Updated: Dec 19, 2020
"What do you want for dinner?" I hear him ask the children for the third time in as many minutes. I intervene in frustration to get progress on the event.
"It's spaghetti bolognese or chicken curry or beans and baked potatoes"
"Spag bol" they mutter with relief, free now to get back to their world of activities which doesn't include the boring necessity to eat or make decisions about what to eat.
Providing choice, or more specifically, boundaries on choice, provides freedom.
The author Jonathan Franzen in his novel Freedom, questions the assumption that freedom is always a good thing. We celebrate democracy and open societies, but when it comes to our own lives, most of us don't know what to do with all the possibilities before us. To have a meaningful life we need to restrict some of our freedom. Big commitments in work and life may give us less times for ourselves, but they allow us to achieve something that matters to us.
Despite what they say, you can't have it all. You can pretty much have anything that you want, but not everything that you want, and certainly not everything all at the same time.
With great achievement comes great compromise. Ask any child prodigy who has had to sacrifice a normal childhood to reach their peak. But that's ok once you know that this is the choice. This is the price that I pay, and these are the boundaries that I work within.
The old Chinese proverb 'If you have this, you cannot have that'.
Constraints drive creativity
James Clear writes well on this subject. He says that the constraints in our lives often force us to make choices and cultivate talents that would otherwise go undeveloped. He tells the story of Dr Seuss, the famous children’s author. In 1960 the author was challenged in a $50 bet to write an entertaining children’s book using only 50 different words. He won the bet. That particular 'constraint’ resulted in the best-selling book Green Eggs and Ham, which sold over 200 million copies worldwide.
Our recent experience with COVID 19 has imposed unprecedented constraints to our lives. And yet people and businesses have pivoted to new ways of doing things. If I can’t do it this way, I will do it that way.
Budgets are tight, and companies are not hiring. But the work still needs to be done. These
constraints offer the opportunity for independent freelancers, or those recently made redundant to re-invent themselves. To package their knowledge, skills and experience as a solution to the problem, rather than simply ‘looking for a job’.
When it comes to career, Jeff Hoffman founder of LinkedIn has a great model in his book ‘The Start Up of You'. He frames career development as the balance between career aspirations - what you want to do, career assets - what you can do, and market realities - the opportunities out there. It’s this third piece, market realities, which provide us with the boundaries. But as markets change, and they do, then we can move our career assets and career aspirations within the new boundaries. Knowing this gives us freedom and flexibility.
From absence comes abundance.
Acknowledging the boundaries, what we cannot have, or what we are giving up, allow us to focus and be grateful for what we do have, and can do.
On March 13 th Leo Varadkar, the then Taoiseach, announced that I could no longer travel beyond 5Km from my home. Even then, only for exercise. I enjoyed more of my neighbourhood, noticed more of my urban landscape and talked with more of my neighbours, in the following three weeks, than in the preceding three years. With no option to go elsewhere, I found a new contentment in not having to.
A friend of mine recently turned 50. Over a glass of sauvignon blanc we discuss the ups and downs of such a milestone. For all its drawbacks, he welcomes the limitation imposed on life's dreams and aspirations. He has had to let go of many of those ideas about what he was going to be or do 'when he grew up'. But in return he gets to be more choosy and more focused on what he is ‘now’. He knows himself better. He lives his life according to his plan, not part of someone else’s.
So, the next time that you feel overwhelmed by the game of life and your inability to master the universe, just rein in the boundaries a bit and be king of you own kingdom.