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  • Writer's pictureAnnette Nilsson

Free Will

Clients come into my coaching practice because they have a desire or a need to change the status quo. Before we can start to define a plan, we need to examine what that desire or need is and extract the goals. Then look at individual resources, talents and which first steps can be taken in order to reach those goals.

It is interesting to think about the nature and origin of these resources, where do they come from, why do we often don’t know that we have them or what they are and don’t use them to our advantage. Even more important, to what extent are we free to become who we are, given that we all have our talents, characters, socialisation - can we be anything, anybody?

If we pursue goals which we believe are desirable, are ‘en vogue’, hip or get many likes on social media but we do not have the right resources for the achievement of these goals, we will fail, and worst of all, we will feel like a failure.

I believe this is the core strength of coaching: to discover or encourage talent which is in us, and to honestly look at what we cannot become, or we simply are not. It is a bit like being musical, some of us are, others are not. If we are not, we can still of course appreciate great music, but without musical talent, we cannot become a professional singer, a composer or a musician.

In coaching, coach and client are sparring partners, both must be willing to engage in an honest, open and friendly quest to discover and strengthen existing resources, and to also let go of unrealistic and unapproachable goals.

The discussion about free will is interesting because depending on where you stand, you either believe you are free to shape your life, everything is possible if you only want it enough. Then there are people who believe that our lives are pre-determined, either by divine command, the universe or because we are part of nature and nature is beyond our control.

According to Sam Harris, free will is an illusion. Our idea about having a free will rests on two assumptions:

  1. that we could have behaved differently than we did in the past

  2. that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.

He thinks that both assumptions are false. This is of course a bold statement, and in his book, he goes on explaining why he came to this conclusion. He holds that we cannot alienate ourselves from our own neurophysiology and research has shown, that milliseconds before you become aware of a desire, and you believe you have a choice to act on it, your brain has already decided what to do.

My taking on free will that it is not so much relevant if we are the conscious source of our actions, or if our unconsciousness. i.e. processes in the brain are responsible for our actions. What is important is the awareness about our emotions, desires, dreams and goals, and the effort to understand yourself. If you bring together awareness and understanding, you have the tools to shape your life according to your talents, character, environment, possibilities.

At the same time, getting to know yourself really well and accepting who you are and how you are wired can take away a lot of pressure. This can be a great source of contentment and actually happiness. In ‘We are our brains’, Dick Swaab explains that we start life with many possibilities and talents but also with many limitations.

It does not mean that you are not responsible for your actions, not at all. But how we perceive the world, how we deal with the world and all what is in it has been decided long before we came into existence. What we can do as self-efficient agents is that we can take the time to think about ourselves, become more conscious of our inner processes. We can aim to understand ourselves better in order to become who we are. This is a free decision we all can take!

What are your thoughts on this subject?


Sam Harris ‘Free Will’, 2012

Dick Swaab ‘We are our brains’, 2014

Emeran Mayer ‘The Mind-Gut Connection’ 2016

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