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The Two Conditions

I had an early experience with independence on a family vacation when I was seven years old. Everybody was at lunch, and I wanted to go for a spin in the Coho. The Coho was a 17-ft boat with an outboard motor. My parents set two conditions that I followed and that have served me well over time. The conditions were that I wear my life jacket and make sure there was gas in the tank. Complying with my parents’ conditions and taking charge of the boat gave me a rare level of independence for a seven-year-old.

Independence generally refers to one’s freedom to act and make decisions autonomously, without reliance on or interference from others. It has been held as one of America’s highest values for nearly 250 years, but that might be subordinating a more worthy goal in our value structure. In this piece I share three thoughts about independence.

The first thought is that independence needs to be accompanied by responsibility. This is why my parents had their two conditions. My parents were comfortable with me taking the boat as long as I acted responsibly, meaning I wore my life jacket and had gas in the tank. Independence and responsibility go hand in hand. Independence without responsibility is a calamity.

Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. – Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

The second thought is that we limit our capacity by regarding independence as our ultimate goal. We begin at birth by being entirely dependent on our parents, typically moving toward independence in our teens. But there is a level beyond independence, which is interdependence. When we are interdependent we depend on others, but they also depend on us. This allows for collaboration and synergy that isn’t possible with strict independence. On a global scale, interdependence of countries fosters stability, because as countries become our trading partners it increases the level at which our own success depends on their success.

Interdependence is ten times more difficult than independence. – Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

The third thought about independence is that we may not have as much as we think. Much has appeared about the hacking of the American mind by marketers and social media companies, saying we are being manipulated. Add to that a questioning, albeit controversial, by well-regarded thought leaders whether we have free will, and one might wonder if we have any agency over our lives at all. If this view is accurate, then what I just wrote was determined by the initial conditions of the universe and could not have occurred any other way – in which case, we are all just going along as observers in our own lives.

Studies of priming effects have yielded discoveries that threaten our self-image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and our choices. – Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize Winning Psychologist

In summary, to the extent that we have agency over our lives, our best path is to seek independence, paired with responsibility, as a foundation for interdependence.


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