I want to start this Choose You blog with some thoughts shared on The Life Scientific programme on radio 4 about free will. My ears pricked up because, if we are going to have a choice about what we do then free will is, of course, going to be important!

The argument has raged for centuries as to whether our lives are predetermined (by the Gods?!) with a destiny that can not be changed, or whether we have free will. On the programme Anil Seth, Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the Sackler Centre, University of Sussex, shared his thoughts when asked whether he believes we have free will or not.

He said that believing we do is a good thing (although believing we don’t have it is a free choice too!!) because it means that we empower ourselves to behave the way we wish to behave. His idea is that the brain generates willed actions and the experience of willed actions, and that it’s very important to distinguish between these actions of free will, which are created within us (internally generated), and those actions that are externally generated and are reflexes to things around us over which we have no control. His example was that:

“If you put your hand on a hot stove you don’t need to have an experience of free will [the external stimulus means that you’ll just take your hand off it automatically]. But if I am deciding what to have for breakfast, what job to take or whether to say something in particular, then it is useful to mark that as something that is internally generated so that I pay more attention to the consequences, because I might want to do something else next time.”

So, we can choose whether we believe we have free will or not, and if we choose to believe we do then we can empower ourselves to have control and behave as we wish.

Great, I thought, that all makes sense, and ties in with the fundamental principles of the Choose You project, that it’s not about right or wrong but is about choice and consequences, and that whilst we can’t choose everything that happens to us, we can choose how we react to it.

And then, the next day on the Media Show (radio 4 again. I am a very middle aged woman!!) Chris Evans was talking about his new job presenting Top Gear, and reflected that, like Jeremy Clarkson, who lost the job a few months ago for hitting a producer, he too has been through turbulent and career destructive times but has come to realise that he doesn’t have to ‘mess it up’. He described that earlier in his career he had felt a compulsion to say and do things that didn’t add value and just got him in to trouble. Now he has learnt that he can be completely in control of himself and he monitors himself by asking “I could say that, but what’s it going to ‘buy’ me?”

So Mr Evans is doing as Professor Seth suggests and choosing to notice the consequences of his actions and using his free will to choose to do something different next time if he wants to.

Even more great!

And like Chris I recognise that there are things I do that feel out of my control but, when I think about it, I am actually choosing: shouting at my teenagers when they make a mess; feeling disappointed with myself if a work project doesn’t go perfectly; eating all the chocolate once the wrapper is open! I have done them so often and for so long that they feel like a reflex but are actually my free will in action. I can, if I want to,  choose to respond differently: I don’t have to shout, be disappointed or greedy, I can choose to do something else instead (even with the chocolate!)

Another interesting idea Chris added in his interview was when he said:

“[I] completely control it…I know where I’m going, what kind of end … I want. The reason problems happen is because you can’t see the end…”

I’ve come across this idea of starting with the ending before, on a Neuro Linguistic Programming course many years ago where we were encouraged to get real clarity around what exactly it was that we wanted: to see it, hear it, feel it: to imagine ourselves doing it.

This makes sense of course (it’s impossible to achieve your goal unless you have one!) and helped me 11 years ago when I decided to leave my corporate role at John Lewis and set up on my own. I thought my outcome was all about running a successful business, making lots of money and having acquaintances say ‘wow, she’s done well’. But focusing on what kind of end I wanted, as Chris Evans shared, led me a very different way. I realised it was about feeling brave, stepping out and being proud of myself for trying.  Focussing on the ending shifted my thinking entirely from ‘stay or go’ to something much more powerful and useful: doubt myself or believe in myself.

And that clarity about the ending gave me a lot more control and choice as I set about the beginning of that journey to self-employment.

So, where has all that listening to radio 4 got me? Nowhere different perhaps, but I am where I am with more certainty and confidence. My belief that I can’t choose everything but I do choose how I react to everything remains intact and secure. As Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India put it:

Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will

And I’m determined to use my free will as much as I can. How about you?

I love hearing your thoughts on the Choose You project and your examples of Choose You moments, so do please continue to share them with me, (you can email me at jenny@insight-out.co.uk)

Thank you for reading this blog. I look forward to sharing more thoughts with you in a couple of weeks.