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Why Freedom Makes You Unhappy (A Framework For A Purposeful Life)

When I was 19 years old, I started obsessing over how I could live a life of freedom.

So I started a business, with the goal of being able to live wherever I wanted and to work whenever I wanted.

By the time I turned 23, I achieved that goal.

...and I was the unhappiest I'd ever been.

A Crazy Idea

It all started with a plan.

I wanted to be able to travel continuously, and make films of my adventures.

But I faced one small obstacle... which was... how on earth does one afford to travel indefinitely?

I had already done the whole 'work in a supermarket for 5 months then backpack for 5 months thing'...

But that was an exchange of 5 months of pain for 5 months of pleasure. And it didn't seem worth it.

So I came up with a plan:

  • If I went travelling, made a travel video, and posted it on YouTube - I could start building an audience of people that like travel videos.
  • Some of those people will want to learn how to make their own travel videos.
  • So I could sell courses to them.
  • Therefore the more views I got, the more sales I'd make, meaning the more I could travel. And the more I could travel, the more videos I could make... meaning the more views I'd get, the more sales I'd make... Right?

It was a crazy idea.

But do you know what's crazier?

It fucking worked.

Part of me still can't believe it to this day.

I started to work on this plan was I was 21.

It took around 6 months for me to be able to afford to travel on the cheap, room sharing with friends and hardly spending any money...

...and it took around 18 months to be able to live in nice apartments, eat out as much as I wanted, travel pretty much anywhere, whilst still saving money.

My life became an epic adventure.

I travelled around the world, lived in beautiful cities with friends and likeminded people, explored exotic foreign lands, and captured it all along the way.

There were times full of hedonistic fun, times of stoic routines and work for weeks on end, and times where I experienced the beauty of exotic lands, the depth of culture and the epic scale of nature.

And what made it 10 x better was that it was indefinite. I had built a system where I could just keep going. The more adventures I captured, the more sales I made, and the more I could keep travelling.

And people seemed to love the courses I had created. By sharing my passions and following my own creative desires, I was able to help other people do the same.

The whole thing felt surreal - it was like I had found a crack in the system that only a few people knew about.

And that's where it started to go wrong.

Paying The Price

Right when everything was going better than ever, something started creeping up on me.

See, the nature of all this freedom meant that I could go wherever I wanted and do what I wanted...

But that seemed to have a price.

I started to feel lonely. The friends I'd met travelling all had different lives and eventually started doing their own thing. So I ended up spending long stretches of time alone, or with people I didn't really know.

The reality I was experiencing was opposite to 99% of society, which started to make it hard to relate to people.

And all the travel meant I was loosing touch with friends and family at home.

But beyond all that, I felt deeply, deeply lost.

See, my sole purpose - the reason behind everything I had strived for over the last 2-3 years - was to become free.

And because I now had that freedom, and I had achieved that goal, my purpose vanished.

I had naively assumed that the more freedom I had, the better. That I could sort of 'retire', and laze about in eternal happiness...

But instead, I found that precisely because I had limitless choice, and no purpose - that my mental health hit an all time low.

Without anything to drive me forward, I floated into a void.

I was in the beautiful city of Barcelona at the time, where only a few months before I was having the best time of my life.

But now I looked around me and felt lonely and alienated.

I had achieved everything I wanted, and it made me feel like shit.

I started to get waves of existential dread and anxiety.

I had a panic attack, then another, and then they became frequent. I started to lose all the confidence in myself that I had been building.

After months of this, I wondered if things were ever going to be the same.

What was extra weird about this state, was that because I had everything I wanted and was still unhappy, I had nothing to blame my unhappiness on...

And so I was more deeply unhappy than ever before.

In reaction to this, my mind shifted. A toxic belief firmly embedded itself.

"If this is was success feels like, I don't want success."

And I become cynical of life itself.

I hardly made any videos, and I stopped travelling.

I also stopped growing my business. It started to wither and die.

I couldn't believe that all my energy and joy for life was slipping away from me.

In my desperation I took a lot of measures to try to 'fix' myself.

I was doing yoga and boxing to try and keep a healthy mindset, and I started Therapy, which in fairness, helped a lot.

But nothing felt the same as before.

I had lost my spark.

And the effects of this experience lasted a long time.

I lived in this fearful, anxious state for around 2 years, wondering where I was going to end up.

But eventually, enough was enough.

Beyond Freedom

On new years day, 2019, I had some deep chats with my older brother and a good friend, and I set myself 3 goals.

I would workout 1 hour per day.

I would learn Spanish 1 hour per day.

I would practise guitar 1 hour per day.

I decided to stop caring how I 'felt'.

After all - who cared if I felt depressed, or lost.

That wasn't an excuse for inaction.

And so it began.

Get up at 7am. Learn Spanish for 1 hour. Workout for 1 hour. Practise guitar for 1 hour. Then take care of my business and work.

Despite having this new plan, every single morning my body and mind wanted to do the exact opposite, and laze around in bed.

It was rare that I had any days that I'd wake up excited.

But that didn't matter. I simply took the actions.

And slowly but surely, it started working.

3 months later, I had made a big shift.

6 months later, I was a different person.

I was taking music much more seriously, which had always been a passion of mine which I had put on the back burner.

I was in the best shape of my life. I no longer felt like my body was this panic attack prison and I felt strong and healthy.

And my Spanish had improved a lot, allowing me to communicate fluidly with the culture I was living in.

Through this experience, I learned that freedom alone wasn't the answer for me.

I now knew that if my only purpose was to become free... when I eventually gained the freedom that I sought, I lost all sense of purpose.

There were two new key players in my happiness equation, called responsibility & meaning.

The Tree Of Life: Freedom, Responsibility & Meaning

We all know that money and time create freedom.

But without responsibility, the freedom itself becomes meaningless.

Interestingly, to obtain money and time, you usually need to take on more responsibility.

So you need responsibility to create freedom.

It's a loop. And a key here is not cut the cycle by loosing the sense of responsibility that created the freedom in the first place.

But there's a super important caveat here - there are two types of responsibility. 

There is external responsibility, and there is internal responsibility.

External Responsibility:

  • Showing up for a job on time. (Otherwise you'll be fired)
  • Ensuring your kids go to school. (It's illegal not to)
  • Taking the dog for a walk. (Otherwise you'll have a mess on your floor)

Internal Responsibility:

  • Being proactive towards meaningful work goals. (Whether that's in the framework of a job, or building your own framework in the form of a business.)
  • Being proactive to provide the best you can for your family. (Out of love and care for others.)
  • Adhering to healthy habits. (So you live a better life in the long term and are able to show up as your best self)

You can probably see the difference here.

External responsibility comes from necessity.

Internal responsibility comes from a sense of meaning, which creates proactivity.

Meaning is the all important third ingredient that is missing from this equation.

Meaning is a powerful reason TO take on responsibility.

Meaning is a WHY that gives meaning to your freedom.

In my example, to gain the freedom that I initially craved, I took on the internal responsibility to take control of my life through learning and growing, and then building a business based on my knowledge and skills that provided value to others.

In exchange, I got money and time. So in exchange for responsibility, I got freedom.

I had used my sense of internal responsibility to create freedom for myself. But once that goal was achieved, I lost my sense of purpose, I couldn't see any meaning. So I was left with zero internal responsibility.

I was only left with the external responsibility of basic work tasks, and paying rent etc.

Which resulted in me loosing motivation, drive, and happiness.

So I needed to gain internal responsibility again.

And I ended up creating that, through meaning.

Meaning -> Internal Responsibility -> Freedom.

Let's go over how I was able to create meaning through the 3 Ways To Create Powerful Meaning In Your Life.

3 Ways To Create Powerful Meaning In Your Life

1) Realise you are irreplaceable

What better place to start, than with the book 'Man's Search For Meaning', by Victor Frankl.

One of his key realisations after suffering years in the concentrations camps of WWII, was that a creative pursuit could  give so much meaning to one's life, that it could be a driver to push through any imaginable amount of pain to ensure it's completion.

And this came from a sense of responsibility.

He said:

“One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”
“This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'”

A meaningful creative project gives all the internal responsibility (or 'proactivity') you'll ever need.

When we discover or cultivate a passion for a project which requires time and creative effort to achieve, we orient our mind towards meaning.

When we align ourselves towards a future goal we care deeply about, we’ll not only find life more meaningful, but develop the ability to endure suffering and hardship in pursuit of that goal.

You could say that because I achieved my slightly superficial goal of 'freedom' in itself, that I was no longer able to endure the everpresent hardships that life presents.

But when I had a goal, I was choosing my own hardship to battle - in creating my business and pushing through all the obstacles to do so.

Moreover, Frankl emphasises that one's own uniqueness is the very thing that gives meaning to a creative project.

I love this because it completely gets around the notion of comparison.

The KILLER of creativity is comparison.

Toxic thoughts like this take the form of:

'Why should I even make videos if THIS guy makes them twice as good.'

'Why should I even make music if all the best music was already made in the 60's and 70's.'

But it's our UNIQUENESS that gives a project meaning.

Literally NO ONE can make videos like you... but not because you're better than everyone else.

Because your life experience combined with your DNA combined with living in this era at this moment means you can create something completely unique that no-one else can.

That in itself, combined with an inner calling to do it, is all the reason you could ever need to get it done.

2) Acknowledge the pain of not reaching your potential.

Reaching one's potential is a pretty bullet-proof source of drive, purpose and meaning in one's life.

For me it was a key source of meaning that got me out of that rut.

I see meaning in this not only because I want to create work and art that gets better and better.

But also because I know that to fulfill one's potential is a life long journey.

And through that journey, one's very experience of life itself will change dramatically.

So it doesn't matter how down I'm feeling, I can always tap into that fact as a source of energy. I know that if I keep working to reach my potential, the very way I see the world will change.

Thought experiment: Imagine you were the BEST in the world in the discipline that most inspires you. (Martial arts, cooking, guitar, writing, consulting - anything).

I bet you'd see the world in a different way.

However, the real shift that comes from 'creating meaning by striving to fulfilling one's potential' often comes by reframing this in a more powerful way:

Imagine if you reached the end of your life, knowing that you didn't reach your potential. You didn't become all that you could be. You didn't have the impact that you could've.

It sounds more painful like that.

From that perspective... You've likely got a lot of work to do.

Now, to actually work towards achieving your potential, you need a degree of freedom.

Whether it's the freedom to work on what you're passionate about, or the freedom to change to a job that better suits you.

Both of these freedoms come from having options.

And options usually come from having specific skillsets, specific experience, money, or time.

So you need to take on the responsibility to gain yourself the freedom/options that you need, so you can pursue fulfilling your potential.

In my example, now that a few more years have passed since the above story, I have a partner and I want to build a future for us.

I know that in that future, if I don't have my shit together, the extra responsibilities that I will take on could well crush my freedom.

And therefore greatly restrict my ability to achieve my creative potential.

I know that I have a lot of art and creations left in me. So to be able to work on these projects, I need to work hard now to gain the money/time/skillsets/experience that I will need to keep pusruising the fulfilment of my potential.

Because a life where I don't fulfill my potential scares the shit out of me.

Pressure is what turns the useless lump of carbon into a diamond.

That's responsibility. And mixed with freedom, it's awesome.

The best skill I learned to create more freedom for myself is the ability to talk to camera confidently and authentically, and that's why I teach it inside the 30 Day Talking To Camera Challenge.

3) Turn your existing external responsibilities into internal responsibilities.

Another figure with powerful ideas on responsibility and meaning is Jordan Peterson.

One of his chief ideas is that taking responsibility for your own life is morally one of the best things you can possibly do. If you get your life together, pick up a heavy load and work with it, you're doing an amazing job for yourself, for those around you, and for society.

But what if you already have responsibilities?

- You have to pay your rent.

- You have to get up on time for work.

- You have to take your dog for a walk.

- You have to clean the dishes after eating.

Sure. But these are external responsibilities.

If you add Meaning into this equation - i.e. If you felt deeply that you have a meaningful purpose to achieve, then these external responsibilities become internal responsibilities.

Let's say you were a musician that just took the step to move to the big city to pursue his dreams.

So you get a cheap apartment, you get a job in a cafe, and you join a band.

Suddenly, you're life has quite a few external responsibilities.

Paying rent, turning up to work, showing up to band practise, playing gigs for barely any money, etc.

Without meaning here and a sense of purpose, this could quickly get you down.

But WITH meaning, these responsibilities become internal.

Let's say, again, you found meaning in fulfilling your life's creative potential. You deeply visualise and embed this meaning into your emotion and psyche .

You now enjoy your job more because you link it so strongly to allowing you to pursue your dream.

You turn up to band practise with a spark in your eye because it's so linked to a future goal. It's deeply connected to fulfilling your creative potential.

You essentially go from reactive - i.e. life is happening to me, to proactive - i.e. I'm participating actively in my destiny, and let's make shit happen.

At Peterson would say, you have a clear 'hell' to run away from (wasting your life/potential) and a clear 'heaven' to move towards (fulfilling it).

If you want to acquire the high value skillset of talking to camera confidently and authentically, join us inside the 30 Day Challenge and start working towards creating the freedom you need in your life.

Until next time - stay creative,


Who is Thomas Norman?

‍I am a musician, filmmaker and entrepreneur. I am passionate in helping creatives become actualised through their life and work.

When you're ready, here's how I can help you:

The 30 Day Talking To Camera Challenge

Break through the awkwardness barrier, and communicate with authenticity, confidence and enthusiasm on camera. Everything you need to drastically improve your speaking ability and make an impressive transformation.

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