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Natural Law #23: Our World Works Better When We’re Owning Our Choices

Why choosing choice makes all the difference

black and white photo of book on a notepad and a coffee cup

Peter Koestenbaum could, on the surface, seem a surprising choice for an apostle of the revolutionary approach to putting freedom in place in the 21st century workplace. Even in the progressive part of the business world, few folks will likely have heard of him, and I doubt that his numerous books have made it to reading lists of most business school courses. Being in a conversation with Peter, which I’ve been fortunate to do many times now, calls up images of Martin Buber, Jean Paul Sartre, and Hannah Arendt, far more than it would Emma Goldman. All that said, his teaching and his writing have had an enormous impact on my thinking over the years. As his fellow German Jewish thinker Gustav Landauer once wrote, “​​All we need to do now is to keep that spirit alive and spread it.”

Born in Germany, Koestenbaum’s Jewish family escaped Nazi rule in 1937, when he was a boy of nine. Unable to enter the U.S. as refugees, they ended up settling in Venezuela. Peter later came to the U.S. as a young man when he enrolled as a student at San Jose State, and he has lived in California for most of his adult life.

Four years after Peter’s family had successfully escaped to freedom and safety in South America, a German-Jewish psychologist named Erich Fromm published a book that went on to become a classic. It was called Escape from Freedom (I reread it a few years ago and highly recommend adding it to your list). I’m not sure when Peter Koestenbaum first read Fromm’s book, but the essence of what’s in it—the understanding that many of us subconsciously flee from our naturally-occurring freedom in order to find short term psychological safety by submitting passively (or passive-aggressively) to direction from dictators, bosses, parents, etc.—is at the core of Peter Koestenbaum’s amazing work. Whether we like it or not, freedom, Peter tells us, is a fact of life. What we do with it is up to us.

Writer Peter Block, who’s also been a big influence on our beliefs here at Zingerman’s, tells the story of the first time he heard Peter Koestenbaum speak back in 1980, when he went to take a class out in California: “In the course of a one-hour lecture … my beliefs were seriously undermined. This professor took the position that my anxiety, isolation, feeling out of control, helplessness … were not my own unresolved psychological inadequacies, but were permanent qualities of the human condition.” They are, Koestenbaum makes clear, the inevitable emotional cost of the freedom that we all—whether we want to accept it not—are born with. As Peter Koestenbaum puts it, “Every act we perform is, in its foundation, a free one.”

The subject of freedom is far bigger than I can fit into this piece. It’s something that others—from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King to Mahatma Gandhi and Emma Goldman, and hundreds more—have written about extensively. People throughout history have fought and died for it. There are clearly huge issues to get right in rebalancing the socio-economic ecosystem we’re a part of, and I have much more to learn on the subject. Peter Koestenbaum and Peter Block have—both individually and as a pair—written probably twenty great books, all of which center around this subject; what it means, why we always have it (whether we want to admit it or not), how we can take ownership of our own freedom, and how we can create an organization in which we can help those we work with to do the same. As Peter Block says, this work may blow your mind, or at the least, blow up a lot of old, socially-inherited beliefs that teach us to be at times angry, at other times passive aggressive victims, or passive bystanders as the story of our lives—at work, at home, and in the world at large—unfolds.

Thinking back to the Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” it’s probably no coincidence that I started reading the books by both Block and Koestenbaum around the time in my life—let’s just say mid-life—that I really needed to learn these lessons more than ever. In the same way that so many free-thinking anarchists got me to drive for caring, constructive, meaningful free choice in my own life, over the years the two Peters have gotten me (and many others who are willing to listen) to look at the importance of freedom in the workplace in a radically different way.

I’ve written a lot about the personal piece of this subject in Secret #34 in Part 3. It’s all about how, even though I was an owner of a “successful business,” I still needed to learn to stop acting like what late 19th century English anarchist Edward Carpenter once called “a slave under continual compulsion from others,” and instead own my choices. Making real what Peter Koestenbaum writes about was not a quick process. It took me a good three years (coincidentally about as long as I believe it takes to change an organizational culture) to meaningfully own my decisions; to accept the reality that although there were always consequences and I was never free of outside influence, I was actually free to decide. Whether it involved big business issues or small stuff like responding to an invitation to a social gathering, I didn’t, it became clear to me over time, “have” to do anything. In the process I learned to embrace the reality that everything I did was a decision. That no one was making me do anything. That I was choosing to be kind to customers, to handle difficult situations, to go in early, stay late, worry, or work hard. That when I wanted to, I could respectfully say “no” rather than go along grudgingly, quietly complaining all the while. A lot of it manifested in my language—I stopped saying things like “I have to” or “I should”—both of which are essentially ways of saying that I have “no choice,” and switched to something more active like “I’m going to” or “I’m not.” I learned over time that even deciding not to decide was itself a decision.

This is what I wrote in Secret #34:

This internal freedom may seem elusive, but I think it’s essential. To wit, I’ve chosen to stay up late a lot while working on this essay. Although I was tired and could happily have gone to bed before it was “done,” I made my own call to keep typing. I owned the choice; I owned the consequences. The achievement, the excitement, and the exhaustion that went with it were all mine. I work hard to apply that same mindset (about choice, not necessarily about staying up late) to everything I do. Believe me, it wasn’t always that way. I used to feel like I was being forced to do, well, whatever it was I was doing. Those days are over. Today, whatever it is I do, I do because I decided to do it. Knowing that I made all those decisions has made my spirit lighter, lifted my energy higher, and made my life more fun. Choosing choice has changed my life.

Let me repeat that last line for emphasis—choosing choice changed my life. As I’ve worked on adding to the list of Natural Laws of Business (and life) this year, I had the belated glimpse of the obvious that this was not just about me. Nearly everyone I knew, I started to see, was struggling with the same stuff. To Peter’s Koestenbaum’s point, freedom underlies everything we do, and everything we are; when we do it every day we start to lead and live in the world as the free human beings we all want to be. Choosing choice, I began to understand, will change our organizations, and eventually our communities. All of which leads me to Natural Law #23:

Our World Works Better When We’re Owning Our Choices.

It is understanding and accepting that the freedom that so many people appropriately push for on a social level ultimately has to start on the inside. That when we choose choice in that way, we can shift organizational cultures away from passivity and a victim mindset, into one of positive, active leadership (see Secret #28 in Part 2 for more on this.) As anarchist author Howard Ehrlich explains, “To be free, people must liberate themselves.” And that when we do, both at work and anywhere else we go, things are much more likely to go better.

A few years before Peter Block first heard Peter Koestenbaum speak, James Boggs, Grace Lee Boggs, Freddy Payne, and Lyman Payne, put out a highly recommended book called Conversations in Maine: Exploring Our Nation’s Future, in which the authors write:

No radicals are going to get power in this country until we have converted a whole lot of people to recognize they are their own jailers; that they take the prison of their own selves with them wherever they go; that they are not going to be free until they have decided what they are going to do with their freedom.

That was certainly true for me. While we all say we want freedom, owning that we have it can be scary, since, as Peter Koestenbaum says, “… with freedom comes accountability, and with accountability comes guilt, and with guilt comes anxiety. Since our freedom leads to anxiety, it is easier to repress it than to bear it proudly.” With this in mind, the work world (and the world at large) is loaded with folks who still insist (as I used to do) that they have no choice: “My boss told me I have to do it,” “I have to pay taxes,” I have to go home now,” “My spouse won’t let me,” “I can’t do that!” You’ve probably heard, and maybe said, all of them many times. I know I have. And though those statements are common, they aren’t accurate. We don’t, I’ve learned, have to do anything. There are, of course, consequences for every decision we make, but the decisions to do what we do—whether we admit or not—remain our own. Yes, people like me with more resources at hand likely have less dire immediate consequences than those who have less. But still, the decisions are ours to make. The point is not to criticize. It’s just to acknowledge the power of the Natural Law—when we own our choices, we do better work, our energy is better, problems are overcome more effectively, and teams work better together. When we choose choice, we become accountable, to ourselves, and to others—excuses evaporate when we’ve mindfully opted to own our decisions. Conversely, if we act as if we have no choice, when we don’t own our own decisions, we struggle, our energy flags, our performance sags, and we suffer spiritually. I have done it both ways; the latter leads mostly to worry, the former is, well, freeing! Choosing choice, as I said, changed my life.

I wrote a lot about this in Secret #34 in Part 3:

It’s not an overnight achievement, but the more we work at it, the better we’ll get. Emma Goldman put down the following thoughts about women gaining freedom in the early part of the 20th century, but I think they apply to each of us as individuals, regardless of gender or the era in which we exist: “True emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts. It begins in a woman’s soul. History tells us that every oppressed class gained true liberation from its masters through its own efforts. It is necessary that woman learn that lesson, that she realize that her freedom will reach as far as her power to achieve her freedom reaches. It is, therefore, far more important for her to begin with her inner regeneration.” Anarchist George Benello said “Freedom, to be understood, must be lived.” Or, as Mohammed Bamyeh, a modern day anarchist professor from Pittsburgh, put it: “Freedom is the exercise of freedom.”

This last bit from Dr. Bamyeh was an eye opener for me. Freedom and free choice are not just human rights to be written about, they’re a way of showing up in the world—and at work—every day. As Neil Roberts, professor of Africana Studies at Williams College, writes, “Freedom is not a place; it is a state of being.” How and whether we exercise that freedom at work is an action. First and foremost, it’s in our relationship with ourselves—freedom, I’ve come to understand, is an inside out activity. Secondly, it’s a relationship with those around us—with Natural Law #23 in mind, we would do well to make sure to give those we work with the chance to make conscious choices as well.

What does all this look like in action in the workplace? Here are four ways that I believe we can choose to make free choice an important contributor to the quality of our organizational lives:

1. Choose choice for ourselves. Peter Koestenbaum writes, “Responsibility is the fact that each of us is free; accountability is the individual act of accepting and choosing this fact.” If we as individuals choose choice, we let go of language like “I have to” or “I can’t”; no more blaming bosses or parents, governments or ghosts, customers or kids. Yes, we have been influenced by others. Yes, there are consequences. And yes, we are still free to choose to own our choices. Peter Koestenbaum says:

The fulcrum of leadership begins with your unshakeable conviction—and feeling—that you are in charge of your life, that you are responsible for your actions, that you are accountable for the consequences of your deeds, intended or not. It shows in how you look others in the eye, how you stand up to stress, and how you are gentle when you reproach someone. You smile when others despair. You are relaxed when others panic. You always do something, plan something. … You do not wait for chance, and you do not hold off for fate to take over.

2. We teach the power of free choice to our staff. Few folks we hire will have this sense of personal freedom when they start work. Like me, they likely carry old beliefs taken in from family and society about how their options are only to follow orders, or maybe drag their feet, or in an extreme, rebel against. Getting involved and thinking like a leader is not something most will have experienced in earlier places of employment. That passive mindset, I believe, is a bad place for them to be, and over time it will hurt the organization of which they’re a part as well. To help our new colleagues learn to own their choices, we teach classes for staff on self-management, share the power of language (“I’m going to” vs. “I have to”), and give them tools to take action and do self-exploration. It’s not a quick fix but it certainly does help! As people more effectively own their choices, their energy improves, the quality of their collaboration gets better, their presence becomes more positive. And as Peter Koestenbaum says, they gradually learn “how it feels to be free.”

3. Stop seeking “freedom from” and embrace “freedom to.” “Freedom from” is resistance, rebellion, and reaction. It’s in the news every day, usually in some form of “They can’t make me do that.” Both by going to therapy and in studying anarchism I came to understand that mindset does not make for meaningful freedom; when we live for “freedom from,” we’re locked in reaction to others. “Freedom from” is essentially based on negative beliefs, which means that nothing great is likely to come from it in the long term. It leaves our energy flat at best, angry at worst. As Franz Fanon wrote, people in this mental state exist in “a zone of nonbeing, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region.” By contrast, “freedom to” leads us away from feeling like victims and encourages us to act, to take accountability, to initiate. As anarchist poet Hakim Bey suggests, “Don’t just survive while waiting for someone’s revolution to clear your head.” I’m with Emma Goldman who wrote, “Real freedom, true liberty is positive: it is freedom to something; it is the liberty to be, to do; in short, the liberty of actual and active opportunity.”

4. Create systems and structures that support freedom and active participation. This is how we help people take the power of choice and active leadership they had all along—but were never allowed to use in other jobs. There are dozens of ways we make this happen here. I wrote about a lot of them in the piece about putting power (aka, metaphorical “carbon”) back into the cultural soil. Open Book management, open meetings, Lean, Bottom-Line Change, staff partners, staff ownership … all these and more give people ways to practice participating in meaningful ways. The work we do around Stewardship—adapted from Peter Block, who was in turn influenced so significantly by Peter Koestenbaum—is a huge piece of putting this practice of free choice into place. The more we practice making mindful, caring choices and putting accountability into action, the better we feel, and the better things are likely to go.

All in all, imperfectly, free choice is the foundation of what is possible in the world. To be clear, we have a long way to go to get better at it here, and I certainly have my work to do as well. Still, it’s increasingly clear to me with each passing year that embracing Natural Law #23 and owning our choices, will always help our organizations move forward in positive ways. In the belief that, as Gareth Higgins shares, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better,” I’m convinced that we can freely choose choice, accept accountability, and demonstrate every day that there are more equitable, more inspiring, and ultimately more effective ways to work.

When we own our choices, help support others around us in doing the same, focus on “freedom to” rather than fighting with “freedom from,” and design organizations in which people really can participate and influence in meaningful ways, then good things will surely come. If we want our communities to become more engaged, positive, and inclusive, this sure seems like a good place to begin. As early 20th-century German anarchist Gustav Landauer wrote, “ … a goal can only be reached if it is already reflected in its means.” When we opt to own our own freedom, and then build it into the way our organizations work, it increases the odds of it happening in the community around us as well.

Is it crazy to think this could work in the modern world? Maybe. Or maybe not. I know enough about the self-fulfilling belief cycle to understand that what we believe about people participating in running the work of which they’re a part will go a long way towards making whatever it is we believe a reality. Peter Block says,

When you defend idealism, you defend imagination. You defend possibility. You defend the world of ideas. The argument against idealism is the wish to be “practical”—the wish for an evidence-based world, the wish for proof. Idealism affirms the place of mystery, not knowing, and caring about things that are [immeasurable]. So, I always see the argument against idealism as the argument against democracy, the argument against love, the argument against justice and equity, and all the things that our culture has abandoned in the name of privatization and economic well-being.

Ludo Gaberon worked at Zingerman’s many years ago and has since gone on to do great work with software. He has told me many times how much that early work experience, not long after he’d moved here from France, has influenced his beliefs. Here’s a bit of what he wrote when we put together Part 4:

There lie two crucial notions, freedom and trust: Freedom to the employees to make the organization’s values theirs and to act, portray, and promote those values in their own way. Achieving in the process genuineness, which is the pillar for sustainable business. And trust to the employers to let their staff carry the flag and to believe in their brand ambassadors, reassured that goodwill is in action.

To read more about the subject, check out Secrets #24#34#43.5 and “Going into Business with Emma Goldman.”

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!