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

are you a whiner?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 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

blaming others for mistakesWhat 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!

blaming the companyNote 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.

the impossible projectStrength 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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  • JMaccG

    Accountability is something that I find to be paramount in any adults life, or at least I feel that it should be. I too teach my child that no matter the outcome, you take responsibility for your actions. This will in turn influence good decision making. The decisions you make will inevitably lead to results. You will have to stand by those results good or bad and therefore be prepared to handle failure and embarrassment or triumph and praise. Understanding followership, I know that my leadership will want me to know how to handle both failure and success. In doing so I must maintain accountability for the decisions that I made leading to this point. It is the only way an efficient business can prosper and move forward. In failure, you analyze your short comings and seek to prevent them from occurring again. In success, you show recognition for those who helped and then look to maintain consistency and strive for improvements. Either way, the future depends on you, and your accountability.

  • Ryan

    I enjoyed this particular lesson. I think that sometimes we allow our circumstances to bring us down, allowing ourselves to believe that this is it. We begin to feel sorry for ourselves and believe that we are our failures and shortcomings. This lesson is a reminder that we are responsible for ourselves, we must be accountable for the choices in our lives and choose to either get up and dust ourselves off after getting knocked down or stay down and waste away. We only get one life, we really should make it count!

  • Alexa Lenz

    When I first started school, I struggled. During test, I could hear each student’s screeching pencils racing to be the first one to finish, and I always came in last place. I was the girl that was assigned the lower level books to read, and the girl that always failed her spelling tests.
    I was diagnosed with Dyslexia at the age of eight. I got down on myself, a lot. All through middle school, I would have repetitive thoughts like, ‘I will never be good enough,’ and ‘Why did this happen to me?’
    Oddly enough, once I entered high school, something in my attitude changed. I took the responsibility for my education. I stopped blaming genetics for my problems, and I began working to overcome my problems. My negative repetitive thoughts subsisted, and they were replaced with, ‘What is stopping me from rising above this learning disability?’ and ‘I am in charge of my future.”
    Four years later, I am graduating high school as an “A” and “B” student, an above average ACT score, and a member of National Honor Society. So I can relate to this article because once I stopped blaming other factors for my misfortunes and took responsibility for my own education, I was able to see my full potential. I chose to be a winner, not a whiner.

  • Matt Dunaj

    Let me start by saying that almost everything I’ve learned in the past 5 years about blame and taking ownership came from the game of golf. It’s funny to say because wrongful blame is about as common in golf as sand bunkers (at least two per a hole). When you hit a bad shot it is easy to blame the wind, the ball, the course, and sometimes your caddie. And that’s where my experiences came from. For the past 4 summers I have been a golf caddie and have earned my fair share of blame.

    Very early on I got blamed for a lot of things, not getting flags, not raking bunkers properly, and the list goes on. The mistake a lot of other kids made was trying to cover their mistakes. They would claim they never learned something or that it was someone else’s job. But when you are telling this to very knowledgeable people (who are bosses in their own fields) you don’t get very far. I learned the best thing to do is to briefly explain what you thought. It is important to accept blame, but it is also important to show that you are thinking about what you are doing and that you do in fact care.

    By doing this I found that I picked up skills very quickly. Golfers knew that I wanted to learn and were therefore more willing to teach me. Soon enough I had members request me as a caddy on slow days so that they could teach me skills that the best caddies had. In many ways my ability to take responsibility not only for my mistakes but also for my learning was what got me promotions. Most importantly I realized that the best golfers were the ones who took responsibility for their own mistakes. It’s important to realize that whether you are the caddie or the golfer, boss or employee, that owning up to things is the best way to stand out. Great article!

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In 1997, Eric Shannon launched the first job board for bilinguals who speak English/Spanish at LatPro.com. Eric still serves as CEO of LatPro Inc., developer of JustJobs.com. He lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two girls.

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