Freedom. The word shows up throughout history. The word is often used to justify war, death, protests and so much more. However, if I asked you to explain freedom what would you tell me?

I’m still working on learning what it means to be free. Freedom is my first core value, and I hold it very close. I’m reminded of freedom every time I look at the artwork on my forearm. However, every time I think I have it figured out I look deeper and discover there’s more to discover about freedom.

What does it mean to be free? I was taught my whole life freedom is something we have in a country like Canada. Canadians are free to speak our truth, as long as it does not harm or violate the rights of another. We’re free to choose where we live, what we do, and where we travel.

As much as I love all the freedoms which come with being Canadian, you can live in a free country such as Canada and not have freedom. True freedom can only be found in your response to what’s happening around you.

Steven Covey wrote:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness.”

Response or reaction – it’s a choice

In 2016, I was driving through Toronto with our RV trailer in tow. A driver changed lanes taking my safe space from in front of me. Unfortunately, the traffic in front of her stopped suddenly as she changed lanes. I had no hope of stopping in time. Thankfully no-one was hurt, but my truck was a write-off.

In this situation, would you blame me for reacting harshly? An unsafe lane change in front of me, resulting in an accident. She cut me off! If only the other driver wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to get one car-length ahead!

It’s the type of situation in which I could stew about a problem for a very long time. I could have held on to my anger at the other driver, and talked to everyone I knew about how inconsiderate she was. I could have let the whole event become a platform for my anger against bad drivers.

I highly doubt the other driver left home that morning with the intention of doing unsafe lane changes. She might be an unskilled driver, but I have no way of knowing that. Yet, how often do we jump to a snap judgement that they’re a horrible driver and need to get off the road!

Just like me, the driver was simply trying to get somewhere. The nature of traffic on that highway is it’s busy, fast-paced, people seem to be in a hurry, and you have to remain alert.

I chose to be on that highway and with that choice means accepting I cannot control the actions of other drivers. What I can also accept is they are doing what I’m doing … driving. The best I can do is keep myself in a safe position, and when someone takes away my safety is to be at choice in my response.

Getting upset, yelling at them, or other such reactions only stress me out and escalate the danger. I’m going to assume in 99.9% of the cases, the other driver is unaware of your stress. In the interest of honesty, yes, I do still react this way at times. I’m human and my goal is to catch myself sooner when I’m jumping to reaction mode.

When I get cut-off in traffic I prefer to respond by backing off and returning to a safe distance. Responding in such a way leaves me less stressed and alert for the next thing that’s going to happen.

This is what freedom looks like for me. Choosing the mindset by which I respond to the world around me. Letting go of the need to try and control things I have no control over.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space”

Every day you are bombarded with stimuli. In trying to get the kids out the door in the morning. During your daily commute. In your interactions at work. During that pick-up hockey game in the evening. You are stimulated all day, every day.

One option you have is to react to the stimuli. Reactions are usually quick and start with a snap judgement of the stimulus. The judgement happens almost without thought. It’s human nature and its what weighs on us because our reactions come from the stories we tell ourselves (rather than reality).

A response is what happens when you take the advantage of the space between stimulus and responding. This means taking the time to step back and look at the stimulus from different perspectives. From this space you create for yourself, you can find a response which is far more powerful as it comes from who you truly are.

Covey said, “in the space is your freedom and power to choose.” You really do have the power to choose your response regardless of the context we’re talking about. When you choose to take advantage of the space, you might find you have been telling yourself a story that’s been holding you back. You disempower such stories when you start tapping into your power to choose.

“In those choices lie our growth and our happiness.”

When I spend my time driving and responding to the world around me, I know I’m far happier when I arrive at my destination.

In leadership & life

By the time you reach this point in the post, you might be trying to wrap your head around the choice which lies between stimulus and response. I was going to make this a leadership lesson, but truly it’s about more than leadership. It’s about how you choose to live your life … always.

Whether you are a leader or just someone going through life, you have the power to choose. When you choose to respond, rather than react, you will start to unlock growth and happiness you didn’t think was possible. Learning to respond more than react is like building a muscle, and with time and commitment, your ability to respond will grow.

As you’re going through your day pay attention to whether you are responding or reacting to stimuli. Initially, you might notice them in hindsight. Learn from what you just noticed, and give yourself credit for noticing.

With time you will continue to build your noticing muscle. You might catch yourself in the middle of a reaction. No problem. Pause. Breath. Now choose how you want to respond.

With time you will continue to build this muscle, and increasingly you will find yourself responding to an increasing amount of the stimuli around you.

Freedom is spacious and liberating. Care to join me?