Real change comes from freedom

Written by on January 25, 2011 in Faith and Spiritual Life, Notes By The Way with 1 Comment

Change that comes quickly, or easily, doesn’t last. Authentic change takes time and a process, but it runs deep and follows through.

Seth Godin writes about three ways to motivate people to achieve: by pushing them relentlessly, by creating competition, and by giving them freedom and opportunity. The first two produce results, but only temporarily. As soon as you stop pushing, or when the competition ends, the motivation fades. The advantages of push and competition are speed and control; the disadvantages are felt down the road. Athletes who won championships don’t know how to motivate themselves apart from competition. I was a pretty good runner in my day, but I was never able to run consistently without a coach pushing me, and I ran for the thrill of racing and beating people. I’d love to be running today, but I still haven’t found it within me.

How will I work for change in society, or a better world? Whatever I want to change, it means people must change. But how?

Here in Cambodia, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of non-government organizations are working for change. There are hundreds of orphanages “saving”children, and many say they intend to raise up a new generation of leaders. How? By pushing kids relentlessly to learn more and faster? By emphasizing grades, scholarships, and and education so that the kids will be better equipped to succeed (i.e., compete) in society? We have been thinking about kids coming out of orphanages and the problems most face, because they so often flounder. They have been institutionalized.

Maybe what they need is not a better formula, but freedom to see opportunities and take chances. The people we want to work with need to change in a way that comes from within.

Give people a platform, not a ceiling. Set expectations, not to manipulate but to encourage. And then get out of the way, helping when asked but not yelling from the back of the bus…

No, most people can’t manage themselves well enough to excel in the way you need them to, certainly not immediately. But those that can (or those that can learn to) are able to produce amazing results, far better than we ever could have bullied them into.

I think Seth has it right. I love his positive spin on both the freedom to succeed and the necessity of allowing some to fail. Not everyone manages themselves well, but if we create systems for those who can’t and force everyone to participate in them, then everyone ends up wings clipped, living small stories, and in boxes.

I think this also epitomizes a key difference between the way God raises up people spiritually versus the way religion raises up people religiously. The message in the Bible, taught by Jesus and his followers, is that we are set free as we come into relationship with God, and we have God’s Spirit of Love and Truth within us. What could provide better guidance or motivation? But religion, seeing the potential for some to falter, or fly too high, has a way of asking everyone to fly low and succeed in smaller ways. It talks of the Spirit but constantly pushes and pits people against each other through comparisons and outright competitions.

Real change comes from freedom, not the push and competition of development or religion.

To become a person who walks in and dispenses freedom, I must give up my habits of pushing relentlessly and creating competitions. First, I must give up my habits of relying on such things myself.

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About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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  • Interesting article Andy – good thoughts. I’m involved in just one of those hundreds of organisations in Cambodia, and we think a lot about the long term effects. At the school which teaches languages, a really good recent step has been to award scholarships to the top students – and by this we remove barriers (uni fees, transport, living costs and the required laptop – make university practically impossible for poor rural students) to help these students get on and discover and reach their potential. In essence that’s exactly what you say also: the power of giving these students freedom.

    I appreciate the difference you point out between pushing and channeling young people – forcing them to comply with some program – versus the idea of removing barriers, enabling choices and broadening the horizons of the young. Perhaps we westerners have a “push and channel” kind of mentality when ti comes to kids’ programs because of our own upbringing – whereby many of us didn’t appreciate or value the freedom and options we had in life. our parents had to cajole us into going to school.

    By contrast Cambodian students value education to the extreme. The students I’ve met and taught don’t need pushing or coercion at all. At our school they attend voluntarily. So the pressure on us – as fundraisers and supporters – is not to motivate the students, but to make as many opportunities available as possible, and to remove as many barriers as possible also – obstacles that might prevent these students from taking off.

    Best wishes to you.

    PS. Isn’t Seth Godin an inspirational writer?