Career Advice

Stop Whining - Take Ownership

I teach my kids about winners and whiners; that winners:

  1. are in charge of their own lives
  2. don’t blame others or God
  3. take responsibility for making good choices, having a good attitude and for good behavior

At 10 years old or at 30, at home or at work, it’s all the same — we only thrive when we take ownership of everything in our life. In each moment we are interpreting events around us with the opportunity to take the high road of responsibility (and leadership) by stepping up to bat, or the low road of avoidance.

Sometimes these events are mighty transgressions: “I admit, the train wreck was my fault!”  But these big events are few and far between. More interesting are the tiny, constant, momentary decisions that sum to become our careers and lives. At the end of the game, we are clearly either leaders making things happen or whiners, the pawns of events and circumstances.

At the most basic level, this is what it means to take ownership – if I ask you for something as your boss, I want you to:

  • write it down, refer back to it, and remember it
  • understand what it is I’m asking – not just the details, but the big picture as well
  • execute – act like you’re the boss of this item and get something done
  • track and communicate your progress or lack of it if you can’t finish immediately (without waiting for me to ask)
  • get feedback

What stops an otherwise talented person from taking ownership? Blame! Imagine this – you work all night long on a presentation, or perhaps weeks brokering a difficult agreement, only to have your ‘moment of victory’ viciously stolen when your foul-mouthed manager shoots down your idea.

Your reaction might include elements like:

  • That manager always wastes my time by letting me go down the wrong track, just so he can tear me apart at the end!
  • He’s attacking me personally!
  • His criticism is so rude!
  • I’m a competent, driven person, but he is negating and demotivating me!
  • He’s wrong!

Note that in each of these responses we have placed the cause of suffering outside of ourselves; i.e., we have placed the blame on someone else. But there is another option – we could take responsibility for each of these things with responses like these:

  • It was silly to get so far into this project without periodically checking with the stakeholders to see if I was on the right track!
  • I’m under attack and defenseless, how did I get myself into this poor position?
  • Why am I taking his criticism so personally?
  • What fundamental difference is making him think something so different from me, and who’s right?

In reviewing the two paths of response, blame or responsibility, note the following differences:

  1. Blame subverts the process of our own improvement.  As soon as we blame, we remove the need for ourselves to change; we place the requirement for work and improvement on the shoulders of someone else.
  2. Blame makes us victims of our environment, rather than masters of the universe.

Strength has nothing to do with doing things that are easy – real strength is being strong when you feel weak. Strength separates the wheat from the chaff. Like shooting free throws, getting better and better gets harder and harder. The 1% improvement is easy when you are young and foolish, and takes increasing concentration the better you get.

Blame is easy to recognize when obvious as in: “You moron! I can’t believe you did that! This is all your fault!”

It’s less obvious here: “I was late because Joe couldn’t finish on time.”  The path of responsibility: “I failed to plan well with my team.”

It’s even harder to see here: “I was late because the plane was delayed.” But, we can always take earlier flights, so try: “I need to allow a little more slack in my travel schedule.”

Instead of saying,  “Yupi hasn’t sent us the contract yet,” let’s try this: “We haven’t received the contract from Yupi yet.” See how the burden subtly changes between Yupi, (“those irresponsible jerks, when will they send it?”), to us… why are we failing to receive it, and what can we do to change that?

This is subtle: “I didn’t have enough time.” Here, we are actually blaming the universe for being herself, for creating a dimension of time that is not to our satisfaction. What a childish tantrum: it’s like blaming water for being liquid! Try this instead: “I didn’t schedule my time well enough to finish.”

An extremely subtle and advanced lesson – look within. Maybe you’ve heard the saying “When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back to you.”  Often when accusing or blaming someone, we find we are talking about something we were actually committing ourselves. This law is as mysterious as the relationship between matter and gravity, but a guarantee: the closer you look, the more it turns out to be true. Heard long ago in our office:

“Apologies for the emotional outburst. … I also realized that it was a bit hypocritical to personally attack you for personally attacking others.”

When you begin to see that you control everything, you will begin to see that you control everything.

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