Security is an illusion. Freedom is real.

By Philip Brewer on 22 January 2009 12 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

There's a seeming tradeoff between freedom and security: You can stick with the day job or chuck it to live your dream--if you're willing to give up the security of the regular paycheck. That kind of security, though, is an illusion.

We have to be a bit careful of our terms. People mean a lot of different things when they say "security." There's the security that comes from living in a sturdy house that helps keep out burglars and the winter cold. There's the security that comes from having family members who care for one another. And there's the security that comes from knowing that you have a diversity of skills for handling the problems that come your way. These things all have their limits (nothing provides absolute security), but they are real.

What's an illusion is the faux security that comes from making the conventional choices and fitting in. That provides merely the security of knowing that, if things go badly, you'll have plenty of company in your misery. Even a good job can be taken away if times get tough--or vanish all together if your boss is too timid to let people go when the times demand it.

When you think about it, security can't possibly come from something you have. There's nothing you can have that can't be stolen by a thief or expropriated by the government. There's nothing you can have that can't be destroyed by war or natural disaster. There's nothing you can have that can't be made worthless by change (either circumstantial or technological).

Security can't be something you have. It can only be something you are. Because who you are is the only thing that can't be taken away.

Real security comes from inside you. It comes not from having a "secure" income but from having a diversity of sources of income. Not from having the right degree or credentials or skills, but from knowing that there are many things you can do that will earn money--and many ways that you can provide for your family even if you can't earn money.

At it's core, real security comes from expanding your range of options--which is what makes the security/freedom tradeoff false: More freedom is more security, not less.

Of course, the many things that people do to increase their security have some benefits. The key is to remember that they also offer diminishing returns. Cash to cover three month's expenses is a good idea, and cash to cover six month's expenses is even better. But adding enough more cash that you could cover twelve month's expenses doesn't add nearly as much security as some of the other choices you might make. Certainly, it's nothing compared to the security you get by knowing how to cut your expenses enough to stretch the smaller sum to cover your family for twelve months.

Once you start keeping your eyes open for ways to increase your security by increasing your freedom, you'll find them everywhere. Buying tools is good. Learning new skills is better. Make friends with your neighbors. If you have family members who haven't reached a bare minimum level of security, help them take that step--a web of stable households makes everyone more secure. Go on adventures that put you at risk in a controlled way, so that you can safely learn the habits that will protect you when life throws uncontrolled risks into your path.

Real security comes from who you are, not what you have. It's real and important. It comes in the form of freedom, because it grows out of having more choices, rather than fewer. The sort of "lifestyle" security that comes from making the conventional choices? There's nothing there. Not when it counts.

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Guest's picture

Thank you. I was laid off about a month ago and it has ended up being a blessing. The tradeoff for the "security" of a regular (large) paycheck was a lot of stress. Now that I've had a month off, I realize just how not worth it that path was for me. What I've ended up finding is that, because of my different skills, I'm able to find part-time, contract work that allows me to live a balanced life - enough work to more than survive, enough time to explore my hobbies, enough peace of mind to be really present for my family and my friends.

I realize I'm fortunate - I have a small emergency fund, no debt and low expenses; I'd jumped from one career path to another so have many marketable skills. But I also think that being somewhat prepared for the possibility of unemployment has made a job loss a real opportunity for me instead of a disaster.

Guest's picture

I've been freelancing since 1989, when I voluntarily left a good-paying job with a great career path at a Fortune 100 company to pursue my dream career of being a writer. It was a lot of hard work and it's taken me on a number of paths I never expected to travel, but it has worked out VERY well for me.

People who don't freelance (yet) need to understand that it isn't for everyone. No one is going to tell you what to do. You need to find work almost all the time. Even when you're in the middle of a big project, you need to be looking for the next project. You have to meet or exceed the needs of your clients or customers so they come back to you for more -- or spread the word about how good you are. It's not a life of leisure, but it is a life that you're responsible for. You make the decisions, good or bad, and live the consequences. If you can't motivate yourself to find work or customers or get a job done, you will fail miserably. Remember, there's no automatic paycheck just for showing up.

But when you succeed, you make your own work schedule and reap all of the rewards.

Could I go back to being someone's employee? No. I've already been ruined by my freelance habits.

Good post. Best of luck to the folks who try a freelance route for their work life.

Guest's picture
Becky Murphy

I loved your article "Security is an Illusion. Freedom is Real." I have been an Independent Contractor/Consultant for years in various industries. I have always loved the thrill of taking on new and vastly different projects. The experience that I have gained and the confidence that I feel about my skills has drastically improved. If I can move about freely from one thing to the next and succeed in doing so, there will always be a place for me to earn a living and support myself and family. So I say, venture out of your comfort zone and conquer something new. Fear is the only thing that holds us back and I pride myself on the fact that no task is too daunting and no man/woman is too intimidating to approach. I will never be stuck in a rut when I am always on the move!!

Andrea Karim's picture

Philip, as always, you have written something that I desperately needed to remember at a crucial crossroads in my life. Thanks.

Guest's picture

Very nice article. A stroke or debilitating illness can take away who you are, but it would do so no matter if you were 'secure' or 'free', so all things being equal, I think think it would still be better to strive for the freedom you wrote about.

Guest's picture

There is no such thing as job security anymore. My view is if you rely on a "steady" job, you had better start developing a side gig, and soon.

The ideal side gig is one where you have many clients that can't or won't all fire you all at once the way a single employer can.

This is a very timely topic, I have recently been discussing Defensive Entrepreneurship and Multipreneuring extensively on my site.

Good Post!

Guest's picture

Job security has disappeared. A couple years ago I thought there were a handful of secure jobs left -- blue chip banker, tenured teacher, government bureaucrat, and certain unionized trades. 2008 proved that none of those are truly secure.

I rather favor the 'flexicurity' model of intentional job non-security paired with generous unemployment benefits. In the absence of that, Philip is spot on that security only comes from self sufficiency. 'Company (wo)man' is out, 'Renaissance (wo)man' is in.

Guest's picture

There is no security anymore. Great article.

Torley Wong's picture

how certain systems are taken for granted or not questioned because they've existed so long, and the status quo isn't challenged. Like the standard "40-hour workweek", for example.

Life is simply too short to not celebrate your freedom and self-expression. This includes being creative, which many jobs could use more in abundance (hey, it sure worked for Google and I have the blessing of working in a virtual world, Second Life), and I celebrate posts like this which remind people of these fundamental facts!

Guest's picture

Philip Brewer, I've gotta say that for a fluffy cat, you're incredibly smart and you write really well on a variety of subjects. I read the advice on this site regularly. I'll steer clear of your sharp claws though!

Guest's picture

Some people just want to be too safe with a day job. They don't want to take risks and step out of their comfort zones. Life is all about taking risks and making decisions. You fail if you choose to fail.

Two thumbs up and a pat at the back, Philip.


Guest's picture

Thanks for this post. It's a great reminder that nothing in life is absolute. On certain occasions that I have failed to remember this, I've become complacent and have found myself in a deeper mess...usually emotionally. So, again, thanks for this article!