The proverb warns that, ‘You should not bite the hand that feeds you.’ But maybe you should, if it prevents you from feeding yourself.
— Thomas Stephen Szasz
If you’ve been an adult for more than 10 minutes, you’ve endured the needless nagging of a micromanager boss. They love to tell you what to do and precisely how to do it. I need that TPS report on my desk by noon. That’s in 37 minutes, in case you don’t know how to tell time. Now, lemme show you how to type on this thing we call a ‘keyboard.’ First, let’s find the letter ‘A’ . . .
These bosses exasperate us. They behave as if our intelligence ranks somewhere between amebas and pond scum. Spend enough time with them and we begin to question our mental capacity.
Ask people why they despise this kind of treatment and they say, I don’t like being treated like an idiot! I’m smart and can figure things out if you give me room to breathe.
And that’s true; no one enjoys feeling incompetent.
But let’s look deeper. The root issue is the basic human need called Autonomy.
Autonomy is the freedom to act without permission. It’s the freedom to choose what to do and how to live your life.
And yet, we collectively do a terrible job at demanding autonomy for ourselves and respecting each others’ need for autonomy. Perhaps that’s why we are collectively so grumpy!
But before we dive into how we can fix our lives by respecting autonomy, we need to define our terms. There are two kinds of autonomy: Major and Minor.
Major Autonomy is the ultimate freedom to choose how to spend your life i.e., what projects to work you work on each day, what subjects you learn, what goals you seek to accomplish, and what people you spend your time with.
People with major autonomy wake up in the morning just like you and me. No, scratch that. They probably wake up sometime after lunch, to the aroma of thick-cut pepper bacon and mimosas, because there’s nowhere they have to be.
All joking aside, few people have Major Autonomy. Few people get to choose how they spend each day. Most of us have bills, day jobs, and family obligations. But we crave major autonomy, more than almost anything. Ready for the good news? You can increase it over time. (More on that later!)
Minor Autonomy is the little brother of Major Autonomy. People who possess only Minor Autonomy are told what to do, what projects to pursue, but are given latitude to choose how they accomplish their assigned tasks.
In a work setting, people with lots of Minor autonomy are assigned objectives or outcomes but are free to choose how they go about completing them. (There are usually a few constraints placed on the “how” e.g., budget, timeframe, don’t get arrested by the police, etc. But these constraints are few in the number.)
People with no minor autonomy are told what to do and how to do it. Our overseers transform us into cogs and we fill our assigned role in the machine. Say, ¡Adios! to critical thinking (or thinking of any kind!). Say, Arrivederci! to creativity.
In extreme cases, folks have to get permission to pee or wait for their designated “bathroom break.”
Waiting for a boss to sanction your every move is as enjoyable as jabbing porcupine quills in your pupils.
Protect your Autonomy
There’s a way out of this mess. But it’s not easy.
The 2 Hour Rule
Create Major Autonomy for yourself by carving out 2 hours in your day to do whatever you want. You can use it to meditate and relax, play video games, or invest in your future by developing new skills. 22 hours a day belong to your job, family, and sleep. But this two-hour block each day belongs to you.
Take control of how you accomplish things
Have an honest conversation with your boss, spouse, etc. about autonomy and why it’s important to you. Tell them you need room to figure out how to accomplish things on your own.
Adopt assertive language e.g., Give me a few minutes to figure this out on my own. I bet I can do it!
Demonstrate that you can be completely responsible for small tasks and your boss will entrust you with larger tasks.
Spend less money
You’re probably thinking, What does spending less have to do with autonomy? A lot, actually.
If you spend less, you can get by earning less money. You can work fewer hours and have more time to do what you want. You can pick a job that pays less but gives your more Autonomy.
Be well, my friend.