This past weekend America celebrated its 244th year of independence. On July 4, 1776, representatives from the Thirteen Colonies approved a document asserting the right to be free from the rule of Great Britain. This Declaration of Independence set forth an ideal that all men are created equal, entitled to the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Much has been written recently of America’s failure to fully live up to these aims. We are, to be sure, a nation still striving to achieve what we had declared almost two and a half centuries ago. Despite tremendous progress, there remains much work to be done to reform the structure of our institutions and the policies that govern us.
At the same time, I believe as individuals we have largely neglected to attend to our own independence. We remain, for the most part, unwitting prisoners of our own unexamined thinking – acting reflexively and subconsciously out of a programmed set of beliefs, values, and rules that we haven’t consciously chosen. It is time that each of us declares our own independence from the imprisoning nature of our programs.
I write about this fundamental declaration of freedom and responsibility in my recent book Master Your Code: The Art, Wisdom, and Science of Leading an Extraordinary Life. I assert that every human being is run (and imprisoned) by a program – a subconscious, safety-based set of beliefs, values, and rules that automatically drive your behavior and limit your results. I explain that the most fundamental declaration you can make is to master your code – a consciously chosen set of beliefs, values, and rules that is purposefully designed to serve you and produce extraordinary results. The choice to master your code is what I have come to call the human superpower – the ability to choose the beliefs you hold. It is this unique capacity that makes you human. And it is the source of your freedom and effectiveness. Indeed, it is the sine qua non of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This realization, that I was imprisoned by a program and had a choice to truly be the author of my life, first fully occurred to me a number of years ago inside the most unlikely of places – Folsom State Prison. I was there as part of a program sponsored by Inside Circle, a nonprofit organization that had been working with men inside the maximum-security section of the prison since the early 2000s.
About midway through the first day of the program, I was sequestered with two men who would end up serving as my guides through a life changing journey. As I describe in my book, I learned that these men, despite being incarcerated in unimaginable conditions, were more “free” than I was at the time. They had plumbed the depths of their psychology and had seen the ways they had been imprisoned by their minds. Like the concentration camp survivor and psychologist, Victor Frankl, they had claimed the “last of the human freedoms” – the ability to choose their attitudes regardless of their circumstances.
That experience inside Folsom prison was transformational for me. For the first time I began to see clearly how much of my life was run by a subconscious program, one that had undoubtedly served me but had reached the limits of its effectiveness. Surrounded by the gentleness, patience, and piercing authenticity of the men inside Folsom prison, I declared my independence from this program and chose to be responsible for being the author of my own mind and life from that day forward.
What I saw inside Folsom for the first time in almost forty years was a mind – my mind – that had been incarcerated within the confining walls of a program that caused me to hold on to a tired, disempowering narrative of a boy who had been abandoned by his mother. With my declaration, I was able to let go of this narrative and construct a new one – one of a man who forgave his mother unconditionally and had nothing remaining but love in his heart for a woman who did the best she could with who she was and what she had.
We simply can’t be a nation that lives up to the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality if each of us doesn’t begin to take responsibility for our own independence from the unconscious thinking that can serve as the very barrier to the attainment of these ideals. We will not be able to truly achieve the values set forth in the Declaration of Independence without first taking a hard look at our own founding documents. If we are all reacting to the current situation out of a set of unquestioned beliefs, values, and rules, what chance do we have for a different future?
As I observe (and participate in) the current dialogue and debates, I notice a certain automaticity to the interactions. It’s as if people are reflexively operating out of a set of instructions. There’s little reflection, not enough curiosity. I don’t see people pausing, as if to ask, “I wonder where that person may be right or where I may be wrong?” Everything seems cut and dry. Not enough complexity in our thinking. This is what a society of unexamined minds looks like. Sure, there are exceptions. We can be open minded in one moment, closed in the next. Reactive in certain situations, thoughtful in others. Yet our times require more from us. They require an independence of thought borne from a powerful declaration that each of us has the responsibility and privilege to make. This is not just an American opportunity. It is the most fundamental human freedom of all.