Raj Rajaratnam, Amy Chua and Enjoying Our Freedom

Raj Rajaratnam’s 11 year sentence for insider trading put me in mind of the value of freedom — apparently around $50 million in Raj’s case.

Then I saw the piece on Amy Chua’s talk in a Seoul parenting forum. If you can believe it, she told her audience to ease up and let their kids have more freedom. This is the Tiger Mom, we’re talking about. Seems Amy too has been doing some reflecting on the value of freedom. She even implied that kids need the freedom to develop the kind of minds that will let them compete in this global day and age.

I am personally delighted to see that Amy has picked up the emotional maturity to recognize that nothing succeeds like freedom because freedom is success in the only important sense. That goes as much for tykes as for people on their deathbeds and everyone in between.

One of the great tragedies of life — as I am sure Raj and Amy have been reflecting — is how aggressively most of us strive to become our own jailkeepers. We do this not only by being dumb enough to get caught and prosecuted for insider trading or writing a book bragging about how over-the-top we’ve been in taming those little brats, but generally by embracing misguided but very fixed ideas of what success means.

Some of us, like Raj, define it as salting away a certain number of millions or billions in our piggy banks. Others, like Amy, define it in terms of how many degrees we need to rack up from institutions ranked within a certain number of places from the top.

Those are perhaps gross examples, but many of us subscribe to similar notions about success that we may not consciously embrace but which we allow to narrowly circumscribe our freedom. For example, many of us define success in terms of the image we project to others. To be really successful, we tell ourselves, we have to put on a suit and tie and spend an onerous number of hours in a highrise in the middle of a large city. We must live in a certain neighborhood that contains a high number of like-minded people. We must be seen hobnobbing only with the right people and doing the things they do when they do it.

And we reject out of hand the options that might contradict that fixed image of success — especially all the options that, from a strictly rational perspective, embody a high degree of freedom. Building a career that gives us the freedom to inject our own interests and even passions into our workdays, the freedom to go mountain-biking on a Tuesday afternoon or hang-gliding on a Monday morning, the freedom to wear wacky t-shirts and shorts and sing Neil Diamond songs while working, the freedom to do whatever we feel like, no matter how odd-seeming.

We look at someone like Steve Jobs and decide it’s fine for him to wear weird black turtlenecks and jeans every day because he’s a genius and a billionaire. We look at Color founder Bill Nguyen who likes to work in a bathtub perched on a windowsill and think that’s cool because he has already pocketed tens of millions with successful tech startups. Pity anyone else who adopts unconventional modes of dress and working styles — they would be considered total losers.

That’s the kind of backward thinking by which so many of us give ourselves life sentences to a kind of work-furlough program — we can leave the prison so long as we don’t stray from the most conventional notions of how successful people should look and behave.

It’s because people like Steve Jobs and Bill Nguyen made the conscious decision to buck convention that they could elevate their work to a level of creativity that more conventionally-minded people simply can’t match. While most of us think that success will give us freedom, the truly successful know that freedom is something we are born with and that learning to truly embrace it is success in the only meaningful sense of that term.