I am often asked, “Why do people fail to take responsibility for their actions?”
As motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said, “Either you run the day, or the day runs you.” This quote highlights the importance of taking charge of our habits or inadvertently allowing our choices to dictate our states of being.
Due to our inactions, we allow life to happen to us, and as I talked about in last week’s article, it’s why average choices lead us to be mediocre. In a nutshell, we are doing exactly what we’re programmed as human beings to do.
It is a sign of emotional maturity when we accept responsibility for our actions. It displays self-awareness and a belief that we can change and learn to do better. On the other hand, when we encounter adversity, entitlement, perfectionism, denial, or shame, it often leads to our failure to hold ourselves accountable. Instead, we find someone or something else to blame when things are not going our way.
And it cascades from there. By failing to take necessary and intentional action to create the life you want, you will end up with the one you don’t want.
In the words of the notable talk show host, television producer, actress, author, and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey:
“You are responsible for your life. And if you’re sitting around waiting on somebody to save you, to fix you, even to help you, you are wasting your time because only you have the power to take responsibility, to move your life forward. And the sooner you get that, the sooner your life gets into gear.”
Taking responsibility for our lives is in the everyday things we do and the habits we form. How you respond when you’re in a traffic situation, what you do when you have a financial need, the food options you choose that impact your health, how you react when someone annoys you, and countless other situations. These everyday situations make up the whole and determine if life will happen to us or the other way round.
To illustrate the point of this article, I will use the fable of the Wise Old Man. It’s a simple and relatable one, but learning and applying its lessons have far-reaching impacts in helping us take charge of our lives.
The fable of the wise old man
Once upon a time, an old scholar was asked to wean a boy from his bad habits. The wise old man took the child for a walk through a garden. As they approached a vegetable patch, he asked the boy to pull out a tiny plant growing there.
The youth held the plant between his fingers and easily pulled it out. The old man then asked the boy to pull out a slightly larger plant. The child pulled hard, and the plant came out, roots and all. Then the wise old man pointed to a bush and asked the youth to pull it out of the ground. The boy pulled and pulled using all his strength and finally yanked it from the ground.
The old man then pointed to a guava tree and asked the young boy to bring it to him. The youth grasped the trunk and tried with all his might to remove it. But the tree would not budge. “I can’t do it. It is impossible,” said the boy, puffing and huffing from the effort.
The wise old man said, “So it is with bad habits and choices and taking responsibility for your actions. When habits are initially formed, it is easy to stop them from growing, but when they become entrenched, they are harder to uproot.”
The boy learned a vital lesson from the old man. Take responsibility for your bad habits and choices while you have control over them. Else, they will start to control you.
Like this story of the wise old man, it’s much easier to talk about taking responsibility than actually doing it. As we can see from this story, taking responsibility for our actions requires us to realize that we play a role in every situation or experience. Therefore, we all can choose our responses. It really is up to us.
Let us now examine the effects of not taking responsibility and the necessary steps to take charge and become our best selves.
Why do people refuse to take responsibility for their actions?
Simply put, when you don’t take responsibility for your life, things just happen to you. When I say ‘things,’ I’m referring to every kind of unwanted situation you can imagine. When this happens, they will ultimately lose joy in their lives and could end up very miserable.
Personal accountability is where you own responsibility for your actions, choices, and commitments. This is often easier said than done, especially when holding yourself accountable for a failure or mistake.
Failure to take responsibility makes you like a piece of driftwood moved by the current and the wind, with no goal or direction. You become susceptible to all the negativities of life, and meaning starts to elude you. You become complacent and constantly fear what the next moment may bring.
A quick check:
Take a moment and ask yourself, “what things could happen if I don’t take personal responsibility for my life?” Think deeply about your answer and write it down in your journal.
How do you start to take responsibility?
Many times, we feel helpless when faced with challenges. This feeling of helplessness and hopelessness is often a result of our lack of ability to see and understand that we are not merely subject to circumstances but that there are always available options in every given situation. We need to realize that in life, we are all given choices to make, and those choices, not circumstances, will ultimately determine the state of our lives.
Taking personal responsibility all begins with your understanding of the power of choice. Knowing that you can always choose.
In his autobiographical book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he emphasized the need for everyone to realize that we all have choices despite the situation we find ourselves in.
“We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.”
Through these words, he made it clear that we each follow our own paths and that it’s our choices that ultimately make the difference between accepting responsibility and accountability for our actions. No matter what we may be facing.
Even when you have been mistreated and hurt, you can still, in that very situation, choose to focus on helping others in similar predicaments. You have the power over your mind. And although you can’t control everything, you can control the things that absolutely matter.
You and only you have the power over your mind. Once you realize this, you will find the strength to courageously decide to move past whatever stops you from rising to responsibility.
The fact is, it does not matter where you come from or what your background is. It doesn’t matter what someone did to you in the past. What matters most is now. The present is all you have, and your willingness to accept it, forgive the past, and take responsibility will help you move forward from where you are to where you desire to be.
What are some examples of taking responsibility?
There are many ways to demonstrate accountability in your life, including these eight examples:
- You recognize and own your piece of whatever is transpiring.
- If you hurt someone, you have the self-awareness and willingness to acknowledge how your communication may have been damaging.
- You accept responsibility when you’re at fault.
- You stick up for what is right, not what is popular.
- You stop making excuses for the negative things that happen to you.
- You don’t pass off accountability (or all the failure) onto your partner, friends, or subordinates.
- You hold yourself accountable for missing deadlines.
- If you experience relationship troubles, you seek to understand how you’re contributing to (and even exacerbating) the challenges and friction.
Consistency matters when you take responsibility for your actions
Once you choose to be responsible for your life, you must realize that it will take a lot of conscious effort and strength to stay that way. Humans, by nature, are creatures of habit. We quickly do the things we are already used to doing, and whenever we try to do things differently, there will always be the tendency to slip back into old habits.
After you’ve decided to take charge of your life, you need to consciously put in the work every day to ensure that you do what you say. Like with the story of the wise old man, there will be many situations that will provide the opportunities to exercise your ability to take responsibility. Recognize them as they come and see their importance.
When you consistently do your best to take charge in each situation, you will strengthen your ability to take accountability for your actions. Over time, taking responsibility will become your first and natural response in any given situation.
Also, check out one of my previous episodes on The Science Of Habits: How To Make Healthy Habits Stick.
Why only YOU control the steering wheel of your life.
The aim of this article isn’t to discard the reality of the difficulties in some people’s lives over others. Some people are more advantaged than others. They are born and raised in better homes, given access to better financial resources, live in more enabling environments, and so on. But the reality is simply that life isn’t fair. You must accept your reality because it is all you have to work with. When you do, you will be able to find meaning in your life, take responsibility for your actions, and unleash your contribution to the world.
Be intentional about taking the steering wheel of your life, and don’t leave it on autopilot. The only person who can empower you is you, but if you don’t take responsibility, that power will remain dormant and eventually die out. When you do, you will be able to change not just the world within you but the one outside you as well.
Remember, time only knows to do one thing — move forward. If you do not take charge of your life today, you won’t only be stagnant but will begin to find yourself retrenching as the world around you advances daily.
Choose to be intentional with your life today. Realize that it may be difficult for you to take responsibility for your actions, particularly when they have consequences. But rest assured, it will be worth it!
John C. Maxwell, the bestselling author, said, “People who blame others for their failures never overcome them. They simply move from problem to problem. To reach your potential, you must continually improve yourself, and you can’t do that if you don’t take responsibility for your actions and learn from your mistakes.”
This article is based on an episode of Passion Struck with John R. Miles. Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, or your favorite podcast platform.
- Read my recent article on how to overcome the culture of exceptionalism.
- Check out my interview with Virgin Unite President Jean Oelwang if you want to learn how to build powerful partnerships.
- My interview with Sara Mednick Ph.D. on the power of the downstate and its impact on performance and health: https://passionstruck.com/sara-mednick-recharge-your-brain-body/
- My interview with Katy Milkman Ph.D. on how to create lasting behavior change: https://passionstruck.com/katy-milkman-behavior-change-for-good/
- My interview with David Yaden, Ph.D. on self-transcendence, psychedelics, and behavior change: https://passionstruck.com/david-yaden-on-self-transcendence-experiences/.
- My interview with Michael Slepian, Ph.D. on the secret life of secrets: https://passionstruck.com/michael-slepian-the-secret-life-of-secrets/
- Read my recent article on why the real prisons exist in the mind and what we believe.
- Are you having trouble prioritizing yourself? I discuss where you invest your love; you invest your life in Episode 104
- I explain why materialism is impacting your success and happiness in episode 96.
- Do you know the science of healthy habits? I explore this in-depth in Episode 108.
- How do you strengthen your relationship with your best self? Explore episode 110.