Archimedes famously boasted that, were he to have a lever long enough and a place to stand, he could move the Earth. A bit over-dramatic, perhaps, but he was (theoretically) correct – with a properly-placed lever, many seemingly-impossible tasks become not only possible but downright easy. In particular, the principle of leverage can have a profound impact on personal freedom.

I put this to the test over the past few months as I trained for a half-Ironman triathlon at the end of August in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. I have long believed that one of the pillars of personal freedom is physical well-being (it’s the bedrock of the five freedoms – physical, mental, spiritual, social, and financial – and the one on which all the others rest). Triathlons are a great way to stay in shape since they are multi-disciplinary:  swimming, biking, and running exercise different muscle groups, require a strong aerobic base for endurance, help prevent injuries through cross-training, and require a daily commitment to healthy activity. Plus, they are a ton of fun and a great way to meet like-minded people in beautiful, natural surroundings. They are also an activity that’s open to practically anyone at any age or any stage of physical ability: when I started participating in triathlons 7 years ago, around my 50th birthday, I could barely do a super-sprint distance (a half-mile swim, 6-mile bike ride, and 2-mile run). Now I can do a half-Ironman distance: a 1.2-mile swim in open water, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1-mile run. It’s taken me several years to get to this point, but all it really required was diligence and perseverance (hey, if I can do it, you can do it, too).

So, what do triathlons have to do with leverage? Plenty:

  • Triathlon training can take up a lot of space in your day if you’re not careful: you need to leverage your time to make your training sessions efficient and effective without being overly long
  • Nutrition must be leveraged to provide the right nutrients in the right amounts so you have energy both for your training and the events themselves
  • Correct technique for swimming, bicycling, and running can shave minutes off your time, leave you less exhausted after an event, and help prevent injury
  • The right mental preparation (focus, calm, optimism, perseverance) can magnify your efforts and make both training and events much more rewarding and fun
  • Leveraging your social networks by training and racing with friends and family (my wife and I train and race together and we’ve also done events with our daughter) provides a little social pressure to get you off the couch when you just don’t feel like training, and provides an alternative activity for getting together with friends beyond hanging out in bars and restaurants
  • Finally, the whole activity of training and racing triathlons exerts huge leverage in all other areas of your life and positively impacts not only your physical freedom, but your mental, social, and spiritual freedoms as well; exercising strenuously not only provides short-term benefits like endorphin release and the subsequent “high,” but deep and abiding benefits for longevity and overall wellbeing

Triathlon (or any similar intense physical activity, like running a marathon or hiking the Appalachian Trail) provides a great example of leverage in action, creating more physical freedom which in turn enhances your overall personal freedom with every step, with benefits spilling over into every area of your life. The more important point, though, is that leverage can be applied not just to physical freedom but to the other four freedoms as well, and creates a multiplying effect over time:

  • Mental freedom is a tremendous point of leverage: calming the mind through meditation and breathing techniques improves clarity and focus and enhances every other aspect of your life, and using the right mental models can lead to better decision-making in all areas of your life (see for an excellent infographic on mental models – I’ve got a print of this one hanging over my desk)
  • Social freedom is enhanced by leveraging your family, friends, co-workers, and even those you come in contact with in passing. It’s not just a matter of eliminating negative influences and surrounding yourself with positive, loving, smart, creative, and talented people, it’s also about helping others and, in turn, reaping the many benefits of altruistic behavior (see for a quick summary of the impacts of altruism on your wellbeing)
  • Spiritual freedom is all about feeling connected not only to people and other living creatures, but to our biosphere (Earth) and to a larger purpose beyond our own limited self-interest. Creating leverage here is all about finding opportunities for connection and purpose in whatever activities you pursue, no matter how trivial. If you’re religious, this may consist of offering up daily devotionals to your deity; if you’re not, this may consist of being present in the moment, no matter what you’re doing, and feeling yourself fully alive and connected to everything around you. Sam Harris, a philosopher, scientist, and secularist, has written a book (titled Waking Up) describing in a more scientific manner the many benefits of spiritual practice; a good summary is here:
  • Finally, financial freedom is all about two things:
    • Leveraging your money-making activities while you are still working to get the highest return for your labor with the least expenditure of effort and time, and
    • Leveraging your assets when you are not working to get the highest return on those assets consistent with your risk profile, so that your assets replace your income from working and allow you still greater personal freedom to pursue non-money-making activities of your choice.

“Leverage” here does not necessarily mean financial leverage – in fact, in many circumstances pertaining to personal freedom it means exactly the opposite. When you’re younger it’s perfectly fine to borrow money to fund the purchase of a home or other asset that will either provide income and/or grow in value over the long haul, but as you get older you may want to “de-leverage” and pay down or pay off debt so that you are unencumbered by loan payments and can free up that cash flow to fund investments or more meaningful/fun/impactful activities. One of my favorite FIRE (financial independence, retire early) bloggers, Mr. Money Mustache, calls this the “position of strength” because you’re not weakening your financial position with unnecessary debt (see for more).

The great thing about leverage is that it’s easy to get started in almost any area of your life, and it works so well that you’ll be motivated to create even more leverage for yourself as you experience the results (so, in that regard, you might say that it’s self-leveraging!). Where can you apply some leverage in your own life today to create more personal freedom? Give it a try and let me know how it goes!