On the Survivability of a Corporate Life, Part 5 of 6

Personal Sovereignty

One of the most common mistakes we make when we enter an organization as a worker is that we give up our autonomy, or as Polly Young-Eisendrath describes it, personal sovereignty. Young-Eisendrath describes personal sovereignty as:

…different from assertiveness, individuality, independence, and getting your own way. Personal sovereignty or autonomy means feeling free to choose and to intend your actions. It requires practice and knowledge to make decisions in a way that is responsible, fulfilling, and satisfying. Expressing and supporting one’s decisions with responsible action, ethical values, and clear language is a skill that can be developed only through conscious understanding and effort. (Young-Eisendrath, Polly (1999). Women and Desire: Beyond Wanting to be Wanted. New York: Harmony Books., p. 186)

She goes on to say that “personal sovereignty means that you choose from what is available in order to be intentional about your life. Even if you were locked in a prison cell, you could choose how to think about it. You could, through your own attitude, find a way to make use of your experience. Personal sovereignty is the ability to know and practice self-determination in whatever circumstances you find yourself.” (Young-Eisendrath, pp. 187-188)

Young-Eisendrath develops the notion of practicing personal sovereignty in a manner that develops, or perfects, the individual through a kind of risk-taking that reveals delusion about the world and one’s place in it.

As Subjects of our own desires, we develop our potential and grow in our capacity to lead an ethical life. What we once accepted as the dictates of external authority we now think out for ourselves, and we are required to articulate an identity over time that places us consistently and squarely at the center of our own contradictory feelings and motives.

Under these conditions we are not free in the sense of being more independent or more individual. But we are free in understanding human intentions and actions, our own and others’, in a manner that allows us to trust our hearts…When we live as the Subjects of our desires, we discover that we are sustained by others, paradoxically through making our own choices every step of the way. (Young-Eisendrath, pp. 205-206)

Under the influence of the group and, perhaps, persuaded by the dependence-inspiring rewards available in the workplace, we quickly allow choice in our personal actions to evaporate. We lose our grasp on our personal sovereignty and fail to retain our perspective and our vision. Maintaining the strength to maintain that grasp takes careful attention and consistent care and feeding of the hungry part of ourselves that succumbs to the dream of non-autonomy.[1] Where is the sustenance that helps us maintain that strength?

Like Young-Eisendrath in her discussion of the power inherent in retaining our personal sovereignty, David Whyte advises us to feed our hungry souls by engaging our imaginations as a way of enduring the constant mutability of the organizations we work in. Further, he encourages us to recognize that we do have souls and corporations, though they have many of the same aspects that a human being has (personality, personhood, legal stature, the ability to wield power and influence their environments) do not have a soul. As Mark Silver reminds his clients that their most urgent needs must be satisfied first and cannot be satisfied through work, Whyte emphasizes that existing with soul inside a soulless being is best done mindfully, with careful attention to the human soul lest it be bled to death by the soulless and hungry being it animates. In practical terms this means not only assuring that we engage in a life outside of work, but that we acknowledge our selves at work.

Developing the ability to notice when the soul is fatigued or depleted is an essential personal skill. Assuming personal authority and acting on our individual responsibility to adjust perspective on a given workplace challenge in a way that keeps us acting in alignment with a humane vision that helps us retain personal integrity is the contribution we must each make to our workplace. When we no longer see ourselves as culpable[2] in our own experience, we lose hope that we effect a positive change in that experience. We begin the journey into the cold desert that is so hard to journey back from.

Over the last several years, perhaps energized by the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle in 1999, the anti-globalization movement has grown in vigor. The purposes of this movement resonate with the personal challenges of a mid- or late-career knowledge worker in America today. However, the demonstration required to address that individual’s personal trials in his professional life necessarily comprise a daily practice. There is very little organized support, systematically teaching these workers to recognize the stages of cynicism as it encroaches and slowly paralyzes their ability to be effective in the work they love, erodes their self-respect and compassion for others.

To thrive as a knowledge worker today, most mid- and late-career professionals would be well served to reconsider the locus of control in the experience of their work. It is true that the awarenesses, skills, and consistency of practice raised in this paper are demanding. In comparison with the risk of severe dissatisfaction and even scarring of the individual’s personality, such effort seems commensurate with the risk it addresses.

Related Posts

Part 1: A Case in Point

Part 2: Vision and Perspective

Part 3: Work at Its Worst

Part 4: Taking Responsibility; Assuming Authority

Part 6: Epilogue


[1] Just as it is often difficult to hold corporations accountable for damage they due to the human community, there is a tendency for the workers in these organizations to avoid responsibility for their words and actions. Frequently, this is sanctioned by the corporate culture. However, corporations cannot take actions without the consent and participation of the individuals who are the actors. Ultimately, we move our hands to sign the contracts, use our brains to compose the email messages, and speak the words that terminate the careers of our fellows.

[2] I choose this word advisedly and over “responsible” because I believe its connotation of moral weight is important. The harm we do in acting out our pain as we perceive it can result in transgressions against others as well as our own bodies as Machlowitz notes above. Shedding our responsibility to affect our own experience does not relieve us of the responsibility for our concomitant actions as we transfer our pain or the effects of our busyness to other areas of our lives.

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