Recent conversations with a number of my coaching clients and MBA students at Stanford have touched on what we might call "freedom from" and "freedom to," or, respectively, negative liberty and positive liberty. As described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting--or the fact of acting--in such a way as to take control of one's life and realize one's fundamental purposes.
These concepts have vast social and political meanings, of course, but they're relevant in a more personal way when we consider the different types of freedom we enjoy through and as a result of our work. For example, work that's well-compensated affords us freedom from material deprivation and its attendant anxieties, while also providing us with the freedom to enjoy a range of experiences and engage in certain pursuits that would otherwise be out of reach.
Work that offers a high degree of autonomy provides us with freedom from unwelcome constraints and intrusive oversight, while also offering the freedom to rely upon our best judgment, follow our instincts, and hold ourselves accountable. And work that's intrinsically rewarding allows us to experience freedom from drudgery as well as the freedom to live a life of greater meaning and purpose.
Despite the seeming polarity between "negative" and "positive" freedom, there isn't necessarily an inverse correlation between them; enjoying a given freedom from doesn't always imply that a corresponding freedom to will be eliminated. But the various forms of freedom often exist in dynamic tension with each other, and at times we must prioritize and choose from among them.
A common dilemma faced by my clients and students is a choice between two options, one that offers more freedom from and another that offers more freedom to. For example, a startup CEO who's received an acquisition offer may be tempted by the freedom from financial pressures and management headaches that would come with a buyout, but they may also relish the freedom to lead independently that they currently enjoy as CEO.
Or a graduating student has a job offer from a well-established, blue-chip firm that offers significant freedom from worry about grad-school debt and from concerns about getting their post-MBA career off to a good start, which they're weighing against an offer from a growing startup that would provide them with substantial freedom to test themselves in a more dynamic, less hierarchical organization.
I don't want to oversimplify the contrast here--in many cases the tradeoffs we face between the freedom from and the freedom to are much more nuanced and complex than those sketched out in these examples. But if we make room for that complexity, we may find that this framework helps us better understand the consequences of the choices we face and the lives we're likely to live as a result.