The Struggle to Find a Balance Between Freedom and Security
Photo courtesy of Antony Mayfield.

The Struggle to Find a Balance Between Freedom and Security

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Work

When I’m writing for Puttylike, in the back of my mind I carry two principles which I hope help me to share something of value to the community. First, I try not to talk about myself too much (after all, this isn’t a personal blog!) and I aim to have an answer – even an open one – to whatever question is being explored.

But then, as a multipod, there’s a certain appeal to questioning rules like these, and so last summer I broke both in order to share the process I was using to explore an upcoming life decision, in which I didn’t have a certain answer.

It reminded me that there’s value in sharing stories like these. It can be helpful to see how another person makes decisions, as we get to reflect on similarities and differences between our situations, priorities and desires.

So today, I want to update you on my life, and hopefully you’ll be able to take something useful for your own situation from my reflections.

But First: Let’s Talk About Fourier Transforms,

[WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS MATH! (It’s optional, so skip it, if you like.)]

Oddly, every time I think about my current life decision, a mathematical analogy springs to mind. You might have heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says, broadly, that the more precisely you measure the position of a particle, the less precisely you can measure the momentum.

(Occasionally this gets paraphrased as “you can either know where something is, or how fast it’s going, but not both.”)

This isn’t just a weird fact about our ability to measure, and it’s not even restricted to particles. It’s just that this phenomenon is much easier to notice at the particle level.

In fact, this is a fundamental reality. In mathematics, it’s related to an operation called the Fourier Transform. (Very) basically, this operation is part of the translation between position and momentum. If you have lots of precision to start with, you end up with a fuzzy result after:

Figure: The world’s least accurate graph. A precise measurement becomes fuzzy after applying the Fourier Transform (blue arrows), and vice versa.

In conclusion, you physically can’t have high precision on both position and momentum at once.

(I am very much rushing this explanation, so it is not entirely accurate, but it’s accurate enough for the purpose of this post. If you want to understand better, these two videos explain the mathematics in fantastic, intuitive detail, and without all the hand-waving inaccuracy.)

Anyway, let’s go back to my life…

The Last Few Years

When I started writing for Puttylike, I was a couple of years into my full-time multipod phase. I’d given up full-time work, and I was writing books and articles, doing freelance programming, giving comedy talks about mental health, and doing standup comedy.

These years have been great fun… and very challenging. I’ve found a routine which – mostly – works for me. But I’ve gradually become less and less settled, and it’s been increasingly clear since I finished my latest novel.

This makes sense: I suddenly have a lot of extra time to reflect, which is always dangerous. The most natural path would be to continue as I am – perhaps start another book, find another programming contract, and book even more talks. But I didn’t want to assume that the path I chose a few years ago was automatically the right path for now.

So I’ve taken a few weeks to chew over the possibilities, doing some temporary coding work, but no new huge projects: only fun work which would teach me some new skills.

The whole time I’ve been exploring what lies beneath the unsettled feeling, and gradually I’ve realised that it’s about freedom and security.

More of One, Less of the Other

I love the freedom of my current life. I get to choose which projects to work on, which clients to work with, and find places to speak.

But this freedom has downsides: most obviously, I don’t have the regular income I used to. This is fine, but it has the potential to be exhausting over a long time. It feels as if I must keep putting in effort just to remain static… and if the effort stops, then I fall behind.

I think this deep unsettlement is my brain trying to tell me it would prefer a bit more security.

Easy, right? Problem solved, I can just do that, and never have any problems ever again, li-

Wait!

Oh. All of the options which will bring more security entail giving up some freedom. I’ll have to take a job, or a long-term contract, or be less picky with clients, or something. And the parts of my brain which desperately want this freedom are in conflict with the parts which want security.

This is why the image of Fourier Transforms keeps resurfacing in my mind: I can have lots of freedom, or lots of security… but not both.

(Yes, okay, I admit that perhaps see-saws would have been a more accessible analogy, but if you can’t nerd out about mathematical concepts at Puttylike, then where can you?!)

There’s a Middle Ground

For a brief time I felt stuck, as if there were only bad options: continue with the anxious grind of complete freedom, or declare failure, give up on my dreams entirely and do something else.

You might recognize my old friend “extreme thinking” in that description of the situation. For some reason, my human brain assumes all compromise is total capitulation. Instead, I could, for example, take a part-time job, and trade some freedom away for a little more security.

Changing my approach isn’t the same as declaring failure, either. It just means I’m recalibrating the amount of freedom/security which I want at this point in my life!

Takeaways

Here are the reminders I’m taking forward for next time I have to recalibrate what I’m doing with my life:

  • There will be a next time I have to reconsider what I’m doing
  • Just because I’m already doing something, doesn’t mean I have to keep doing it.
  • Sometimes I need more freedom, sometimes I need more security – I have to choose what balance I want right now
  • Rebalancing isn’t the same as failure
  • Math is cool, even if I’m terrible at explaining it

Thanks for listening. I hope it’s been useful to you to hear about this process, as messy and unfinished and full of catastrophic thinking as it is. At the very least, it’s hopefully good to know that not everyone has everything all figured out!

Your Turn

Are you happy with your balance of freedom and security at the moment? What other tradeoffs are you experiencing in your life, and how might you change them?

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

41 Comments

  1. Nela Dunato says:

    As a person whose one of top core values is “freedom”, this question is on my mind a lot. Every single project I consider is a balancing act between my need for freedom, and immediate or long term financial needs.

    Right now I have a fair deal of both. I say no to projects I don’t want to do, and I’m not worried about money. I have a part time teaching gig that gives me some recurring income and is impacting my schedule a bit, but I still get to do whatever I want to do on most days.

    A full time jobs that offers a great salary can easily become a pair of golden handcuffs (been there). A part time job that covers necessities can give that safety net without making a creative person complacent.

  2. Veerle says:

    Neil just nailed it … all about rebalancing . Thank you!

  3. Yostina says:

    Well, I want both freedom and security at the same time with equal amounts, I was thinking about building a passive income somehow so it can keep providing money while I’m lost doing whatever I want.

  4. Jill says:

    I really resonated with the extreme thinking part of your article. I do that a lot and I think it prevents me from taking perfectly acceptable risks. I am in a safe job which satisfies most of my needs for logic, I have some creative hobbies and I am studying for a degree. I can’t leave the safe job because my husband has just been retrenched but I am feeling really restless. So I think about turning one of my hobbies into a money spinner, but then I think about the time I would be giving up, and what if no one buys anything, etc. etc. etc. Time to stop the extreme thinking and take the leap.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yeah, I really struggle with having an all-or-nothing approach to everything. I hope you find a way to move towards where you want to be, but without compromising your security :)

  5. Nadia says:

    This post couldn’t be more current for me!
    Since I graduated and I started working, I always thought I had not a feel for a full time job as an employee. But, you know, the wedding, a son, the house and some financial problems, let me go from one job to another, looking for something I could not find: FREEDOM and personal satisfaction.
    That’s why in the next few months I started planning my freelance future. And I am so scared and so excited at the same time! But I am taking one step at a time, because my need for security is still very strong.
    Thank you for your post!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      One step at a time sounds like the way to do it, Nadia! I do believe it’s important to remember that a need for security is just as valid as a need for freedom, and sometimes circumstances mean we have to favour one or the other. But I hope you can find the right balance for you :)

  6. Heather says:

    I love this post, I was laughing so hard through it. Math IS cool! I wanted to echo what Nela said, in that part-time regular work is probably a good medium. Freedom is paramount to me too, but it is exhausting looking for income all the time, if you’re skill or passion is not marketing. :)

    What I did was find a wonderful partner who pays me a part-time regular income, but as an independent contractor. He pays me a “retainer” so to speak, a definite amount every month to make sure I’ll keep hours aside for him, and then I do those hours whenever it suits me within the month. I do about 40 hours a month for him and it pays the basic bills, but I get contractor pay (1099), so it’s better than any employee part-time gig. That leaves me loads of time to do whatever other work (or play!) I want without having to worry about the lights being turned off. And, the work I do for him is work I love, so that makes it all the better!

    This has worked for me, both for freedom, security, and paying much less taxes as a business owner! If you can find someone who is willing to pay you regular money as an independent contractor, go with that. I really is the perfect medium between security and freedom.

    Good luck everyone!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Fascinating ideas, Heather, thank you so much for sharing, it really adds so much :) (And I’m very glad you enjoyed the post too!)

  7. Annie says:

    This was perfectly timed for me! That’s the tightrope I’ve been trying to walk myself, the right balance of security and freedom. I currently have a traditional office job, but they basically give me as much time off as I want, with just a few limitations on times of year. Last night I realized that I actually do have the right balance, so what am I still searching for? It’s the purpose and fulfillment piece, which I’ve always assumed has to be tied to a money-making endeavor. Time to recalibrate in that zone, I think! Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Oh that’s fascinating – it’s definitely possible to get addicted to searching for something, without realising we already pretty much have it. It’s oddly difficult to maintain an accurate perspective on our own lives! Thanks for adding this, it’s important :)

  8. Anna says:

    Perfectly timed. My conversation with my husband last night went something like “Him: I see you’re getting the itch again. You don’t have to throw the whole job away. Also, you’ll get some relief when we take the next trip. Me: Oh. You really do know me.” Freedom and security are in my thoughts these days as I struggle with balancing many freedom-inspired short term goals with the overarching long-term security goal. Maybe more of a juggle than a balance.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I like that image – it does sometimes feel like juggling! And it’s funny when people around us spot these persistent patterns in our lives. Hope your next step brings you to a better balance, whatever that means for you :)

  9. nicola h says:

    This was well presented and humourous – thank you!

    I believe that freedom (and thus the opposite of freedom) is conceptual and therefore subjective. Not to be pedantic, but rather enhance clarity, the subjective nature of one’s own freedom is equally mutable. Age, experience, circumstances etc have an impact on the perception of freedom.

    Avoiding domination is not freedom either and many of us mistake the capacity to dodge expectations/schedules as freedom, but I would beg to differentiate.

    My personal take on freedom is choosing what you have in each moment for everything that it is and everything that it isn’t. Today.

    Thanks for a lovely piece, Neil and thank you for all those who got me thinking this morning. A welcome gift!!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      So many great comments on this piece, thank you for adding this, Nicola! Absolutely agree that the meaning of freedom is different for us all, and it’s important to apply our own standards when we’re judging our situation, not the standards of others :)

  10. I love my balance of security and freedom right now. I have a part-time job and then fun hustles and creative projects on the side. For about a year though I had my own full-time business plus that part-time job. It was too much work. It took me a while to come to terms with closing that business though because it was my fun entrepreneurial component. After taking the plunge and letting it go I love having the freedom to pursue the fun stuff / creative projects but not so many hours as that business demanded. A much better balance for me! I loved your math nerd-out moment by the way. :-)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I’m really happy to hear that you’re happy in your current situation – it’s inspiring to remember that the right balance CAN be found! Thank you for sharing (and yay, I’m so happy you enjoyed the maths part <3 :D )

  11. Claire Nyles says:

    Thanks for this, Neil!

    I’ve started a new part-time job and been in an adjustment period where I’ve been working a total of 60 hours a week. This was always meant to be temporary, and ends next week when I return to a total of 40 hours, but the stress and lack of me-time (aka hobby time) on top of the stress-of-learning-a-new-job was definitely pushing me towards some extremist thinking. I was feeling really trapped!

    So thanks for reminding me that besides the fact that this particular moment is a temporary one, it’s also not a sign of failure in general to have given up some of my freedom for the new job (which I do love already). And I also appreciate the reminder that I’ll have to re-calibrate my freedom/ security balance in the future, again and again. It’s good to know I can always readjust. :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Oh wow, that IS a lot of work, well done for making it through. I also always struggle to remember that temporary things are, well, temporary… I can definitely leap into feeling like whatever is happening now will happen forever. Like you say, you can always readjust later :)

  12. Greg says:

    Yes- been considering many of these thoughts myself lately. I have been able to scale back to a part-time schedule at my soul-crushing office job. This leaves me 2 days per week to pursue creative/entrepreneurial projects that ultimately I hope will bring me more freedom and independence- values that I have always lived my life by strongly.

    Thankfully, my partner in life has a full time job that she doesn’t hate, and is supportive of me doing this. At least my part-time paycheck exactly equals our monthly rent- so I got that covered! Will see how it goes. The Grass Is Always Greener, right?

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Very cool that you’re able to experiment while also having your rent covered! Good luck and I hope the new projects work out for you :)

  13. Lisa says:

    Love your bio – very funny and engaging. Thanks for the info in the post. The maths is intriguing.
    Lisa

  14. Beth says:

    Ah Neil, how cool.

    I really enjoyed your article. I too struggle with freedom vs regular income. At them moment I have a couple of months left in a part-time post-doc position… but 5 papers to complete, so I’m working FULL-time. (I still have a bra making workshop this week end though – pretty different from coding, and crunching large datasets… ha!) I’m enjoying the work project though, possibly because it has a horizon within my preferred zone (3-6 months).

    And the “extreme thinking” for you is familiar to me as catastrophizing/binary-all-noth’n fears and thoughts. Freedom is not just ability to choose a project, for me it is also has a temporal dimension (long=bad; lots of hrs a week=bad), and geographic/spatial dimension (eg having to sit in a particular box to do the work that someone wants pays me to do =bad). Maybe there are other dimensions too that coalesce into “nasty, run-away feeling” and it is really difficult to make decisions! Friends have recently been trying to persuade me to apply for a 4 year (!!!) full-time (!!!) post-doc, because I have all the skills and experience for the position (it really is perfect for me). I just couldn’t tell them that when I thought about that job, I just wanted to die. (Ah, yes, extreme I know). I felt so alone and like a total freak. And then I remembered… Puttytribe!. So glad to know that you guys exist! I couldn’t tell my friends (work colleagues would be way worse, errhgh) that when this contract finishes I want to go into the forest for 3 months and get awesome at plant id again. And just chill and talk to the trees.

    In a previous incarnation, I’ve poked about with Fourier transforms, well, wavelet transforms (sorta related) to deal with spatial autocorrelation in ecological data… so extra kudos to you! (I saw a bra pattern the other day called The Euler! Not many folks I can share that with Neil).

    • Kim says:

      Omg I feel you SO much. I also feel like a freak among my colleagues when having these thoughts. Astrophysics/cosmology person here, so also lots of math and big data sets, but then I do costume sewing and dancing in my freetime. But a forest for 3 months also sounds soo great right now… You’re not alone :)

  15. Valerie says:

    Thank you so much for sharing those thoughts! I felt that as a brilliant analogy enabling me to replace the word “failure” with recalibrating. There is so much guilt associated with choosing between freedom and security and I feel judged so often by family and friends. Usually by those who are unhappy with their own choices and the feeling that they are stuck with whatever decision they have chosen forever. I have been always changing my balance between the two depending on how ‘stuck” I feel, and have battled comment of irresponsibility. However, I am independent and happy yet constantly searching for the right balance. You have just offered me a solution that balance moves with time and need. Yes – you are brilliant!

  16. Carolina says:

    Last year I left my full – time job for pursuit a personal project which I have been working since.
    I used to have a lot of activities after my job like taking courses or go to dancing lessons, I cannot doing right now because I don’t have money to do so.

    The solution that came to my mind was to find a new job and quit my freedom, and I
    cannot avoid feeling Im losing my goals for changing my mind every time, but Im happy to read your article so I don’t feel alone and know that I just need to find my balance, thanks.

  17. Maryske says:

    This post really resonated with me, too. Sometimes I get the feeling that the reason I keep returning to the 100% security type job (even if they are only temporary…) is simply the fact that I don’t have enough courage to actually break with it. I’ve actually made the jump once a few years back, but that was a big fat failure indeed, no matter how much I learned from the experience ;-)

    But like you say, it doesn’t have to be black and white. For several years now, I’ve been saying that I want to get out of teaching. And still, once the financial situation turns precarious, I feel forced to return to it anyway. (I don’t have a partner or so who can take care of paying the bills, so I’ve got to have *some* kind of stable income.) But I read some interesting strategies here that could be worth trying out.

    Oh, and I love the maths analogy, it’s very adapt, only… I can’t seem to grasp its connection with your drawing! LOL

  18. Car says:

    I’m stuck with a full time job, and part time won’t work where I live, unless you own the company. So I’m trapped in this ferocious circle of uncertainty, the income is not enough, and the personal projects are not flowing. So rethinking about the balance between security and freedom is quite hard. I really envy you guys that have (more or less) find a way to balance this issues. In my field (medicine, biology, photography) it’s hard to survive with a full office job, so I´ll keep going with some first aid courses on weekends, and posting photos on every internet page that buys then. I hope to have better news in the future, I´ll keep thinking!
    By the way any others multipods in Mexico City?
    Good luck everyone.

  19. Kim says:

    Same here! I’m about to finish my PhD in the next 6-8 months, and I’m currently stuck deep in that I really cannot decide what to do afterwards. One thing I know, while I really loved the topic and general field of my PhD, to me it was quite horrifying (as I realized along the way) to be stuck at a 3-year project that must have a definite outcome in the end, or otherwise I would consider it as failed (well, it would have surely been failed). So many of my hobbies and other personal interests were left unattended during that time because I had to focus almost entirely on that PhD. Plus, while for most of my work colleagues their scientific work is basically their whole life, almost no one can understand that you can also have, in my case, dancing, drawing, gardening, in general “spending time in nature”, crafting, singing etc. as other important parallel passions.
    And now I reeaally don’t know whether I want that secure-income-fulltime job after that PhD that would enable me and my partner to build a house, have kids and all these things in the near future… Or whether I’d rather go on exploring myself and my interests a bit more, because I really couldn’t do that the last years (but that sounds so selfish)… Actually I’m wondering how you guys do this if you have extra responsibilities, like kids, own home etc. Is it possible to still “explore yourself” and also have these stable longterm goals mentioned…?

  20. Roseselavy says:

    Thank you for this post. It is exactly what I need at this moment. I am facing the opposite situation: I found my dream job, in a big company, doing amazing things for a super salary. But I completely lost my personal life. I have no time and no energy for my family, my friends, my personal and silly hobbies. I failed in managing the balance and now I am stuck. I know that I will not find another job like this if I resign. I know that I cannot expect this salary working for another company. I need freedom, but it is difficult to give away this security.

  21. Marianne says:

    Thanks for this post Neil! So true the battle between lovers Freedom and Security, just like any relationship haha! I recommend the bite-size approach: chew what you can easily swallow. My example: full-time job for 13 years, the new open minded CEO accepted my part-time (4 days p/w) request, combined new study and PT work, discovered the world of working for myself, quit job (gone security!), 6 months later still scary going solo (less income) so found a 20 hr job 5 min from my home office that paid the bills! Got bored, moved to Australia and at job interviews I asked “Could part-time be an option, if not now then maybe later?”. So in most jobs I managed to work PT (telling and showing them I’m used to do my work in less days). Last job was FT corporate, I lasted 2,5 yrs but with enough savings to quit job and start traveling (rented out hone), now house sitting around the world and wondering what’s next? So keep on chewing guys and your life will become full (filled)!

  22. Susan says:

    I really appreciate how you emphasized that the nature of the balance between freedom and security is tenuous…just because you’ve figured it out for today doesn’t mean you have it figured out for life. When I was just out of college, I needed the security of a steady income, but over time I felt more need for freedom. I’ve been fortunate to find careers that allowed me to create my own balance–I worked in sales for many years (lots of freedom, some security from a guaranteed salary base), and then I returned to school, got a PhD, and became a college professor (lots of freedom and, once I earned tenure, lots of security). In four weeks I’m retiring–LOTS of freedom and a fair amount of security, but ONLY because I planned for this so I have a decent amount saved for retirement. And now I will have time to play with all my multipotentialite interests!

  23. FMills says:

    I wonder if many of the people on this site are also millennials. I am not. At 50, my struggle is to unleash my creativity and tap my experience while making a decent living that will let me not only send three kids off to college but also give me the means to travel, retire, and handle all the stuff that life throws at you. I value freedom too but I worry that it comes at a cost to our value. The most valuable part of any platform is content and yet content is what many people won’t pay for. Meanwhile, we’re living in a winner-take-all society that lets the platforms reap the value of what their users put on. It can’t last.

  24. Love the Takeaways! Recalibrating and reconsidering things requires a certain degree of mindfulness—observing the unsettled feeling, recognizing the need to examine it, considering what changes (if any) need to be made, and acknowledging the fact that “rebalancing isn’t the same as failure.” Thanks for sharing!

  25. Kari says:

    Neil, I LOVE this post. Thank you for eloquently – and humorously – describing your plight which mirrors mine. I, unlike you, haven’t (yet) stepped away from my FT job because the security is so appealing. I visualize my future where I have much more freedom – but the path between my current state and my future state is still fuzzy.

  26. Phileme says:

    Hi !
    Thank your very much, i take for my life what you said about
    – There will be a next time I have to reconsider what I’m doing ( so don’t panic, you don’t have to make THE choice now , ouf)
    – Just because I’m already doing something, doesn’t mean I have to keep doing it.( I can choose do do anything else and let what i’m doing for the moment. And be ok with it. )
    – Rebalancing isn’t the same as failure – Yess.

    Thanks a lot.
    Phileme

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