top of page

Why We Do What We Do: Free Choices or Programmed Habits?

For most of my life, I have had an aversion to waste and have made an effort to prevent and reduce it. I have always looked at it as a conscious, virtuous choice that I made on my own.

Since childhood, I have eaten everything on my dinner plate. To this day, in my house, old t-shirts become useful cleaning rags. You won’t find a garbage disposal or dishwasher; kitchen scraps get composted and dishes washed by hand. This has nothing to do with affordability. Rather, it has to do with my distaste for wasting electricity and filling my house with gadgets.

Many years ago, when I began researching my family history, I discovered the extent of material poverty in the backgrounds of both my parents. Since they were of limited means, they needed to make their clothing, food and fuel last as long as possible. When they really needed or wanted something they didn't have, they often thought of a way to get it without opening a wallet.

Scavenging and Stretching Resources

My grandfather sought permission to scavenge the overlooked potatoes from a neighbor's harvested field. Uncle John fashioned us a swing set from his scrap metal heap. A cousin used old photos for her holiday cards.

It took me by surprise when I noticed that many members of my extended family shared my strong inclination to save rather than spend, repair instead of replace, and keep for a rainy day rather than toss. I had assumed this tendency was unique to me, that I had invented it on my own, but I discovered I had grown up surrounded by people acting the same way.

This made me reflect on the concept of personal freedom. How much of what I do every day is a result of programmed habits instead of independent decisions?

Are my choices really as “free” as I think they are?

My profession as a leadership guide has given me plenty of opportunities to witness the business and personal choices of my clients. I often wonder how much (or how little) individual freedom influences a leader’s behavior.

One choice that comes to mind – career choice – is an example of a choice we think of as "free" when it's actually not completely free. Career choices help define our lives, and so, deserve careful consideration. Yet, more often than not, those choices are influenced by forces outside our awareness. Let's take a closer look.

Career Choices

Career choices in the Stockdale family reveal a pattern of medical professionals across five generations. Great-great-grandad was a Union battlefield surgeon in the Civil War. His oldest son became a country doctor in a mining community and fathered two children. The older child followed in his father’s footsteps, making house calls in the same town. The younger became a nurse.

The fourth generation included a professor of anatomy in a well known medical school. One of his twin sons served as a medic in World War II, the other became a science teacher. Several of the 5th generation offspring also pursued medical careers, including a daughter who studied epidemiology and another daughter who volunteered as an EMT for a local ambulance corps.

I’ve met with hundreds of families where not a single individual in five generations chose medicine as a career. In the Stockdale family, that choice is everywhere. What explains that?

Did generation after generation of family members simply like the profession and choose their own version in order to reap the same rewards? Would a medical career make their parents and grandparents proud by continuing a family tradition? Does the pattern imply that Stockdale family members are medically gifted or genetically predisposed? What else might be at work here?

Three Professions

The Stockdales aren’t alone.

Free choice might be only one factor among many that dictate work choices. Beliefs, unconsciously inherited from parents, deserve special mention, as well as family tradition and the desire for approval. All of these can involve the kind of strong emotional fervor that silently impacts career choices.

Consider three prominent examples:

As a former seminary teacher, I have heard numerous priests acknowledge, “My mother prayed for me to become a priest.” In some Catholic families, members in several generations have entered the convent or seminary. When “God calls,” how close behind are the hopes and desires of a praying parent?

Many families have multiple members serving in the military, often as leaders. For example, Senator John McCain as well as Generals McArthur, Patton and Schwartzkopf, hail from military families. Three years ago, I asked a group of company commanders at West Point, “Why do young people choose West Point?” One seasoned leader spoke up, “Some don’t have a choice.” What was he hinting at?

Family-run businesses often plan for generational succession. It’s interesting to speculate on how seeking approval and building close relationships can play a part in next-generation career choices. I seldom hear this openly acknowledged.

The point is that major life decisions are influenced by a complex mingling of hidden, emotionally powerful drivers. That’s not a problem, it’s the reality of being human. The problem is thinking we make big decisions completely on our own.

The popular claim, “I did it myself,” supports the dubious notion that complete freedom of choice is possible.

Cultures older than ours know better. They recognize the part that tribal ties play in dictating life choices, and they celebrate it. I experienced this first-hand while getting a haircut in India a few years ago. I asked the barber how long he had been cutting hair and he said with a smile, “Hundreds of years. It’s what my family does.”

Just because we think we are “free” doesn’t make it so.

Ask yourself: How much of why I do what I do is actually hidden from my own view?

bottom of page