The book that changed my life forever

HowIFoundFreedomCoverI have an annual ritual.

It’s not like I mark it on the calendar or anything, but I just know when it’s been too long since the last time. It usually seems to happen when the clocks have gone back and I’m starting to feel a bit gloomy.

Sometimes, I’m reminded that it’s time because I can feel life slipping out of my control a little bit.

Roughly once every year, I curl up with a cup of tea and revisit the book which has been one of my biggest influences as I’ve worked towards building a life which suits me.

Although the author died in 2006 (way before I was anywhere near constructing my current philosophy), I consider him, through this book alone, to have been one of the greatest mentors I’ve ever had.

He certainly helped me to get out of the rat race!

As such, I enthusiastically recommend his work to anybody who is trying to work out

  • what they want out of life and;
  • how to get it

I am of course describing How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World by the late Harry Browne.

I’m going to do my best to explain just how powerful an effect this book has had on my life and encourage those of you who are on the journey to job-freedom to pick up a copy and read it for yourselves.

The Bible of getting what you want out of life

How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World is about building a better world.

So what? Plenty of other books tackle this topic too.

The difference here is that Harry isn’t teaching us how to change the things that we think are ‘wrong’ with the world. Instead, he focusses upon accepting reality as it actually is and designing a joyful life inside this reality, i.e. building a better world for ourselves.

In the author’s own words:

Freedom is the opportunity to live your life as you want to live it. And that is possible, even if others remain as they are.

Reading Harry’s words inspired me to apply the ‘accepting the way things really are and acting accordingly’ approach to life which I write so passionately about. I expect that, if you’re familiar with my work, you’ve already heard a lot of Harry’s wisdom second-hand too 🙂

In a nutshell

It’s really difficult to condense the core message of How I Found Freedom into a single bite-size chunk, but I’m going to do my best:

Don’t think about ‘can’ and ‘can’t’.

Instead, think about ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’.

Things are rarely completely out of your reach, but there’s always a price to pay to get things how you want them.

That is, you are very rarely ever ‘stuck’.

You are not ‘stuck’ with your full-time job, it’s an illusion. There’s a cost you will have to pay to get out of that situation. Maybe, on balance, it will be worth it. Maybe not. But you are being intellectually lazy to label it as ‘impossible’.

The same logic applies to many facets of your life.

For instance, you’re never ‘stuck’ in a bad marriage or with unwanted commitments to friends with whom you no longer have anything in common. Instead, you’re simply unwilling to pay the costs associated with freeing yourself from the things that don’t make you happy (or striving for the things that really would).

Now, I found a massive amount of value in the mental shift from ‘can vs can’t’ thinking to believing ‘I can get most of what I want if I’m willing to pay the appropriate prices’ as outlined by Harry in the book.

However, that concept is just the tip of the iceberg.

The traps

As you may know, I’ve spent much of my adult life striving to be in a situation which gives me as much control as possible over my life. However, I do still get that familiar feeling of powerlessness every now and again. When that happens, I always pick up How I Found Freedom and jump to Part IWhy You Are Not Free.

In this section, Harry outlines several ‘traps’ people often find themselves in which have the effect of limiting their freedom to do what they want. Whenever I feel stuck, I like to leaf through the list of traps to see if I’m making a common mistake.

Harry’s list of traps is quite long so I’ll leave it to you to read through them. However, I thought it might be useful to share one item from the list which I’ve found very useful when trying to deal with controlling my (often very strong) emotions and making rational decisions in spite of them: the chapter entitled The Intellectual and Emotional Traps.

I’ll quote directly from the book. First, here’s Harry’s definition of The Intellectual Trap:

The Intellectual Trap is the belief that your emotions should conform to a preconceived standard.

And now, The Emotional Trap:

The Emotional Trap is the belief that you can make important decisions at a time when you’re feeling strong emotions

Now, read those descriptions again. I’d imagine there isn’t a single person in the world who could honestly say that they’ve never made a bad decision due to being in one of those traps. I’ve made thousands. I still make a lot (hopefully I’m getting a lot better at this now though :-)).


Here’s an example relevant to building a job-free life. To hold the belief

I should be happy with my well-paid but soul destroying job because everybody else thinks I’m really lucky to have it

is an example of falling in to The Intellectual Trap.

You can’t force yourself to feel any particular way about the situation. In fact, your emotions might be telling you something very useful (i.e. that you can’t carry on like this any longer).

On the flip-side, you might have just had a run-in with your boss and be tempted to say

Fuck you boss! I don’t need you or any of your shit! I’m outta here and I don’t care about the consequences!

which is a perfect example of falling in to The Emotional Trap.

Although getting mad at the boss might be a perfectly valid emotional response, it’s probably not a good idea to let that emotional response drive you to do something which might ultimately make a mess of your long-term job-freedom prospects.

Having read the book many times, I’ve become quite adept at stopping myself from falling in to either of these traps and making silly mistakes which might limit my options later.

Harry provides good examples for all of the ‘traps’ that he describes, but even more usefully, he devotes an entire section of How I Found Freedom (Part II) to techniques for freeing yourself from them.

Starting from zero

The final section (Part III) of the book is devoted to the process of building a new life. This part really resonated with my nature as a long-term planner. In fact, if you’ve done my free 6 part course, you’ll notice that I’ve included a description of some of the techniques Harry Browne introduces in Part III.

One particularly interesting idea in Part III is that of Starting From Zero. This is Harry’s name for what I would call a ‘bottom up’ design for life. He advocates performing a thought experiment which starts with the reader ‘stepping out’ of their current way of life and imagining what their perfect life would look like.

Harry goes to great lengths to discourage the reader from being biased towards things which are already present in their life such as a job they already have or friendships they are already part of.

I found this technique to be an extremely powerful way of identifying the things in my life which were ‘net negative’, i.e. had higher costs than benefits. In fact, doing this exercise led me to the conclusion that I don’t dislike being an engineer (in fact I really enjoy it) but I do dislike surrendering my autonomy for 5 out of every 7 days.

So, as Harry suggests in How I Found Freedom, I imagined a life where I was still an engineer but could do what I wanted most of the time and say ‘no’ when necessary… and then I built it!

Although, I found Part III particularly useful in the context of building a sustainable life without a job, the ideas expressed cover all aspects of building an ideal life which makes the book really useful even outside the realm of work and money.

Of course, I’ve spent the entire article singing the book’s praises, and deservedly so. However, I’m the first to point out that Harry Browne’s opinions and methods might seem somewhat atypical to a citizen of the modern world.

Take what you find useful

Make no mistake. Harry Browne’s writing is somewhat controversial. There might be a few things in the book which really rub you up the wrong way.

Harry was a libertarian and How I Found Freedom was written in the early 70s so there are plenty of ideas in the book which are quite far outside the current western zeitgeist. There are a couple of sections in the book which have become somewhat infamous for expressing some very ‘different’ views.

For example, Harry’s treatment of marriage, cohabitation and the raising of children doesn’t exactly gel with my own opinions. I can follow his logical reasoning, but tend to reach different conclusions on a few key moral questions.

However, at the very beginning of the book, Harry very plainly makes the following statement:

…please don’t gain the impression that I’m telling you how to live. You have to decide how you’re going to live.

There will be scores of suggestions made in this book — and you’ll have to decide which ones you can accept and can act upon.

If I write with passion and urgency in places, don’t assume that I’m demanding a specific course of action from you; the greatest urgency will be in encouraging you to make the decisions for yourself

This quote is a brilliant example of Harry’s wisdom and illustrates a concept which I think everybody should apply whenever they are exposed to new ideas:

Be extremely open-minded, particularly when listening to somebody with whom you mostly disagree.

I’ve met a lot of people during the course of my adult life who subscribe to one dogma or other and accept all of the ‘holy rules’ of that dogma without question. I have also been guilty of this myself on many occasions.

However, Harry helped me to gradually learn that even people who hold completely opposing ideologies to my own still frequently express ideas which are useful to me. It would therefore be very foolish to ignore all of the views of somebody just because they happened to hold differing political affiliations or moral principles.

So, even if you don’t agree with everything Harry has to say, I would strongly encourage you to apply the same logic to How I Found Freedom.

I suspect that most people reading this will be quite far from Harry on many spectra (political, philosophical etc). However, in my view, these people are the ones who will benefit most from being exposed to his philosophy.

So, if you’re a modern, left-liberal-leaning academic who thinks that big government is necessary to keep the capitalists in check, you probably won’t agree with Harry on a lot of issues. But, he still has plenty to teach you about building a life which you find fulfilling.

In conclusion

You might have noticed that this is one of my favourite books in the world. But I’d go even further than that.

If somebody pointed a gun at my head and said

I want to live a life of freedom and autonomy so I can do what’s important to me. Recommend the best resource in the world for achieving this or I will shoot you.

then I would respond with

Read How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World by Harry Browne

Obviously, if they’d have asked for a top 5, might have been in there 😉 but, if I had to stake my life on it, I’d put Harry’s book at the top of the league table every time.

As I stated in the title of this post, the ideas expressed in this book completely changed my life. If you want to build a life which suits you, it really is required reading.

If I’ve convinced you, I’d encourage you to strike while the iron’s hot and go and buy a copy now.

DISCLAIMER: This article contains a number of affiliate links. If you follow any of these links and purchase a copy of How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, will receive a small commission (but your purchase won’t cost you any more).

As you can see, I am a massive evangelist for the message in this book and gladly stand by my recommendation to buy it whether you use the affiliate links or not. However, keeping going as a free resource does cost money and so any support will be gladly appreciated.



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

14 thoughts on “The book that changed my life forever

  1. I read the hitch-hikers guide to the galaxy. It is – to my mind – the most important, deep and far-reaching philosophical work known to man (or Betelgeusean)..

  2. Fully agree with you on this book Andy. Read it earlier this year, and it prompted me to make a major life decision. There were a couple of sections that really were the lightbulb switching on, in regards to work colleagues and the cause of frustrations I had with them.
    Biggest regret was not coming across it a few years ago – would have saved me a lot of grief..

    1. Yeah – HB definitely had a knack for the ‘lightbulb moment’ thing. Nothing he says is exactly complex, but he just frames it differently from everybody else.

      All he does to get you unstuck is point out to you that you only assumed you were stuck in the first place. Simple and pure genius at the same time!

  3. Although it’s a detour from the philosophy, Harry Browne also had an investing angle with the Permanent Portfolio. You can hear him on his old radio show which goes into that too.

    > Although getting mad at the boss might be a perfectly valid emotional response, it’s probably not a good idea to let that emotional response drive you to do something which might ultimately make a mess of your long-term job-freedom prospects.

    It was exactly this that started my passage to FIRE – sometimes the flame of emotion is needed to overcome fixed forms IMO 😉 Although it took me another three years to execute the plan, the advantage of the intensity of the emotion was that I always remembered exactly why I was taking all that pain and kept my eyes on the prize!

    1. Yes, I’m a big fan of the Permanent Portfolio although I’ve judged that in its purest form (i.e. a quarter each of equities, long gilts, gold and cash for the UK) it’s a touch too conservative for my growth needs. I might have mentioned when we met up that I use a variation on the PP where I’ve made the equity component international, dropped the cash (as I hold a year’s worth of living expenses in cash at all times anyway) and then set the asset allocation at 80-10-10 (equities-long gilts-gold bullion). This is still quite aggressive for the growth I need but has just enough ‘tin foil hat’ to let me sleep at night!

      > It was exactly this that started my passage to FIRE – sometimes the flame of emotion is needed to overcome fixed forms IMO

      Hey, I’m all for feeling the emotions. I think they’re really important to motivate you to make the ‘big’ changes. However, the trick is to focus that intensity in a cool and rational way to get you away from what’s upsetting you (or rather, towards what will make you happy). You did exactly that! 🙂 I was thinking more along the lines of getting pissed off and then immediately walking into the corner office and telling them where to shove it despite having no savings or other prospects.

      1. Yes, I’d agree a fellow with more human capital and a longer investment horizon than HB should favour more equities, the PP is really for people who are reaching steady state, say late 40s to end of career. Your ratio of equities to JM Keynes’ barbarous relic seems pretty good. Though with all the crap we’ve taken this year the barbarous relic gets more attractive 😉

  4. I am a 62 year old woman who first read “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World” when it was first published…1973, 1974?? It rocked my world then and has been a guiding light since then. It was one of the first books I required my now husband to read as a test of compatibility! He passed the test and still refers to it as the “getting out of a box book”. 😉 It made my day to see you tout this book for the treasure it is.

    The next book on MY list of core books is “Your Money or Your Life”.

  5. I’m definitely going to have to pick this book up. It sounds like it’s a great thing.

    I’ve got a stack of personal finance/self-help type books, and after reading bits of each of them, I realized that they were all saying pretty much the same things. Of course, that just means I didn’t finish reading most of them. This one sounds like a slightly different, fresher (as in, not the same) approach.

    Thanks for the recommendation!

  6. This is an awesome book and one of my favorites. I love the part about getting rid of labels. It’s liberating and it opens up your path to a new world of possibilities.

  7. Have you read The Art of Possibility? I’m halfway through and it sounds like it would compliment How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World.

    I’ll admit that I’ve had How I Found Freedom on my Kindle for months but haven’t gotten past the first 50 pages since it was a little drier than I expected. But it’s definitely one I’d like to read.

  8. Based on your summary of its contents, it feels like I’ve read the book already…although I got a copy of it yesterday and fully intend to read it (the above is quite an endorsement).

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