From Conformity to Mobility

Chapter 6:
From Conformity to Mobility

There is an ancient tension between the living “fire” within an individual and the “forms” forced on him by the society in which he lives. Conformity is the word I use when the individual gives priority to the external form over the internal fire. Finding satisfaction at work becomes increasingly improbable as an individual or culture allows conformity to quench our inherent fire.

Conformity can be attractive and it has its own compensations. It offers a kind of safety based on the appearance of being, doing, and thinking like others. It offers convenient ways to blend in socially. In superficial matters, conformity may cause no harm. But when one bases life decisions on external voices at the expense of listening to one’s inner self, something of the greatest value can be lost.

Many who know the cost of conformity rebel against it to protect their integrity as individuals. But rebelling against something has never provided the kind of freedom that satisfies. For that, one must learn to listen to the promptings of one’s deepest and most authentic self. I have learned to welcome the urging of Self 2 as it pushes through the rigidities of my borrowed thinking. It is this urge that shows me I’m still alive and kicking, even if I’m not yet totally free. When I recognize and honor this urge, it becomes stronger and stronger. It is the harbinger of someday flying free.

The conflict between the massive forces of society and the inherent needs of the individual hardly seems to be a fair contest. On the one hand, we have a faint impulse from within asking that we heed it. On the other hand, we have the pervasive models of conformity surrounding us, suggesting that we adapt ourselves to them. Hundreds of magazines show us how we should look and dress. On TV and in the movies, we are offered countless models for how to think and behave. Norms are set and norms are followed without thinking whether they are in our best interests. Those who can’t or won’t follow the accepted norms are made to believe they are wrong. They are treated as failures, in need of correction. Those who follow the norms and succeed become our heroes and model setters. There’s so much external pressure and such a small voice within. Outside seems so big and inside seems so small.

But inside has one big advantage—it is always there. Wherever you go, Self 2 will speak to you if only you learn how to listen. Another advantage is that Self 2 is biased toward enjoyment. We like feeling good. And we are biased toward living together harmoniously. Because of this inherent bias, we respond to the beauty of a sunset, enjoy the taste of good food, like to love and respect others, want freedom and integrity, and have an urge to understand what is important to us. Having DNA on your side is no small advantage in this contest between the fire and the form. But it is still a formidable contest and it takes considerable courage as well as wisdom to win.

Redefining work as performance, learning, and enjoyment in keeping with Self 2’s innate desires is a giant step toward working free. The next step is to attempt to understand why conformity is so attractive to us and how it affects our ability to work free. The word I find most helpful in discussing this concept is mobility. It connotes not specific destination but the ability to move in any desired direction without self-constraint. Mobility is the quest for movement driven by the free human response to one’s own deepest inner urgings. Keeping this possibility in mind, let us take a brief look at the alternative to working in conformity to external pressures, rewards and punishments.

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An Image of Mobility—I have one image that helps remind me of the value of mobility as distinct from normal goal setting. Two cars—say, two Volkswagens—are about to leave San Francisco for Chicago. Both are given the same amount of time to deliver their passengers to the destination and both arrive at the same time. But the passenger in the first car arrives tired and stressed after a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride, and the vehicle itself is in need of major repairs before it can take another trip. The second car has a very different trip. Not only does the passenger arrive rested and having enjoyed the entire journey, but the vehicle is in better working order than when it departed. It leaves San Francisco as a Volkswagen and arrives in Chicago as a Mercedes. Both cars accomplish their assigned tasks. But one has gained in capacity and comfort while moving. Both have moved, but only one has mobility. Which car would you rather have on your next trip?

To some people, this image seems fanciful. Cars don’t change appreciably in their capabilities while they travel. But what about human beings? We are all drivers of vehicles that are capable of growing in their capabilities as they go. Growth is not only possible, but important to us. But growth in capacity without purpose is meaningless. Working free means that I am growing in my capacity to fulfill myself. It means that I continuously increase my capacity to enjoy my life both when working and when not working.

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