How to take responsibility

It’s the secret to a creative life.

It’s easy to end up feeling responsible for lots of things. Easy to feel obligated or duty-bound or answerable for just about anything. But there is a world of difference between feeling responsible and taking responsibility.

Here’s how you take responsibility.

The first thing is to choose something you might commit to. Something you intend to do. Something that you have an appetite for making happen. Something where it matters to you if it happens or doesn’t happen. It could be building a house or making your home in a new country or just choosing to make something new for dinner. Choose a thing.

When you’ve chosen the thing, make sure you’re clear on exactly what it is you’ve chosen to commit to. If it’s building a house, what kind of house? How many rooms? Does it have to be a house or could it be a houseboat? Or a treehouse? Do you have to build it, or would it be ok to buy it if someone already built it? Do you have to build it yourself, or can you employ some builders? If you’re not clear on what you’re going to commit to, you can’t really say if you’ve committed to it or not. You might have just committed to something nearby.

Remember that only you can choose what you commit to. There are an infinite number of possible variations — and committing to something means committing to one. In order to do that, it pays to explore what you actually need from making this commitment. Which commitment you’d actually be able to stand by — commit to, not just in words, but with your whole self. You can use the Very Clear Ideas process to get clear on what that might be, sum it up in a sentence and test whether that sentence is a true expression of the need that you want to meet. If it’s not something that you need to commit to, then you won’t really be able to commit to it.

At this point, you have chosen the thing to commit to and you’ve explored it, defined it and tested that it’s true. The next step is just to sit with it. Spend some time concentrating on the commitment you might make. Not even trying to think about it. Not planning how to make it happen. Just spending some quality time with it. Pay attention to how it feels sitting with this potential commitment in mind.

Here’s the thing: making a commitment means changing your life. If I tell you a fact — say, that the capital of Bolivia, La Paz, has the highest airport in the world — you might remember the fact. That might get filed alongside a hundred million other things in your head. But having that line in your head doesn’t mean changing your life. But if you decide to be a kinder person, or go to the gym regularly, or learn Spanish — it’s not enough just to think about it. Not enough to add the thought to a list of a hundred million other thoughts. Having a thought isn’t the same as committing to something.

Committing to something requires us to adopt a new reference point. It requires us to hold on to something that we weren’t holding before. And the first step in doing that is just to keep on sitting with the idea. Become familiar with it. Make yourself at home with it. See if you can feel what that commitment feels like. Imagine you’ve already committed to it and feel how it feels to have committed to it.

(This part of the process I learned through studying Buddhist meditation. I learned it as ‘placement meditation’. If you want to cultivate compassion, you start by contemplating why it might make sense to be more compassionate. Working through the logical arguments until you arrive at a conclusion of why that’s a necessary place to be. Then, imagining that you are already there, you let go of the logical arguments and just hold onto the feeling. You become familiar with the feeling. You make yourself at home with it. Then, when you feel at home with the feeling, you start identifying with it.)

The secret to taking responsibility is identification. Firstly, identifying what you might take responsibility for. Secondly, by identifying with that thing. Identifying with the thing is a way of focusing your attention on it. Concentrating on it. As if you were building up to committing to it. Building up the energy for that by deliberately staying with the thing for a period of time. The difference between having a thought and actually taking a step is concentration.

At a certain point, there is no gap between you and the thing you are identifying with. Like when you drive your car and shout “Get out of my way!” and you’re identifying with your whole car. Or you try on a new outfit and ask yourself, “Is this really me?” It’s a lot easier to do something when the answer to, “Is this the sort of thing I do?” is, “Yes. This is exactly the sort of thing I do.” When there is no gap, when you are fully identified with the potential commitment, then it almost becomes easier to commit than not to.

Sometimes though, there is a gap. Something stands between us and what we know we need to do. My friend Sydney Schreiber talks about it as “all the things that come after if, but and when”. So, you want to commit to something but you find yourself saying, “I could commit, if…” or, “I would commit, but…” or, “I will commit, when…” And whatever comes after the if/but/when ends up as resistance. If we try to commit to something, the if/but/when’s will slow us down. If we invest our energy in something, the if/but/when’s will deplete it. So, the next thing to do is notice any resistance you have to the idea of committing to the thing. It can be enough just to notice it. Just to name it. To realise — oh, I’m worried about offending people. Or — oh, I feel a bit vulnerable. If the resistance is persistent, then you can try practising some Identity Yoga. By identifying and playing with the stories we hold about who we are and what we need to do, we can more easily step into unfamiliar positions and make ourselves at home there. And that, after all, is what is required when committing to something. Stepping into a new and unfamiliar position. Because making a commitment requires you to change your life.

And here we are. At the point of no return. When you identify with something, you stand for it. You stand, as a representative of that thing — embodying it — in the world. And, when you stand for it, you can start to speak for it. You can start to act on it. When you have a vision for the house you want to build and it is crystal clear in your mind and you can happily — without resistance — say “Yes! This is the house that I am building” — then you can speak for the-house-that-is-not-yet-built. And no one else can. When someone has a question about the-house-that-is-not-yet-built, you are able to respond, because you are holding it in your mind. As you are the one who can respond, it is your responsibility.

And the moment where you start speaking for the vision, where you start acting on it — that is the moment when you take responsibility.

The moment where you first speak for the vision, where you first act on it, that is like the last step of the process of concentration. That process started with choosing something. You chose something. You explored it. Tested it. (Use Very Clear Ideas for exploring and testing.) You sat with it. You cleared up what was getting in its way. (Use Identity Yoga for clearing the way.) You identified with it. And then you took a step. Each part of that process made the vision more concrete. And, in the moment where you took the first step, you moved from the world of why and how and what into the world of who and when and where. And the thing moved from something you might do (not very concrete) to something you actually are doing (very concrete).

The first moment where you speak for the vision, where you first act on it, is the last step of the process of concentration — and is the beginning of the process of initiative. You are no longer in the world of infinite possible paths. You have chosen a path. And, because it is your path, you are responsible for it. In the moment where where you committed, where you took the initiative, you took responsibility.


For more on what to do when you have taken responsibility for something, read:

To find out more about how to be clear go to: www.howtobeclear.com.

(With grateful thanks to Peter Koenig for all his work on the creative process — without which I wouldn’t know anything about responsibility at all.)