by Harry Browne (some highlighted notes)
Freedom is the opportunity to live your life as you want to live it.
Most of the rest of the world will remain unfree during the rest of your life. Most people will continue to lead what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation”—paying high taxes, bowing to social pressures, working long hours with little to show for them, never having the time to do what they want to do, resigning themselves to loveless compromises that masquerade as marriages.
Fortunately, that doesn’t have to be your life. Even in an unfree world, you can be free.
PART I Why you are not free
There are four basic principles whose recognition can help to avoid the Identity Trap:
1. You are a unique individual—different from all other human beings. No one else has the exact same nature that you have; no one else reacts to things in exactly the way you do. No one else sees the world exactly as you do. No one can dictate what your identity should be; you are the best qualified person to discover what it is.
2. Each individual is acting from his own knowledge in ways he believes will bring him happiness. He acts to produce the consequences he thinks will make him feel better.
3. You have to treat things and people in accordance with their own identities in order to get what you want from them. You don’t expect a stone to be a fish. And it’s just as unrealistic to expect one person to act as someone else does. You don’t control the identities of people, but you can control how you deal with them.
4. You view the world subjectively—colored by your own experience, interpretation, and limits of perception. It isn’t essential that you know the final truth about everything in the world; and you don’t have the resources to discover it.
Instead, the test to be applied to any idea is: does it work? Does your identification of things lead to the consequences you expect? If it does, what you’ve perceived was true enough for that situation. But recognize the context of the situation and be skeptical when generalizing from that test to draw broader conclusions.
These observations can help to keep you out of the Identity Trap. You don’t have to try to live a life that isn’t yours. What others say you should be is based either upon what they are or upon the way they feel you’d be of more value to them. Neither can be a valid basis for determining how you should live your life. They’re doing and saying what makes them happy, and their conclusions are drawn from their own limited, subjective experience.
“As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”
—JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE
“Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”
Your intellect and your emotions are both essential, real parts of you. Each has a function; neither can be disregarded if you’re to get what you want in life. To deny either of them is to fall into one of the traps.
You’re in the Intellectual Trap if you let your intellect tell you what you should feel.
You’re in the Emotional Trap if you let your emotions make important decisions for you.
Both traps lead to trouble.
You have to know what you’re doing and why. The Emotional Trap blinds you to what you’re doing because you can’t see the consequences clearly. And the Intellectual Trap cuts you off from the only important why connected with your actions—knowing that what you’re doing will lead to what you know will create happiness.
To achieve genuine, durable happiness, you have to recognize your emotional nature and intelligently think ahead to create situations that will trigger happy emotions from your unique nature.
Then, when your plans have produced what you wanted, you can disregard your intellect, relax, and just feel. You’ll be able to act spontaneously within that context because you’ve eliminated any possibility of bad consequences.
Then you can allow yourself to be engulfed in a flow of genuine positive emotions. And that’s what makes life worth living.
“No one has ever talked himself (or anyone else) out of an undesired emotion by hurling insults or by delivering a moral lecture.”
You are responsible for what happens to you (even if someone else offers to accept that responsibility), because you’re the one who’ll experience the consequences of your acts.
You are the one who decides what is right and what is wrong—no matter what meaning others may attach to those words. You don’t have to obey blindly the dictates that you grew up with or that you hear around you now. Everything can be challenged, should be challenged, examined to determine its relevance to you and what you want.
As you examine the teachings of others, you may find that some of it is very appropriate to you, but much of it may be meaningless or even harmful. The important thing is to carefully reappraise any moral precept that has been guiding your actions.
As you examine each of the rules you’ve been living by, ask yourself:
—Is this rule something that others have devised on behalf of “society” to restrain individuals? Or have I devised it in order to make my life better for myself?
—Am I acting by an old, just-happens-to-be-there morality? Or is it something I’ve personally determined from the knowledge of who I am and what I want?
—Are the rewards and punishments attached to the rules vague and intangible? Or do the rules point to specific happiness I can achieve or unhappiness I can avoid?
—Is it a morality I’ve accepted because “someone undoubtedly knows the reason for it”? Or is it one I’ve created because I know the reason for it?
—Is it a morality that’s currently “in style” and accepted by all those around me? Or is it a morality specifically tailored to my style?
—Is it a morality that’s aimed at me and against my self-interest? Or is it a morality that’s for me and comes from me?
All the answers must come from you—not from a book or a lecture or a sermon.
When you decide to take matters into your own hands, someone may ask you, “Who do you think you are? Who are you to decide for yourself in the face of society and centuries of moral teachings?”
The answer is simple: You are you, the person who will live with the consequences of what you do. No one else can be responsible, because no one else will experience the consequences of your actions as you will.
If you’re wrong, you will suffer for it. If you’re right, you will find happiness. You have to be the one to decide.
“Who are you to know?” It’s your future at stake. You have to know.
“Freedom comes only from seeing the ignorance of your critics and discovering the emptiness of their virtue.”
“Volumes might be written upon the impiety of the pious.”
Everyone is selfish; everyone is doing what he believes will make himself happier. The recognition of that can take most of the sting out of accusations that you’re being “selfish.”
Why should you feel guilty for seeking your own happiness when that’s what everyone else is doing, too?
The demand that you be unselfish can be motivated by any number of reasons: that you’d help create a better world, that you have a moral obligation to be unselfish, that you give up your happiness to the selfishness of someone else, or that the person demanding it has just never thought it out.
Whatever the reason, you’re not likely to convince such a person to stop his demands. But it will create much less pressure on you if you realize that it’s his selfish reason. And you can eliminate the problem entirely by looking for more compatible companions.
To find constant, profound happiness requires that you be free to seek the gratification of your own desires. It means making positive choices.
If you slip into the Unselfishness Trap, you’ll spend a good part of your time making negative choices—trying to avoid the censure of those who tell you not to think of yourself. You won’t have time to be free.
If someone finds happiness by doing “good works” for others, let him. That doesn’t mean that’s the best way for you to find happiness.
And when someone accuses you of being selfish, just remember that he’s upset only because you aren’t doing what he selfishly wants you to do.
“Poke any saint deeply enough,and you touch self-interest.”
The Group Trap is the belief that you can accomplish more by sharing responsibilities, efforts, and rewards with others than you can by acting on your own.
You waste precious time, effort, and money when you attempt to achieve freedom through the efforts of a group. You can achieve far more for yourself by using direct alternatives to free yourself of government interference, social pressures, and other conditions that restrict you.
There are easier ways—ways in which you can go as far as you’re willing to and be rewarded accordingly.
Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone.
The Government Traps ensnare many people because they never stop to recognize what a government is. It’s an agency of coercion that’s accepted as necessary by most people within its area of influence. It differs from the Mafia only in that the Mafia isn’t usually considered necessary by the people in the communities it “serves.”
Governments usually do enjoy that respect. Even those people who want the “ins” replaced by the “outs” consider the institution itself to be necessary.
I don’t expect to see a world in which there would be no theft, aggression, or coercion. But it would be refreshing to live in one in which no agency of coercion had the acceptance of most of the people around me. Dealing with an agency of coercion would be much easier if you didn’t have to cope also with “law-abiding” neighbors who act as unpaid functionaries of the state.
I believe a world without “government” would be a better place to live. However, that doesn’t tell me how to deal with the world in which I do live.
But a realistic understanding of government keeps you out of the Government Traps. You won’t waste precious time and energy trying to work through the government to become free. Nor will you allow blind allegiance or patriotism to keep you from living your life as you want to live it. Nor will you be deterred by the government’s apparent powers.
There’s nothing to be gained by trying to make the government more efficient, by trying to get the “bad guys” out and the “good guys” in. The government has nothing to offer you.
And therein lies the answer to the famous cliché, “The government should do for the people only what they cannot do for themselves.”
There’s nothing the government can do for you that you can’t do for yourself—far less expensively, far more easily, and far more securely. And you can do it for yourself without first having to obtain the approval of the electorate, the establishment, or anyone else.
… the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one class of citizens to give to the other.
You’re in the Despair Trap if you believe that you have to stay where you are and work things out somehow. Or if you believe that you couldn’t be any better off if you were to change your situation. Or if you think that the government or society can stop you from being free. Don’t be depressed by what others say about your freedom and happiness. They aren’t the whole world, and they don’t have all the answers.
There is a better world to find when you’re free to look for it.
Little souls wish you to be unhappy. It aggravates them to have you joyous, efficient and free. They like to feel that fate is disciplining you. It gives their egos wings if yours are clipped. You can ruin your life in an hour by listening to their puerile opinions.
THE RIGHTS TRAP
THE RIGHTS TRAP is the belief that your rights will make you free.
It’s not hard to fall into this trap and become preoccupied with your rights as a way of getting what you want. You’ve probably heard since childhood that you have certain rights—to life, liberty, property, the freedom to pursue your happiness.
In addition, it’s easy to feel that someone owes you certain things in a relationship—such as respect, honesty, or fair play.
Unfortunately, rights exist only in theory. In practice, they don’t accomplish much—no matter how much people may discuss them.
By implication, a right to something means that someone else must provide that something, whether or not he wants to. A right to your property, for instance, means that you should be allowed to keep your property—even if others want to take it. A right to a job means that someone must provide a job for you even if he prefers not to.
Rights are invoked only when there’s a conflict of interest. Otherwise, there’s no need for them.
One reason it’s so easy to walk into the Rights Trap is that it sometimes seems to be the only way to deal with a conflict. But that’s only one of three methods of handling such situations. You can:
1. Rely upon your rights to get you what you want.
2. Find a way to make it in the other person’s self-interest to provide what you want.
3. Find a way of getting what you want without his being involved.
In my experience, I’ve been involved in many situations in which the second or the third method has worked for me. But I’ve never found a situation in which the first method has been useful.
We’ve seen that an individual acts in ways that he believes will provide the most happiness for himself, based upon his own knowledge of the alternatives available. He’ll do what you want him to do only when he thinks that’s the best alternative for him. If he thinks there are better alternatives for him, he won’t do what you want.
It’s as simple as that.
You have so much control over your life, it would be a shame to throw it away. But you do just that if you hope to get what you want by involving your rights or by trying to change others.
By using the control you do have, you can reduce your taxes, adopt the lifestyle you want, and establish valuable relationships that won’t bring problems. There are numerous direct alternatives available to you—many of which will be suggested as we go along.
No one owes you anything; everyone you deal with will choose the best alternatives for himself.
Try forgetting about your rights. They haven’t made you free. They didn’t bring you the good things you’ve achieved in your life. Why count on them in the future?
There are far easier ways to get what you want.
We are much beholden to Machiavel and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do.
Might is a fine thing, and useful for many purposes; for “one goes further with a handful of might than with a bagful of right.”
THE UTOPIA TRAP
This is the belief that you must create better conditions in society before you can be free. The Identity Trap is the assumption that someone else will react as you would. The Utopia Trap is that assumption carried to its logical conclusion—the expectation that you can make the rest of the world correspond to your dreams.
You can’t. And when you try to do so, you succeed only in throwing away the very real opportunities for freedom that you already possess.
A free man uses his tremendous power of choice to make a comfortable life for himself.
The power of choice. You have it. But you forfeit it when you imagine that you can choose for others. You can’t.
But you can choose for yourself—from hundreds of exciting, happiness-producing alternatives.
Why not use that power?
When I remember how many of my private schemes have miscarried; how speculations have failed, agents proved dishonest, marriage been a disappointment; how I did but pauperize the relative I sought to help; how my carefully governed son has turned out worse than most children; how the thing I desperately strove against as a misfortune did me immense good; how while the objects I ardently pursued brought me little happiness when gained, most of my pleasures have come from unexpected sources; when I recall these and hosts of like facts, I am struck with the incompetence of my intellect to prescribe for society.
Don’t worry about the whole world: if you do it will over-whelm you. Worry about one wave at a time. Please your-self. Do something for you, and the rest will fall in line.
THE BURNING-ISSUE TRAP
This is the belief that there are compelling social issues that require your participation. I take the various demands that I join causes with a grain of salt. I realize that the people who lead these movements have their own personal objectives. Many of them would be lost without their causes; that’s how they find their happiness. Where would the consumer advocates be without General Motors? Or the employees of the cancer organizations without smokers? Or the politicians without those “pressing, critical, burning” issues?
All that is their business, but not necessarily yours or mine.
You are the most important issue in the world. What happens in the social issues is only incidental; to concentrate on them is to approach the matter much too indirectly. What you do directly for yourself will have a far greater impact on your life than what you do in response to the burning issues of society.
Make your life the issue.
Diary: How to Improve the World
(You will only make matters worse).
In brief, sir, study what you most affect.
THE PREVIOUS-INVESTMENT TRAP
This is the belief that time, effort, and money spent in the past must be considered when making a decision in the present.
For example, a woman decides not to divorce an incompatible husband because she’s already invested twelve years in the marriage. Or a man refuses to quit an unpleasant job because he’s had it for fifteen years. Or an investor hangs on to a losing stock because he believes he shouldn’t sell it until it rises to the price he paid for it. Or a man continues to fight for a losing cause because he’s already invested ten years in the movement.
You’re in the Previous-Investment Trap whenever you allow what you’ve expended in the past to be a determining factor when deciding what to do in the future. Learn from the past, but never feel you have to justify a past investment by hanging on to it.
The mark of a good financial investor is his ability to recognize when he has made a mistake, sell out, and prevent his losses from getting worse. Most investors become emotionally attached to the decisions they’ve made, so they hang on in hopes of recouping the investment later—and they usually wind up losing more.
The same thing applies to any area of your life. Recognize your losses. Don’t assume that you can lead a mistake-free life. You can’t. But you can recognize your mistakes early and thereby prevent them from compounding into gigantic losses.
If a relationship is wrong, end it and look for a better one. If you’ve spent your money unwisely, accept it and determine the best action for the future with what you have left. If you’ve devoted yourself to a cause that now appears fruitless, get out of it and move on to something that will bring you happiness.
Don’t try to justify past mistakes by perpetuating them. For when you do, you throw away the future you could have had.
There is a bright, glorious, free future ahead—if you keep looking forward.
A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.
MANY PEOPLE COMPLAIN that freedom isn’t possible in the real world. Often the person complaining is an individual who has accepted restrictions upon his life that make it seem impossible to be free. In effect, he’s in a box. So many people live in chains of their own making. They cry out for freedom from political policies they don’t like; they complain about the villains who prevent them from being free. And all the time they voluntarily tolerate boxes that reduce their freedom of action by 20-50% or more.
Getting out of boxes may not get the politicians off their backs. But if freedom is so important to them, why don’t they remove the chains that are within reach?
Take a look at your own life. What could you do today that would give you more freedom tomorrow morning?
If the dollars you lose in taxes are important to you, then what about the dollars you may be spending to perpetuate boxes you could get out of?
If the hours required to earn the money to pay taxes are vital to you, then what about the hours you spend in uncomfortable relationships?
Every dollar or hour you stop spending to preserve a box is one you could be using for better things. Every day outside of a box is another day added to your free life.
In addition, when you get out of those boxes, you’ll be much freer to take advantage of opportunities that will free you in other areas—such as removing the political chains from your back.
The Box Trap is the assumption that there’s no way out of a box. There’s always a way, always a price you can pay to be rid of it once and for all. Find it and pay it.
The nice part of it all is that you can get out of boxes just by exercising your own initiative. It’s a direct alternative that doesn’t involve influencing others. All you have to do is to pay the price.
Instead of worrying endlessly about a vague, ominous threat, face it mentally. Get off by yourself, relax, recognize what you’re paying already, discover what you could pay to be rid of it, picture yourself paying it. And when it no longer frightens you, pay it and be free.
There are always prices. You pay them whether you change things or leave them alone. The price that gets you out of a bad situation is by far the least expensive one. It’s usually far less terrifying than it was when you let it scare you from a distance.
Pay it. You have nothing to lose but your boxes.
When people won’t let you alone, it’s because you haven’t learned how to make them do it.
THE CERTAINTY TRAP
This is the urge to act as though you had complete information. You’re in the trap if you make decisions without recognizing the uncertainty of your assumptions and the risk that goes with that.
Here are some suggestions that may help you to avoid the Certainty Trap:
1. Popularity isn’t proof. What “everybody knows” has been so obviously wrong so many times that I don’t need to fill this book with evidence of it.
If all your friends are about to embark upon a dangerous adventure and they scoff at your caution, that isn’t a reason for you to go against your own judgment.
If everyone in your church or neighborhood is sure he knows exactly who and what God is, how to reach him, and what his rules for human behavior are, that isn’t evidence of anything—except evidence that a lot of people say they hold that opinion.
Or if everyone you know is buying real estate in a new development that’s “sure” to skyrocket in price, that’s not proof of anything. The crowd is wrong at least as often as it’s right.
Remember, “everybody knew” the nation was solvent in 1928.
2. Be skeptical about new information. Be open to new possibilities, but accept them as possibilities, not as final truth. Be alert to new alternatives and new explanations of things important to you, but don’t lose sight of the fact that what you hear and discover may not be correct.
3. Don’t expect to have an explanation for everything. You may come across a cause-and-effect relationship that seems to work for you. You do something and it seems to produce the result you want. Good. Use it, take advantage of it—but never lose sight of the possibility that the system may not be exactly as you see it now. In other words, don’t bet your life on it.
Don’t let your guard down and plunge into situations where the risks are too great. Realize that in another situation, other factors may cause the system to work in a different way. By overlooking that, you might lose in one mistake all that you’ve gained by using the system in the past.
If you find that prayer brings the results you want, good. But don’t place yourself in a situation where prayer is the only defense you have against trouble. It may not always work for you in the same way.
If you discover a gambling system that seems to make money for you, use it. But consider banking your profits as you go—just in case the miracle suddenly evaporates.
4. Recognize that you’re seeing only part of what’s involved; you can’t see everything. You just don’t have the time and opportunity to check out everything. So accept the existence of other possibilities that may not be apparent at this moment. Act on what you see, but with due respect for the existence of other things you can’t see.
5. Recognize the risks and liabilities. And that’s the most important point. There are always risks, and risks mean liabilities—prices to be paid if things don’t go as you want them to. When you recognize them, you can handle things in ways that make your losses less frequent and less critical.
The individual who plows ahead unswervingly because he “knows” he’s right is usually wrong. And when he runs head on into the brick wall he was so sure wouldn’t be there, his losses are greater than those of the man who was more cautious.
The experts don’t know everything, or even everything about anything. And one thing they know very little about is you. The people who tell you how to live have very little knowledge of who you are and what you’re capable of doing.
Who rules the world? You do. Your world, that is.
If a man begins with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content with doubts he shall end in certainties.
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
The best laid schemes o’ mice and men Gang aft a-gley.
You Can Be Free
IT’S EASY TO BELIEVE that you came into the world with a prearranged program you must follow. After all, long before you arrived, other people figured out how you should live, what laws you should obey, what your obligations are, the whole structure for a “proper” life.
Most people accept that program. They try to find the proper rules and hope to follow them faithfully. They do everything possible to live up to the images that others declare to be “moral,” “rational,” “in,” or acceptable.
The tragedy is that each of them has only one life and he throws that life away trying to live it as someone else has dictated. He accepts the traps without question. He allows the world to act upon him—instead of creating a joyous world for himself.
As a result, he comes to accept as part of life many discomforts, problems, and aggravations. When he gets into a box, he accepts it as his lot.
It is tragic.
Everyone begins life as a free person. But as time passes, most people accept the prearranged programs and never stop to realize the freedom they possess. They accept standards and situations that are unsuitable to them.
But that doesn’t have to apply to you. You can have your freedom back any time you choose to take it.
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is.
Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control, these three alone lead to sovereign power.
—ALFRED LORD TENNYSON
Part II How You Can Be Free
Freedom from Government
MOST PEOPLE seem to think of the government as an all-powerful giant with unlimited resources, super powers of control and surveillance, and the ability to keep every citizen in line.
Don’t be awed by the government.
Don’t confront it directly.
If you act on your own, legally or illegally, there’s a great deal you can do to be free of the government. And there’s no reason to feel ashamed, unpatriotic, wicked, or guilty about it.
What you do to support the government contributes nothing to your own welfare or to the welfare of society. What you do for yourself at least contributes to the happiness of one very important individual.
I like the way that Lysander Spooner put it:
. . . whoever desires liberty should understand these vital facts, viz.: 1. That every man who puts money in the hands of a “government” (so called), puts into its hands a sword which will be used against himself, to extort more money from him, and also to keep him in subjection to its arbitrary will. 2. That those who will take his money, without his consent, in the first place, will use it for his further robbery and enslavement, if he presumes to resist their demands in the future.
When you withhold money from the government, you’re acting as you would when you lock your home at night to protect it against thieves. In either case, you’re acting to preserve what is yours from those who would like to take it without your consent.
And just as you can easily protect your home by using a watch dog, the right locks, or a burglar alarm, so can you protect your funds and your freedom from the government—if you’ll direct your attention toward that goal.
The savings can be tremendous. If you need any incentive, determine how much you’ve paid in taxes for the past year (or five or ten years), then make a list of all the things you could have bought with that money.
The freedom is yours, the money is yours, the opportunity is yours—once you turn your attention toward yourself.
And your purpose will be as noble as any man could find—the advancement of your own happiness.
Freedom from Social Restrictions
IT’S EASY TO FEEL that you have no chance to live your own life, that society imposes too many restrictions upon you. Employers, friends, lovers, family, and strangers seem to gang up on you to tell you how you must live.
Of course, “society” is a nonentity. It has no mind, no interests, no motivations. It is simply a collection of many different individuals who have different minds, interests, and motivations. So “society” can’t restrain you.
The problems come from individuals—people who want you to act in certain ways and cause problems for you if you don’t.
Most social restrictions are self-inflicted. Your life is yours to live as you choose. If you give up what you want because of someone’s disapproval, you have only yourself to blame—because you made the choice; he didn’t. He told you what he wanted, but he has no power to enforce it.
You can do with your life what you want. You don’t have to work at a “normal” job. You can try your luck at anything. Do you want to be an artist? Tour guide? Gigolo? Do what you want to do—so long as you can make enough to survive while you’re doing it.
There’s a beautiful world out there. Why clutter it up with relationships that don’t belong in your life?
It’s an easy life. Why complicate it by trying to be all things to all people?
Adopt the image that’s most effective—your own.
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.
—RALPH WALDO EMERSON
Freedom from Bad Relationships
WE’VE SEEN THAT IT’S FOOLISH to waste time trying to deal with incompatible people. There are plenty of people around who would want you to be as you are.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you’re likely to find individuals with whom you’ll be 100% compatible—with the exact same tastes, values, attitudes, and ideas that you have. You’re more likely to find individuals with whom you’ll have one or more important things in common.
In the areas that you have in common, you’ll please the other person most by doing what you want to do. That’s the way it should be. No sacrifices are required by either person.
Such relationships can make your life far more exciting. They provide something to look forward to, something to enjoy, and the wonderful glow that comes from knowing that someone else is seeing and enjoying things in much the same way you do.
If you let others be free, you’ll be a rare person—and a valuable one. You’ll be in demand because you won’t create the conflicts and arguments that so many people have had from others.
Your freedom is just as important, of course. You have to learn to say “no” in a way that doesn’t create strain and conflict. When you learn that, others will usually respect your individuality.
Your freedom and the freedom of those you deal with are equally important to you. If people come to you because they freely want to, you’ll receive more genuine love, friendship, understanding, and appreciation than you could possibly get by asking for it or demanding it.
Loneliness is never more cruel than when it is felt in close propinquity with someone who has ceased to communicate.
A Fresh Start
NOW IT’S TIME to put many ideas together to create a practical plan with which you can transform your life from what it is to what you want it to be.
To do this in my own life, I’ve used a technique I call Starting From Zero. Its purpose is to clear your mind of the boxes, complications, and obligations that may be getting in the way of what you want to do.
The technique utilizes many of the ideas we’ve discussed already; it’s a way of tying together everything we’ve seen. It has many uses—but its greatest value can be the creation of a new, freer life. It focuses attention on what you want and keeps you aimed toward it.
Even with the labeling techniques we saw in the last chapter, it’s too easy to rationalize every part of your present existence as being necessary—if you use it as the starting point. So it’s important to clear your mind of all present commitments; only then can you get a clear view of what you really need to be happy.
The starting-from-zero technique uses the life you dream of as the standard and compares everything with it, eliminating anything in your present routine that isn’t part of the dream life. It provides the simplest way to determine which parts of your present life aren’t what you really want—and to be able to visualize a way of getting to where you want to be.
There are seven steps in the technique:
1. Mentally step outside your present way of life. Start from zero by imagining yourself outside of your present routine. Expand upon the daydreams you’ve had before—imagine now that you’re no longer entangled in any of your present responsibilities, obligations, or relationships. Envision yourself totally on your own—with none of your present possessions, family, career, social commitments, debts, or contracts.
In other words, you’re completely free—starting from zero with a clean slate, a fresh start to go in any direction that you choose. Don’t concern yourself now with the restrictions that presently exist in your life; don’t even try to decide how you’ll remove them. Just imagine that there’s no one to restrict you or make any claims upon you.
2. What would you do? Ask yourself what you’d do with this totally free situation.
Where would you go? What would you like to do for a living? What have you always wanted to do that’s been prevented by your old way of life? Whom would you like to see? What would you do with your time? In this new life, would you be single? Would you want to live with the person you’ve always desired? Would you want a particular kind of home? What kind of work would you like to pursue? What material things would give you pleasure? Only one restriction should be imposed upon your dreams: You can’t make someone else be what you want him to be. It serves no purpose to imagine that your spouse has suddenly changed as you’ve wanted him to, or that your boss has finally given you that raise. Nor does it serve any purpose to dream that you’re married to Sophia Loren. However, you can dream that you’re free to pursue Sophia Loren, and to apply your best efforts to the task of winning her love. In the same way, you can imagine that you’re free to pursue any career you desire—but not to imagine that others will miraculously throw money at you in contradiction with their own natures. But there are no other restrictions to prevent you from trying anything you want. So include in your fantasy anything you think you’d truly enjoy. Include parts of your present life—if they’re sources of genuine pleasure to you. But don’t include something simply because it seems necessary or irremovable. Don’t restrain your fantasies. Picture yourself actually doing the things involved. Act them out in your mind. See if they’re really what you want for yourself.
After you’ve done this for a few days, your dream will begin to have more substance. You’ll have a good idea what kind of work you’d like to try, where you’d like to go, whom you’d like to be with, what would give you real pleasure. As you continue thinking about it, however, you might alter parts of the dream as other tasty ideas occur to you. Do this for a couple of weeks—longer, if necessary. Continue building the dream until you no longer think of ways to improve upon it. Until then, retreat to your dream world every chance you get. Think about it, indulge it, live it mentally, change it, refine it, develop it. Get into the details of it so that you can see more clearly what you’d most enjoy. After a while, the various fantasies should begin to settle into one basic dream. At that point, it would be very helpful to make a list of the elements in the ideal life you’ve pictured. Write down everything that occurs to you about it—the material things you want, the occupation, the new relationships, where you want to live, etc. It may take a couple of days to recall everything you’ve thought of that you want to be a part of your new life.
By writing down the elements of the dream, you can focus upon them more clearly—and make better use of the next step.
3. What is your present life like? Now take a close look at your present routine. What activities engage you now? What is your work? How do you spend your time? Whom are you required to associate with? Where does your money go? List the activities in your present life—if you haven’t already compiled a list for the techniques mentioned in the last chapter.
4. Cross off everything in your present life that doesn’t appear in your dream life. If there’s something in your present life that isn’t part of the life you want for yourself, there’s no reason to perpetuate it. All you need to find is a way out of it—and we’re coming to that.
You might find that you’ll cross off everything from your present life—that you’re not doing anything now that conforms with your dream of an ideal life. If so, don’t be discouraged by that discovery. Everything you cross off from your present life can be replaced with something new, something better, something more productive of happiness.
FINANCING THE NEW LIFE
The next part deals with the means of financing your new life.
5. What do you need to make your dream life possible? Estimate the requirements and costs of your imagined new life. How much time would be necessary to ready yourself for the profession you have in mind? How much money would you need to go where you want to be? How much time is required for the activities you crave? What other resources are necessary for the kind of existence you’re dreaming of?
For the moment, don’t worry about what you already have or how you’ll get what you need; just determine the costs required. How much money would you need? How much time? Your knowledge will go with you anywhere—but you need to estimate the cost of adding any extra knowledge you might need to achieve your ends.
6. What are your present assets and liabilities? Set aside your dream world long enough to make an inventory of your present financial situation.
What are your present assets? How much money can you freely spend as you choose? What is the worth of your present properly (home, land, furniture, savings, car, appliances, investments)?
Now list your present liabilities. How much money do you owe? What other monetary obligations have you incurred—family support, leases, business liabilities, charitable pledges? Make your list complete; you need to know exactly where you stand. Don’t overlook any liabilities—you can’t eliminate them until you recognize them.
If your assets are greater than your liabilities, the difference is your usable net worth—what you have available to meet the requirements of your new life.
If your net worth is very small—or even if your liabilities are greater than your assets—don’t let that stop you. Don’t decide that you can’t make any changes until you’re out of debt. The situation isn’t likely to get any better as long as you continue your present way of life.
Losing businesses have been perpetuated for years in hopes that a few more sales would make them profitable. And in the same way, many hopeless routines are continued in the vain hope that things will be better tomorrow. Things will get better only when you make the changes that are necessary to make them better.
It’s your present way of life that’s piled debts and obligations on your shoulders. If you continue it, your debts will more likely increase. It’s important to get to zero—to a free position—as soon as possible so that you can have a clean start to move in the direction you want to go. When you escape from your boxes, you’ll have the opportunity to increase your net worth—if that’s what you want.
In addition to monetary responsibilities, inventory your other commitments. Are you obligated to future social responsibilities? Are you married? Do you have children? What other commitments do you have?
Any burdensome commitments can be eliminated by paying some price; you can clear them with an expenditure of time or money. Add the monetary prices of eliminating unwanted commitments to your financial liabilities so that you can pay them off and be done with them.
And now we come to the best part:
7. Make changes. Eliminate present assets that aren’t on your dream list. Turn into cash all the material possessions that aren’t necessary to your dream life. Eliminate all the activities that consume time without contributing to the existence you really want.
Use the cash proceeds to pay off your liabilities. Try to eliminate every commitment in that way. If you wind up with nothing but a free life, you’ll be way ahead. With a free life, you can acquire what you want much more easily, with no debts or obligations to eat up the money as you make it.
If you have cash left over after paying off the liabilities, use it to finance those parts of the dream world that require money. And use the time you save to indulge yourself in the dream activities you’ve previously denied yourself.
You should be able to create a workable plan on paper. You’ll be able to see what can be eliminated, and how the proceeds in time and money can be used to pay off liabilities and buy the things you want.
But sometimes these matters are so complicated that it seems impossible to work them out on paper. If that’s the case, the best alternative is to actually liquidate your present holdings. Sell everything—terminate all relationships, contracts, plans, programs. Sell all your property—whether or not any part of it is on your dream list—and pay off all your debts as far as the money will go.
That’s a drastic step—and I don’t advise it unless you absolutely can’t work out a transition on paper. But if that’s what’s necessary, do it. When you’ve done it, you’ll be free to move in any direction you want.
Don’t be afraid to give up anything that’s part of a basically unfree life. Anything you cherish can probably be reacquired later without any of the problems involved now. The important thing is to be free—and that may require a clean sweep.
Part of your dream life may involve a period of time necessary to establish a new career or relationship, and it may be that you have nothing in reserve to finance such a period. If so, you might need to take an intermediate job or find an intermediate relationship to tide you over.
Be careful, however. Too often, “temporary” expedients turn into permanent ruts. Some of your present life may have been undertaken originally as a short-term means to an end that never materialized.
You might decide that your present job is suitable for your new life. Or there might be relationships you want to keep. If so, examine those things cautiously. They’re part of your present situation—and they may be contributing to the rut from which you’re trying to free yourself.
If you keep your present job to tide you over, use a miniature starting-from-zero technique to determine the absolute minimum you must contribute to it in order to be worth what you receive from it. Do what is necessary for you to be worth your income, but eliminate all other activities from your working routine—such as socializing, long-term investments in a distant promotion or increased skill, extra hours worked without pay, etc. Earn what you’re paid but do nothing beyond that.
In the same way, apply the starting-from-zero technique to any relationships you intend to keep. Don’t start by considering what you do now to preserve such relationships. Instead, start from zero by determining what you truly need and want from the relationship, then determine what’s necessary to make that possible, and eliminate from your present activities anything that exceeds that. You don’t have to call friends daily or weekly to keep their friendship, nor do you have to visit your parents weekly to retain them as your parents.
While you’re in the process of thinking out these matters, someone may confront you with a question that seems to require a decision by you.
For example, while you’re considering your career plans, your employer might want to discuss a new position for you or a relocation to another city. Or while you’re thinking about your marriage, your spouse might ask a question that indirectly concerns the future of your marriage (such as whether you want to buy the new home you’ve discussed).
Don’t allow such questions to pressure you into making a premature long-term decision. You don’t have to sever the relationship on the spot; neither do you have to accept the new commitment, resign yourself to staying, and then pretend you had no thought of leaving.
The safest way to handle such a question is by being totally honest. And what is your honest position? It’s probably that you don’t know the answer—that you’re in the process of re-examining your entire life, and that you’re not sure yet what answers you’ll find.
The person involved might be shocked to learn that you’re even considering rocking the boat. He may accuse you of being selfish, thoughtless, disloyal, or irresponsible for suggesting that you might put your own life ahead of your relationships with other people.
But you know that you aren’t going to be “irresponsible.” You’re facing your obligations and commitments—and you’re considering what might be done to improve upon them.
As to your selfishness, of course you’re going to put your own life first—as anyone with any sense would do—as each person is doing, each in his own way. And it’s up to you to determine your way—regardless of structures, institutions, social pressures, moral codes, or relationships.
It’s easy to be thrown off balance by a question for which you have no immediate answer. “What are the poor children going to do?” “Won’t this break your sick mother’s heart?” “How are you going to satisfy your financial commitments?” etc.
Don’t give up your dreams just because you can’t answer every question yet. The only honest answer is that you’re considering such matters now and you haven’t resolved them yet. If you’re not allowed to consider such things for yourself, you must be a slave.
If the person involved is reasonable and willing to discuss the matter with you, so much the better. His attitude may be helpful in discovering the price you might have to pay to eliminate a commitment to him.
It’s also possible that someone will react negatively at first, but then become more agreeable when he’s had time to think of the possible benefits to himself.
No matter what the reaction, I think the safest approach is to be honest in telling exactly where you stand—even if you stand at that moment in a state of indecision.
THE BIG DECISION
Throughout this book, we’ve considered many possibilities and alternatives that can enable you to live a freer life. Now we’ve finally come to the important question: What do you do about it?
The only sensible answer is to eliminate from your life whatever isn’t suited to you, acquire the freedom you’ve craved, and start living your life as you want to live it.
The starting-from-zero technique is an essential means of getting from here to there. If you use your present life as the starting point, you have very little chance of getting what you want—you can find too many justifications for hanging on to each part of your present routine.
You have to go back to zero and start there, asking yourself what you’d do if you weren’t involved as you are now. Only in that way can you see a clear, realistic picture of the life that would make you happy. Then you can determine the relevance of each of your present activities.
Once you know what is necessary to live the kind of life you want, bold action is required. Take your time thinking about these matters, but don’t be slow in acting on them—once you’ve thought things out.
There may be other ways to be free, but I’ve never come across any that work. I’ve seen friends use various kinds of “gradualism” in their approaches, but years later they were still in the same boxes.
Freedom requires bold action. You may make mistakes in the process—and you may lose some of what you have—but anything you lose can be reacquired once you’re free.
You don’t have to remain in boxes. It’s your choice. You can be free.
The worst thing one can do is not to try, to be aware of what one wants and not give in to it, to spend years in silent hurt wondering if something could have materialized—and never knowing.
—DAVID S. VISCOTT
There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.
The first step is the hardest.
—MARIE DE VICHY-CHAMROND
For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
—JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER