A few years back, I realised for the first time that I and many people I knew were champions in making excuses. Let me give you a real-life example of what I mean by that:
The other day, I was delivering a personal development / leadership training for a group of A-level students. At the end of the training, I asked them to rate their level of participation in the training. They rated themselves a three out of ten. They could have participated as a ten but well, they didn’t. Looking at that result, something interesting happened to me: I could hear my brain automatically making up some great stories. I had inner-voices whispering, “Yeah it’s understandable. It’s way to warm for anyone to participate as a ten”; “It’s a difficult group”; “Well, a ‘three’ is better than a ‘two'”; and the best one: “It’s because we are in the school environment and no one likes school”.
At that moment, I realised that I was playing – and had been playing for some time – this famous game called “Being a Victim”. I felt and behaved exactly like one. I must say it is an extremely addictive game! Being a victim was so compelling because all those stories that came up had some truth to them. A “three” is better than a “two” and it was really quite warm that day. These are well grounded assessments, but these assessments did not serve me because I had turned them into my excuses. I knew that if I continued playing this game, I would be shirking responsibility for everything, especially my results.
“You either have your stories or you have the results you want, but you can’t have both.”
Most importantly, I would not grow as a trainer, as a coach and as a human being, because I would not be allowing myself to see that I had the capacity to improve beyond my circumstances. I had to stop coming up with stories, excuses and reasons for why my students did not participate at a “ten” (I will talk about the reasons for why we create stories and excuses in another article). I had to stop because if not, I would be allowing my circumstances to lead me instead of the other way around. That would be an unproductive, helpless and stagnant way to live.
John Maxwell has a saying that goes like this:
“Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.”
If I choose to look at leadership that way, then I had to face up to the harsh reality that the result I got from that training showed that my level of influence was at a three. This was a vital piece of information about my ability to lead.
My result does not mean that I’m a bad person or that I’m not good enough. It is an objective reflection that shows that the way I tried to connect with the group in front of me resulted in a three-out-of-ten score. It is just information! But what I do with that information is the crucial next step that determines if I improve as a leader. Do I file it away? Or do I use it as a guide to steer myself in the next direction until I eventually reach a ten? In order to do the latter, I can’t play at “being a victim” – I would just wind up going round in ineffective circles. Instead, I have to take responsibility. I have to acknowledge that just like I’ve created a three-out-of-ten result, I can likewise also create a ten-out-of-ten result. Without responsibility, I do not run my life; my circumstances do.
So what does responsibility actually look like? To quote Morpheus:
“I can’t explain it with words. You have to experience it for yourself.” (1999, The Matrix)
But what I can do is give you a different perspective. I can tell you about someone who displayed, in a very literal way, a shift that has to happen for every one of us at some point if we want to start living fulfilled lives. (Now it would help if you know the Matrix movies, but if you don’t, read on first before you watch them.)
Mr Thomas Anderson was given the choice between two pills that had been laid out in front of him – a red pill and a blue pill. The blue pill would allow him to go back to his regular life and office job. The red pill, on the other hand, would lead him down the rabbit hole into a place far beyond his wildest imaginations. The moment he chose between the two pills was probably the first time that he took responsibility for his own life. It was probably also the first time that he realised that the feeling he had – that his existence could mean more than just warming an office chair in some software company – could be true.
What followed was tough for him, but realising that the world that he had made up (or that was made up for him) was far from the truth was the best thing that ever happened to him. Responsibility came with honesty and awareness, which led to different choices and actions and ultimately made him a leader amongst men.
All the stories and reasons for why life is the way it is are most of the time just made up. Being responsible doesn’t have anything to do with taking the blame for a situation. This would have been nonsense anyway in Mr Anderson’s case. Instead, being responsible allowed him to start seeing himself as a part of something bigger – the human race. It allowed him to acknowledge his position and to take a stand for a cause so as to contribute to a better whole.
Yes, this is an extreme example since he stood for the survival of the human race over the machines, but the example applies to us just as much.
Have you ever listened to that other inner-voice that keeps telling you that there is more? That there is a cause your heart beats for? There is a huge potential lingering in all of us that’s just waiting to be awakened and to be believed in.
In Mr Anderson’s training towards becoming Neo (his true identity), he learnt to believe in himself. At the very least, it allowed him to see that the people around him believed in him. Sometimes that’s just what it takes to light up that spark within us.
You can see those two different versions of him as the “being a victim” version (Mr. Anderson) and the responsible version of himself (Neo). I for sure have those two versions inside of me. At the end of the day it’s about which muscle you practice more, which version you constantly choose to be. At the same time, remember that even though I practise, I sometimes fall short.
Yes, even Neo fell. He fell far and he fell hard, off from a skyscraper even. The first few steps are never easy. “No one makes the first jump,” says a crewmember when Neo goes through the simulation. And it’s true: taking responsibility and stepping forward always comes with the risk of falling. And so, we fall. If we are lucky, there are people or a team around us who catch us or help us up again. If not, not having people around us could be a great story to that keeps us playing “the victim game”. But we all have that once-so-small inner-voice that cuts through the stories and tells us to get up and go again. Once we start listening to it, it slowly grows louder and gives us the motivation to keep on trying and exploring this world of possibilities. We trust the responsible version of ourselves. The difficulties we face may grow and the battles we fight may become harder, but that’s the training we need to grow new muscles and to get to the point where we can say, “My name…is Neo”.
There is power in knowing who you are. In taking responsibility and ownership of who you are and creating the life you want to live. There is power in knowing that you are of worth to the people around you and in trusting yourself.
As for the responsible version of yourself getting a three out of ten or whatever result you feel shitty about, take it as information and grow from it. Make changes, make different choices, take actions that gradually lead you to a ten out of ten, and don’t be afraid to get more information along the way to keep yourself on the right course towards being the person you’ve always wanted to be. I certainly do all of the above.
I can’t explain to you what responsibility looks like. But if you dare to take it, you will know. Your life will change and so will your results.