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On the Freedom to Do What We (Truly) Want [Guest-post]

A guest post by Dom from Mindcoolness

When I studied cognitive science in Vienna I met Dom. A bodybuilder, power lifter, fighter, philosopher, a blogger and now a cognitive scientist (a cool combination, huh?) he has been an inspiration for me ever since. I am truly happy we became friends. In his blog and podcast at www.mindcoolness.com he explores discipline and will power. Ever had troubles keeping a routine? Losing weight? Can’t control impulsive behaviour? Or don’t know what you truly want? Then Dom’s blog is definitely worth checking out. I also sincerely recommend reading his book Will Power Condenced which I had the honour to proof read before publishing. If you like his stuff, also follow him on twitter (@mindcoolnessTHIS is a guest post by Dom. I asked him to explain the paradox: Why does freedom sometimes involve doing things we do not want to do? ENTER DOM.

Dom in the wild.


Freedom, in an important sense of the word, means to do what we want. We want to feel confident, so we do not expose ourselves to daunting situations. We want to play video games while getting drunk, so we do it every evening. We want to be safe, so we do not take risks. We want more sugar, so we binge on soft drinks, donuts, and ice cream. O great blessed freedom!

There are times, however, when doing what we want keeps us from doing what we truly want. The True Will is a higher-order volition. For example, I may want to drink another glass of rum because I am addicted to alcohol; but is this what I truly want? Is this the direction I want my life to go in? Am I free when I do what I want by surrendering to my compulsive desires, or would I rather be free if I used my willpower to overpower these desires? Is the latter not my True Will? Is the former not affective slavery?

Let us consider, as a second example, a man who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, insisting that he can stop whenever he wants. If he speaks the truth, he is flexible in his smoking behavior; and behavioral flexibility is just another word for freedom. In reality, however, it so happens that he never wants to take a break, not even for a day. Is this still freedom? It depends on what he truly wants and how behaviorally flexible he actually is:

  1. Let us assume he wants to successfully undergo an important medical procedure that forbids him to smoke for a day and he still smokes a pack. In this case, his behavior is inflexible.
  2. Let us assume his athletic performance is more important to him than his freedom to smoke and he still smokes on a daily basis. In this case, he is, again, not free, but enslaved by addiction.
  3. Let us assume he thinks of his freedom to smoke as his most fundamental personal value. In this case, he is either actually free or mistaken about his True Will due to a lack of self-knowledge.

Addiction is a key indicator of a lack of freedom, as are bad habits. If acting against a bad habit causes so much discomfort that it rapidly discontinues the action, then the behavior is inflexible. The same holds for enslaving emotions: a fear that stifles one‘s will to take action limits one’s freedom, as does an anger that automatically initiates a rigid behavioral sequence of shouting and physical aggression.

But freedom is not freedom from feelings, which would be physiologically impossible. Instead, freedom opens a gap between emotions/desires and behavior that allows a rational, mind-cool evaluation of one’s core values and True Will, which increases behavioral flexibility.

Rationality itself, however, does not motivate behavior. Musing for hours on the objective benefits of overcoming a fear or an addiction usually does nothing to alter the conditioned behavior, except to reinforce the emotions or desires by drawing more attention to them. How can we then fill the seemingly empty liberty gap between desire and behavior with a motivational force? We can fill it with the positive, self-directed emotion of pride, more precisely, with the prospect of true pride.

True pride is not arrogance, hubris, or vanity. It is the feeling we get when we do, with a cool, rational mind, what we truly want to do, thus feeling the power of our will. Willpower, fueled by pride, is what breaks the link between impulsive feelings (fear, anger, addictive desires) and regrettable behaviors.

Freedom is not rooted in a “free will.” We cannot willfully shift from one will to another (this idea does not even make sense). We can, however, train and condition ourselves to be more likely to have a will that is powered by pride and true to our core values, rather than like a leaf in the wind—whirled around by gusts of emotions that diminish our power of action.

In a moment of weakness, we might think we want to act upon our feelings, but this is not our True Will. Our True Will is what we would want to do if we had perfect knowledge of ourselves, which includes knowledge of how our own mind tries to trick us with excuses to make our weakness appear desirable. Only pride is strong enough to break through this illusion, and we can strengthen this pride through deliberate practice.

Whatever our personal challenge may be, we can learn to visualize the pride we will feel once we have overcome the challenge with the power of our will. Of course, the mere prospect of some far-away pride will probably not do the trick. So, to get a better feel for pride, we can divide the challenge into tiny parts, accomplish the first little goal, and then stay with our little pride for a little while—to get accustomed to it and to know, viscerally, what this emotion, whose name has so wrongly been discredited, is truly about. Then we accomplish the second little goal, and so forth: step by step, pride by pride, victory by victory.

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