What if three little words could make you feel instantly strong, empowered, and totally in control of your life? Wouldn’t they be words you’d want to say, often and loudly? Wouldn’t they become three of your very favorite words?
Good. Here they are, but brace yourself, because three of the most empowering words in the English language are possibly three of the hardest to say, for most people: “It’s my fault.”
Yeah. I thought you’d be disappointed. But wait. Think about it. Taking responsibility for a mistake or failure is the best (and often only) way to fix it. Responsibility feels constricting, but owned and used properly, it’s hugely liberating. Taking responsibility puts the power back in our hands. The next move is ours to make.
Often when we fail, or if we’re not succeeding at something as fast or as spectacularly as we’d like to, the fix or solution is within our control. Even if something (like an exam or a relationship) is over, failed and technically unfixable, there will be other exams and other relationships. Analyzing what we did wrong and how we can do it differently next time is key to succeeding next time round.
There’s a big problem here, though. Here’s what often happens when we try and analyze something that failed. We blame other people.
Psychologists use the term self-serving bias to explain something you’ve probably observed in real life with frightening frequency. When we do well, we tend to take the credit. When things go wrong, we tend to blame other people or external circumstances. When we pass the test, it’s because we’re smart. When we fail it, it’s because the paper was too hard, our teacher was useless, or we were feeling sick that day. There are exceptions, but we’re all capable of employing a cognitive bias that allows us to congratulate ourselves when something works, and criticize others when it doesn’t.
We’re not always wrong, either. Maybe other people messed up. They probably did. Maybe your ex contributed to your failed relationship or your teacher was part of the reason for your bad grade. But guess what? You don’t control them. You only control you. So you can’t work on the part of the problem that was their fault, but you can work on the part that was yours.
Learning from failure is the key to success, but the reason many of us don’t learn the valuable lessons that failure dishes up is that we don’t take responsibility for our part in things. Maybe your part was small. Maybe it was mainly your ex, or your teacher. If that’s so, you need to choose your next partner with a different (and better) set of criteria. And if your next teacher is as bad as the last? Don’t just sit there and take his crappy teaching methods. You’re going to need to find a tutor, study buddy, or other resource to help you pass this test.
In the above examples, I’m assuming you’re being honest with yourself, but mostly we’re not. As humans, we have tremendous capacity for rewriting history. We’re 100% capable, when we regret our actions, of rewriting the story in our own minds until it was someone else’s fault entirely. We’ve all told ourselves that we’d have done better if only X had happened or Y had been there, or Z hadn’t done that thing that caused us to do the thing that triggered the event that led to the other thing. We’ll get crazily creative in order to shift the blame onto someone else.
We can’t be blamed (entirely) for rewriting history. The human brain works in mysterious ways.
There are many reasons we misremember things. It may be that we remembered a conversation clearly the first time we went over it in our heads. But the first time we remember something is the only time we’re truly remembering it. Every other time we remember remembering it, and every time we’ll add or subtract a few more details. Human memory works a little like the telephone game, where a small thing changes each time you recall an event, distorting the entire memory over time. To take responsibility, we must commit to trying to be as honest as we can about what was our fault and what wasn’t.
If you’ve read this far, and are thinking “but I don’t want to be constantly beating myself up over my failures all the time”, you’ve missed a vital piece of the puzzle. You don’t take responsibility in order to blame yourself. You do it in order to empower and liberate yourself. You do it to take control of at least part of your situation so you can fix it, improve it or do better next time round.
As you fully embrace this concept, you should beat yourself up less and less. Once you acknowledge that everyone screws up, including you, but that you’re going to be in the minority that does something about it, you start to feel more pride and power, less pain and guilt. Eventually it becomes a calm, logical process to face the broken relationship, lost job or other failure and sort through the wreckage:
“So this bit was my doing and that was his. I can ignore what he did, but I’m sure as hell not doing what I did again.”
We’ll go to great lengths to trick our own brains into justifying our unsuccessful behaviors and actions. We want to avoid those three wonderfully liberating and empowering words “it’s my fault” at any cost. And the cost is huge. You can’t fix what you don’t control. And you don’t control things that aren’t your fault. So we fail at one thing, shift the blame neatly onto someone or something else, and set ourselves up to fail at the next similar situation, and the next, and the next.
This concept is beautifully covered in the book, Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn From Their Mistakes, But Some Do by Matthew Syed. Many of us are familiar with the idea of the ‘black box’ that rescue workers hunt for as they go through the wreckage of any plane crash. The black box records exactly what was going on, on board the plane, during the flight that culminated in a crash or other incident. This system gives investigators the chance to learn from what went wrong, every time something goes wrong, and has impacted the worldwide aviation industry, making air travel one of the safest ways to travel.
There are now extensive systems in place to analyze every plane crash in great depth. Crash investigators look at everything from mechanical failures to the conversations that are going on in the cockpits of the planes in the run up to every incident.
Plane crashes and other emergency in-flight situations are rare, but when they do happen, an investigation is launched to ascertain what happened and why. Systems are put in place to prevent it happening again. Over the years, changes have been made to everything from cockpit design to pilot training procedures, all in the interest of making air travel safer, and all after analyzing contributing factors in real life crashes, emergency landings, and other incidents.
Imagine if we could ‘black box’ all our failures. I mean, everything. Imagine if we had the voice recordings of those arguments and conversations with our ex, to see exactly how we both played it wrong and contributed to our failed relationship. Imagine if we could look down on our interview, and spot the moment we lost the attention or sympathy of the interviewer. Wouldn’t everything in our life turn out so much better? Why? Because we’d know what we did wrong, and could start putting it right. If the arguments were always caused by the ex, or the interviewer didn’t like us, fair enough. Nothing we can do. But what if we could spot how we’d made things worse? Just need to change that then, to give our next relationship or interview a better chance.
Learn to look for the part of the situation that’s your fault. Don’t worry about how small (or large) that may be. Take responsibility for it. Make amends if you can. Decide that, next time, you’ll do things differently. You can only change what you control. And you can only take control of something by admitting that you had a part in it. Taking responsibility isn’t about self-blame, it’s all about self-empowerment.