Finishing my series on how to get what you want in life inspired me to reread "How to Find Freedom in an Unfree World." I first read it several years ago and have to confess that I didn't remember much from it other than discomfort at much of the advice it contained.
Rereading this book didn't eliminate my discomfort, but the book does contain some very useful advice for anyone trying to get what they want in life. So instead of doing a typical book review, I'm going to give you my rendition of these useful ideas and techniques.
1. Accept People as They Are
Think about being freer tomorrow. To make that happen, do you feel that you need to change someone? Maybe your spouse? Your boss? An entire group of people, like your neighbors? The politicians who make the laws that are keeping you down?
One of Harry Browne's biggest insights is that trying to change other people is a terrible idea. People have literally spent their entire lives becoming the way they are. Their very identity is tied up in the way they act and think. How much chance do you really have of getting someone else to change?
This doesn't mean that you can't bully or pressure someone else (or even some group of people) into doing what you want. But to do so, you are going to have to waste time and energy making them do what you want. Then you are going to have to keep the pressure on to ensure that things keep going the way you want them to. Looking at it from that perspective, this doesn't seem like a good way to become freer, does it?
Even if it seems that what you would gain makes it worthwhile to force someone to do what you want, is this the kind of person you want to be? We've all had someone in our lives who bullied and pressured us to do what they want rather than what we want. It happens frequently. And it feels terrible.
My dad forced me to join the football team at my University because he himself had failed to make it as a college football player. I wanted to concentrate on getting my engineering degree. Besides, at 5'10" and 160 pounds I was way too small to play my position in college. Still, Dad insisted that I try out for the team. Not surprisingly, I quickly got injured.
After a few weeks of limping around the football field and being distracted from my studies, I finally had the courage to quit the team. The coach was understanding, but Dad went nuts. The next day, he drove 6 hours from his house to the university to try to convince me to rejoin the team. I stood my ground but it was ugly.
This happened 35 years ago. Dad died 6 years ago. And still, one of my strongest memories of my deceased father is him making me miserable to live out some failed fantasy from his own childhood.
I tell you this story not so you will feel sorry for me. Crap like this happens to all of us. It simply illustrates what happens when you succeed in forcing someone else to do what you want instead of what they want.
Is getting someone else to do what you want really worth being remembered this way for all time?
A Better Approach
As Browne points out in his book, a much better approach to life is to accept people as they are instead of trying to change them. But this doesn't mean that you have to accept a crappy life, or stay in situations you don't like. The key is to make choices that don't depend on other people.
If you look hard enough there are almost always ways to deal with people problems that depend only on you. This doesn't mean that you have to change yourself, or learn to accept the situation you don't want. It means that you look for solutions that depend only on your own choices and initiative.
Some examples will help:
- Your neighbor's kids keep running around on your lawn and smashing your prize roses. You could complain to him, but that's not going to get you anywhere. Instead, you could relocate the flowers to the other side of the yard. Or build a wall along the border to keep the rowdy kids out.
- Your Cousin Joey is a racist jerk. You could try to explain to him why his ideas are ridiculous (try to change him). Or you could stop going to his house for the holidays and not have to listen to his BS anymore.
- Your partner never wants to do the things you like to do. You could pressure them to do what you like, "for the sake of the relationship". Or you could end it and find someone more compatible.
The theme here is that in each case, there are solutions that depend on only you, not on changing someone else. It can be hard to spot these kinds of solutions since most of us are trained from birth to sacrifice what we want for the sake of others. But these kinds of solutions almost always exist.
And you can apply this approach to more than just people problems...
2. Become Freer Tomorrow by Choosing Direct Alternatives
The examples above illustrate what Browne called Direct Alternatives. As he describes it,
"A direct alternative is one that requires only direct action by yourself to get a desired result."
This is in contrast to the way we usually try to do things, which is through Indirect Alternatives.
"An indirect alternative requires us to do something to get someone else to do what we want."
Indirect alternatives come with all the negatives I listed above, doing little or nothing to improve your freedom. If you want to be freer tomorrow, you need to learn to find and apply direct alternatives to get what you want.
Why Direct Alternatives Are Better
Browne goes into a lot of detail on why Direct Alternatives are better than Indirect Alternatives. Boiling it all down, here are the big benefits that I see:
- Direct Alternatives allow you to get things done. When you are the only one who has to do something, you can simply do it. You don't have to spend the time and effort trying to convince someone else to do what you want them to do.
- Direct Alternatives put you in control. When you get someone else to do something, you have no guarantee that they will do exactly what you want them to do. You have no guarantee that they will do it the way you want them to do it. And because they are doing something you want them to do instead of what they wanted to do, you can pretty much guarantee that they won't work at it as hard as you would.
- Direct Alternatives make you freer. Because you aren't dependent on others to get what you want, you are freer. If you want to do something, you just do it. If you want to change something, you just change it.
Let me give you an extreme example. I grew tired of working 60+ hours a week to pay the bills and have the quality of life I wanted. I could have chosen the Indirect Alternative, spent years creating a lobbying group to try to convince the government to increase pay rates or otherwise make it possible for me to live the way I wanted while only working 20 hours a week. By gathering followers and convincing them of the righteousness of my cause, I could eventually have put some pressure on some politicians to talk about someday possibly doing something.
Instead, I chose the Direct Alternative, and moved to Ecuador where I live well working less than 20 hours a week. I didn't have to convince people to do things for me or follow me or anything like that. I simply had to get on an airplane and do it.
It Isn't Always Easy
Choosing the Direct Alternative isn't always easy. We humans like to fit in, to be part of the herd. Taking action on our own frequently leaves us out in the open. That makes us a target, a threat to the status quo. People say things like, "Bill didn't like the way things were going here in the USA so he moved to South America. What a traitor/ingrate/coward/loser he turned out to be." Whether you agree or not, it hurts to hear people saying stuff like this about you. Particularly friends or family.
Also, society has a vested interest in preventing us from seeing and choosing Direct Alternatives. Every organized group out there wants followers. They want people who will work toward the group's goals, and put those goals ahead of their personal goals. They need you to take the Indirect Alternative in every case. Otherwise, you will go off and do what is best for you, and not serve them.
To summarize, finding and choosing Direct Alternatives is the way to freedom. But our schools, churches, families, jobs, and governments all teach us to fit in, to choose the Indirect Alternative, to be a part of their herd of followers. Choosing Direct Alternatives involves conflicts and hard decisions, but it is the best way to get what you want out of life.
3. Reducing the Emotional Impact of Conflicts and Hard Decisions
If you are going to get what you want out of life, you are going to have conflicts. You are going to piss off people who want you to do something other than what is right for you (like your family, friends, boss, church, and government). Even if you aren't upsetting anyone else, you are going to have to make hard decisions that could upset yourself. There is no way around it.
Doing stuff like this is tough. People will often stay in a bad situation, or sacrifice something they want, just to avoid the pain of conflicts and hard decisions. But you will never be freer tomorrow, never have what you want in life if you can't face these key moments in your life.
Happily, you don't have to turn yourself into some kind of unfeeling hardass to do what you need to do. Browne offers a nice technique for reducing the impact these kinds of situations have on you. It is a way to desensitize yourself while also preparing yourself for the tough situation to come.
How to Reduce the Emotional Impact
To make this concept more concrete, let's use the example of telling your parents you are dropping out of medical school despite their lifelong pressure on you to become a doctor. Follow these steps:
- Find yourself a quiet place and set aside 10 or 15 minutes where you won't be disturbed.
- Close your eyes and picture yourself sitting down with your parents to tell them what you are going to do.
- Imagine exactly what you are going to say to them.
- Now imagine their response. Imagine them really losing it, worse than they ever have before. See them trying to manipulate you into changing your mind, in the way only your parents can.
- As best you can, hear them and see them in your mind's eye, in as much detail as possible. You need to make it as realistic as you can.
- Ride it out all the way to the end of the confrontation. Go through it all and visualize it as clearly as you can. It won't be fun, but just do it.
- Give yourself a minute to catch your breath and remember how you felt while going through it.
- Do it again. That's right, go through the whole confrontation again, in as much detail as you can. If you think of some other crazy shit your parent's might do, include that in the mix.
- Think about how you felt going through it this time. It probably wasn't as painful as last time.
- Go through the confrontation several more times in your mind. You should soon reach a point where it just doesn't bother you. Once you do, you're ready to do it in the real world.
Why This Works
I think there are two things going on here. When we think about something bad or uncomfortable, we usually don't have an exact picture in our minds of what will happen. It is just this vague cloud of badness.
By visualizing what will happen when you confront your parents, it changes this vague cloud of badness into concrete possibilities based on your experience with them. These concrete things are almost always less scary than that cloud of unspecified bad stuff. Instead of, "oh this is going to be horrible," you end up with, "they are going to yell," "mom is going to cry," "dad is going to insult and criticize me."
Once you visualize how they are going to react, you can think more clearly about the possibilities. You'll probably find yourself thinking something like, "I've dealt with that crap from them before. I can do it again."
The second thing that happens is you desensitize yourself to the possible outcomes. Normal human beings can only get worked up about something so many times before we become desensitized to it. The first time something happens it can be a big deal. The 5th or 8th or 20th time, not so much. By working through it all in your head, in private, you desensitize yourself before the real-world confrontation.
Realize that while this technique is very useful, it isn't foolproof. You could still get upset during the actual event. And something could happen that you didn't expect. Still, you will be much better prepared for what's to come if you apply this technique beforehand than if you go in cold.
I consider a self-help type book worthwhile if it contains at least one idea that I can apply to my own life. While much of this book makes me uneasy, "How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World" offers several useful techniques for thinking about your life, as well as for dealing with the results of your decisions. It is definitely worth reading.