In 1985, when I started this work, I knew it was an experiment. Recognizing the secular turn that individuals had taken toward their self-possession, I knew that classes in autonomy would have a significant impact on students’ experience of independence and command. But I didn’t know how I would assess its value for students in, for example, the competitive marketplace. Naturally, I hoped for the best, yet an experiment is a trial or test of factors. Do the results agree or disagree with the original prediction? Would new ways of thinking about autonomy and life have a practical impact on how people lived day-to-day? Or not?
After more than 30 years, the results are in. The record of accomplishment is solid. The value of this new discipline in the study of human affairs, ongoing since 1985, is now established in a unique cultural and education niche.
The work parallels those breakthroughs made in disciplines such as science, technology, philosophy and other human studies.
Here in America, we are bred to an autonomous imperative, expected to be responsible, self-reliant, financially and socially successful and, at the same time, satisfied with our lot. Except in blame- and shame-mongering media niches that encourage and thrive on audience discontent, we are generally aligned that we must be in command of a responsible and effective response to all that comes our way, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Exactly how to do this—how to achieve this command—is not a piece of the imperative. Yes, we inherit a hopeful feel for the independence that comes of being in command of our lives.
Yet, nowhere is it written exactly how best to respond to the natural, practical and social realities, and ordeals, that uplift or burden our circumstances. And what about our own temperament—cut deeply by genes? Or our more personal desires, fears, doubts and hesitations? How do they fit in?
Born of my love and regard for personal freedom
As an American thinker, I’ve given a great deal of thought to our situation. I understand that daily life is a continuous experiment with changing conditions and circumstances, that it requires a creative encounter wherein mistakes are quickly acknowledged and corrected, experience metabolized, and challenge recognized as the next step in the experiment.
I understand the relationship between an avowed personal freedom and a willing acceptance of our responsibility for our transformative fate. My work addresses this relationship because comprehension and preparation are essential to our autonomous performance.
Autonomy and Life is a study program, born of my love and regard for our personal freedom, a stand on its behalf, and a willingness to learn to embody the opportunity in word and deed. My classes and coursework address the perspective necessary to live our lives as we see fit. We want to live our lives with a resonance that gives our command depth and breadth, and with a creative individualism and discipline that becomes almost second nature.
We recognize the strength, basic confidence and joy we build out of self-knowledge and reflection.
And we recognize that we can make remarkable progress by constructing a plan for living a life of our own design and paying close attention to its management.
So, was this experiment a success?
Have participants in my classes benefitted from their study? Let me tell you what I had to say about it in my post titled, “Do you see what I see?” published on 03.24.14.
"Your autonomous perspective is a work in progress, just as you are. It is built upon the availability of new intelligence—understandings born of experience (including the hard-knock variety); the discoveries of science; the higher range of standards and ideals that give greater meaning to life; and a serious and thoughtful consideration of the apathies, illusions and pockets of ignorance you uncover as you go along.
"You acknowledge just how much of your life is a quick-on-your-feet, nimble-of-mind improvisation, negotiation and experiment. What else could it be—as you react to the natural, practical and social realities, and ordeals, that elevate or burden your circumstances? What else could it be—given that no one is free of the brute and primitive fears, desires and teeth-clenched anger that prompt each and every one of us to occasional or frequent selfish, unkind and irrational actions?
"As you improvise, negotiate and experiment, yesterday’s certainties and must-haves may seem inauthentic or hollow, the relationships you had counted upon to be constant may present compromising, even loathsome, demands, and the competitive marketplace, well, it is intimidating and ruthless.
"You win some, you lose some and you endure—and hope to recover promptly from the losses.
"Amid the press of everyday, dexterously managing the relationship between the personal freedom you want and a willing and disciplined acceptance of your responsibility for your transformative fate, you find new opportunities for contribution, joy and fulfillment.
"You also get the normative facts straight. What is normative does not possess an absolute power or truth. It emerges from human beings’ expectations of one another’s capacities for autonomy. Some of these normative expectations live in codes and laws. Others, though not formally organized, live in the culture as “the right thing” to think, to say and to do.
"Of course, there are many mind-numbing and polarizing arguments over what these right things are. However, most people—not hopelessly alienated or presumptively entitled—know what these right things are. Indeed, normative or regulative ideals such as self-control, integrity, responsibility, resilience and initiative make sense to you, and to most of us.
"Moreover, given all the factors at play in this complex and rivalrous world we live in, you accept that your life will never be free from the consequences of your judgment. Unforeseen consequences, ill-advised decisions and choices, errors of reason and calculation, and just plain contingency are inevitable. You will spend a lifetime involved with retrospective judgment, with recovering from disappointment and with returning yourself to the drawing board."
From the archive
What follows is from our archive—the founder's statement when the website was first established 15 years ago.
The search for a rewarding life
I was always interested in America’s concept of a rewarding life but for the first 25 years of adulthood, I focused on my role in the marketplace. Then I began to immerse myself in the historical conversations that address the empathic qualities of being human—our care and concern and compassion—our humanity. The results were dramatic and exciting.
Yes, I am a product of nature and nurture. However, I am now also deliberately constituted by my comprehension and command of an autonomy based on the study and crafting of an enlightened, inspired and meaningful design of my life, and this is the space in which I live my life.
This is the cognitive distance or perspective I have on it. Indeed, this search generated a sea change in living and direction.
I sensed that this search would be satisfying, that there was an answer to this line of inquiry. However, I did not know how many starts, setbacks, false clues and dead ends would be involved. Further, when I first tried to engage the experiment, I did not have the vocabulary that I can now use to describe the big picture. This vocabulary evolved over the many years I engaged in a largely independent course of study focusing on comprehending and commanding the autonomy that amounts to being fit to lead a rewarding life.
Does material success bring about a rewarding way of life?
We begin our lives thinking that material success brings about freedom. After all, we more or less do it “by the book.” When we take our place in productive society, don’t we take on roles defined by our country’s institutions? Don’t we choose among roles and discover that there is some latitude in how we “play” them? In addition, don't we have some discretionary time to use for recreation, leisure, travel, etc? Aren't the roles we take on (or were “given”) plus what we do with our discretionary time supposed to equal freedom and happiness?
Well, yes and no. After we are successful, we start to ask some questions. How much of my life do I actually command? Is there something more to my unique individuality than this competent role-playing? Have I been in command of how I worked, how I lived and how I felt? If not me then who or what was in command? In fact, is much about my existence unevaluated? Am I caught up in the momentum of a life well under way—a momentum that I may not have mindfully initiated? What constitutes a rewarding way of life?
If I only "go around once," is this the way it is going to be?
Who I am, aside from my roles, who YOU are, aside from your roles, is a unique individual or, if you will, a unique being, a human who is not merely a cog in the great machinery of mass living. Indeed, the quality and mood of our living experience is in large part an individual achievement. Each of us has a heart. Private thoughts. Pockets of irrationality. Each of us experiences stress. Each of us is driven by our own human sensibility.
This selfhood, energized by wisdom and by meaning, has a concern for the bigger picture, for a meaningful and worthwhile life. In other words, yes, material accomplishment seems to be the primary focus of the secular world in which we live. Yet, even when we abandon the metaphysics of the supernatural, don't many of the objectives we have inherited from religious tradition remain valid, even imperative? Aren't questions about being generous, responsible, empathic and fair still relevant? Especially if we are to make a bigger contribution and enjoy peace of mind?
Did our lives just happen to us?
Of course, we are not born with enough judgment to set out all of life’s priorities. Busy and extended, we are often well into adulthood before we realize that how we go about living our lives must be seriously addressed. But then what? How and where do we acquire and implement strategic life plans that address the challenges of our unique individuality? How do we resolve the conflict between knowing what it takes to lead a productive life and the overwhelming brute influence that may hinder such effort? How do we acquire a deep and abiding command that endures even as we contend with the next, and the next challenge to our enterprise, whether public or private?
Moreover, such command rarely comes naturally or automatically. It must be sought and acquired, over time and in due course, through study and effort. But the focus and time invested are well worth it; the development of these qualities of character is a significant leverage point with regard to both public and private expression.
Looking back for a moment
I wanted to have a functional stake in productive society. I figured such a stake was essential to a full life, the means to satisfy many of my objectives and, at the same time, a contribution to society. And I was pretty well convinced that a successful functional stake in productive society is a consequence of training, experience and competence.
Some people get "breaks," but most of us depend upon the skills we have acquired to lead us to the material success and/or marketplace status we want.
I started my professional career at an entry-level position in an accounting firm. In due course, I became a managing partner. Later I joined a real estate development company as partner and chief operating officer.
Then, expanding the focus of my career from the abstractions of finance and management to include those human skills involved in generating successful enterprise, I formed a consulting partnership.
This provided traditional accounting services as well as advice on "managing the momentum of their enterprise" to entrepreneurs and professionals.
As a result of my experience with competition, communication and performance coupled with my continuing interest in autonomy (described in the next paragraph), I established a consulting company and satellite network company specifically addressing the question “What does it mean to be a human being?”
During these same years, I was engaged in a largely self-directed inquiry into issues concerning the human predicament—the relationship between an avowed personal freedom and a willing acceptance of our responsibility for our transformative fate. Curious about how we human beings got to be the way that we are, I was interested in these issues in the abstract. But I was also interested in them in a more practical way. This because, as I said earlier, I realized that the quality and mood of our living experience is shaped by success with work but not only by work.
I sensed that a truly successful life depended in large part, too, upon the ways in which we go about being human day-to-day, upon the degree of command we acquire and the degree of inspiration in our lives. In 1985, a full 25 years after graduating from college, I put it all together. Sensing that I had the know-how to share the results of my marketplace experience and extensive independent course of study, I set aside all other professional commitments and began to teach these classes and coursework full time.