If you want to live free, your utopia is irrelevant

ParadiseHi there. Let’s have another chat about getting rid of that daily grind that you hate so much.

Right, I’ll begin with a bit of rudeness.

I don’t care about your ideology. I don’t want to discuss politics. I really don’t give a shit about what you think is ‘just’ or ‘right’. Of course, I have my own opinions about all of these things, and maybe you could even change my mind about them, given the opportunity. But I’m writing this post to help you with a very specific problem: you don’t want to have a 9-5 job any more. You want to be able to live life on your own terms.

Unfortunately, whichever version of the world not being ‘fair’ or ‘just’ you subscribe to, your opinion does not make a damn bit of difference as far as achieving that goal is concerned.

Now, a quick disclaimer (for the avoidance of doubt). I am fully aware that I’m writing this from a position of privilege in a stable western country with no dictator, no civil war and no religious laws. Likewise, I suffered no childhood trauma or other particularly difficult circumstances in my early life. I am a white male. I am not, nor have I ever been homeless.

If you live in a situation where the prospects for having more freedom are severely limited, you have my greatest sympathies, but unfortunately, what I’m about to say is less likely to help you. The following advice is intended for my fellow privileged citizens of the rich, civilised world, for whom escape from the daily grind is a real possibility.

Which utopia?

Perhaps one of the following applies to you:

  • You are a socialist. You believe that the world is unfair because the wealth is incorrectly distributed. You would be free from the grind if you just had your fair share of the spoils.
  • You are a libertarian. You believe that the world is unfair because the socialists are using force to redistribute your justly acquired property away from you. You would be free from the grind if you could just keep what you produced.
  • You think corporations are evil and they should be forced to offer certain working conditions to their employees. You would be free from the grind if you weren’t poorly paid and treated like a cog in a machine.
  • You think that house prices are too high for you to get on the ‘property ladder’ even though your parents bought a massive house for £15 in 1970-something. You would be free from the grind if you didn’t have to pay £1000 a month in rent.
  • You think that advertisers are scum and believe they should be banned from conning you into buying things you don’t need. You would be free from the grind if Apple would just stop advertising new iPhones.
  • You think that your boss is a sociopath and shouldn’t be allowed to treat you like he does. You would be free from the grind if he’d just let you leave at 5 pm everyday instead of expecting you to stay until 7.

If you fall into one of these general categories and have a really clear idea of what your ideal world would look like, there’s a chance that sometimes reality can get you down a bit. It can be a bit of a relief to escape from daily life into your Utopian fantasies. I imagine you love to get riled up and debate politics and morality with your similarly-minded friends. I do that too sometimes.

The problem with that approach is that it changes absolutely nothing.

Care about what you can change

If you’ve delved into a lot of personal development literature, it’s likely that you’ve come across Steven Covey’s concept of distinguishing your circle of concern from your circle of influence.

In case you’ve never come across the idea, the gist is that people who are good at effecting changes tend to focus on the things they can directly influence. Wasting intellectual energy thinking about the way things ‘should be’ diverts your potency away from the places where you could be really effective. Let’s apply that concept to a couple of the profiles above.

Imagine that you’re the socialist and you think that the rich capitalists are stealing the excess value of your labour. You obviously can’t redistribute the world’s wealth single-handedly. You could vote for change. You could go on marches or be a 99-percenter. You could whine about ‘austerity’. None of these things will really move the needle though.

However, you could work hard to build more wealth for yourself which you don’t have to share with a boss or a corporation. Perhaps you could do this by starting up a micro-business or becoming a consultant in your field of expertise. If you want to help those less fortunate than yourself, perhaps you could volunteer some of your time with a charity which directly helps the particular group you’re worried about.

What if you’re the girl with the sociopathic boss?

You won’t change him. You might think that he’s contravening employment laws and you have some legal recourse. Maybe you’ve even spoken to HR or a lawyer. But, you need to face facts. Just because you think you have a right to be treated well isn’t going to make him do it.

However, you can look into some different employment options. I’d obviously recommend getting yourself into a position where you don’t have a boss at all, but at the very least, get some cash in the bank to stiffen your spine in case you have to go toe-to-toe with him.

So there you go. The first thing to do if you want to move towards a self-directed life is to work out what levers you can pull rather than whining about the ones that you can’t.

Now get more levers!

Knowing what you can change already is a good start, but beautiful things start to happen when those intial changes start to compound and give you even more options. This is one of the things that got me really fired up when I was working towards freedom from needing a job.

I directed my efforts within my circle of influence  and started a micro-business. As my tiny little business slowly grew, it gave me two new levers I could use to make my life better.

The obvious first benefit was piling up some cash. As the months passed, I saved continuously, effectively buying bigger and bigger pieces of my future back for myself.

In addition, my business income was getting closer and closer to my monthly expenditure which decoupled me even further from relying on my day job.

I now had a few new choices I could make if I wanted to. Note that I said new choices, i.e. choices which I did not have before. My circle of influence had expanded. Here are a few examples of new choices that were available to me

  • I could use my improved entrepreneurial skills and customer list to predictably scale up my income
  • I could have an extended period of time during which I didn’t work at all
  • I could negotiate a pay-rise from a position of strength (in order to gain even more choices in the future).

You may notice that each of the choices in that list can easily be leveraged into even more choices in the future. For example, scaling up the micro-business income would have, over time, led to an even better position of strength from which to negotiate or an even longer period during which I could tolerate earning absolutely nothing.

Play the long game

My advice: if you want to build freedom start taking appropriate actions to get access to levers which you currently can’t pull. The types of things it might be useful to build in order to give you access to levers which will increase your freedom later on include

If you feel yourself starting to complain about the pointless drudgery of everyday life, stop! Look at what levers you’d like to have access to and start working on a strategy to get access to them. It’s probably going to be really, really hard but it’s the only reliable way to improve the situation.

The benevolent god of your utopia will not be along to help you any time soon.

We can only operate inside reality

This is the real point of the article.

You are not going to will your utopia into existence just by complaining. You might make a tiny dent by engaging in politics or protest movements, but it will take many years and you’ll be too old to care by the time anything really changes.

If you want to make your experience of day-to-day life closer to what you think is the ideal, you need to accept the world exactly as it is. Then you need to work out how to build the best possible life for yourself given those immovable constraints.

In my experience, when you choose to take this approach, the world starts to seem like a much nicer place anyway.


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[Image “Cartoon Character Hamster Exercise” courtesy of saphatthachat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

2 thoughts on “If you want to live free, your utopia is irrelevant

  1. Will hold my hand up to being 3 out of your 5 above 🙂

    However I fully agree there is no point in complaining. I may not agree with many points of the system but that doesn’t mean I can’t work it to my advantage.

    I figure there is far greater scope to effect positive change on the world when my time is my own rather than stuck in a 9 to 5 and I see no hypocrisy in criticising the system that supports you as long as I’ve earned my freedom fair and square according to that systems rules. Checking out completely is rarely going to help anyone on a large scale (although no issues with people who decide to that either!)

    1. I think that behind everybody in the FI world, there’s a system gaming alter ego! Perhaps that’s why we see so many programmers in ‘the movement’.

      Believe me, I like the odd whinge. I just know that, cathartic as it can be, complaining isn’t going to get me what I want.

      Have you read How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World by Harry Browne (of Permanent Portfolio fame)? He makes the point much better than I do. Perhaps check it out if you haven’t already.

      Warning: some of HB’s 1973 views might not necessarily align with those of a typical inhabitant of the world of 2016!

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