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The Importance of Autonomy


The Importance of Autonomy

Our brains are constantly at work, processing messages and releasing hormones based on often-unconscious cues. These hormones influence our moods and behaviors, and I invite you today to become a little more aware of how your sense of autonomy can trigger them.

At university many years ago, I had to take a semester of philosophy. I thought it was interesting how so many people have been trying to get a grip on life’s questions - while the majority of mankind was busy living. I remember particularly struggling with a paper on free will versus determinism.

William Paley argued that just like a watch has a watchmaker, something as complex as a human being has to have a maker, too. I tried to make a point in my paper that his argument was flawed, citing Darwin and the Big Bang theory, and only got a 2C on it, if I remember correctly. That’s probably like a B- or C+ in the American grading system. I didn’t like philosophy a whole bunch. Anyway, tangent.

The philosophy of autonomy and control

Broadly speaking, determinism argues that our paths are laid out for us, and fate or providence, whatever you want to call it, will have their way. I think this view is dangerous if taken to the extreme, because we could not be held accountable for any of our actions. Imagine life without a judicial system, à la “it’s not my fault I stole that apple, I had to, it’s my karma.”

What’s the point of living if you have no autonomy whatsoever, doesn’t that make you a marionette? (Tweet this.)

Free will, on the other hand, grants that we do have a choice and that we make choices that write our destiny as it happens. I like this idea a lot better, even though neuroscience research now shows that our brain’s neurons actually fire milliseconds before we become aware of our decisions. Which might lead us back to the argument that everything is mechanistic with every action corresponding to a certain reaction. Also, if taken to the extreme and everybody just doing whatever they please because they can, we might end up with the same chaotic society.

The culture of autonomy and control

Last month I briefly wrote about the cultural dimension of Internal and External Locus of Control that looks at which countries are more likely to believe they have control over the environment versus those who believe more in outer circumstances. It would be easy to make a connection to religion versus science (or superstition!), or developed countries versus emerging, I’m just not sure it’s that simplistic.

As I mentioned, my view is “yes, and”: we have some control over some things, but not over everything. In other words, yes, we are still responsible for our actions, and we can never be a complete failure, because some things are simply out of our control. As long as we try our best, the outcome is what it is.

Craig Storti’s “Cross-Cultural Dialogues” shows a nice example of what this cultural difference might sound like:

“Out of Order”

NATASHA: Excuse me, but the elevator is out of order.

SHARON: Really? Whom should we talk to?

NATASHA? Talk to?

SHARON: To report it.

NATASHA: I have no idea.

SHARON: Oh, I’m sorry; I thought you lived here too.

NATASHA: But I do.

When things break down in the USA (Internal culture), people generally do something to fix them. Taking care of business. OK, so they might grumble and complain a bit first, but then there’s a definite call to action.

In Russia (External culture), people may be more laid back: sometimes things break, and there’s no reason to get excited or try and do something about it. As Storti describes it,

This resignation or fatalism, which should not be confused with passivity, probably derives in part from the physical hardships of life in Russia; there wasn’t much you could do about the wind from the steppes or acute shortages of vegetables. Your goal was to endure.

The personality of autonomy and control

In MBTI® language, if you have an I and/or a T in your Type code for Introversion and Thinking, you probably value autonomy and independence for their own sake. Not just because it’s a nice-to-have, no: it’s probably a psychological need for you, which when it doesn’t get met causes all sorts of defensive behaviors. For example, if your job does not allow you the space or autonomy you crave, you will create experiences in your private life that fill those needs by finding hobbies that accommodate them.  

Introversion, Thinking, or not – as Daniel Pink found in his book, “Drive – The surprising truth about what motivates us”, having autonomy, learning, and making a positive impact is key:

The secret to high performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

Our brain releases the stress hormone cortisol when we feel we have no control over a situation, negatively impacting our health and our ability to find alternative solutions. So there’s a catch 22 kind of deal: the more at mercy you feel, the less you’ll be able to come up with ideas on what to do.

Likewise, when you feel like you have at least a modicum of control and autonomy over your situation, the calmer you’ll be.

How can you apply this awareness to your life?

  • Expat spouses, when your partner comes home and tells you to move to Russia – know that you have a say. It’s your life, too, and you can choose to stay back and have a long-distance relationship for the duration of the project.
  • When you workload is spinning out of control and you’re spending more and more hours at work, know that you can set boundaries. Look at your calendar and with a firm voice say, “thank you, but this won’t work for me” the next time your colleague tries to pawn off his reports analysis at you.
  • If you’re working with people who react differently to questions of control and autonomy, take a moment to reflect if they may be coming from a different cultural background or have different personality type preferences than you.
  • As an employee, ask your manager what the goal is and – if that’s what you’re comfortable with - whether you have the freedom to arrive at it in the manner you think is best. If you’d like more direction, ask for more direction, to help with your level of certainty (see yesterday’s post).
  • As a leader, unless you’re in the military, try not to give strict orders. Your team will be much more productive if you stop micro managing and take a more coaching-style approach. Let people figure things out freely, they’ll be much more motivated and creative for it – again, taking cultural and personality type variances into consideration.

What other ways can you think of?


Image by Marina del Castel, Flickr, Creative Commons License.



How much can we really control?

Following on from yesterday, I'd like to explore the whole purpose and passion thing a bit further. Thanks for working through this with me, and please leave your comments. :-)

I'm a rather pragmatic one. I like facts and tangible outcomes, despite my processing information preference of Intuiting. That's probably part of my German heritage. So, when I try to learn about higher planes and spirituality in general, there's resistance. Transcending all the physical planes is tough, especially if you only start learning about it as an adult.

Well, you gotta start somewhere. One of Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner's cross-cultural dimensions looks at where we think the locus of control is - External (Being) or Internal (Doing). Can we control our environment (Internal) or are things generally out of our hands (External)?

Here's how I've come to see it: when we're born into this world, we're all given a boat. This isn't your usual "we're all in the same boat" metaphor, oh no. Quite the contrary: we all have an individual boat.

It carries us up or down the stream; we can steer it wherever we want. The boat is only big enough for one person though. If we burden ourselves with other people's drama and problems, we run the risk of overloading. If we make ourselves responsible for someone else, we'll go under - even and especially a mother has to let her child go to steer their own boat. If we hang on to too many possessions and try to take everything with us, we'll capsize.  

Conclusion: each of us has our own wee boat, to take care of and maintain, to steer where we will. But no matter how nice and nimble the boat, we can't influence the flow of the river.

I still haven't landed on what to call it. The word God has so many Christian connotations for me that I probably wouldn't call it that. Dogma is scary, and this nice, good, transcendent big thing doesn't care who anyone sleeps with. Is it Love? The Universe? Life? Cosmic Consciousness? Bob? Daisy? What do you call it?

If you haven't seen it already, I thoroughly recommend this stunning TED talk by Jill Bolte-Taylor. She experienced the one-ness with everything while her left brain hemisphere shut down as she was suffering a stroke.  



Expat Marriage Characteristics

mars ship Dennis Tito, American multimillionnaire, holds the title of world's first space tourist. Where you and I might think twice about a $1,500 trip to Hawaii, he spent $20m to go up in a rocket ship. Call it eccentric, but the trip did produce an idea that's going to create lots of jobs and opportunities: he's now planning to send people on a privately-funded return-trip to Mars in 2018.

Not just any people, a married couple.

501 days in close quarters - with your spouse. Let's take a breath and imagine what that'd be like. Nowhere to go, no doors to slam, no idea how sex would work in zero gravity. Certainly not for everyone, right?

Of course, living in close quarters under strenuous situations with a limited group of people is nothing new. Submarine or oil-rig crews do it all the time, as well as soldiers on assignments. There were eight participants in a 2-year ecological experiment locked away in Arizona, and let's not forget monasteries or various the Big Brother houses.


Deborah Shapiro wrote an article on the subject. Her experience makes her an excellent source of reference: she and her husband spent 270 days alone in the Antarctic on a boat. Severe weather conditions, having to maintain and fix things all the time, lots of time for thoughts to swirl around your head, and only your husband to talk to. Well, and whoever's near enough for radio transmissions, I guess.

Here are her top tips for not killing your spouse, and who would make a good space couple (bolding is mine):

(...) because we relied on each other for survival, murder would be counter-productive.

We figure that a couple who ran a farm a few generations ago would be very likely to have a successful trip to Mars. Why? Because a couple on a farm lived in interdependence, with accepted roles. They lived frugally, entertaining themselves, producing what they needed and repairing their tools that broke. All those traits are necessary for a long space voyage.

Showing tangible signs of caring and of empathy ensures that cabin fever never takes hold.

(...) firstly, remaining sensitive to each other's moods and concerns, never belittling. (...) The second important rule, is that showing care benefits both.

I think all of those tips are valid for couples who go abroad on an expat assignment as well.

  • If it's not in actuality, it may feel like your survival is threatened, creating the same visceral responses in your nervous system.
  • If you're not clear about your changing roles, e.g. when one spouse loses a work permit, anger and resentment are sure to follow.
  • If you don't speak the language, trips to the cinema are out. Reading food labels going shopping are a challenge. Conversing with your kid's teacher or the plumber is frustrating.
  • If you're cooped up inside all day waiting for your spouse to return from work so you have someone to talk to while they just want to sit down and be quiet, it can spell disaster.

A marriage is hard work to maintain under any circumstances, and international assignments add various layers of new potential aggravation you wouldn't have experienced at home. If you don't have any couple-friends who've been abroad together, things like role expectations, daily routine, entertainment, and the sense of self-worth may not come up in the usual conversations.

In our normal daily lives, we have work, friends, family, and hobbies to attend to. When moving abroad, all of that gets disrupted and changed. We turn to the one person who's closest to us, and if we make them responsible for everything that's going wrong in our lives, it will break the relationship.

Here's where Shapiro sees a big difference between her own experience and that of the space couple:

In a space capsule, the couple will have to depend upon a vessel they have not built, and the people working at space control.

If you're not absolutely sure you want to go on the assignment, you'll feel out of control as well. Make sure you have all the information you need to make an informed decision. Because once you're abroad, coming back early is going to be a hassle. I'm not just talking about the cost and expenses, but also the feelings of failure to complete the project, to make your company look good, to disrupt project deadlines and customer relationships.

There are plenty of conversations and tools at your disposal. Know before you go.


Positive Thinking


Positive Thinking

This is a speech I gave at my last Toastmasters meeting that was very well received (a tad longer than other articles I've written, but presenting it only took 5 minutes 30 secs). Remember Toastmasters International is an organization that helps everyone improve their presentation and public speaking skills in a fun and relaxed environment. If you have a talk or presentation coming up that you'd like to prepare for, check out a meeting near you!

Positive thinking is one surefire way to happiness. Are you happy?

There’s a saying that loosely translated from German goes like this:

Mind your thoughts, as they become words. Mind your words, as they become actions. Mind your actions, as they become habits. Mind your habits, as they become your character. Mind your character as it becomes your destiny.

I’m not sure who came up with it, but they had a point. And you’ll notice that they explained a causal relationship between your thoughts and your destiny and thus your level of happiness.

Let me give you a quick overview of what’s ahead. I’ll start by quoting a philosopher and taking his message one step further. Then, I want to share a little information on three points: one, your brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. Two: you can control the messages that you send it, and three: I’ll share some tips on how to make those messages more positive.

Renee Descartes, the famous French Philosopher coined the phrase, “I think, therefore I am.” At a time where other philosophers were questioning everything, “is this really a table?”, “will the sun rise again tomorrow?”, “what is real?”, Descartes took apart his house of beliefs brick by brick and came to the conclusion that the mere fact that he was thinking about thinking meant that he must, indeed, exist.

This is where I (and many others before me) go a step further and say “we exist the way we do, meaning: our lives are what they are, because of what we think”.

Thinking occurs in your brain, and your brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what isn’t.

Who here has ever had a dream that seemed very real, or woke up screaming or sweating from a horrific nightmare? Because your brain cannot differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t, it sent the message to your adrenal glands to pour out the hormone and prepare you for fight or flight even though there was no real threat present. (Your brain also doesn’t register the word “no”, e.g. if I tell you now NOT to think of a red balloon, what do you think of? ...which is why it's so important to make your goals out as positively worded statements, but that's another story.)

While you’re sleeping, your subconscious is in charge, but while you’re awake, you can directly influence what messages you send to your brain, so you better make them positive. Actually, let me precede the following example with this little nugget: your brain also likes things to be true and make sense.

So, if you bump your leg on the coffee table and tell yourself “I'm such a clutz!”, your brain will go looking for ways to make that statement make sense. That means it’ll remember past instances where you’ve fallen down or bumped your leg or dropped something, and in future it’ll apply the same label, and the more evidence it can come up with, the more it becomes true that you really are a clutz. That is the self-fulfilling prophecy everybody's talking about. The alternative here is to turn that negative thought around and look at the event through a different lens, a less judgmental one. For example, you could recognize that the coffee table wasn’t in its usual position because you had cleaned and moved it earlier, or that you were preoccupied with thinking about the speech you have to give at the next Toastmasters meeting and hence weren’t paying attention to where you were going. That makes you many things - a dedicated toastmaster, a clean housekeeper, but not a clutz.

Now, how can you improve the level of your positive thoughts? With these following tips:

Be nice to yourself. What does your inner voice usually say? How do you talk to yourself? Are your thoughts helpful and supportive? Or - the test of all tests - would you speak to your best friend the way that you speak to yourself?

Furthermore, try and notice when you’re not being nice and simply stop those negative thoughts, and turn them around into something positive, like with the housekeeping or dedicated Toastmaster mentioned earlier. As with speech-making, continued practice will make perfect, so give yourself some time and patience. Last but not least, focus on the positive things that are already in your life. Every evening write down, relive or simply remember in all its glorious detail at least three things that went well that day, that you were proud of, that made you happy. This exercise will put you in a positive state of mind, and once you’re in a positive state of mind, you know your brain will do the rest and find more positive things to make sense of and perpetuate that positive and happy state you’re in.

At the end of the day, your thoughts are your business, I just wanted to make sure you're aware that every single one of your thoughts contributes to you shaping your own destiny, and that you can take control and decide what you are prepared to do for your own happiness, whichever form that may take, by being nice to yourself, turning bad thoughts around and focusing on positive things.

Til next time, good thoughts!

Image by Li-Ji, Flickr, Creative Commons License.