4 Privileges that form Individual Freedom

What travelling can teach us about self-determination.

When people talk about the concept of individual freedom, travelling is always one of the first things that comes to mind. And it makes sense: There is no cheating with travelling. It’s very easy to draw the line between someone who travels to explore the world and people who stick with their daily routine. And yet, it’s very hard to grasp why some people make travelling an essential part of their lifestyle while so many others barely leave their cultural comfort zone. Over the past few years I came to listen to many people’s stories and about their incentives and struggles to travel. Those stories were spread across a broad cultural, political and economical spectrum. But one encounter kind of summarized them all. So to avoid that we lose ourselves in an abstract philosophical discussions let’s ground ourselves first and listen to the story of an old lady from South Tyrol (Italy) who knows more about apples than Steve Jobs could ever have hoped for.

The Old Lady and the Mountains

Returning from a hike in the mountains nearby Merano, on an autumn afternoon, Bianca and I sit at a small bus stop, waiting for our ride back to town. First snow has already covered the peaks, and a gentle autumn sun is keeping us warm in the valley. An elderly woman sits down on the bench next to us. It turns out that she speaks German, is 82 years old, and lives in the little village next to the funicular that we just used to return from the mountains above us.

We start talking about the sunny weather and today’s nice breeze before she points out that the strong winds of the past days were a nightmare for this season’s apple harvest. After a while, she asks us how we liked it up there, hiking in the mountains. I answer that we had a great time and how we enjoyed the beautiful views from the top — in total confidence that she knows what I’m talking about. To my surprise she doesn’t: “I have never been up there. I don’t know what the view is like.” And she continues: “But that’s fine. The mountains already look so beautiful from down here. So what would I want up there?”

We find out that not only has she never even had a glimpse on the stunning mountain panoramas, just a 5 minute funicular trip above her (and that she could take for free). She also has never made it further than 20 km from here village — not even to the capital of her region. She has never seen another place with her own eyes but the valley she was born and raised in. The sea, wide plains, a stream — all of this she only knows from TV.

Overcoming initially perplexity, I try telling myself that maybe she has never wanted any of this. That she is happy here with her family and her village community. That she doesn’t need to see all those things herself. But that wasn’t it.

She continues: “I’ve never gone on vacation during my entire life.” and the way she says it makes clear that there were times when that was something she desperately wanted: “There was always so much to do. I never had time — I simply never had time”. Her significantly older husband died at the age of 32. She had 3 children to raise and feed as well as a farm to run. I assume that there were times when she even felt guilty for sleeping after a long hard day of work — taking a day off was out of the question for her.

Imagine this panorama would be minutes away from your house. And you never went to see it. For more than 80 years.

The 4 Privileges

Back home I continued to think about this old lady. Every single day after the death of her husband must have been an existential fight. Even when this fight ended, when her children grew up and took over more and more of her responsibilities, a strong sense of duty must have remained that held her back from exploring places outside of her valley. Growing up as a post-war child in a conservative countryside village and becoming single mom in young age, she probably had to suppress pretty much all of her personal interests and desires from childhood on. Later, when she was older, her desires and interests probably got blocked by all the psychological tricks we invent when we are forced to suppress our most precious wishes.

This was not my first encounter of that sort. Just recently, I met extraordinary university students in South East Asia who couldn’t leave their country to fulfill scholarships and studying abroad because they wouldn’t get their family’s permission and support. Still, none of those encounters stood out as drastically as the one with this old lady from South Tirol. Those 15 minutes of life story from a very self-honest lady is like a million stories compressed in one: During her entire life, all of the prerequisites for travelling were out of reach for her. Of course, also with all those prerequisites, she might still have decided not to travel. But she was far away from a position where she was free in making a decision.

Let’s keep this story in mind as we break down the prerequisites for travelling into 4 privileges. Later we will see that travelling is just an analogy for the essential components of individual freedom and that we can generalize the same 4 privileges that enables people to travel to describe how individual freedom is being formed in general.

1. Privilege of Choice

It all starts with fundamental questions: Do I have basic stability like food security and a safe place to stay? Is a passport within my reach? Can I obtain Visas to visit other countries? Is it legal for me to travel? Am I in good health?

People who live in extreme poverty are obviously lacking many of these fundamental prerequisites for travelling. Their focus is on overcoming a day to day struggle of covering their basic needs. In the 1980’s less than 10% of the world’s population enjoyed the privilege of choice. Today it’s still not more than 25%, but there is a positive trend connected to the reduction of extreme poverty in many developing countries during the past decades.

Yet, even for those who live in wealthy countries, the privilege of choice can be denied for other reasons. A great example are the “dreamers” in the United States: Before Obama opened a door for millions of children of illegal immigrants to become legal US citizens, it was nearly impossible for them to live a free life. With his presidential decree, those dreamers made a big step towards the privilege of choice. And as we all know, it only took a single election to put it all to question again.

The privilege of choice is about whether someone is living in an economical and political situation that covers basic needs and ensures fundamental civil rights. Usually it’s a combination of origin and social status that determines whether someone enjoys the privilege of choice or not.

2. Privilege of Flexibility

When we have time, we don’t have money and when we have money, we don’t have time. Escaping from this logic is the main challenge for wealthy people for whom the privilege of choice is at hand. Loans, career plans, clients, the house, the children and the dog. All of this reduces our flexibility in one way or another.

There are many reasons why Europeans travel significantly more than Americans but the most important one is flexibility. While US employees take about 10 vacation days per year, their European colleagues take about 30. And while spending a gap year on travelling after high school is often considered a threat to careers and stipendiums in the US, it is perceived as a valuable character building activity in many European societies.

In the long run, all aspects of flexibility can be solved by those with the privilege of choice. Increasing flexibility often requires some thinking out of the box and the will to change and let loose from fixed ideas about where and how things need to happen. The privilege of flexibility also has a financial aspect to it: The more money we have, the more fixed ideas and standards can travel with us. But the good news for those on a low budget is: the more flexible we are with location, time, activities, transport and accommodation, the less money we need. Some people travel for years without any big savings to back them up.

Having children obviously reduces our flexibility though they are usually not the reason themselves (most children love to travel). We all grow up with certain ideas about how a life with children is supposed to be like and based on those ideas societies put very specific expectations on parents and children alike. The best example for that is the way nearly all school systems around the world are organized around bank holidays and strict schedules. Those kind of expectations are what really makes families with children inflexible. On the other hand, regulations like parental leave laws can help to increase personal flexibility.

Building up on the privilege of flexibility involves thinking out the box, abandoning manifested expectations and showing creativity in our life plans. Institutions, regulations and politics can help to increase but also often lower our flexibility.

3. Privilege of Confidence

Individual traveling is hard for those who are not used to it; it’s understandable that many people prefer to go on all-inclusive guided trips. It requires quite some confidence to travel to foreign places by ourselves, in the worst case neither speaking the local language nor English. At the same time, individual travelling has become a lot easier with smart phones and cellular networks covering even the most remote parts of the world. Uber, Hostelworld and AirBnB have long reached developing countries. More people speak English than ever before and various translation apps give us an idea about the meaning of what’s on the menu.

Frequent travelers will develop outstanding organizational skills and a third sense for cheap transportation and accommodation. Yet, everyone needs to accept that no matter how much we plan and prepare in advance, we sometimes need to deal with things as they come. Being confident that for everything there’s a solution is what carries all travelers through their worst nightmares … like when I chased a bus with my wallet inside from the back of a stranger’s pick up truck in El Salvador. It’s surprising how quickly you can find yourself in very weird situations.

Confidence is not only based on trust in ourselves. We must trust that the vast majority of people that we encounter while traveling want us to be fine , even — and sometimes especially — in the world’s most dangerous corners. Despite being a walking cash machine in the eyes of few wrongdoers: as long as we follow basic security rules we’ll avoid most of them. 99 out of 100 locals, hosts, bus drivers and fellow travelers care about us and will offer a helping hand when things are going downhill.

Self-confidence gets us far. But confidence in other people is what gets us everywhere. The privilege of confidence is about putting trust in ourselves and others without being naive.

4. Privilege of Curiosity

How many children are bursting with curiosity? And how many of them are full of doubts and concerns? That’s all you need to think about to understand the privilege of curiosity: It’s about the ability to keep our inner child alive and active.

Many frequent travelers grow up travelling with their parents and get confronted with the strange in early childhood already. Getting accustomed not to fear but to embrace new things is a prerequisite for continuing to seek them out. Still, it’s not hard to find people that have never left their country or region. Asking why, a popular answer is: “I live in such a beautiful place already, so why go somewhere else?”. And there is absolutely nothing wrong about this answer as long as people are honest with themselves. And I’m absolutely sure that I met some very modest souls who were honest in that regard.

Yet, the less romantic story is that many people never had the chance to explore the strange when they were young and curious. Many children grow up with only limited possibilities to follow their interests and instead need to start an adult life in young ages already. Those children are more likely to lose their natural curiosity. Reactivating it when grown up is a trick that only few manage to do.

An elderly British couple that I met in Morocco lived exactly the opposite story. Enjoying breakfast with them on the roof top terrace of a small Riad, we started chatting about their travel experience. This couple was travelling together for more than 50 years. There is barely a place in the world where the two of them haven’t been and to many places like Morocco they have returned several times. They always found a way to travel during their entire life. When they were young students, when they had children and now as pensioners. What drove them throughout their lives, I asked them. Their reply: The feeling that there was so much more to discover.

Curiosity is what gets us started and also what keeps us going. Curiosity is not about exploring as many things as possible but about reaching a deeper understanding of the things that we love and enjoy.

From Travelling to Individual Freedom

Let’s go back to our lady in South Tirol: Born into a troubled time and into a conservative, rural society, she definitely lacked the privilege of choice from childhood on. As an adult, the responsibility for her farm and her children robbed her from any kind of flexibility. When she got older, many of her responsibilities were taken over by her children but she never built up any kind of confidence to travel further than needed. This lack of confidence she could have compensated with curiosity but after so many years of suppressing desires, this flame was burning low.

Yet, there is something very remarkable about this lady: she is fully aware of her situation and she speaks about it very openly. She just accepts how her life went and doesn’t want to pick a fight with herself about what she missed. That’s something that deserves a lot of respect. But she made clear that this is not what she wishes for her children. That she wants them to the enjoy a level of freedom that was not meant for her.

Obviously, her lack of freedom was not about travelling alone. Travelling is just the perfect metaphor for a self-determined exploration. Digging in literature, experimenting with our sexuality or inventing amazing stuff are all equally important forms of exploration. What truly matters is that we can choose engagement, direction and guidance in every form of exploration ourselves.

Being free in how we explore the world is what individual freedom is based on. Improving our understanding of the world and following our curiosity is deeply embedded in our DNA. It is what gives our life a purpose after we have covered our basic needs and formed valuable social bonds. Individual Freedom is based on the freedom of exploration. Travelling is just one of many approaches of exploration and only special in that it also does a great job as a metaphor.

The 4 privileges can be applied to all aspects of self-determined exploration and therefore form the base of individual freedom.

So while travelling is just one of many manifestations of individual freedom, its beauty is that while we can easily cheat ourselves when it comes to other aspects of life, an assessment on the freedom of travelling is straightforward to answer: If I wanted to travel for 3–6 months what would that mean for my life?

What would it mean for my financial situation?
What are the risks that I would take?
Which obligations hold me back?
Whose agreement would it require?
What knowledge and skills do I need to improve?
Am I motivated to deal with the struggles?

Did you realize? Those are the very same questions that you’d ask yourself when founding a business, considering children or when thinking about a career change. It’s the questions that we ask ourselves in every significant life-decision. And the more of the 4 privileges we accumulate, the easier it is to answer them positively — meaning that we are more likely to live a life that we choose to live.

This is what individual freedom at its core is really about. It’s not about which car we could buy from our savings, under which conditions we have access to guns or where we can smoke a cigarette. Defining individual freedom decoupled from purpose in life leads to an arbitrary libertarian philosophy that is being abused by politicians, marketeers and lobbyists all around the world to make us consume their products and to support their claims.

Individual Freedom is about how individuals in a society can reach a life that gives them purpose. It describes the rights and benefits that support us to live meaningful lives as well as the rules and expectations that hold us back.

With this definition of individual freedom it’s easier to understand why an increasing number of people in today’s wealthy societies are hitting a wall and stagnating. And the 4 privileges can help to connect a rather abstract claim to the very concrete society setting that surrounds us. This forms a strong framework that we can use to describe how different society concepts and developments affect individual freedom in the long run.

So stay tuned for some more articles to follow up on this topic!

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