to work and any other important area of your life.
Step 2.2 – The power of context
One of the key lessons I learned from my own process of re-discovering meaningful work has to do with the power of context as a source of inspiration. In my case, besides stepping away from the business I was dedicating most of my time to, the most immediate thing I did was to make a radical change of context: I left the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where I had lived for the last three years.
This immediately made me re-build my life in the relationships area, as I only kept in touch with the few people I truly cared for that still live there. But there were other elements that I needed to break away from if I wanted to be at peace and make a fresh start.
For example, despite the fact that Dubai’s political regime tolerates a wide range of capitalist economic freedoms, I couldn’t bear the thought of living in a country where the press is closely controlled by the state, and other basic civil liberties taken for granted in a democracy such as workers’ right to unionize, respect for homosexual sex preference or peaceful civil disobedience are nonexistent. The gargantuan dimensions of Dubai’s skyscraper-crammed landscape, the mega-shopping mall culture, and the impossibility to be outdoors most of the year due to the extreme heat gave the city a feel of air-conditioned amusement park that I found particularly disturbing.
Needless to say, I was certain that it would be hard to get my creative juices flowing again in such an environment.
If you don’t feel that you belong to your current city or country but leaving is beyond your possibilities at the moment, try moving to a different neighborhood or even a different home within the same neighborhood. Think hard of what you want from your community and other elements of the ideal place where you want to live. Do you want to be close to the sea or the mountain? Do you need cafes, cultural scene and nightlife within walking distance or do you prefer a suburb where you can be away from the city’s hustle and bustle? All these elements of the context where your life unfolds have an impact on your ability to re-connect with your true desires and convictions.
Step 2.3 – Diet and physical exercise
Your capacity to dissipate the confusion about what you truly want to do with your life caused by years of conformist work is almost always compounded by a conformist attitude towards diet and physical exercise. If you conform to the typical lifestyle of the Western hemisphere, you will end up obtaining a large share of your dietary calories in the form of highly processed junk that can hardly be called food. And you will dedicate very little time, if at all, to physical exercise.
The West is slowly waking up to a fact that other ancient cultures, specially in Asia, have always taken for granted: we are what we eat. I cannot emphasize enough the impact that consuming a diet of fresh, non-processed, mostly organic food and a regular habit of exercise has had on my overall mental capacities. And as I’m slowly substituting the gym for martial arts training and meditation, I’m stepping into a realm of intellectual and emotional awakening that I can only describe as spiritual illumination. No wonder so many Eastern religions place a crucial importance on diet and exercise as means of transcendence.
This two-step plan is a bullet-proof tool to break away from conformism and find the motivational and inspirational boost to kick-start a new life of meaning and excitement. Stick to it and you will be soulfully itching — and scratching — sooner rather than later.