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The Counterintuitive Path to Freedom

Melvyn Tan
Melvyn Tan
2 min read

Question: why would anyone want to work longer hours and get paid less?

The one-word answer: freedom.

But freedom means different things to different people.

Origins of freedom

Freedom, and its origin, can be traced back to the speech of Pericles:

The conception of organized society recognizing freedom of behavior for its individuals citizens.

Later, Socrates and Plato proclaimed freedom as the power to shape one’s own destiny.

It was the Stoics who created the idea of individual freedom, where “the self-realization of the individual as the principal objective of human endeavor”.

Two types of freedom

In his seminal work, Isaiah Berlin, introduced two concepts of freedom—negative and positive freedom.

The idea behind negative freedom is focused on freedom from interference.

In the words of Berlin:

The freedom of which I speak is opportunity for action, rather than action itself. If, although I enjoy the right to walk through open doors, I prefer not to do so, but to sit still and vegetate, I am not thereby rendered less free. Freedom is the opportunity to act, not action itself.

Meanwhile, positive freedom is the freedom to do something rather than freedom from interference.

According to Berlin:

I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men's acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside.

The crazy ones

The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.
Steve Jobs

Compared to salaried employees, entrepreneurs face “higher levels of uncertainty, responsibility, and complexity; more intense time pressures; and longer working hours”.

When I tell people how I became an entrepreneur, I have had many who admired my courage.

Deep inside, I was feeling like what Toby Thomas called: the man riding a lion.

It's like a man riding a lion. People think, 'This guy's brave.' And he's thinking, 'How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?

Mental well-being

According to a study by Michael Freeman:

almost half of the entrepreneurs reported having a lifetime mental health condition, as compared with 32% of the non-entrepreneurs.

I wouldn’t label it as a mental health crisis amongst entrepreneurs, yet.

That said, I do believe that understanding what affects the mental well-being of entrepreneurs is important.

Mental health as defined by the World Health Organization:

a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

As individuals, we are all affected by mental ill-being—anxiety, depression, and even suicidal tendencies. And as entrepreneurs, probably even more so.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have mental well-being where we experience feelings of satisfaction, happiness, or “optimal psychological function and experience”.

Why choose the counterintuitive path

In spite of it all, why do people like myself and many others choose to become entrepreneurs?

For many, it would be:

  • Self-realization as defined by the Stoics,
  • Positive freedom as defined by Isaiah Berlin,
  • Eudaimonic well-being as defined as living a life in pursuit of human excellence.

My one-word answer: freedom.

Melvyn Tan

I write about my perspective of how things work in the post-pandemic world. I also share updates of my latest projects.