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Many of us like to consider ourselves to be determined. It’s more or less seen as a positive trait, and may have even been a praise given in our early years. It’s very easy to imagine a parent describing their child as ‘very determined’ and one can assume for the most part that a small bit of pride is ignited in both parties.


Sometimes, the comment may be somewhat of a euphemism. It might be describing a certain pig-headedness or refusal to accept a particular reality – it can play out as the backhanded compliments in the workplace where adults regularly bump into each other’s worlds, and everyone prays for a bit more “give” from the other. Funnily enough, in the case of the child who has been told they can’t have any more cookies, where said cookies have been put well out of reach and this has spurred the child on a creative quest to get the new contraband in their little hands, the parent, while finding it mildly frustrating, may also have a flicker of comfort that the little soul is robust and driven and won’t be easily beaten back. Perhaps we prefer determination when it reflects on us (and our progeny), rather than on others.


Most of us like to see ourselves this way, if only from time to time. When we can navigate life’s turns and surprises, and soldier on, we reinforce a sense of safety- that we, if we are determined, can continue on less scathed than we may otherwise find ourselves in life. That “Determination” is a weapon to lessen the power of those who choose to stand against us. 


Determination can also be used in a more proactive context - our right to self-determination. Legally, all this means is that we have a right to ‘ongoing choice’ for ourselves. Legality aside, we often believe that we have the skills, the right, and the commitment to Self-determine our fate. While the first two may be completely true, the third is much more complex than we might realise, and the commitment flame may flicker without us even noticing.


This is because that flame is fueled not just by the cognitive commitment, but also by subconscious self-belief and uncontrollable emotions, that can leave us standing in our own way as much as any external obstacle (of which there are already many). In post-analysis, our judgement on our “self-determination” can actually be a rating on courage, stoicism, decision making, or even just knowledge… which is probably a lot to ask at any one time.   


The more common definitions for the word determined are:

to make something happen in a particular way

to establish or discover through research

to be firmly decided or resolved


In mathematics, we use ‘determined’ to describe the successful act of having found the value of something

and archaically, it means to have brought something to an end.


These last two provide a lot of food for thought. If we are looking not for our “state of being”, but instead are focused on the outcome, then the value of being determined can be measured differently, in both very positive and sometimes negative ways.


If we use determination to find “value at this time”, then no matter what we find, we have succeeded i.e., even without the cookie in our hand, we might have done something we were very proud of – like hang from a light, or build a lego skyscraper. And then self-determination, or ‘ongoing choices’ suddenly becomes a lot more significant, because we can just keep doing this – taking control of understanding the value of what is happening to us now, rather than retrospectively measuring our determination on whether the outcome occurred.


This feels quite liberating. For a lot of adults, especially ones that were ‘determined’ children, the (albeit sometimes backhanded) praise often transitioned into a burden requiring you to have the ability to navigate all troubles and take whatever life throws at you in your stride. The problem is, sometimes life throws a lot more than it is reasonable to expect any one person to carry. The “Determined” label encourages us to say ‘but watch me try anyway’, with varying impacts from increased resilience and new insights to burnout and mental illness.


So what if being determined means –

we assess every time something happens or changes (or maybe even when it doesn’t), and what might be required to respond to the change, and then just choose a path at the time that is achievable.


Because that’s kind of what the archaic meaning asks of us - to ‘bring something to an end’.  Oftentimes, determination seems to just keep going – action, then resolution, then follow-through, then evaluation (heaped with self-expectation), and by that time, especially if we didn’t do a perfect job, there’s something else to be even more determined about.  Being a “determined person” with self-determination can get pretty tiring.


But maybe we can be determined for a specific purpose, and then use our self determination to measure the value of whatever happened, and then just take a moment, and doff the “Determination person” cape.  Maybe changing one piece might be enough. Saying ‘I don’t need to BE the Determined One, but I do need to determine what I can and can’t carry myself’ might be the only superpower we need.  


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