“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.” — Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: Experiences in the Concentration Camp
W Mitchell is an outstanding example of someone who refuses to be a victim, despite being victimized – not by just one horrible accident, but two. The first left him burned over 65% of his body, including his face, arms, and hands. A plane crash four years later left him paralyzed from the waist down, sentencing him permanently to a wheelchair. Having overcome these setbacks, Mitchell is a very compelling speaker on taking responsibility for our choices in life – on what it takes to be a leader.
One of Mitchell’s speaking sessions typically begins with an introduction, after which he rolls out on stage in his wheelchair, looks out over the audience and asks if any of them has ever been in prison. Silence. He then goes on to declare that he’s been in prison and it was horrible….Mitchell then goes on to talk about self-imposed “mental wheelchairs” that hold so many people back from being highly effective leaders.
“I firmly believe that most barriers are self-imposed,” Mitchell writes in It’s Not What Happens to You, It’s What You Do About It. “We first get them from society – you can’t do that, that’s immoral, that’s crazy, no one in our family does that, and so on – but we forget that we have the power to accept or reject these barriers. We treat them as if they are immovable, immutable, when, in fact, they may be silly, cause unnecessary misery, or just be plain nonexistent.”
Mitchell delivers a powerful leadership message in his speeches. But his most powerful message can be found in the example of his life. Mitchell takes full responsibility for his choices in response to circumstances for which he is not responsible. “Nothing, absolutely nothing is absolute,” he says. “Your life is entirely what you decide it is…The universe starts in your head and spreads out into the world. Change what happens in your head, and the universe changes.”
Theories on the effects of psychological prisons on their inhabitants are supported by studies and experiments conducted by the scientific community, as well.
Many experiments are done with monkeys, especially rhesus monkeys, which closely resemble the human animal – not just physically but, it seems, psychologically as well. Here we see compelling evidence of the all-too-human tendency to make assumptions based not on our experience, but on the attitudes of others.
In one experiment, researchers placed a number of rhesus monkeys into a specially designed room. Once a day the researchers would lower a bunch of nice fresh bananas, as a treat to supplement their regular food, through a hole in the ceiling. However, when the monkeys would grab one of the bananas, they were subjected to a blast of cold air, with the result that they would drop the bananas and scurry quickly away. After a few days of this, the monkeys would not even go near the bananas. Even after the cold-air mechanism was turned off, they refused to risk any further attempt to get the bananas.
Then the researchers began to change the makeup of the group. Every day, they removed one monkey from the room and replaced it with a new monkey who had never experienced the cold blast of air. Not surprisingly, the original members of the group continued to avoid the bananas. What was most interesting, however, was that the newly introduced monkeys also avoided them. Even after the researchers had replaced all the monkeys so that none had ever experienced the blast of cold air, not a single monkey in the room would go near the bananas.
Whether on our own or as part of a group, we often imprison ourselves by habit, custom, or organizational culture. Leaders break those barriers and exercise their freedom of choice.