To live your life how you want to live it – The art and craft of living of your own free will

“Yes, we’re only on this earth for a short while”, agrees the man. “Better make the most of it.” An ocean of sympathy in his eyes for the elderly couple he’s been chatting with at the table next to me.

They were little children when the bombs fell on Rotterdam in May 1940. Now, 79 years later, they sit here enjoying their coffee. Watching people pass on the street outside in the first rays of summer. Savoring the quiet of old age and thinking of times past. They feel lucky to have survived. Grateful for what they’ve been able to make of their lives in spite of all that happened. The devastation of war forever etched in their memory as if it happened yesterday. “Don’t have any regrets”, says the old man. “Live your life how you want to live it”.

Words that somehow seem bigger when they come from someone who has lived a life like his. And yet, the world behind his words remains hidden to many of us. Especially if we’ve been fortunate enough not to be confronted with something as life-changing as armed conflict.

What does it mean … to live your life how you want to live it?

The answer will be different for different people, but many would say that it’s about being able to live life as they freely choose to. To make decisions based on their own free will.

There’s intuitive sense in that idea. But let’s examine it with a little more scrutiny. In which ways are we – or are we not – free to choose? And what does that teach us about how we could perhaps increase the freedom we experience?¹


1. Of your own free will

The idea of having the freedom to choose how we live our lives resonates with many of us. A feeling of space to breathe, of fresh air and open, wide horizons.

We don’t want anyone to coerce, threaten, bully or intimidate us into a life we would not choose ourselves. We’d rather do without oppressive tyrants, violent criminals, abusive spouses and the like. And we’d rather not have disease, poverty or war force us onto a path we would never have wanted.

In such cases, our ability to live our lives as we freely choose is restricted. But apart from conditions like these, in what ways are we really free to choose the way we live?

a. How freely can you choose in the world around you?

Think about it for a moment. You can’t simply go and break down your neighbour’s fence, because you want a bigger property. Just like your neighbour can’t simply go and seize your store, because he wants another source of income. In an effort to avoid chaos, communities everywhere have formal and informal rules to regulate the way people co-exist with each other. Rules that often restrict the freedom of individuals in one way or another. As a member of a community, we are left to accept the rules or face the consequences of fighting or breaking them.

In addition to the restrictions posed by rules, the specific setting and time you find yourself in may (or may not) allow you to do certain things. Perhaps your community offers education only to certain people, allowing you to develop yourself but leaving your brother behind. Or perhaps demographics make it difficult to find a suitable spouse to share your life with.

Your ability to freely choose may be also impacted by other individuals. People who try to influence or even manipulate you into choosing one course of action over another. Like a client pressuring you into doing something for free by suggesting there may be more assignments for you in the future. Or clever advertisements subconsciously luring you into spending more money than you should.

But it doesn’t even have to be imposed or concealed. In some cases, you might consciously refrain from what you personally would have wanted, because you’re taking the interest of others at heart. Such as a decision not to pursue your dream job in another city, because you want to care for a disabled family member.

b. How freely can you choose from within your own self?

Now – for the sake of argument – let’s assume that you are aware of the impact of the outside world and that you’ve found ways to either accept or mitigate this impact. Could you then perhaps say that you can freely choose, as it only depends on the decisions you make from within yourself?

This would in any case require that you have clear sight of your wishes, options and any further considerations. And that you are then able to choose between them. Things that often turn out easier said than done.

First of all, your ability to clearly distinguish everything you think, feel and want is often restricted for a range of different reasons (also see the article “Why ‘not knowing what you want’ is so very normal“).

  • Your wishes, options and any considerations you might have with them may remain hidden or entangled with one another. Especially when you’ve never tried to make them explicit.
  • You may have lost touch with what you want and the possibilities you have. Perhaps because you’ve changed over time or because you’ve had to put your own wishes aside for a while.
  • There may be parts of yourself you are less familiar with.
  • You may even – knowingly or unknowingly – mislead yourself in some ways and believe you have certain characteristics or wishes you don’t really have.

Secondly, your wishes themselves – and your judgment of them – are by definition biased. The time and culture you grew up in, the experiences that crossed your path, the way you were raised and how you’ve lived your life up until now: All have exerted their influence on who you have become and your perspective on the world. Your wishes and how you perceive them are the result of things you have been through before. Your will is therefore not free in the sense that it is untouched. It couldn’t be. After all, it is yòur unique will, and not somebody else’s.

In addition, you may be faced with behaviour you don’t experience full control over. Something that gets in the way of freely choosing the options available to you. Such as an addiction, obsession, personality characteristic or habit that is difficult to beat. Wanting to live a healthier life, for example, can be quite a challenge when you’re struggling with a smoking addiction.

And lastly, your mental or physical predispositions can be such that you have to take them into account when choosing how to live your life (for instance when you have a form of autism spectrum disorder or are paraplegic). Or perhaps you don’t (yet) have the necessary skills, experience, means or time to make something happen that you’ve set your heart on.


2. Of your own free will revisited – Creating clarity

And so we have to conclude that there are obvious limits to our ability to choose freely, both originating in the world around us as well as from within ourselves. But does this mean that our will can never be truly free?

Take a moment to think back to a time when you did something that felt like it was entirely of your own free will. Because you wanted it. Most likely, there were restrictions or influences posed by the outside world, and perhaps from within yourself. And yet, you still experienced your will as free. Can you detect what it was specifically that made you feel this way? What was that sense of freedom based on?

The experience of acting out of free will is of course a very personal one. But have a look and see if you recognise the following notions, inspired by the work of renowned Swiss philosopher Peter Bieri about discovering your own will.

1. You always have the freedom within yourself to consider what you want, to contemplate what you would choose to do.

2.You also have the freedom to decide on your course of action (and yes, the consequences of your actions may lie beyond your control).

3. But … to truly experience your will as free you would need to feel you own it. That it’s yours and yours only. It may be influenced by factors in the outside world or from within yourself, but you have consciously made your own choices. With acceptance of any consequences and willingness to deal with them.

According to Peter Bieri, being able to “own” your will and experience it as free requires 3 consecutive steps:

  • You need to be able to articulate what you want
  • You need to understand why you want what you want
  • You need to take a step back and form an opinion of what you want

a. Articulating what you want

This step is all about putting what you want into words, specifically and explicitly. Uncovering unknown and hidden wishes as well as untangling wishes that have become intertwined into an indistinctive mass. The main objective is to free yourself from everything unknown or unclear.

Practical tips:

    • It definitely helps to not just think things through in your head, but to actually write your wishes down as accurately as you can, along with the thoughts and feelings they generate. The process of finding the right words challenges you to be particular about what it is you want.
      Also see “Burning through the fog in your mind” for some hands-on suggestions and a tried and tested method to do this.
    • Focus on trying to catch whatever comes up. Don’t yet judge what you want or think you want. You’ll get to that in the next steps.
    • Expand your vision by looking beyond the thoughts, feelings and wishes you already have inside you. Enter new worlds by reading, watching movies, fantasising, creating something new, experimenting with new things, engaging with different people, immersing yourself in other cultures et cetera. Be open to what the new experiences tell you about yourself and your wishes.
      If you could use some additional ideas to get started, have a look at “Discovering what you want: Small & simple things to start with today“.

b. Understanding why you want what you want

Now take your insights and try to understand why you want what you want. What are the sense and meaning of your wishes? How have they come to life? How do they fit in the context of the outside world and your own self?

You may find that some of your wishes actually reflect other wishes. Or that you thought you wanted something while in fact you don’t. Perhaps you discover that you were actually deceiving yourself a bit. Or that you’ve been influenced by the outside world in a way you didn’t want to be. That’s all part of the process. Of better understanding yourself and freeing yourself by becoming aware of outside and inside influences.

Practical tips:

    • One of the most difficult things to uncover is how the context you grew up in influenced (and biased) who you have become. Simply because it’s so much part of you that you can’t see it, unless you shed some light on it from the outside. Exposing yourself to completely other ways of life and allowing that to tell you something about yourself, is a very effective way to increase your awareness of the impact of your own environment.
      Have a look at “Broadening your vision: The value of cross-cultural differences – Part 1” for some very fundamental – and perhaps surprising – cross-cultural differences to trigger your thinking.

c. Taking a step back and forming an opinion of what you want

Once you’re able to articulate and understand what you want, the final step to really owning your will is to create some distance and form an opinion. With which wishes can you identify yourself given what you have discovered in the previous steps? Which wishes can you attribute to yourself as embedded parts of who you are at this point in your life? Which do you truly experience as your own?

Practical tips:

    • Peter Bieri highlights an interesting way to “test” to what extent you’ve managed to make a will your own. When your will is your own and in that sense free, time feels like it’s yours. When your will is in some way not free (e.g. when you don’t fully own it), your perception of time is different.

A few examples:

– Perhaps you are not very aware of your own wishes or how they came to be. And you basically go through the motions of living without any questions asked. Time can feel jaded and weary. Life just passes by as if you’re standing on the sidelines.
– If you are dependent on someone with regards to what happens in your life, you might experience time not as your own, but that of others. For instance, when someone only stays home to manage the household because she’s dependent on a spouse who doesn’t want to be bothered, while she’d rather develop her career. Time may appear strange to her, not quite her own.
– If you do things out of compulsion, for instance if you have an addiction you find hard to control, you’ll experience time as suspended. You don’t want to do what you do, but you feel overpowered and can only wait for it to fade and better times to come. And for time to become yours again.
– Something similar happens if you feel you are coerced into doing something you don’t want to do. As an example, compare someone who fully owns the decision to care for a parent who is ill with someone who feels forced to. For instance because the parent blackmails him emotionally or his siblings refuse to become involved. He will not experience the time caring for his parent as his own, but rather as time that was taken from him.

So while you’re discovering what you want, have a quick test every now and again. How does time feel? Does it feel truly as your own? Or as somebody else’s? Or suspended or strange in some way? And what does this tell you about your journey to living your life as you want?


3. In conclusion

What will be clear is that the freedom of your will is not a given that remains static all the time. It’s not something that you attain once and then keep forever. Instead, your will’s freedom fluctuates from one moment to the next. Depending on the extent to which you’ve been able to make your will truly your own.

The bad news is that this therefore requires continuous monitoring and effort. The good news is that you yourself are in control. It’s something you can be your own creator of, something you can learn and get better at.

To live life as you want it. To live it of your own free will.

A true art and craft …


1. This article is loosely inspired by the work of renowned Swiss philosopher Peter Bieri, noting specifically that it – in its practical application – does not do justice to the philosophical meticulousness and precision that characterises Peter Bieri’s writings.

If you’d like to read more, have a look at the original publications.

  • Bieri, P. (2016). Human Dignity – A way of living. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Bieri, P. (2013). Wie wollen wir leben? (translation: How do we want to live?) New Bern, NC, USA: Jasher Press & Co.
  • Bieri, P. (2003). Das Handwerk der Freiheit – Über die Entdeckung des eigenen Willes (translation: The craft of freedom – About the discovery of your own will). Berlin, Germany: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.


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