What Does It Mean To Be Free?

We all dream of freedom, but few of us can pinpoint what that actually entails.

Is it quitting your 9 to 5? Traveling the world? Having an open relationship? Pursuing your passion?

What does it mean to be free?

Learn what types of freedom there are, why freedom is a solo sport, and how you must develop self-discipline first.

Why Political Freedom Is Not the Answer

“What does it mean to be free?”

When most of us ponder this question, the first thing that comes to mind is our democratic rights, like the right to vote or freedom of the press.

Yet, you can have all the political freedom in the world and still feel trapped.

The best example is our 9-to-5 jobs. When you are confined to your cubicle for eight hours a day, filling out pointless Excel tables, pandering to your boss’s every whim — how can you feel free?

Similarly, many of us feel suffocated by the traditional relationship paradigm. The notion of “Until death do us part,” is as restrictive as it gets.

Vice versa, you can be politically unfree and still enjoy a high level of personal freedom.

For example, I have a friend who permanently relocated to communist Laos (obviously not a free society). Yet, he enjoys a high level of personal autonomy; his dollar goes much further, and he can openly indulge in his love for narcotics.

The reality is that political liberties hardly make a dent in our everyday lives. They don’t give us that sensation of freedom we crave.

That’s because freedom is a solo sport. Which brings me to my next point.

Systemic Change vs. Self-Responsibility

Let’s say you are fed up with your 9-to-5 and you want to do something about it.

Now, most people will choose the path of systemic change. Current examples are the 4-day week movement and the universal basic income movement.

There are several problems with this approach.

First, these movements rarely succeed. You are going up against powerful interest groups with huge resources. Your employer doesn’t want you to work less. They will fight you with all they have.

Second, as soon as people get together under the same banner, there will be infighting. Does this bickering help with your sense of personal freedom? Of course not.

Third, in most instances, the change you desire will be years if not decades away. You might be an old man or an old woman before you get to enjoy the fruits of your struggle (if ever).

Fourth, whatever cause you are crusading for rarely turns out the way you had hoped for. More often than not, it gets turned on its head.

Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.

Jacques Mallet du Pan

Now contrast these many failings of the systemic approach with the individualist approach.

Here, you only pursue actions that you directly control.

If your goal is to escape the 9-to-5 grind, you might start your own passion business.

Or you might drastically cut your expenses and only work odd jobs from here on.

Or you might move to a country like Thailand where you can make a living teaching English online for 10 hours per week.

All of these options are directly available to you. You don’t need to go through anybody else. You can start the process right now and be done with your 9-to-5 hell in just a few short months from now.

True freedom is an individualist’s quest. You must cultivate radical self-responsibility.

How Freedom Both Excites Us and Scares Us

There is a strange disconnect when it comes to freedom.

In theory, there are few things that excite us as much as the prospect of freedom. Quitting your 9 to 5, traveling the world, opting out of monogamy — just thinking about these options will make us feel giddy with excitement.

Yet, as soon as it comes to taking action, the vast majority of people chicken out. Suddenly, we are scared out of our minds. Your monotonous 9 to 5 and that boring marriage now seem like the very pillars of security we can’t live without.

Most people manage to keep themselves busy with this emotional back and forth until they are too old to do something about it.

It’s also why we are obsessed with “changing the system” — it’s much easier to project your yearnings onto some abstract cause than to take action yourself.

The solution is to plan for that fear. Understand that it will inevitably pop up. But also realize that if you can endure it, there will be life-changing rewards.

The first time I went through this was in my mid-twenties. I had just signed the lease for my first brick-and-mortar business. The rent was $4000 a month.

I was scared witless. Every night, I would lay in bed thinking, “How am I going to pay for this?”

But I endured the fear and the business turned out to be successful. The benefits I got from that were worth the initial fear many times over.

This is true for whatever risk you take. You must go through that initial phase of fear to arrive at something greater.

It is the price of entry.

“Freedom From” vs. “Freedom To”

Freedom comes in two flavors — “freedom from” and “freedom to.”

“Freedom from” is about removing a shackle, something that is restricting your personal freedom.

Examples of “freedom from” are:

  • Quitting your 9 to 5
  • Leaving a constricting marriage
  • Saying “No” to requests
  • Getting rid of debt

The emotional reward you get from these is relief. By shaking off the yoke, you are feeling lighter.

“Freedom to” is about potentiality. A new project has you all excited. You can’t stop imagining what it will feel like once you get there.

Examples of “freedom to” are:

  • Turning your passion into your business
  • Traveling the world
  • Entering into a new sexual relationship
  • Having an adventure in nature

“Freedom from” and “freedom to” are connected. They build onto each other.

“Freedom from” is how you start out. But many people stop here, and that is a mistake. If all you fantasize about is being free from something, that’s just a negative motivator. But you also want to feel drawn towards something. That is what “freedom to” can provide.

The 14 Types of Freedom

If you ask a dozen different people, “What does it mean to be free?” you will get a dozen different answers.

In truth, there is not just “one” freedom — there are many types of freedom, which we will explore in the following section.

It is important to note that some of these freedoms oppose each other. I will point this out for every type of freedom separately.

I. The “Freedom From” Freedoms

Sticking with our previous classification, I will differentiate between “freedom from” and “freedom to.”

Let’s start with the “freedom from” section.

1. Freedom From Sickness

If you are morbidly obese, you are not free to move through space as you wish.

If you are bedridden, you are bound to one location.

If you suffer from addiction, you are consumed by the desire for a certain substance.

Reclaim your health. It’s the basis for all other kinds of freedom.

Quick ideas:

  • Prioritize your sleep. Keep regular bedtimes, even on the weekends. Don’t look at any screens for an hour before you go to bed.
  • Get your diet straight. Specifically, avoid all sugars and processed foods. If it has legs or fins, eat it. If it grows in your garden, eat it. Otherwise, don’t.
  • Move. Take long walks. Find a sport that you look forward to playing every week. Lift weights. Do 10–20 minutes of mobility work every day.

At odds with:

  • Nothing, really. Getting healthy will improve your chances of succeeding at any other type of freedom. It’s the great enabler.

2. Freedom From Debt

You cannot feel free if you have student loans or credit card debt hanging over your head. Getting rid of these impairments must be one of your first actions.

Quick ideas:

  • Get a clear picture of what you owe. Write everything down in a Google sheet.
  • Get a clear picture of what you spend each month. Again, write this down.
  • Cut your expenses as much as possible. Move to a cheaper apartment. Sell your car, take the bike. Cook your meals at home.
  • Set yourself a target amount X that you will repay each month.
  • Start with the lowest position on your list to get a quick win. Once that is paid off, move on to the second lowest number.

At odds with:

  • To achieve freedom from debt, you will have to forego your freedom of consumption for a while.
  • Also, you will have to compromise on your freedom to pursue your passion in life. As long as you are in debt, it is best to stick with your 9 to 5, as excruciating as it might feel. Get your debt out of the way, then move on to greener pastures.

3. Freedom From Fear of Being Alone

Many people are mortally afraid to be by themselves.

This restricts you in multiple ways. To get work done, you must always be surrounded by others. You can’t stand being single. You won’t dare to travel by yourself.

But you can learn to gradually wean yourself off your social addiction, and enjoy longer stretches of time by yourself. This will also do wonders for your productivity (check out monk mode).

Quick ideas:

  • Each day, for a specific amount of time, cut yourself off from all distractions. Don’t talk to anybody, don’t watch TV or Netflix, don’t check social media.
  • Instead, focus on your passion project, the thing that you want to make progress with the most.
  • Start low, e.g., with 30 minutes per day. Then gradually increase.
  • Work your way up to the point where you can go weeks or even months without pointless social interactions, being hyper-focused on your work.

At odds with:

  • Nothing. Being able to do deep work is a superpower. It will help with many other types of freedom.

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Blaise Pascal

4. Freedom From Social Anxiety

Just like you can be afraid to be by yourself, you can also suffer from social anxiety.

This too will impact your freedom. For example, you will have a hard time making new friends or initiating sexual contact.

If that’s you, you must gradually desensitize yourself. You must learn to reach out to strangers, wherever you find yourself.

Quick ideas:

  • Strike up a conversation with a stranger each day.
  • For the first few weeks, just smile at people in passing. Then start telling them “Hi.” Then give them a quick compliment. And so on.
  • The goal is to get to the point where you can talk to anybody, from the guy sitting next to you in the subway to that attractive stranger across the bar.

At odds with:

  • Nothing. Indeed, being able to charm people will help with several other types of freedom, like financial freedom (think sales) or sexual freedom.

5. Freedom From Social Norms

All of us are born into certain cultural prisons.

For example, if you are a woman in a conservative Muslim society, you are not allowed to express your sexuality freely.

Likewise, if you were born into a New England family of academics, chances are you grew up spoiled and overprotected (which is its own prison).

In either case, our parents, teachers, and peers all strive to imprint on us what they consider “right.” Comply with their expectations, and you’ll be considered a good boy or a good girl.

But dare to deviate, and you are stigmatized as the black sheep.

This is how most people end up in the groupthink trap — to not risk rejection.

You must be different. You must ignore all attempts of emotional blackmail and learn to think for yourself.

Quick ideas:

  • One of the best ways to develop your ability for critical thinking is to learn how to appreciate art — literature, music, the visual arts, etc. Great art is always socially subversive. It will teach you to question what people call “normal.”

At odds with:

  • Nothing. Your ability to think for yourself will help you with any other type of freedom.

6. Freedom From Your 9 to 5

The worst of all the shackles is our soul-numbing 9-to-5 job. It is a special kind of hell:

  • Waking up to an alarm every morning.
  • Commuting.
  • Being stuck in your gray cubicle.
  • Filling out Excel tables that nobody needs.
  • Attending pointless meetings.
  • Sucking up to your boss.
  • Enduring the office gossip.

There can be no personal freedom as long as you hold an office job. All the fun hobbies in the world won’t make up for the fact that for half of your day, you are effectively a slave.

You must quit your 9 to 5.

Quick ideas:

  • Quitting your 9 to 5 can be an intimidating prospect. Where do you start? What should you do instead? Check out my article on escaping the 9 to 5, where I lay out a step-by-step plan.

At odds with:

  • Nothing. Actually, quitting your 9 to 5 job will improve various other types of freedom, like your health, your time freedom, and the freedom to pursue your passion.

7. Freedom From Monogamy

The other major hindrance to personal freedom is the traditional relationship paradigm.

Imagine someone telling you you could only eat T-bone steak for the rest of your life. If you didn’t, there would be major legal and financial repercussions for you.

Of course, you would call such a person insane. Even if T-bone steaks happened to be your favorite food, you would want a minimum level of variety.

It’s the same with our sexual relationships.

Nobody wants to have sex with only one person for the rest of their lives. Likewise, we don’t want to be limited to only one person emotionally.

We want different bodies (at least occasionally) as well as different emotional and intellectual inputs.

And you can have that. There are plenty of other models out there, from swinging to polyamory. Go experiment.

Quick ideas:

  • Observe the many failed monogamous relationships around you. The mutual resentment. The bitterness. Resolve to not make the same mistake.
  • Read up on people who tried other models and succeeded. “The Ethical Slut” by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton is a good starting point.
  • Install a polyamory-friendly app like Feeld and go on some dates with other freethinkers.

At odds with:

  • Nothing. Not having a resentful partner will help with other types of freedoms. You will feel energized instead of distracted.

8. Freedom From Consumerism

Another unfreedom built into our society is consumerism.

The average person owns thousands of physical items — clothes, books, furniture, appliances, etc. — many of which we never use.

To store the myriads of things you own, you need a house or an apartment. That means you are stuck in one location.

Then there is our emotional dependency on our stuff. We define our identity by what car we drive or what pair of shoes we wear.

Finally, there is the financial aspect. To buy all these things, we spend money we don’t have. We go into debt to keep up with the Joneses.

It is really how they say — the things you own end up owning you.

You need to break free from this madness. The fewer things you own, the quicker you will reclaim control over your life.

Quick ideas:

  • Make it a habit to throw at least one thing away each day. Many days, this will get you going and you will end up throwing away many more things.
  • Prefer throwing stuff away over selling or donating it. The latter two easily turn into an excuse to not get started, as they require more preparation.

At odds with:

  • Nothing. Owning fewer things will result in more mental clarity, more geographical mobility, and more savings.

II. The “Freedom To” Freedoms

Now, let’s look at the “freedom to” category.

9. Freedom To Pursue Your Passion

When you are free to pursue your passion, you can make your job about what you love.

Maybe you want to teach martial arts. Maybe you want to be a vlogger. Maybe you want to tour the country with your band.

When you do what you love, work stops feeling like work. Instead of dreading it, you are constantly looking forward to it.

Quick ideas:

  • First, figure out your passion. Chances are, you probably have several interests competing for your attention. However, your dominant passion has already manifested itself in your past. A good question to ask yourself is what you enjoyed as a child. What activity made you forget everything else?
  • Second, test your hypothesis. If you think you want to be a comic artist, try it out for 6 months. You won’t get it right straight away. But with every new test, you learn something. This is how you find your passion — not by staring at the drawing board, but by applying.

At odds with:

  • Pursuing your passion often clashes with financial freedom. How many millionaire comic book artists do you know? Exactly. But if you still want to make good money as a musician or a yoga teacher, be prepared to give up your freedom of time. Something has to give.

10. Freedom of Time

When you have freedom of time, every day is wide open. You have no commitments whatsoever.

If you want to go for a walk in the park, you do so. If you want to spend the next few hours at the library, that’s where you’ll be. If you want to have a coffee with your best friend, you can leave right now.

Quick ideas:

  • Radically cut your expenses to around $700–800 per month. Move to a smaller apartment, cook all your meals at home, use the Wi-Fi at your local library, etc. With that little overhead, you’ll only have to work odd jobs. For the most part, your days will be wide open.

At odds with:

  • Time freedom doesn’t agree with financial freedom; you won’t get rich working odd jobs. Also, it inhibits geographical freedom. You need some funds to travel.

11. Financial Freedom

With financial freedom, you have the funds to buy whatever you want. If you want to buy an Italian sports car or travel to the Maldives, you can. Your pockets are so deep that these expenses hardly register.

Quick ideas:

  • I won’t pretend to be the expert here. However, rich friends tell me that the three keys to making lots of money are a) a scalable business model, b) hiring the right people, and c) working harder than everybody else. What most people consider crucial — coming up with the most innovative idea — is by all accounts overrated.

At odds with:

  • To have financial freedom, you’ll have to forego time freedom. Financial success means 12-hour days, at least when you start out.

12. Location Independence

With location independence, you are free to travel wherever you want to and for however long.

This usually requires an online job, like graphic design or programming. Here, it won’t matter where you are in the world as long as you have an internet connection.

Quick ideas:

  • Develop a skill set that can easily be sold as a service online. Examples include copywriting, graphic design, online marketing, and development.
  • Go minimalist. The fewer things you own, the easier it is to uproot yourself. For example, everything I own fits into a backpack.

At odds with:

  • When you constantly travel, maintaining friendships and romantic relationships becomes a challenge. Befriending or dating other travelers can be a solution.

13. Sexual Freedom

The idea here is that you are free to have sexual relations with more than just one person.

Just like you have more than one friend, you can also have more than one lover. Love is not some limited resource that needs to be portioned out. This freedom is also referred to as ethical non-monogamy (ENM) or polyamory.

Quick ideas:

  • Dare to communicate what you want. Too many people are afraid to speak up when it comes to their sexual and emotional needs.
  • Overcome your fear of scarcity. Yes, with a poly lifestyle, there will be fewer people to date. But these people are going to be more interesting.
  • Improve your attractiveness. Become fit, work on your style, and learn how to flirt. More options will present themselves.

At odds with:

  • If you work in a conservative industry, you might want to keep quiet about your free-loving ways.

14. Freedom To Speak the Truth

When you are free to speak the truth, you say what you think without worrying about the repercussions.

If your parents are spurting religious nonsense, you let them know.

If your friend is being delusional about their career prospects, you tell them so.

If some social justice warrior is virtue signaling, you point it out to them.

If some Trumpist is rambling on about Pizzagate, you shut them up.

Quick ideas:

  • Turn speaking the truth into an everyday practice. Start with 10 minutes a day. During those 10 minutes, you must weigh every statement you make. Over time, you extend that period until it becomes your new default.

At odds with:

  • Being honest will clash with business. When you are trying to sell people, you can only dispense so much truth. People want easy answers to their complicated problems. If you don’t provide that, they will buy somewhere else.

Why Freedom Requires Discipline

When you are wondering, “What does it mean to be free?” usually the last thing you want to think about is self-discipline.

You want to feel free, not to restrict yourself.

But ironically, to enjoy a high degree of freedom you first need to master yourself.

Take work for example. To quit your office job and become a professional YouTuber, you must consistently put out content for years before you will see any traction. All the while, you have to keep working your 9 to 5, as you still have to pay the bills.

Most people won’t do it. They are too lazy. They would rather keep coasting now than enjoy more freedom in the future.

Overcoming monogamy is another example. For most people, it is difficult to find an attractive partner as it is. But with non-monogamy, you will have to talk to hundreds of strangers until you find someone both attractive and open-minded.

Again, few people have the stamina to see it through. They would rather get married and be done with it, even when it means despising each other.

All of this is to say — you have a choice to make.

You can keep enjoying the little freedoms you already have — your Netflix marathons, the drunk weekends, the once-a-year vacations. But then nothing will change.

Or you can forego these little freedoms and work on your grand vision. The first few years will be hell. But you will enjoy a spectacular level of freedom later.

What will you choose?

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