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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  • paperdarts

    I love this article. I have found the idea of “Stop whining – take ownership” to be so true in every job I have ever had. I am a teacher, and the relationship above with a boss if the exact same as a teacher’s relationship with her principal. Part of the teaching experience seems to be whining about the principal. Everyone “needs” someone to blame, and teachers jobs are in my opinion some of the hardest jobs out there. However, the finger pointing game gets you nowhere, and often leads to either unemployment or extreme dissatisfaction with your job. Being a teacher should mean you are there to teach children, within the confines of your school, if you are lucky enough to even have a job today. Taking responsibility is hard because adults, just like children, love to be praised, and often taking responsibility involves going above and beyond without anyone noticing. Something I think this article does a great job of reminding us, is that often our pointing finger is really just an excuse. To be successful at whatever you do, you must be able to problem solve and focus on what you have control over. Not what the boss or the principal should be doing – in my experience any time I have stood up for what I really believe, I have been successful, only because I came to the problem with a solution. If I think the principal should let me teach in a certain way, then I need to be prepared to bring a viable solution – something I will do to compromise, or take on more responsibility. If there is something to whine about then take responsibility and do something about it. Fight for it, think of way you can make it better. I really love this article and think more people should read it and consider why it is they are whining.

  • Chris Baker

    This is great lesson to learn earlier rather than later –that life is often not fair. However, our reactions to the challenges we experience are generally more consequential to our happiness than the difficulties themselves. For instance, I love playing the violin, and years ago had the false impression that competing my Doctoral degree in violin performance would assure me at least a decent living wage as a professional musician. In 2003, after completing coursework but before completing my doctoral dissertation, I was even invited to interview for music teaching positions at two universities. In part (or perhaps only) because I was ABD at the time, I was the “second” choice for both jobs. I then completed my degree, the economy immediately plunged, and I have had no success even getting an interview for a college teaching job because almost all of those already highly-competitive jobs have dried up for the foreseeable future. Oftentimes I have found it tempting to place external blame: the economy, my Alma Mater –for offering me a fabulous assistantship only to grant me a “useless” degree, 9/11, former teachers who didn’t seem to take an interest in my future career following graduation, and even blaming myself. I have learned, however, that placing such blame is debilitating and will never solve this challenge I have lived with for about a decade. About a year and a half ago, I decided that my musical abilities will help me to become a successful occupational therapist–a career path that appears to have many more possibilities. I am grateful to have discovered this opportunity, and I am even grateful for the difficult life experiences which have led me to this decision. We can choose to be upset due to our current circumstance, or to accept our circumstance as an opportunity for personal growth and learning. As I have gained in life experience, I have also learned that it’s best to assume that everyone faces significant hardship at some point in his/her life. By experiencing hardships ourselves, we understand other’s problems more completely, and can then relate to others we know who desperately need support in overcoming their challenges.

    • Eric Shannon

      “it’s best to assume that everyone faces significant hardship at some point in his/her life”
      yes Chris, I certainly have, in spades.

  • Windell Cooper

    I chose this article “Stop whining – take ownership” because I have been victim of this mentality. It is inevitable that things in life will not always go as planned. There will be times when you must fail in order realize a better way forward. If you have not experienced this, then you may not be putting forth enough effort. I have failed both personally and professionally. I have been through divorce, taken credit loss, receive poor performance ratings and much more throughout my life. Despite all of this, I am still successful and happy.

    As this article eludes to, there has to be a point where you face yourself in the mirror and stop looking at your reflection as being a victim. No one is perfect and even though your situation may not be fair, there is usually something you could have done to prevent it. The first and most important step is taking ownership of your faults. If you can’t do this, you will never be able to move forward. Concentrate on being a solution rather than a problem.

    Something I had to do to initiate a change in myself was, whether right or wrong always look for a way to make things better. I always had excuses. When you take responsibility and you take ownership you take control. This is pivotal in changing the way people perceive you as well. I had to realize that I couldn’t do anything by myself. I needed to trust others and ask for help. Most importantly however, I had to remember without God, anything I achieve would be empty rewards. This article sums up life lessons I’ve learned along the way and bring more insight on how to continue to improve myself in all areas.

  • Lemuel Rivera

    “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade”. This is a saying that came to mind as I read the article. Throughout most of our work time we may come across many opportunities for just about anything. It could be an extra pen, or even any sort of coupon. A lot of people will gladly take these opportunities and go about their day with less worries. Others decide that they don’t need it and they might end up passing on something good. Then they get upset, and start blaming others for their lack of common sense. At the end of the day, they don’t take responsibility for what happened, they don’t take ownership for their mistakes and will simply complain about it.

    This was a very helpful lesson for me to read, because I realize that many times I should have taken ownership of my mistakes but instead complained about it. In high school, working on group projects was most of the school work for my Technological Principles class. One day we got randomly divided into groups of four and I got stuck with what I thought were a group of slackers, and I was the leader of this group. I scolded them a lot of times for the grades that we got when I didn’t even stop to consider what I could have done better as a leader. In fact, using all that time to complain, might have even made me lazier than them! My complaining attitude served as a shield, that prevented me, from pushing myself harder and to be a great leader.

    I have learned over the years to take responsibilities for my screw-ups. If I’m late for some sort of important meeting, instead of blaming circumstances or other people, I have to realize, that if I had prepared myself on time, none of it would have happened. So even though I still find myself blaming others from time to time, I can still own up to my mistakes, learn from them, and move on .

  • Kendall

    “Stop whining – take ownership” was a very relatable article for me. There have been many instances in which I have had to stop myself from complaining and take responsibility for the parts that I played in the situation. For example, during a final presentation for a class my partner forgot the information that she was supposed to read. Instead of asking, “Why me?” I started to think that there must be a reason that this happened and there is definitely a lesson to be learned from it. I did not blame myself or anyone else. I simply asked myself what could I have done to ensure that nothing went wrong. I could have had backup information or made sure that she had everything she needed for the presentation to be successful. Like the quote said, “When you begin to see that you control everything, you will begin to see that you control everything.” Everyone makes mistakes and nobody is perfect. Since finding this out I have been more positive when things go wrong and even more attentive so that much more goes right.

  • Grace C

    Yes, this is so true! What a thorough, in-depth article on how important it is to own up to our mistakes. Whining seriously does not do any good for anyone nor yourself.

    In fact, this article made me reevaluate the attitude I’ve been having this past week about an “internship” I just started. I put “internship” in quotation marks because it is extremely unlike what I expected in terms of structure. I came in expecting to be working in a typical office-type work environment for a team with a defined goal and a clear task list for me to work on, only to find that I was working for only a few people who were not even sure what to assign me or when to have me at the office, mostly because they were so busy with their own work already.

    Feeling disgruntled and frustrated about what I had gotten myself into, I admittedly did blame them for not delivering what they had promised in terms of an “internship.” But after giving it a second thought, especially after reading this article, I now realize that I myself failed to clarify the terms of the internship with them before I accepted it in the first place.

    So instead of harboring useless blame against them, I can treat this opportunity as a personal challenge to set and define my own goals, essentially going above and beyond in crafting my own internship. By doing this, I am not only taking ownership of this situation, but I am also taking initiative in making sure I can still learn as much as possible from it, rather than view internships as having to be served on a silver platter.

  • Cooper Reinbold

    The ideas presented in the article are quite elementary for workplace behavior and tendencies. However, such ideas are often overlooked in the workplace today.

    For example, I began my first job as a grocery store cashier. I assumed the job would be quite simple and it most certainly was. Still, I’d find myself forgetting orders given from my managers or making simple mistakes. After troubleshooting the problem, I found that I increased my work efficiency greatly.

    The problem was simple: confidence. Like the above article says, simply listen to and remember orders. Then go and perform those orders. I would often tell myself, “Don’t mess up.” When one focuses on NOT messing up, messing up is the very thing that will happen. However, this changes with a shift of mindset. I began sending myself more positive messages like, “Do this thing.” By simply focusing on what needs to be done, rather than what doesn’t need to be done, one can completely change the way they perform in and out of the workplace.

  • Over 20 years ago, I entered the workforce at age 19. As
    a young employee, I had the most difficulty with speaking-up when I didn’t understand
    and being accountable for my mistakes. When I was at work, if I didn’t
    understand the conversation entirely, I simply nodded in agreement as if
    understood everything perfectly. I never tried to come up with clever input or extract
    additional information. When the conversation concluded, I would silently
    berate myself for not being confident enough to ask for more explanation. Often
    I would end up conducting a large amount of research on my own instead of asking
    the knowledgeable people that I worked with. I was more concerned about looking
    stupid and/or uneducated. I didn’t want to be A-Know-It-All, but at the same
    time I didn’t want to be perceived as not knowing anything!

    When it came to my mistakes, I generally used Plan A, which consisted
    of frantically trying to correct them before anyone found out! If a mistake spiraled
    out of control with no hope of return, I moved to Plan B. Imagine this scene, something
    gets broken in the household and Mom or Dad ask “How did this get broken or who
    broke this?” Silence. Parent replies “It didn’t just break on its own!”. The
    scene moves to a sheepish kid shrugging his/her shoulders with the facial
    expression “It wasn’t me!”. Well that is what I called Plan B. I would turn to my boss with
    a bewildered look on my face,expressing absolutely no knowledge as to how this mistake
    happened because, of course, my house was in ship shape. I felt so guilty for not being able to say,
    “Boss, I screwed up!” But I was too afraid of the consequences.

    During the earlier years these barriers prevented me from recognizing
    the value of my mentors. At some point I was able to conquer my lack of
    confidence and fear of consequences. I matured, learning to accept myself and
    experience “real” failures along the way. I am thankful because when I learn to
    do this, it opened up the doors to the wonderful mentorship available to me. Much
    of my success, professionally and personally can be attribute to the mentorship
    I received along the way. As manager I continue to “pay mentorship forward”.

  • Donna

    Its all about taking ownership of your life and your happiness. I recently quit a 15 year career in law enforcement because I felt that it was eating away at my soul. I decided to go back to school and finish my degree and follow the career of my dreams. I want to show my children that its hard work and dedication to your dreams is whats gonna make them come true.

  • Angie Staudt

    I really liked this lesson. I often blame others for my mistake. It is easier to blame someone else for your mistake because you do not want to seem wrong, or that you did something wrong. Many of us do not want to fail and this is something that everyone should work on. It has opened my eyes to see that I do need to make blame on myself, or reword my statement when it was not just my fault. This lesson gives great examples of how to reword your statement to make it seem better so you are not making excuses but only stating a fact. This really hits home with me because I have worked as part of the management team for a retail. I see this all the time, with me and my co-workers. It can make such a difference when you are talking with customers when you make a mistake and own up to it. Customers do not like it when you put blame on others.

  • Debby Ortega

    I really enjoyed this lesson. At times, I see that many people, including myself, tend to blame others for our failures. It tends to be easier to blame rather than taken responsibility for the outcome. I agree with the tips that the author of this article wrote because how will we mature and succeed as individuals if we don’t take responsibility for our actions? Now with the insight, I strongly believe that we are in charge of our own lives, regardless of the circumstances. We always have a choice on how to overcome the obstacles that come our way.

    In addition, I had a friend who would constantly blame his family and God for his failures. I would understand that at times, his family wouldn’t encourage him to continue his education, but that was not an excuse not to continue. There were so many instances where my friend had a choice to ignore his parents’ discouragement and follow his dreams, but chose not to. Now, after various times of encouraging him to accomplish his life goals, he is finally getting closer in achieving them. He has learned to take responsibility of his own life and make his dreams into reality. I have got to say, I am so proud of him. I just hope that more people realize that it is easier to stop blaming others and start making changes on their own behaviors.

  • Jen

    “When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back to you.”

    This is a simple quote that I think is relevant to many students. Students have many demands EVERY DAY because they desire success. Often times, the road to success is studded with failure. Those failures can help define the type of person that comes out of the journey.

    I can say that I was in denial for a majority of my college career. I let personal factors dictate the type of student I was. Because of that, I earned my F’s in a lot of my classes. Ten years later, I no longer let those events define who I am. Second chances are invaluable, and I’ve received that second chance when my school readmitted me on my promise to do better. I took ownership and no longer blamed everyone around me, rather, I took the experiences that I went through in order to be a better student. I learned from my mistakes, and I put my best foot forward knowing that it is MY foot and no one else’s.

    Thank you for the article! I believe every word written.

  • This article has valuable words of wisdom. Blaming others for your failure or team’s failure makes a person seem weak. Taking control and responsibility for a situation reflects strength to others.
    Do not take a defensive, closed-minded stance; instead, work as a team and solve the problem together. Lead the team by taking control and planning ahead for success.

  • Taking ownership for my own responsibilities has always been a downfall of mines. It’s easier to blame the rest of the world on my own problems then to just “man up”, so to speak, and to take responsibility for myself.

    Over the years I have gotten better at realizing my own faults but at the same time I have still not triumphed over it. It has to all do with the ego. I have a HUGE ego and it is something that will probably always stay with me. However, I do need to learn to tone it down and see that the Universe actually doesn’t revolve around me.

    Life actually isn’t just about me: it’s about everyone else. And my actions not only affect the outcomes of my decisions but other peoples’ lives as well.

    I am 22 years old and I have recently transferred to the Savannah College of Art and Design to finish my degree in Film and Television. When I started out at Columbia College in 2008 as a first year college student I thought that would be my final path. I would graduate from there, land some amazing internship with Oprah, the queen and then be on my way to being the CEO of Sony, inc or Disney, inc. Unfortunately due to my financial reasons I could not stay and had to leave. I begged and pleaded to stay in that school actually and tried to find as many avenues as I could but it was just not viable. My mother had gotten laid off. We had no savings and selfish me decided to go to probably one of the most expensive schools in Chicago!

    I blamed the WORLD for me not being there. I became jealous of my classmates since they could continue going. I started alienating friends. It was all quite sad.

    The next year I attended the Illinois Institute of Art for Digital Video Production, took part of the Disney College Program in 2010 and then transferred to a community college there after to finish General Education Requirements.

    I wanted more out of my education since I wasn’t being challenged enough so I decided to apply to SCAD. I worked diligently to get as many scholarships as possible and I am still continuing to do so: this is me taking responsibility.

    I could just pack up, go home and give up. But I don’t do that anymore. Now I have learned that it is not the Universe’s fault if I don’t get a good grade or can’t afford a certain school: It’s mine, and mine’s alone.

    I still have the same dream. And yes doors have been closed on me and heck aren’t even there! But with each missed opportunity I gain the chance to see what else is out there BETTER for me, and now I see that.

  • nikky549

    Laziness can result to failure, so don’t give room for failure and i thank you for such opportunity. the points are noted and will be put in use starting from now. thanks so much

  • Becca Miller

    As a Barista at Starbucks, I know that teamwork is vital. My line of work depends on everyone pulling together and successfully accomplishing the tasks that have been assigned to them for that day. When even one person is either behind or guilty of slacking off, it affects the entire operation.

    I am guilty of being overly direct when communicating a need or problem to my associates. When I recognize there is a problem, and can identify the person responsible for it, I can be quick to point it out in implicative manner, and can cause more personal damage than constructive criticism or inquiry.

    Reading this article reinforces the need for me to be more aware of how I am coming across to my associates. If someone is struggling or is not meeting expectations, I need to remain calm and more civil. I need simply find out why there is a problem, or why they are struggling, and offer my assistance or a solution before openly criticizing them, or directing the matter to a manger in anger. I definitely intend to use this information to further myself as a professional.

  • Beachgirl

    The WSJ article lead me here. Good advice. Hilarious cartoons. Will be back to read more soon. Although I have to say I don’t agree with the part about controlling everything. This may be true re: managers but for rank and file workers, not so much. The only thing we can ‘control’ is our attitudes towards something.

  • Weakness can sometimes become an excuse for mediocrity. Being strong is being in control whether you are feeling sick or well. Anyone who can fight the weakness can control their destiny and open the doorway to success for themselves.

  • Long ago, my dad taught me this very lesson. It’s always better to take accountability. No one likes the person who never takes responsibility, even if it isn’t theirs to take. If you’re accountable, people are more likely to trust you. Not only that, but you’re also more likely to get credit for the things you do right more often, if you’re accountable for the things you do wrong. This is a lesson I’ve always kept in mind throughout life and has helped me in football, school, personal relationships, and work.

  • graphicsgirly

    I was delighted to see this article, because I work in a position where I am solely responsible for the creative files that get submitted to outside vendors for production. There is no one to blame but me for any mistakes. It is crucial that I manage my time and workload, because I work against strict deadlines. I am empowered by my ability to complete my work in a timely fashion, with rarely a mistake. Ownership of a position can be rewarding and exhilarating.

  • I think I have been saying this for years to my kids and coworkers.
    This article is funny and informative at
    the same time. The message is more relative than ever today with the economy in
    the condition it is. We have to take responsibility for our actions to keep the
    job we have and move forward. I love the
    first cartoon. I worked in a call center and I am pretty sure I was the one
    that received lines two and three most nights. I think this is common sense
    that we all know, but don’t apply it until it is pointed out to us again. I really enjoyed this article and hope
    everyone prints it out and posts it on their cubical or office wall.

  • Jennifer West

    As someone going into the education world, nothing rings truer than this lesson. For teachers, it really can feel like there are not enough hours in the day. We have to focus on twenty-something students at a time, attending to their individual learning needs, as well as basic needs that they require to get through the day. We also have to play politics, making sure that our kids are prepared for the big state tests so that our school doesn’t get slapped on the wrist by the big-wigs in the capitol building. Add to that the business of keeping parents up to date and satisfied with their child’s education, and we teachers have more on our plate than a small village at Thanksgiving!

    While doing observations for my education classes, I have heard so many teachers saying that they do not provide feedback on student work or keep Johnny’s Special Education forms adequately documented because they just don’t have time. Some teachers only present the information one way and then swiftly move on to the next topic, regardless of whether their class has learned the material because that state test is coming this May whether we like it or not. Is this doing our job? Are we making a positive difference in the lives of these children by cutting corners? Every child deserves a top-rate education, because they are the future citizens of our society.

    Teachers have the opportunity to shape tomorrow by investing in the lives and minds of those who will run our future, but taking short cuts and cracking under the pressure has left a lack-luster generation behind those desks. We need to own up to the tremendous responsibility of our career, continue our own education, and do everything we can to produce life-long learners.

  • kdeane25

    I have worked for the same company for over 16 years. I’ve moved from position to position with increases and promotions and increased job responsibilities along the way. The one thing that stayed constant in all of these changes was that I always ran across a person that pointed blame at others or at me for something that went wrong.
    The most important thing I learned from those people is to take responsibility and to be in control. This lesson strengthened the ideas I learned first hand. Blaming others will only get you the title of squeeky wheel and complainer. You instantly become the person that they avoid giving the bigger and improtant projects to because if anything goes wrong they know they will have to hear about how it was someone or something else’s fault.
    On the other hand, as the lesson explains, taking responsibility is what your boss is looking for. It shows that you are secure in your decisions and are willing to make changes to improve and reduce future mistakes. Its a very mature trait to have and it is highly sought after in most if not all job positions. If one wasn’t blessed with the instinct to be responsible, I would suggest they work hard to change and become a responsible worker.

  • Gianna Maita

    As a college student with a summer job at a small restaurant in my hometown, I will admit that I mix up orders and spill things every once in a while. I have found that my boss responds more positively when I own up to my mistakes without implicating others. This upholds good relationships with the people that I work with and proves to my boss that I am responsible enough to hold myself accountable for my own actions.

  • Gianna Maita

    As a college student with a summer job at a small restaurant in my hometown, I will admit that I mess up orders or spill things every once in a while. I have learned that my boss responds more positively when I own up to mistakes that may have led to such an issue. Even if other employees may have contributed to the mess-up, I do not implicate others, only what I am responsible for. That way I have a good relationship with them and do not look like a tattling brown-noser to my boss. I also make sure that I fix the problem or mention how I will prevent it from happening again.

    This lesson reinforced those concepts for me, and allowed me to see that I do not have to take criticism that is harsh in the moment quite as seriously as I normally do. chosen for top 75 websites for your career

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About the author


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