Reclaiming our autonomy.

Autonomy is one of our most fundamental drivers. It features somewhere in just about every article written about motivation and “happiness”, alongside notions of mastery, purpose, and a few others. 

Despite that, we seem willing to give it away at a moments notice. This thought surfaced for me this morning as I entered data into an app as part of a programme to lose some of the excess weight I put on over lockdown.

The app itself is pretty useful, tracking the data I put in and advising on the foods I am considering. Beyond that, however, comes an avalanche of other offerings, from meditation to exercise regimes and “buddy groups”, without which I will apparently be helpless. 

It chimed with a stream on LinkedIn over the weekend on what constitutes a profession, as more and more areas claim that status as they persuade us we cannot do without them, from the “fitness industry” to the “coaching industry.” It seems we have become so obsessed with performance that no corner of our lives cannot be measured and improved with help from professionals. 

It struck me further as I was looking for an image to go at the top of this blog and searched “autonomy” to be presented with a horde of images displaying “demand autonomy.”

I’m beginning to suspect the existence of a “manufacturing helplessness” industry, staffed by skilled professions trained in persuading us that we are not good enough and can only seek redemption with their help. For a fee, of course. It seems now that we cannot function without specialist support from an ECG and blood oxygen monitor on our wrist, a variety of specialist coaches and a permanent connection to social media.

I think it is part of a trend to monetise anything that moves as we play out the tragedy of the commons – taking things that are inherently free and turning them into something that can we package attractively and sell. It’s rather like the cynical description of consultancy – borrowing our watch, telling us the time and charging a fee for it.

The reality is that in a free society, which those of us reading this are in, autonomy cannot be taken away, only given away. We can choose to believe that we are not enough unless we have continual validation to confirm it, and persuade ourselves that there are far more hoops to jump through to get to where we want to than exist.

Our lives are governed by where we sit on a spectrum from dependence, through independence, to interdependence, and there is, of course, far more money made by persuading people they are dependent.

Independence is good but often lonely, whilst interdependence, the conscious choice of how we use our independence, is where things happen because we both gain equally from our relationship. 

It’s worth thinking about. If we’re paying more for it than we’re gaining from it, then it’s not an equal relationship, it’s a dependency.

Each of us is already good enough. It doesn’t mean we cannot improve, but paying somebody to tell us we are good enough is plain daft. Tim Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, put it beautifully.

“When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless.” We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.”

W. Timothy Gallwey.

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