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159. The uncomfortable duality of taking responsibility and accepting lack of control

We’ve all heard the spiel. You have to take charge of your own life. Stop complaining and start doing. Assume complete responsibility for your actions. Accept your failures and grow from them, instead of blaming others. Find inner peace with your imperfection, and wrestle life by the horns.

Every self-help guru spouts some variation on this, and so does almost every successful entrepreneur. Never give up. Never surrender. Never tell me the odds. Ok, the last one is a Han Solo quote, but still.

And it’s true.

To change our lives we need to pull ourselves up again when we’re down. Adapt, evolve and grow. Be all we can be. Grit, resolve and all that jazz. It rings true because it is true.

However…

There’s a second self-help truth at play, that’s equally powerful and (sadly for us) in opposition to this.

We need to let go and accept that we can’t control everything. Flow with life instead of fight against it, and realise that the world spins whether we want it to or not. Understand that you’re not the center of the universe and that agency is for other people as well.

And while that’s hard, it’s something we all need to learn.

That dream job you applied for, but didn’t get? Maybe you didn’t get it, not because you’d done something wrong in the application, but just because someone else fit their profile better. That contest you won? Sure, you worked hard for it, but what you don’t know is that you reminded the head judge of his daughter and that’s why you got those last points.

The world is full of unfairness, random chance and unexpected causality. Accepting that isn’t easy, but it’s necessary if you want to remain sane. The mantra of “Not everything is about you” isn’t a joke, and while we all pretend we get it, it can be painful medicine when it really hits.

You’re neither the sole architect of your success nor the cause of all your misfortune. Privilege is real. Systemic problems are real. The sword is double-edged, but no less sharp for that.

But how do we do both?

How do we place the responsibility squarely on our own shoulders while simultaneously acknowledging the fact that others have power over our lives as well? How do we combine our “If you can dream it, you can do it” attitude with the realisation that if ten people are dreaming about Olympic gold, there’s still only one medal to go around?

The easy answer is that we’re not responsible for outcomes, but only for actions and intentions. It’s a nice little definition statement that sounds great and clears up any trouble. But in reality, actions lead to outcomes and separating the two isn’t exactly easy – especially not when we factor in emotions.

We’re taught that we shouldn’t apologise for outcomes but for actions. “I’m sorry you were offended” isn’t really an apology, while “I am sorry I said those words” is. But without the offense being taken, there would be no need for an apology in many cases. Or would there?

Human relations are a tricky beast at best, and the fact that we’re called on to go in opposite directions (at the same time) doesn’t make it any easier.

So what should you do? Should you strive to own up to your actions and the consequences they have? Yes. Yes, you should. But should you also do your best to truly accept that many things are outside your control? Yes, that too. In fact, if you don’t internalise that, you’ll end up with an omnipotence problem.

A bit schizophrenic perhaps?

Yeah. I agree.

But still true.

And what do I suggest? I suggest that you do your best, assume others do so as well and find a way to forgive both yourself and others.

After all, that’s all we can do, right?

Thank you for reading.

If you want to get into contact, you can find me at clausraasted.dk, or you can find our company at dziobak.studio.

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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