It was Isaiah Berlin who qualified my decision to leave my comfortable life teaching at Uni and embrace a different kind of freedom. I left the job, Berlin issued the certificate of authenticity, retrospectively.
I have been mulling over Isaiah Berlin’s words, after a great night out with Al last night, at Creao Studio. It was one of those rare nights where me and Allan met up and we did not have an agenda. So, I thought I would write a blog post that I believe Al and myself have journeyed down, independent of each other.
I remember the exact moment Isaiah Berlin’s Thunderbolt struck me. I was on Zhoushan, an island near Ningbo, on the edge of China – Shanghai side, it was hot with high humidity – I was sitting down enjoying chat with the other English teachers, River & Kevin. At the time, I was teaching HE1 & HE2 – helping keen, would-be English Teachers with their spoken English.
We were sat, late afternoon, trying to avoid the mosquitos, and suddenly, a thought occurred to me: “This is not what I want to be doing with my life.”
Life at Ocean University, Zhoushan was steady. They promised me a job for life in an attractive location, along with a generous salary that would continue even after retirement through a pension scheme upon graduation.
However, I felt trapped in a comfortable but restrictive situation.
Isaiah Berlin was a fascinating professor at Oxford, known for his occasional emergence to shed light on different aspects of humanity in short essays that can transformed the way you look at things. One of his essays that impacted me retrospectively discussed two types of freedom: “freedom from” and “freedom to.” In that moment, in my comfort zone in China, I was experiencing “freedom from” – freedom from fear, poverty, worry, or anything bad that might happen to me. I knew that the Uni (and, if it really came to it, the British Consulate) would take care of me.
The problem was, I had very little “freedom to.” While I was supposed to be in charge of my teaching, everything was controlled by rules and protocols. I could suggest things, but I couldn’t make any decisions on my own. The folk I was working with were perfectly competent to handle everything without my input.
So, I had freedom from worry, but I lacked “freedom to.” I was like a voluntary prisoner.
Later that year, I made the decision to leave Uni and return to Harrogate, North Yorkshire. I remember getting tanked on the flight home to celebrate my “true freedom,” as I called it.
On getting home, I realised I’m only qualified to teach Latin to young boys at a prep school, which I didn’t want to do. Besides, they would only pay me enough to “feed the dog.”
And, then I realised I do not need more than enough to “feed the dog.”
In the end, and fast-forward twenty years (this coming July) I found my niche making websites for people of all walks of life in Harrogate, North Yorkshire and nationally. I often think of my time in Academia, the sun-kissed shores of East Asia and it actually seems a lifetime ago.
Whilst in China, for some reason, “freedom from” wasn’t sufficient for me. So, I’ve been discussing my experience with my partner, Kathryn, and getting her thoughts. It’s very tempting to choose ‘freedom from’ by joining the army, civil service, or a large corporation that guarantees you work and financial security for life. But, like me, you may feel frustrated because secretly, you will desire the ‘freedom to’ – the freedom to pursue what truly suits you. However, in doing so, you may have less money than you’d prefer. On the other hand, you will find satisfaction in doing something you genuinely believe in, whatever that may be.
Professor Berlin’s point was that you cannot have both freedoms simultaneously; you must make a choice. Society may pressure you to choose “freedom from,” but you will likely experience frustration. On the other hand, if you opt for “freedom to,” you may find yourself resigned to a life with less material wealth.
So, I pass on Professor Berlin’s dilemma to you and regret that I cannot provide a solution. Ultimately, the decision rests with you, as you navigate the balance between the comforts of security and the pursuit of personal fulfilment.