The #1 Way to Become a Powerful, Effective Person: Take Responsibility

A woman about my age — somewhere in her mid-20s — walked up to me while I was at my desk in the coworking space I work from. She asked if I knew the area well, and I said reasonably so.

“I’m trying to find this company that’s supposed to be in this building,” she said, as if she doubted it actually existed here, “but I can’t.”

She said it was on the floor we were currently on. “Oh, okay,” I said, “well, this side of the floor is all Impact Hub, so it’s likely on the other side. It sounds like it might be part of Startup Institute, which is — ”

She interrupted me, sounding exasperated. “I’ve already been over there,” she said, “and it’s not there.” She looked at me like I might be part of the conspiracy (or as if I was slightly stupid; I’m not sure which).

I tried to empathize with her frustration instead of going with my hardwired reaction of telling her to not ask questions if she didn’t want the answers.

She further explained this was for a job interview and she was almost late.

“Er, alright,” I replied. “In that case, maybe try the concierge for this section of the building. It’s on the next floor up and — ”

She interrupted again as her phone rang. “I have to get this,” she announced, and picked up. She slowly turned away as she spoke, but I could hear the conversation. It was a series of phrases like, “yes, this is she,” “uh huh,” and “okay.”

And then an outburst.

“Well no one actually bothered to give me directions!” she whined. I watched as she stomped off in the right direction — which, as it turns out, was exactly where I told her to go in the first place — and then she was gone.

Bit rude, I thought. With a mental shrug, I turned back to my desk to continue my work.

But then it struck me that this was a perfect example of why so many people struggle in life. I’m including myself in this, by the way, because I do it too.

We fail to take responsibility.

Most of us fail to take any responsibility for what happens in our lives.

It is always someone else’s fault. Others are wrong. We’re right, justified if things work out for us and victimized when things don’t go our way.

With my huffy friend, she could have taken responsibility for getting herself to her job interview on time, knowing exactly where to go.

All it would have taken was a phone call to the office where she interviewed at, or a call to the building itself to ask where this particular company lived and how to get there.

She could have taken responsibility and planned to arrive much earlier than she needed to, so she could carefully and deliberately find her way to the right location. And she could have taken the time to ask for help (and listen and say thank you when it was given).

Instead, she likely showed up to her interview late, flustered, and frustrated. And if she doesn’t get the job, it won’t be her fault. It’s whoever did the wrong thing by failing to give her detailed directions to where she needed to be.

But the only failure will be hers, for refusing to take responsibility for what happens to her in her life.

I recognize it only because I’ve spent the past 27 years doing this. And I’m grateful for this woman who showed up as a mirror for myself.

I noticed her actions and identified them as failure to take responsibility only because I am an expert in the act. I mean she was a mirror quite literally: I only saw her like this because I am like this.

I’m only just now becoming self-aware enough to know that I routinely do this at nearly every opportunity, and that it takes work to change this pattern of behavior.

I could spend hours recalling all the ways in which I have failed to take responsibility in the past (as recently as this week, even). This failure spans across decades of my life; across my personal life, my love life, my social life, my professional life…

Even in my relationships with my pets, I have actually blamed the animal for something that happened instead of taking responsibility for the situation.

Which is absolutely ridiculous when I admit it. But it illustrates that dodging responsibility and pointing fingers is just human nature.

I don’t think it’s wrong that we do this. Or at least, there’s no value in making ourselves feel bad about it. There’s an obvious benefit and reason we do it (we get to be right; everyone else is wrong).

The only wrong is to know that there’s another, better option — to take responsibility — and to refuse to pick it up in our lives.

When I first heard the idea of “taking responsibility,” it made me angry. Defensive. How could I take responsibility for other people’s actions that impacted me?

They did it. It’s their fault, their problem, their responsibility.

Thankfully, I stuck with the idea even though it irritated me. I wanted to understand what people meant when they advised me to do this. I wanted to know how I could take responsibility for everything in my life.

It became a challenge to overcome, a puzzle to solve. And I’m still trying to figure it out. It is exceedingly difficult.

It’s always easier to blame others, to justify your own actions, and to minimize the role you play in negative outcomes in your life.

What I’ve learned — and what encourages me to stick with this and learn how to fully take this on — is that taking responsibility doesn’t mean making everything your fault or your problem.

It doesn’t mean turning yourself into a martyr who constantly sacrifices themselves (and their pride) for the sake of saving someone else.

It doesn’t mean justifying the bad actions of other people and making yourself wrong for the bad things that happen to you.

Being responsible means you claim your power in your life.

Taking responsibility allows you to transition from victim to powerful person who steps up and shows up.

Taking responsibility means you drive the action and events in your life instead of having actions done to you.

So the next time you’re tempted to whine, complain, blame, make others wrong while maintaining your own self-righteousness, pause for a moment.

Ask yourself, is pointing the finger at someone else, making someone else wrong, or blaming someone else for my problems productive? Does it solve anything? Does it allow me to improve and grow or feel truly happy and powerful because I appreciate my own agency in my life?

I’d go out on a limb here and say the answer to those questions is a flat-out “no.”

Instead, take responsibility. Focus on what you can control. Do what is in your power to create the life you want — and be proud that you can be responsible for yourself, your actions, and what happens to you each and every day.