I recently wrapped up a personal leadership seminar with an American corporate client in Beijing, and during a conversation about values, one of my students asked me, what did I value the most? Before I could think about it, I said, “Mobility.” Like the old SAT strategy, your first answer is usually your best answer, so then I thought, how was it that mobility had beat out core values contenders like family, health, love, compassion and spirituality. Here’s what I came up with…
I think of values as the road signs on life’s journey. We really need to have a clear indication of what’s guiding us if we want to get somewhere in particular. And this little analogy is also about mobility. While mobility is most often used to describe freedom of movement, I feel it’s central to the greater issue of living a self-owned life.
I define Mobility as the freedom to purposefully choose to direct one’s self. All of these components: freedom, purpose, choice, direction and self are to me a big part of what makes a successful human being. It is the result of the pushing and pulling of conscious and unconscious forces that determine our movement and direction.
So while in Asia especially, people put Family at the top of their list of core values, often along with Wealth, Achievement and Health, I believe that for most people, they are guided by decisions, not choices. Choice implies freedom, decision implies selection. When we are mobile, we are freely choosing, not selecting from an externally defined list of options. We do not necessarily have to be going anywhere or doing anything in particular, but we choose because it speaks to our values. It’s the difference between deciding between a blue car or a red car or choosing to ride a bike.
I mentioned Landmark Education in one of my past posts as being instrumental in helping me to clarify my life direction. In one of the course’s conversations, the leader, without explanation, asks participants repeatedly, “Vanilla or Chocolate?” “Vanilla,” answers one. “Why?” asks the leader. “Because I like vanilla.” The leader asks again, “Vanilla or Chocolate?” and people make different attempts to answer, but none of them satisfy the leader, who keeps asking again and again, way longer than is reasonable, until finally someone says, “Vanilla, because I choose it.”
The way it was explained was that decisions are preferences we learn from the past. Choices are something we freely generate based on a desired distinct future. So like the two Zen monks who are beaten by the abbot for being drawn into the dualistic trap of analyzing the glass being half-full or empty, the meaningful answer comes from the third monk who simply drinks the water.
A distinct future, one that resonates with our values, is not necessarily related to the past. As we grow, our values change. We do not create mobility by being directed from the past. We generate choices that mobilize us toward a future which may not resemble the past at all. We may choose to do things that are completely new to us. We may choose to create value in non-traditional ways. We may seek out a completely different career path from our college major or past work. We act spontaneously and with joy in creating a self-owned life.
Conformity is the opposite of mobility. Conformity, and it’s evil twin complacency, are born of the past. It’s ‘how things are’. It replaces free choice with 32 flavors of ice cream, plus Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia if you’re American, and 1 flavor (Great Leader Garlic Kimchi) if you’re North Korean. The difference between selection and choice are not about semantics, they represent the critical distinction of purposefully creating our future, or it’s being created by our past.
Some people think that by being a contrarian, they are acting in a maverick way and are untethered by conventional ideas. This is not mobility; it’s deciding to go against something rather than with it. It is based on acting in response to other people’s ideas. So this position is still relative to the external, rather than from within. True mobility doesn’t take into account what other people believe, it’s all about what you believe.
I also don’t believe in upward mobility, which implies a Jeffersonian bettering of one’sself in purely financial terms and again, only in relation to others. Jeffersonian as in The Jeffersons, as in George and ‘Weezy and not Thomas Jefferson. The same goes for the Kramdenian concept of downward mobility, where somehow, despite your best efforts, you are a little worse off at the end of each day, much like Ralph Kramden. These ways of thinking about mobility straightjacket us into seeing ourselves as economic animals who must continually climb the ladder of success to survive. What inevitably happens though, is that we exhaust ourselves getting to the top of life’s successive of ladders, only find them, in the words of Steven Covey, “leaning against the wrong wall”.
The simplistic ladder-climbing notion of mobility is from the past. It leaves no room for spirituality, personal growth or free choice. To me it evokes a sense of the worst in human society; caste systems, segregation and ruthlessness.
Love, said one of my favorite thinkers, Bucky Fuller, is metaphysical gravity. It distills what is important in our lives and pulls us forward in a meaningful direction. It calls us to create the lives we desire, versus acting from ‘how things are’. Being in touch with our values gives us access to more of the things we love in our daily lives. Where we find love we create mobility.
Mobility is freedom — R. Buckminster Fuller