The book covers how we can rethink many of the aspects of modern life so that they don’t create unwanted obligations or limit our personal freedom. Most people are severely limited in what they can spend their financial, mental, emotional, and time resources on, usually due to limitations they’ve unknowingly imposed upon themselves, and this book helps you increase your personal freedom by rethinking those existing restrictions.
The first third of the book walks through the “traps” that we are in that cause us to not be free and how we can break out of them. For example, you’re in a trap if you depend on your employer to not fire you in order to be financially solvent. You’re in a trap if you feel you have to spend time with people you don’t like. You’re in a trap if you purchased a house in a city you no longer like.
Each trap has its own nuanced way of being dealt with, but there are certain heuristics that play out through the book in dealing with traps. My favorite from the book, and by far the most useful of them, is the choice between direct and indirect action.
Direct vs. Indirect Action
It will be easiest to understand the difference between direct and indirect action through a few examples:
The Bad Friend
Imagine that you have a friend whom you’ve known for years, but recently, they’ve become frustrating to spend time with. They’re absorbed in work and other commitments, and every time you try to spend time with them, they end up bailing or leaving almost as soon as they get there. You still like them as a friend, but it’s becoming a chore to spend time with them.
There are two ways to deal with this: indirectly or directly.
The indirect route would be to wait for them to come around, hope that they go back to normal, and keep trying to spend time with them on the bet that they’ll return to how they were.
The direct route would be to tell them that it’s a problem, and then stop spending time with them in favor of other friends. You can’t make them change, and if they’re no longer someone who can be a good friend, then you shouldn’t spend the time on them.
The Annoying Boss
Imagine that you have a disrespectful boss who you try to avoid at all costs. Obviously you don’t want your daily life to be stressful from having to avoid this person, so you need to do something about it.
The indirect route would be to hope that they change, to try to talk to their manager or friends about getting them to lighten up, or to submit anonymous internal feedback about them and wait for a change in response to it.
The direct route would be to confront them about the problem and allow them a short period to change, and if they don’t, change teams or change jobs.
Imagine that you’re in college and you feel like it’s not teaching you anything useful. You don’t want to waste four years of your life, so you need to do something about it.
The indirect route would be to try to change how the school is run, try to change the curriculum requirements, try to change what your professors teach.
The direct route would be to take your education into your own hands, learn in your free time, stop caring about your GPA, and design your own curriculum as much as possible within the existing school structure.
The difference between direct and indirect actions is where the locus of control resides. As Browne explains in the book:
“A direct alternative requires only a decision on your part; an indirect alternative requires that you get others to make decisions that would benefit you. You control only yourself. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to convince someone else to act in a way you’d like him to act. But the process of having to hope for a favorable reaction from someone else makes an indirect alternative less certain than a direct alternative.”
This concept is much older than 1973, of course. The determination to only be concerned about what’s in your control and not allowing yourself to be subject to the whims of others or nature is Stoic at its roots. As Epictetus says in his discourses:
“If the weather keeps us from traveling, we sit down, fret, and keep asking, ‘Which way is the wind blowing?’ ‘From the north.’ ‘That’s no good. When will it blow from the west?’ ‘When it wants to, or rather when Aeolus wants it to; because God put Aeolus in charge of the winds, not you.’ What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature.”
In any situation where your freedom is being limited by something external to you, you have two options. You can take indirect action where you depend on changing someone else, or you can take direct action where you focus on yourself and what you can do about the situation.
Taking direct action is harder than sitting back and hoping other people will change, but it’s the only way to have control of your life.
When something is frustrating, ask yourself what the direct action solution to it is, and make sure that you aren’t hoping that some indirect action will fix it. Indirect actions can work, but they can’t be relied on, and you’re likely to get even more upset that the world isn’t naturally conforming to your wishes.
When you choose instead to take a direct route, you’ll have less to complain or fret about because you’ll know that the situation is under your control and that you’re doing what you need to do about it.