Taking responsibility for your existence is tough.
“Oh no, I can’t do that because…”
Finish that sentence with any number of excuses that we hear from others and tell ourselves every day.
If you want to pursue particular goals, but always justify why you can’t, then this article is for you.
And for me too. I write this for myself as much as for anyone else.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of protecting ourselves, shying away from action and the unknown.
But it’s time we take responsibility for our lives.
So where better to start than the man and legend himself?
An Austrian boy
There was once a boy growing up in Austria in an impoverished household.
He had relationship issues with his father, a strict man who beat him for minor misdemeanours.
Only average at school, he was a sporty child and began weightlifting when he was 15.
With an obsessive focus on bodybuilding, he would break into the local gym on weekends when it was closed.
Soon, he was making waves in the European bodybuilding world and soared to greater heights, winning the Mr. Universe title at age 20.
The youngster, who’d dreamed of relocating to the US and becoming an actor, finally did so at 21, speaking little English.
The move paid off; he won his first Mr. Olympia title at 23 and would go on to win 7 more times.
But bodybuilding wasn’t enough, and this ambitious Austrian upstart had superstar dreams.
Although things didn’t initially go to plan.
“It was very difficult for me in the beginning – I was told by agents and casting people that my body was ‘too weird’, that I had a funny accent, and that my name was too long. You name it, and they told me I had to change it. Basically, everywhere I turned, I was told that I had no chance.”
But with the grit and persistence that’s now legendary, he made his own chances, finally getting cast in Conan the Barbarian, a box office smash.
As LA Weekly would say, he “overcame a thick Austrian accent and transcended the unlikely background of bodybuilding to become the biggest movie star in the world in the 1990s”, all before moving into politics in later life as the Governor of California.
That ambitious boy was…you guessed it…
Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not bad for an Austrian immigrant!
What is responsibility?
I like the following definition:
The state or fact of being responsible, answerable, or accountable for something within one’s power, control, or management.
What most of us do instead
Unlike Arnie, most of us blame our present situation on factors outside our control.
We never take responsibility, especially when our circumstances don’t lend themselves to our deeply held ambitions.
Perhaps you bemoan the fact that you weren’t automatically set up for success, emerging into the world without a bankroll and connections.
Just trawl the YouTube video comments, an ooze-fest of negativity directed at successful uploaders, an inherent assumption that they’ve enjoyed some sort of headstart and why it would be impossible for others.
It’s so prevalent that you may be immune to its pernicious effects and simply nod along in passive acknowledgement.
Examples also abound closer to home, with friends and family.
Indeed, we’re frequently our own worst critics, telling ourselves that we do this or that, but can’t because…
- I don’t have the time
- I don’t have the money
- I’m not smart enough
- I’m not attractive enough
- It’s too hard to learn
- I can’t make money doing that
Perhaps the reasons are more personal, backstories that stretch into a distant childhood, snuffing out any glimmer of optimism.
Or more general excuses, such as blaming the government or economy for insufficient opportunities.
In his book, The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck, in his work as a psychiatrist, outlines two types of patients commonly encountered.
One group blamed everything external for their problems, while the other took too much responsibility for their ills.
The responsibility group, he said, were far easier to counsel, for the very fact that they took excessive ownership of their present circumstances and did the work required to change.
The blamers, on the other hand, were beyond help, because they were totally unwilling to assume any personal responsibility.
Which type of person are you?
There are many consequences of not taking responsibility in life. Let’s dive in.
A feeling of powerlessness
The main consequence of giving ownership away is that we become powerless and debilitated.
Without personal power, we feel adrift in the world, moved by forces outside of our control and at the mercy of external events and conditions.
The world can appear as a hostile entity, especially when we develop no personal agency in creating our existence.
Many long-held dreams and goals disintegrate in the face of such feelings.
Inability to receive feedback
With a blaming attitude, it can be difficult to receive and internalise feedback based on our actions.
No-one likes negative feedback.
It’s often seen as a judgement on our abilities, a character assassination which threatens our very identity.
There are two types of feedback:
1. From other people
2. From the world at large
While receiving personal feedback is never nice, especially when it doesn’t conform to our self-image, collective feedback too can have severe consequences on self-confidence.
A person that blames the world is completely unresponsive to real-world feedback.
For example, starting a business that flops. When things go wrong, they instantly dismiss such external factors or lash out at what they perceive as a vicious world.
While a person taking ownership will still be affected negatively by the input they receive, they quickly shift their perspective, and rather than taking it personally, or as a reflection of their abilities, they pivot, accommodate the feedback and adopt a different approach.
Adoption of negative patterns
Blaming the world and ignoring important feedback is an easy way to avoid the short term pain of assuming personal responsibility.
It’s far easier and comfortable to externalise these events to protect fragile egos and identities.
However, as most tangible results are dismissed, these people never learn or grow from their experiences by internalising real-world responses and adjusting their actions.
The result? They become stuck in the same patterns.
Just think of a friend who always attracts bad relationships. It’s because they never shoulder the responsibility for the one factor pervading their bad experiences; themselves.
It plays out in an endless Sisyphean saga, with poor choices, mistakes and unenviable outcomes almost guaranteed.
Blaming and excuse-making can make us bitter and negative towards life.
There can easily be a feeling that the world is an enemy, out to injure us.
We all know such people who live in the past, discounting the possibility of change due to a perceived slight or event from years ago.
Such anger festers, feelings which are accompanied by the deeper realisation that they’re standing in their own way, but are powerless to act in the face of their destructive attitude.
Higher perceived threat level
It seems common that those who give too much ownership away experience a higher perceived threat level than those who take responsibility.
With the world appearing a vicious place, threats appear more visible at every turn.
If the external environment is considered hostile, it’s natural that those with a tendency to blame or make excuses put their guards up.
They’re waiting or in some cases, looking, for an opportunity to become offended and then strike back.
When you don’t believe in positive outcomes, giving up is a natural byproduct.
As Henry Ford said,
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
Achieving anything positive in life, whether that’s learning a new hobby or starting a new career, requires grit and perseverance.
With the philosophy of blame easily available, deferring to external circumstances when the going gets tough is highly likely.
When we do fail, which is an inevitable part of life, blaming externals provides an easy avenue for confirming pre-existing beliefs, in a process called confirmation bias.
Confirming long-held opinions is comforting because it helps the world make sense, providing a plausible narrative for your setback.
Humans hate cognitive dissonance, so we frequently create imagined stories which validate our experience of the world.
If they’re disempowered to start with, this perpetuates the negative cycle. Negative in, negative out.
Reasons why you’re not responsible for your life
Chasing comfort is perhaps one of the most worrying afflictions affecting mankind today.
We want everything now and we want it to be easy.
Here’s the thing.
Most people that complain about their life are choosing comfort over the hard work of following their vision, casting themselves into the world and getting knocked around.
It’s far easier to kick back on the couch and complain about your results, rather than entering the arena and suffering some battle scars.
Humans have always found change difficult.
Whereas throughout the millennia, change has been slow, in the techno-world of today, we experience the discomfort of adjusting at an ever-increasing rate.
This is true both on a global scale and also on a personal level, where changing even small routines and behaviours can be challenging.
With the wrong attitude, very few are likely to embrace the pain needed for true transformation to occur.
Despite a tendency to lash out, fear is at the heart of giving away our self-control and responsibility.
From a young age, emotional trauma may have been internalised and manifested unknowingly in adulthood.
Fearing a lack of acceptance and love, it’s easy to induce your innermost concerns and actively attract or create that which you fear most.
Life is, after all, a reflection of our thoughts, emotions and beliefs.
When we’re in the habit of blaming, it’s too easy to invent excuses for not taking action.
The ‘I would do this, but there’s no point’ scenario.
If you don’t feel like you have any control over an arbitrary outcome and that the future is dictated by the past, the results appear in many ways pre-ordained, counter to your every desire.
When personal power is wasted, the easiest way to avoid addressing your shortcomings is to make excuses.
Many people simply don’t prioritise.
It’s easy to say we want to do something and then erm…never do it.
Often, you’ll find the hopes and ambitions of blamers hard to identify by their concrete actions.
They say they want to get healthy, but the next thing you know, they’re on the sofa stuffing their faces with wotsits, instead of hitting the gym.
The gym’s too far away, they complain. I can’t get there before work. The classes aren’t on at the right times.
These are simply excuses for not prioritising their health. In a life or death situation, we’d find the time.
We all have the choice, and unless we’re held out gunpoint or living in a war-torn part of the world, we have options.
To say that we can’t do something because we’re denied opportunities is simply untrue.
If you’re lucky enough to be reading this article on a digital device, you possess the means and power to change your circumstances.
It’s just that we haven’t given it enough time or have chosen to prioritise an alternative.
That something else is likely something more comfortable.
Lack of vision
A primary reason people blame their current predicament and relinquish personal power is due to a lack of vision, and this is where taking the easy option of sitting of the sofa becomes even easier.
If we don’t have a vague plan for where we’re going, it’s impossible to create a route to get there.
Therefore, on a daily level, you have zero idea of the actions you need to take for effective change.
With such uncertainty, our primordial lizard brains take the reigns and lead us down the path of least resistance.
Now, don’t get me wrong. If you’re happy with your current results and feel you don’t need to change, that’s ok.
There’s no problem with choosing to live life a certain way.
However, if you make that choice, DO NOT complain about it.
Don’t blame the external world for not making progress if you pick the easy option.
Achieving your goals may be harder depending on your personal circumstances, but frequently it’s not impossible.
And if we have chosen impossible ambitions, there’s always an iteration that may be more realistic.
If you’re ready for change, however, read on to discover some pointers.
How to take back ownership
Awareness is key to break the cycle of our present circumstances and remind us that we’re exactly where we’re meant to be.
The present moment is simply a reflection of the choices we’ve made in the past.
Mindfulness allows us to see such cause and effect with clarity.
The past is gone, an illusion, a story we’ve edited to make ourselves look good. The future is imagined.
This helps to break the stronghold the past exerts over us, while allowing us to make the most beneficial choices in the present to effect a better future.
It also helps us gain objective distance from the thoughts in our head.
By realising that we are not our thoughts and that the ego often lashes out with anger and blame, we can bypass these impulse reactions.
This awareness is the key first step to realising that our perception of the world is fictional.
We can change if we choose to.
Meditation and mindfulness are wonderful tools, although they’re not a panacea for all ills.
Some may have suffered previous trauma which inhibits them in the present, and often, when combined with mental health problems, these individuals would benefit from professional intervention.
A therapist might help uncover recurring patterns due to events in the dim and distant past.
This recognition is often the start of the journey towards acceptance and recovery.
We can only begin to change a pattern of behaviour when we awake to the fact that our current thoughts, feelings and beliefs aren’t serving us well.
If we have a tendency to blame external factors for our results, it can be useful to go 100% the other way and start taking personal responsibility for everything that’s happening to us, at least at first.
David Goggins, an ex-navy seal and all-round motivational monster, uses what he calls an accountability mirror.
Growing up, he used to look into the mirror every night and list his faults, in order to improve upon them.
Other successful people have utilised a similar approach.
Tom Bilyeu for example, formerly of the billion-dollar unicorn startup, Quest Nutrition, and more recently Impact Theory, says you should take personal responsibility for everything.
Sure, these philosophies are pretty extreme in their application, but if you’ve sought excuses your entire life, it can be useful to adopt a pinch of this philosophy.
You can always course-correct later on.
The most important thing is to challenge your current world paradigm. Shake things up a bit and try a different approach.
If you do an extreme 180, test the results. You may start to see a few area or patterns of your life in which your actions contribute to undesirable results.
With such realisations, you plant the seeds of reflection.
Once we’ve explored a different worldview enough to realise that we’re playing a part in our woes, we can cultivate interest in seeing what we can change.
In this sense, you start to become more experimental.
It’s less about the result and more about investigating the effects of your actions.
In a sense, people have to hit rock bottom before they have the impetus to alter their approach and try something different.
It’s the familiar story of a series of bad relationships that finally serve to give a person pause, making them self reflect and try a different approach.
And in this way, a growth mindset begins to develop.
A person might realise that they do indeed possess the personal power to try new things and via different inputs, there might be a different output.
Life, after all, is one big experiment.
As we’ve mentioned, the most important part of starting on the journey of a mindset shift is creating a vision or life plan.
For the person who’s chronically unhappy in their job, but blames the economy, their boss and colleagues for their situation, it might be getting to a point where they question their own involvement in their discontent.
This might encourage them to consider what’s within their locus of control. Could they change jobs and experiment with something completely new?
In this case, the vision might be to find a different role within the company that creates more enjoyment.
And it needn’t be a clearly defined vision. In fact, keeping it playful and experimental can remove much of the pressure of ‘getting it right’.
At least at first. You might narrow your aims as you acquire more knowledge and feedback.
The next step is to take your loose vision and make choices, which may involve some tough decisions.
This is where the hard work really begins.
Often people are so comfortable in their current habits and routines, that it’s incredibly difficult to instigate change.
To do so is to tear away the familiar like a plaster to expose a nasty wound. But it’s necessary.
You see, most of us stop at the visualisation stage.
It’s easy and enjoyable to imagine what we’ll do, to live out a fantasy in our head. It feels like we’re making tangible progress.
However, it’s just a dream.
The reality, when you have to work on your CV and look for jobs after a crappy day at work, is very different.
Action is where rubber meets the road, and it pushes us out of comfort and into the pain zone.
It’s incredibly easy for someone not used to taking responsibility to throw their hands up in the air at their challenge and say it’s too difficult.
They could then return to their old ways of complaining and excuses, saying they’re just too tired to apply for any jobs in the evening and that they can’t possibly get up any earlier because they’d be late for work.
Blah blah blah. And so the cycle repeats.
This is where courage, grit and persistence come in.
The person must have had such a realisation as to persevere through these moments of weakness, and to stop playing the victim, to fully own the fact that course correcting in life is difficult.
They must acknowledge the fact that getting up earlier for the gym is not enjoyable, but that they’ll do it anyway.
Cultivating this mental habit over time slowly starts to transform your worldview.
Next up comes the actual effect of our actions, and again this is a common stumbling block for many – they’ll start to change their mentality by adopting new behaviours, but real-world results don’t arrive fast enough for their liking.
Like any new habit or behaviour, progress takes time.
All the while, the familiar complaints float near the surface.
- Doing this is hard, and I’m not even seeing any results
- Why should I bother trying?
- I knew I didn’t have the talent
- Some people are just naturally better at this.
- I knew some people must have had a head start to make it
But this is where real patience is essential – to continue with a new behaviour in the absence of any real-world results.
This is the only way that a mindset can undergo a proper shift.
After all, any positive shift in life can be summarised by hard work + time.
The most important thing on this journey, even without any results and the common complaints of old, is not to blame anything external.
Continue to take full responsibility for your position and progress, however slow it might be.
Just keep your head down and continue working.
It’s important, rather than blame, to adopt the mentality we mentioned earlier, and become the scientist or experimenter, taking in the information and analysing it, before deciding on the next step.
Often people don’t hit upon the correct solution first time and it’s necessary to tweak our approach for success.
If we’re continually reflecting rather than blaming, we can course-correct until we find the best approach.
If applying for jobs, for example, and you’re too tired to complete applications late at night, you’ll have to carve out some time in the morning or perhaps seek the help of a recruitment agent.
There’s always another angle and something else we can try with enough determination.
While this article is all about taking more responsibility in your life, there are healthy and unhealthy degrees in this process.
An unhealthy level would result in complete self-castigation, beating ourselves up for perceived failures, followed by anxiety and depression.
A healthy response would be to analyse a situation impartially and determine what’s within our control, before seeing what we can do to change the situation.
When we start to take responsibility for our lives and cease blaming or making excuses, here are the common results:
That’s right, accepting complete responsibility over your life encourages you to engage in the activities needed to change it for the better.
With hard work and persistence, you’ll make strides towards your goals.
You may not achieve overnight success, but rather, you’ll steadily chip away at obstacles standing in your way.
You’ll analyse feedback impartially and change your approach as needed.
Tangible results are the most motivating proof that you’re mindset shift is having a positive effect.
If the above activities are used enough and with persistence, results will soon come, tangible evidence that we have the personal power to shape our own existence.
We narrow our locus of control, realising that many of the factors we’d blamed on externals, are in fact within our ability to change, as long we accept total responsibility for them.
This is powerful evidence, because real-world results lead to worldview shifts, and we gain increasing confidence in our actions.
Conversely, in a blaming mentality, there’s a feeling of powerlessness amid the external forces of a cruel, chaotic world.
By assuming responsibility, we gain the knowledge that we can effect meaningful change in our lives.
This transforms into a butterfly effect as we decide that we can apply the same principles to other areas of our lives.
So, if we’ve stopped blaming our health on external factors, attend the gym and lose weight, we also wonder how we can change our careers.
Strength begets strength and success begets success.
The more we persist and thrive, the more motivated we are to continue.
This is why taking control of cornerstone habits, such as health, is so powerful.
A growth mindset
This transformation over different aspects of our existence serves to solidify a new worldview, one in which we can do anything we set our minds to.
It fosters what Carol Dweck, in her bestselling book Grit calls, the Growth Mindset.
By applying the principles to a small area of life, we begin to grow in new and unexpected ways.
It might then encourage us to pick up and learn new hobbies and to explore alternative worldviews.
When we acknowledge that beliefs are in fact malleable and self-created and that we’re all participating in an imagined reality, it can be interesting to try on different beliefs to see what fits for certain goals and aspirations.
There’s another effect of success and shifting worldview, and that’s that fact that we can become more empathetic.
While someone who doesn’t take full responsibility for their life constantly casts blame outwards, when we internalise our fortunes, we become better listeners and communicators.
We’re not so concerned with the world’s agenda and how it may affect us because we’re confident in our own ability to handle whatever we encounter.
This makes us better friends and better partners.
Negativity attracts negativity.
If someone identifies with externals for their woes, they’re likely attracting people who do the same.
It’s a negative whirlpool of vitriol, difficult to escape.
People in this mindset love drama, subconsciously thriving on discontent.
If you suddenly change your worldview, others may feel threatened while losing their influence over you.
Your new philosophy and behaviour call into question their core identity, encouraging them to poke fun or even lash out.
You may, therefore, gravitate towards a different set of friends who share a similar mindset, those empowered to take control of their current behaviour and future trajectory.
This transition can be vital in the journey towards psychological independence.
A can-do attitude
All of the above serve to strengthen a can-do attitude as we finally realise that the only barriers that exist are those in our mind, internal obstacles to be navigated rather than external impossibilities.
In his book, the ego is the enemy, Ryan Holiday talks about Stoic Philosophy and their belief that the obstacle is always the way. And they were right.
Even though it may be hard to learn new skills, humans are literally growth machines.
We’re one of the most adaptable creates on Earth, ultralearners capable of assimilating new ideas and transforming them into new behaviours.
So, don’t be afraid to aim at obstacles in order to change aspects of your existence.
Blame and outward projection are completely at odds with a successful life.
If you study the most successful people, you’ll notice that, while some seem naturally gifted and unreachably in performance, these skills were only honed after years of practice and failure.
They took ultimate responsibility for directing their time and attention and were willing to embrace short term pain for long term gain.
So it’s vital for us to cease blaming and take responsibility for our lives, making the decisions that create our ideal existence.
Whatever our starting point, we could all learn a thing or two from Arnie’s story.